Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Category: Notable

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Grey Gardens: What the Maysles’ Came-“lost” Can Teach Us

by Editors

Grey Gardens: What the Maysles’ Came-“lost” Can Teach Us

 

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

 

In nurturing others we sometimes find ourselves.  Yet, sometimes we lose ourselves as well.

What makes the difference?  As “Little Edie” Beale points out in the Maysles Brothers’ cult-classic documentary, Grey Gardens (1975), life can be summed up “by three lines” [sic] from Robert Frost’s classic poem The Road not Taken (1916):

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both…

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

As straightforward as that sentiment may seem, Frost always maintained that the poem was a “very tricky one,” perhaps not to be read without irony.  This is the sort of irony that the perceptive Little Edie perhaps saw in her own thwarted life, a life utterly devoted to her mother—the socialite-aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—“Big Edie.”

Thirty some-odd years later, their story continues to resonate with audiences.  It was remade into an HBO dramatic special in July 2009 and the Tony-nominated musical version—which first hit the stage in 2006—recently made its way to Boston in May of 2009.  Thus, it would seem that the tale of two resilient mondaines reduced to extreme reclusion, penury and squalor is at once bewitching and repulsive in its reality.

It was precisely the conflation of seemingly incompatible states of being with the Beales’ abundant charm that first gripped the Maysles Brothers. Originally the cinéma vérité-directing duo were approached by Lee Radziwill and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, about doing a documentary about their lives growing up in the Bouvier family. In researching the family, however, the Maysles came to the realization that their eccentric aunt and cousin living in a dilapidated, flea-infested East Hampton manse would make much better film subjects than Jackie and Lee.

The Beales’ allure?  Perhaps it lies not so much in their patrician charm or their extreme living conditions, as in our own self-recognition in their dysfunctional, parent-child relationship.  Add to that a nostalgia for the Seventies in all its campy glory, and—as Christine Ebersole noted in a February, 2007 interview on “Theater Talk”—the broader issue of societal disenfranchisement (whether of gays, women, or other underprivileged group) and you certainly have a hot topic for today.

Truly, the greatest attention paid toward the story does seem to come from the gay community. But why?  Perhaps this phenomenon can be best-understood by comparing the Beales to another familiar gay-icon in popular culture, Bette Davis. In attempting to explain Davis’ popularity with gay audiences, for example, the journalist Jim Emerson wrote: “Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn’t aged well? Or was it that she was ‘Larger Than Life,’ a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both.”[1]

Little Edie does seem to embody just this sort of fierce tenacity when she exhorts us with phrases like: “There’s nothing worse than a ‘staunch woman’….They don’t weaken, no matter what.”  She follows the phrase with an “OK” hand sign, and a knowing look.  Immediately, we, the audience, are with her.  Adventurous types may also feel secret camaraderie with her in her flamboyant mode of dress: an affectation which evolved both out of her desire to cover her stress-induced Alopecia, combined with her child-like love of dressing-up and playing at starlet.  The latter were inherited from her mother, once an amateur singer and performer.  Both women enliven the long, empty hours spent at Grey Gardens by singing and dancing to the dated soundtracks of their youth.

Throughout the film we feel like voyeurs, intrigued and repulsed at the same time by the direct cinema techniques of the Maysles.  Yet, the Maysles are successful in their endeavor to explore rather than exploit, because the film is not a simple act of gawking.  Along with experiencing, perhaps, Thomas Hobbes’ comic sense of superiority, we also feel drawn to the humanity of the women.  We are entranced by the same antipodes in their characters and circumstances that drew in the Maysles.

That said, in watching the original film, I have to say that at times the ladies’ bickering with one another seems to get the best of them. Yet, one coincidently also senses the inner-strength of these women, their devotion to each other, and their compulsion to provide daily nurturing for one another.  As becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the film, however, this nurturing sometimes crosses a line that veers into unhealthy territory.

According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “Codependency” is: “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); or broadly: dependence on the needs of or control by another.” The dictionary also notes, interestingly, that the term “Codependency” was not coined until 1979.  Thus, the Beales would not have heard of the condition at the time the documentary was filmed.  Thus, they would not been availed of that lens through which to see their relationship.

You might say the predicament all started when Little Edie came back to East Hampton from Manhattan around the close of WWII to take care of her mother. At that time Big Edie was in poor health following an eye operation, and long separated from her husband. In her own words, Little Edie was “sick and tired of lying awake at night wondering what was happening to my mother.”

In her mother’s version of events, on the other hand, it was Little Edie who didn’t desire the glimmer of society’s spotlight in her debutante-youth.  Big Edie says (in a rather philosophical way), “everyone thinks and feels differently as the years go by…”

And on and on it goes.  The two women are in constant competition.

