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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book Review: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Galileo's Daughter CoverThe title is misleading. The subject of this biography is not, in fact, Galileo’s daughter Virginia (or his other daughter Livia). It is a biography of Galileo himself. As such, it is an interesting approach.

Galileo’s three children were born to his married mistress. Due to their bastard status, the girls would not be good marriage candidates. Instead, Galileo paid a dowry to the church and his young daughters were taken into the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, first as charges, later as cloistered nuns. Virginia became Suor Maria Celeste and Livia became Suor Arcangela. Maria Celeste took well to this sheltered life, becoming her father’s pen-pal, confidant, intellectual and spiritual sounding board, and doctor. It is the letters between Maria Celeste and Galileo (only her end of the conversations is extant) that Sobel uses in writing the biography.

Unfortunately, the fit is not quite right. At times, the letters seem shoehorned into the narrative. Rarely do they shed more light onto the man who was so hated by the church, apologies were not given until 2000, long after the church had accepted his findings as facts. Part of the blame must fall on Suor Maria Celeste’s situation. As a cloistered nun, even the most vital period of her letters (when she was running her father’s household on his behalf) is made lesser by simple fact that all of her information is second-hand. She may have been keeping his books, but all of her news of the goings-on had to be delivered to her by those on the outside. Had she been able to more freely move through the city, imagine what a resource her letters would have been. Among discussions of wine going bad in its casks, she could also have shared the mood of the people, the general attitude to his predicament, and perhaps some pertinent advice.

As it stands, Galileo’s Daughter is a decent read but a disappointing biography. By trying to force these letters into the narrative, Sobel has left us with something that is neither here nor there. It’s certainly not the biography it purports to be, and it is an unnecessarily self-limited biography of its true subject.

Fascinating Fact: Galileo bought a special dispensation for his son to legitimize him as his heir. Another example of the crappy hand women have been dealt throughout history. While Suor Maria Celeste was content in the convent, her sister was quite miserable, yet had to endure it, as she outlived her father and both siblings.

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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

My Lobotomy CoverHistorically, the medical treatment of mental illness has been fraught with quacks and questionable practices. Possibly the scariest thing about this all is just how relatively recently some of the most blatantly inhumane treatments were abandoned. Don’t like your wife? Have her involuntarily committed to an asylum for “hysteria”. Don’t like your step-son? Have him lobotomized.

My Lobotomy is the poignant memoir of Howard Dully, whose step-mother, for no discernible reason other than a deep hatred of the young boy, had him lobotomized in 1960 when he was just 12. To accomplish her plan to destroy him, she enlisted Dr. Walter Freeman, the foremost lobotomist of the period and creator of the trans-orbital lobotomy. This appalling procedure has a macabre, and totally accurate nickname, the “ice pick” lobotomy. Accurate because Dr. Freeman did, in fact, use ice picks when he first began performing the procedure. By the time he operated on Dully, he had his own tools specially made. He would insert these into the brain by nudging aside the eyeball and using the eye socket as the access point. He would then wiggle the tools around inside the patients brain, severing the frontal lobes, and making mincemeat of it. Complications, including deaths, were common.

That this procedure was once accepted medical treatment is stunning. That it was performed on many children, a sad, sad thing. That it was performed on Dully, a travesty. The files Sully discovered and shares in the book show that his step-mother, herself the mother of two boys, complained of…not much, normal boy behavior drove her to the brink, and Dully bore the burden. Verbally and physically abused by both step-mother and biological father, Dully was an average boy. The good doctor himself initially saw nothing wrong with the boy. In fact, several other adults in Dully’s past claimed the problem was with the step-mother. The many doctors she consulted prior to finding Freeman said much the same. She was even recommended therapy by one of the doctors she consulted. When she met Freeman, she found a man who felt he could do no wrong, even in the face of increasing criticism from his peers.

