Category Archives: Books

Martha Graham, The Dancing Diplomat. A Tribute To Toots.

 

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War frames the story of Martha Graham and her particular brand of dance modernism as pro-Western Cold War propaganda used by the United States government to promote American democracy. Representing every seated president from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan, Graham performed politics in the global field for over thirty years. Why did the State Department consistently choose Martha Graham? As with other art forms such as jazz or avant-garde paintings, modern dance was seen to demonstrate American values of individualism and freedom; the choreographer used the freed body to make a new dance technique that could find the essence of human narratives. Graham targeted elites and its youth with modern dance to propound the ‘universalism’ of human rights under the banner of American democracy. In her choreography, argues author Victoria Phillips, Graham recast the stories of the Western canon through female protagonists whom she captured as timeless, seemingly beyond current politics, and in so doing implied superior political and cultural values of the Free World. Centering on powerful yet not demonstrably American female characters, the stories Graham danced seduced and captured the imaginations of elite audiences without seeming to force a determinedly American agenda. When her characters grew mythic on stage, they became the stories of all mankind, as Graham termed it. “My dances are ages old in meaning,” she declared. But Graham took the pro-American argument one step further than her artistic compatriots. She added the trope of the frontier to her repertory. In the Cold War, Graham’s particular modernism and the woman herself ossified, as did political aims of cultural diplomacy based on an appeal to foreign elites. Phillips lays bare the side-by-side trajectories between the aging of Graham’s choreography, her work as an ambassador, and the political dominance of the United States as a global power. With her tours and Cold War modernism, she demonstrated the power of the individual, immigrants, republicanism, and freedom from walls and metaphorical fences through cultural diplomacy with the unfettered language of movement and dance.

Toots Hibbert died of complications due to Covid-19 at University Hospital, Kingston, Jamaica on September 11, 2020. The 77-year-old reggae legend is widely credited as the genesis of the genre name reggae, after his 1968 song, Do The Reggay. The youngest of eight children, he became an orphan by the age of 11 and went to live with his brother John in the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kinston. In 1962, while working at a local barbershop, he was heard singing by Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias. They become a trio, The Maytals, named after Hibbert’s hometown May Pen. In 1962 the trio was discovered by producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, who signed them to his Studio One label.  Hibbert’s soulful lead vocals were often compared to US soul icons, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. After two years with Studio One, The Maytals briefly worked with producer and ska pioneer Prince Buster before signing on with another Jamaican record man of note, Byron Lee, in 1965. The Lee-produced material showed that The Maytals were developing a more mature and polished approach, but the group hit a serious roadblock in 1966 when Hibbert was arrested for possession of marijuana; he was convicted and would serve a year behind bars. This experience provided the inspiration for one of his best-known songs, 54-46 That’s My Number. Hibbert was one of the first artists to use the word “reggae”, in 1968’s Do The Reggay. Reunited with Matthias and Gordon, the trio became known as Toots & The Maytals.  Hibbert’s stay in prison coincided with ska fading from the musical landscape in Jamaica as the proto-reggae sounds of rocksteady took its place. The new style suited Toots & The Maytals, and they signed with producer Leslie Kong, with whom the band would record some of their biggest hits, including Pressure Drop, Sweet and Dandy, Monkey Man, and 54-46 That’s My Number. Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records label was enjoying success releasing reggae material in the U.K. and U.S signed Toots & The Maytals releasing a revamped version of the album Funky Kingston in the United States in 1975. By the mid-’90s Hibbert had assembled a new version of Toots & The Maytals without Gordon and Matthias and toured extensively while recording a handful of albums for various reggae specialist labels. Toots & The Maytals made a high-profile comeback in 2004 with the album True Love, in which Toots re-recorded a number of his best and best-known songs with a stellar collection of guest stars, including Eric Clapton, No Doubt, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and The Roots. After this Grammy-winning collection of duets, Hibbert stepped back to the spotlight on his own for 2007’s Light Your Light, and in 2012 his latest edition of The Maytals set out on a global acoustic tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their recording debut. A pair of concert albums, Reggae Got Soul: Unplugged on Strawberry Hill and Live! appeared that same year. After a 2013 incident in which Hibbert was hurt by a vodka bottle thrown by an intoxicated fan, he eased back on his career, performing occasionally but staying away from the studio. However, when noted musician and reggae fan Zak Starkey launched a new label, Trojan Jamaica, one of the first acts he signed was Toots & The Maytals, and their first release for the company, Got to Be Tough, arrived in August 2020. Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, O.J. will be long remembered as one of popular music’s most important contributors.