One carefully places lie, two months and two days, and Dully had his lobotomy. Dully was told he would be having more tests done…no one felt he should be told what was going to be done to him. Worse yet, even after the procedure, his step-mother could not stand to have him in the home. Dully was placed in an asylum because there was nowhere else to put him, juvenile hall for much the same reason, a residential facility for troubled kids, and a foster home. He was dumped out of the system in his late teens with a disability check, no life skills, no job skills, and a mediocre education. He drifted, found booze, found drugs and then, in an incredible show of willpower and fortitude, he and his wife got clean and he found himself.

The writing in this book is clumsy at first. Dully uses his parents first names (as opposed to mom/dad) and this makes the early biographical information unwieldy. Once the book gets beyond that, the writing markedly improves. A brief return to this convoluted arrangement during Dr. Freeman’s biographical sketch is the only distraction in the prose. The writing in the remainder of the book is lively, beautifully simple and allows the reader to decide how they feel about the material, emotional cues being mostly absent. My Lobotomy is a fascinating look into the life of someone who fits every description of a victim, yet is remarkably anything but.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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Ghost Light & Synecdoche, New York…a Theatre Extravaganza

I’ve been very busy lately, staging a musical theatre production (AristoCats Kids) with 24 children ages 6-15. I also designed and make the costumes and props for this show. This is in addition to designing costumes for a show with three actresses whose lives are told over a ten year period (Vanities)…and whose clothes must change to reflect this. I love being this busy. Today, though, I took the morning off to read a book, and then watch a movie, both about the world of the theatre.

 

 

Ghost Light: A Memoir is written by former The New York Times Theatre Critic Frank Rich and tells his story of growing up, and growing into his love of theatre. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, a product of a “broken home” (as he puts it), Rich escapes time and time again to the Broadway Musicals his parents had brought home as records. His step-father, a pompous Washington D.C. lawyer, is an avid theatre-goer and relishes his role as provider of Rich’s favorite activity. Unfortunately, he also is a volatile man, given to farting, yelling, domineering, and beating his children, step-children, and wife. Ghost Light is absorbing and showcases Rich’s great writing. He ends his memoir sometime in college, leaving us with just a taste of his future. It’s amazing how much he was able to fit into his 17 years leading to his high-school graduation. I am envious of his memory of premier productions of such great shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and so many others, all before actually embarking on his career! A great read, very worthwhile.

 

Synecdoche, New York (2008) is a brilliant movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as theatre director  Caden Cotard whose life is more than a little out of whack. Living in Schenectady, New York (near where I grew up), his wife (Catherine Keener as Adele Lack) belittles him for not doing something “real”, hiding in his regional theatre rut, where casting young actors to play Willy Loman and his wife, Linda is considered avant garde. She, a painter whose miniature works must be seen with magnifying glasses, runs away to Berlin to show her work, taking their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein).

Things have already been weird, now they get weirder. You will get lost, it’s okay, you’ll sort it out as the movie progresses…mostly. Time is fluid, with actors sometime aging, sometimes not, a single trip to the E.R. apparently happening over the course of several months. A second marriage to Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), who had played Linda Loman at the start of the movie, leads to the birth of a second child, another girl whom Cotard constantly confuses with Olive.

Things have already been weirder, now they get weirder yet. Cotard receives a MacArthur Genius Grant and feels pressure to create a new show, a grand master-work, a “real” play. Things are misheard, and misspoken. Cotard himself exhibits signs of Cotard’s syndrome, a delusional belief that one is dead. The play he is staging is like a giant experiment in psychological delusion. Cotard hires a man, who claims he’s been studying him to 20 years (Tom Noonan as Sammy) to act as Cotard in the play. The casting becomes more and more surreal as Cotard’s double is doubled by an actor of his own. Eventually, Cotard has doubles for all of the people in his real life, including his almost-mistress, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who is doubled by Tammy (Emily Watson) with whom Cotard consummates the aborted affair of twenty years before. Hazel has an affair with Sammy, ending her marriage to Derek (who is then written out of the script). She and Cotard eventually decide that who they really want is each other, after all. Sammy’s suicide leaves the role of Cotard’s double open, which Ellen (Dianne Wiest), who had been hired to play Adele’s housekeeper, convinces him she can play.