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Us & Them & Them & Us

                                

Ian Buruma – The Churchill Complex – The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit

It’s impossible to understand the last 75 years of American history, through to Trump and Brexit, without understanding the Anglo-American relationship, and specifically the bonds between presidents and prime ministers. FDR of course had Churchill; JFK famously had Macmillan, his consigliere during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan found his ideological soul mate in Thatcher, and George W. Bush found his fellow believer, in religion and in war, in Tony Blair. And now, of course, it is impossible to understand the populist uprising in either country, from 2016 to the present, without reference to Trump and Boris Johnson, though ironically, they are also the key to understanding the special relationship’s demise. There are few things more certain in politics than that at some point, facing a threat to national security, a leader will evoke Winston Churchill to stand for brave leadership (and Neville Chamberlain to represent craven weakness). As Ian Buruma shows, in his dazzling short tour de force of storytelling and analysis, the mantle has in fact only grown more oppressive as nuanced historical understanding fades and is replaced by shallow myth. Absurd as it is to presume to say what Churchill would have thought about any current event, it’s relatively certain he would have been horrified by the Iraq War and Brexit, to name two episodes dense with “Finest Hour” analogizing. In The Churchill Complex, distinguished author, Ian Buruma offers more than a reflection on the weight of Churchill’s legacy and its misuses.  It’s never been a relationship of equals: from Churchill’s desperate cajoling and conniving to keep FDR on the side in the war on, British prime ministers have put much more stock in the relationship than their US counterparts did. For England, resigned to the loss of its once-great empire and the diminishment of its power, its close kinship to the world’s greatest superpower would give it continued relevance, and serve as leverage to keep continental Europe in its place. And now, even as the links between the Brexit vote and the 2016 US election are coming into sharper focus, the Anglo-American alliance has floundered on the rocks of the isolationism that is one of 2016’s signal legacies. Ian Buruma is a keen observer and a delightfully informative guest.

Wendy Holden – The Royal Governess  – A Novel Of Queen Elizabeth Ii’s Childhood

In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.  Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she brings some doses of normalcy into their sheltered and privileged lives. At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral, Marion defies stuffy protocol to take the princesses on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy, she witnesses twentieth-century history’s most seismic events. The trauma of the Abdication, the glamour of the Coronation, the onset of World War II. She steers the little girls through it all, as close as a mother. During Britain’s darkest hour, as Hitler’s planes fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is present when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip. But being a beloved confidante to the Windsors comes at huge personal cost. Marriage, children, her own views: all are compromised by proximity to royal glory. Best known for her comic novels, Wendy Holden’s diversion into what she calls “hybrid” writing, is almost a self-effacing description of a brilliant melding of fact and fiction. You’ll be enchanted by the bestselling author’s enthusiasm for her story of a progressive young teacher who became governess to children of a family frozen in time.

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Conversations On Fascists & Fascism

                                

When Attilio Teruzzi, Mussolini’s handsome political enforcer, married a rising young American opera star, his good fortune seemed settled. The wedding was a carefully stage-managed affair, capped with a blessing by Mussolini himself. Yet only three years later, after being promoted to commander of the Black Shirts, Teruzzi renounced his wife. In fascist Italy, a Catholic country with no divorce law, he could only dissolve the marriage by filing for an annulment through the medieval procedures of the Church Court. The proceedings took an ominous turn when Mussolini joined Hitler: Lilliana Teruzzi was Jewish, and fascist Italy would soon introduce its first race laws. In The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy Victoria de Grazia pivots from the intimate story of a tempestuous seduction and inconvenient marriage―brilliantly reconstructed through family letters and court records―to a riveting account of Mussolini’s rise and fall. It invites us to see in the vain, loyal, lecherous, and impetuous Attilio Teruzzi, a decorated military officer, an exemplar of fascism’s New Man. Why did he abruptly discard the woman he had so eagerly courted? And why, when the time came to find another partner, did he choose another Jewish woman as his would-be wife? In Victoria de Grazia’s engrossing account, we see him vacillating between the will of his Duce and the dictates of his heart. De Grazia’s landmark history captures the seductive appeal of fascism and shows us how, in his moral pieties and intimate betrayals, his violence and opportunism, Teruzzi is a forefather of the illiberal politicians of today. Professor of history, Victoria De Grazia is an exuberant story-teller – a wonderful guest who passionately shares her treasure trove of research – and opinions. 