Is this all just a dream? A hallucination? A difficult story told by a woman who disguises herself as a man? What I love most about this movie is that it is undefined, but in the best way. The viewer isn’t left hanging in an unpleasant way. Instead, we are left with our own thoughts and our own ideas as to the real meaning of the movie, much like any great work of art. Highly recommend, be prepared to watch it more than once.

 

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2013 in Book Reviews, Movie Reviews

 

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Be My Valentine

Vintage Photo of a handsome young man. Pine away ladies…isn’t he dashing?

Isn't He Handsome

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in Vintage Beauties

 

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Mommie Dearest (1981)

Be careful what you wish for…Joan Crawford wanted a family and adopted daughter Christina in 1940; a year and a half after she died, Christina published a tell-all lambasting her mother. The book, also titled Mommie Dearest, was turned into a movie in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, and Mara Hobel. Infamous for its “…no wire hangers!” scene, the unflattering story presents Crawford as erratic, abusive, mentally disturbed, and shallow. Some of the gripes that the film reveals are, shall we say, petty. Most of the early childhood scenes show grievances that most kids would have with their parents, forced to choose between things one really wants, being made to eat food one doesn’t like, being treated like “Cinderella”, a plethora of examples of life not being fair. Suddenly, with the wire hanger scene, we get a shocking level of violence as Crawford beats Christina with the said wire hanger (a badly done cutaway of the hanger hitting what is obviously a pillow is laughable, better to have focused exclusively on Ms. Dunaway’s facial expressions in this moment). One comes away from the early scenes of the movie with the impression that Christina really was a brat, Crawford may have taken things too far in trying to normalize her kids lives, and she was prone to fits of outrageous violence.

The second half of the movie focuses on Christina as a teen and young adult. Crawford send her to a boarding school where she hopes they will instill discipline in her. Crawford’s drinking is shown as getting more and more out of control, leading to blackouts. Christina is seen to be a rebellious teen, upset when her mother makes her go back to school as a work-scholarship student (as she once had been herself) citing poverty, while having just gone on a wild shopping spree herself. Another scene in which Crawford is seen to choke Christina while the girl struggles to fight her off, jolts one with it’s depravity and violence. Eventually, Christina moves out on her own and lands a job in a soap opera. Rushed to the hospital with a ruptured ovarian cyst, she is dismayed to find that the soap has temporarily replaced her with her mother. This outrageous episode actually happened, which exemplifies the terrible competition between mother and daughter, Crawford unwilling to cede to her daughter the youth she desperately clings to. A final scene in which Christina and her brother Christopher come together for the reading of Crawford’s will, only to discover she has made explicit that she leaves nothing to them, reveals the reason behind Christina’s book…with mother dead, she can write the tale of growing up her way.

The movie is uneven to be kind. Dunaway certainly looks like Crawford, but her performance swings from beautifully human to grotesquely caricature. Scarwid is wooden throughout the film, perhaps her way of showing how Christina felt she was walking on eggshells around her mother, but it comes across as bad acting. The only time she truly seems natural is in the scene where she is saying goodbye to the Mother Superior of the school where she finishes out her education. The story is strangely unconvincing. With so many petty grievances being aired, and then two radically violent scenes, one can dismiss the whole story as the disaffected complaints of a vengeful child upset at being cut out of the will. On the other hand, if one accepts those scenes of physical and verbal abuse as being more typical, one could discount the petty complaints as those of someone trying to protect their psyche by not revealing too much, couching the episodes of intense abuse with more benign stories more appropriate to a vengeful child upset at being cut out of the will. Had Christina shared her stories with a proper biographer, one who could tell her story within the context of a fuller portrayal of Crawford, who would have done corroborative research, who could divorce some of the emotion from the retelling and presented a more even history, her story of the difficulty of growing up as the “chosen” daughter of the “Queen of Hollywood” would have been more emotionally touching and disturbing. As it stands, it just seems like a ridiculous exercise in getting your just desserts, attacking a person who is dead and can’t stand up for themselves.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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