One of our most frequently downloaded Life Elsewhere Podcasts from the last year is The Ten Pillars of Fascist Politics.  Jason Stanley, a scholar of philosophy and propaganda and as a child of refugees of WWII Europe, understood Fascism means the dividing of a population to achieve power. But even he was surprised by its prevalence at home. First, with the rise of the birther movement and later the ascent of Donald Trump, he observed that not only is the rise of fascist politics possible in the United States, but its roots have been here for more than a century. Drawing on history, philosophy, sociology, critical race theory, and examples from around the world from 19th century America to 20th-century Germany (where Hitler was inspired by the Confederacy and Jim Crow South) to 21st-century India. How Fascism Works identifies ten pillars of fascist politics that leaders use to build onto power by dividing populations into an “us” and “them”. Stanley uncovers urgent patterns that are as prevalent today as ever and pins down a creeping sense that fascist tendencies are on the rise. By recognizing them, he argues, readers might begin to resist their most harmful effects. For this show, we have included an excerpt from our original interview with Jason Stanley.

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A Conversation On Life In Isolation With Five Creatives. Plant Love. Healthy Skin.

Perhaps you have become acclimatized to living through a pandemic? Maybe you have rearranged your everyday life to accommodate social distancing? Or, are you going stir crazy? These are some of the questions we asked five of our favorite creative guests at Life Elsewhere –  author, educator, Anna Dorn; musician, educator, Harry Stafford; author, educator, Mark Haskell Smith; musician, poet, educator Joshua Idehen; musician, author, educator, Martin Atkins. The conversation was conducted via Zoom, connecting to Stockholm, Manchester, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Their responses ranged from the need for physical contact to being content with a little solitude. And, as expected, all of our creative guests were eager to share their thoughts. Hosting a talk show remotely over the internet may well be the new normal when this pandemic is finally over. If it is, then this edition of Life Elsewhere proves how engaging it can be.

                                               

Also in the program, Summer Rayne Oakes, an urban houseplant expert, and environmental scientist has managed to grow 1,000 houseplants in her Brooklyn apartment (and they’re thriving!) Her secret? She approaches her relationships with plants as intentionally as if they were people. Summer joins the show to talk about her book, How To Make A Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space In Your Home. Plus, James Hamblin, a  preventive medicine physician and staff writer for The Atlantic was curious about the new science of skin microbes and probiotics. He discovered that keeping skin healthy is a booming industry, and yet it seems like almost no one agrees on what actually works. In his new book, Clean – The New Science Of Skin, Hamblin explores how we care for our skin today. He even experimented with giving up showers entirely. His conclusion on the meaning of “clean” may be surprising and at times, humorous.  

Show #384

Baseless & Unidentified

                             

Nicholson Baker –  Baseless: My Search For Secrets In The Ruins Of The Freedom Of Information Act

With great pleasure, we welcome back to Life Elsewhere, acclaimed author, Nicholson Baker. His latest work of non-fiction is a remarkable hybrid of history, journalism, and a memoir. Eight years ago, while investigating the possibility that the United States had used biological weapons in the Korean War, Nicholson requested a series of Air Force documents from the early 1950s under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Years went by, and he got no response. Rather than wait forever, he set out to keep a personal journal of what it feels like to try to write about major historical events in a world of pervasive redactions, withheld records, and glacially slow governmental responses. The result is one of the most original and daring works of nonfiction in recent memory, a singular and mesmerizing narrative that tunnels into the history of some of the darkest and most shameful plans and projects of the CIA, the Air Force, and the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In his lucid and unassuming style, Baker assembles what he learns, piece by piece, about Project Baseless, a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve “an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program. At the same time, Baker tells the stories of the heroic journalists and lawyers who have devoted their energies to wresting documentary evidence from government repositories, and he shares anecdotes from his daily life in Maine feeding his dogs and watching the morning light gather on the horizon. The result is an astonishing and utterly disarming story about waiting, bureaucracy, the horrors of war, and, above all, the cruel secrets that the United States government seems determined to keep forever from its citizens.

Colin Dickey – The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, And Our Obsession With The Unexplained

In a world where rational, scientific explanations are more available than ever, belief in the unprovable and irrational–in fringe–is on the rise: from Atlantis to aliens, from Flat Earth to the Loch Ness monster, the list goes on. It seems the more our maps of the known world get filled in, the more we crave mysterious locations full of strange creatures. Enter Colin Dickey, Cultural Historian and Tour Guide of the Weird. With the same curiosity and insight that made Ghostland a hit with readers and critics, Colin looks at what all fringe beliefs have in common, explaining that today’s Illuminati is yesterday’s Flat Earth: the attempt to find meaning in a world stripped of wonder. Dickey visits the wacky sites of America’s wildest fringe beliefs–from the famed Mount Shasta where the ancient race (or extra-terrestrials, or possibly both, depending on who you ask) called Lemurians are said to roam, to the museum containing the last remaining “evidence” of the great Kentucky Meat Shower–investigating how these theories come about, why they take hold, and why as Americans we keep inventing and re-inventing them decade after decade. The Unidentified is Colin Dickey at his best: curious, wry, brilliant in his analysis, yet eminently readable.

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