Upon Big Edie’s suggestion that—rather than her daughter’s patient—she was busy as care-taker of Little Edie for twenty-five years, Little Edie parries with: “The whole mark of aristocracy is responsibility…is that it?”  To which Big Edie (somewhat humorously) screeches, “I’ll have to start drinking!  I can’t take it. She’ll make a drunk out of her mother.”  As each woman turns to the lens, the camera becomes their longed-for audience, we their boxing corner-men.

Twenty-five years into this codependency-melodrama, Little Edie still wonders, “When am I going to get out of here?”  (She longed to be back in New York City above all.) “Any little rat hole, even on Tenth Avenue.” “I’ll just have to leave for New York City and lead my own life.  I don’t see any other future.”

Though she longs for independence, Little Edie states that “I see myself as a little girl.” (Her mother’s little daughter.)  And, congruently, her mother sees her as an “immature girl.”  Little Edie perceives, however, that the filmmakers see her as a woman: precisely how she feels in New York City.

Indeed, according to her, living and loving in NY was her lifelong aspiration.  According to Little Edie, she didn’t go into a nightclub act in her youth because: “[When] my father [Phelan Beale] was alive…That was it. Mr. Beale would have had me committed.” According to her, her father believed in running his children’s lives and wanted her to get an MA and become an assistant in his law office.

Then, there’s perhaps the most redolent scene in the film: when one of their dozens of feral cats goes to bathroom right behind Big Edie’s painted portrait. In a rebuke to Little Edie’s constant grousing, she quips, “I’m glad he is. I’m glad that somebody is doing something that he wanted to do.”  It’s so unscripted, and so utterly fabulous.

A more subtle, yet remarkable development occurs when Little Edie’s stress-induced balding seems to abate. About halfway through the film, her hair begins to come back.  Seemingly, she’s recuperating her selfhood and self-assuredness through the therapy of making the documentary.  She even cleans the house, and redecorates, bit by bit.  She makes little altars out of roses, childhood memorabilia, and souvenirs of some of her travels.

Similarly traipsing down her own memory lane, Big Edie listens to ancient records, and sings along—reminiscing about her thwarted singing career—whilst playing with her cats.  Both matron and felines curl up on the bed together, Big Edie, singing You and the Night and the Music (1939):  “Make the most of time, ere it has flown…”

In a fashion, the mother wants to perhaps keep her daughter from making the same mistakes—getting married, losing her independence and later suffering abandonment.  Yet, she’s also seemingly jealous at her success in doing so.

The film is like an opera, the two voices intertwining, escalating and de-crescendoing as the Beales compete for center stage.  In the end, they are more like star-crossed Gemini, twin mirrors of a forged reality from which they cannot escape.

In the end, Little Edie concludes that it is her mother’s house.  And, that’s that.

She casually and quixotically remarks: “She’s a lot of fun, I hope she doesn’t die.”  Of course, Big Edie eventually did pass away, a scant two years after the film was released, setting Little Edie free to pursue her aspirations of living in Manhattan and cabaret singing, fulfilling a lifetime’s worth of stardust dreams.

In closing, it bears mentioning that in the literature on the film, no one mentions the symbolism of Little Edie’s favorite fashion accessory—one that she wears throughout the film—an oblong brooch decorated with a wreath of roses and laurel sheaves.  The two intertwining emblems are symbolic of “Love Victorious:” an apt metaphor for the spark of hope that Little Edie keeps kindled in her, the irresistible spark that draws us near, like moths to a flame.

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Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an editor of Bread and CircusMagazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.


[1] Considine, Shaun. Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. Backinprint.com. (2000), p 225.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bette_Davis.  Accessed: 5/24/09.

Gallery

by Editors


 

Image from Teensy Weensy Book
4.25″x4.25″
Kristine Williams, 2009

“This is a book project I’m working on. Almost every piece has a cutout, or what I’m calling cliffhangers in this series.” –K. Williams

For more, visit the artist’s blog here.

© 2009 Kristine Williams. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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Stone Soup Stewardship: A Thanksgiving Tale

by Editors

COMMUNITY

Stone Soup Stewardship: A Thanksgiving Tale

By Kimberlee Cloutier-Blazzard

stone soup

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Many of you are no doubt familiar with the old story, Stone Soup.” In the tale, a group of reluctant villagers eventually create a soup together, bit by bit, in order to help feed some hungry travelers. In doing so, they learn to open themselves up to the strangers in their midst through the selfless act of sharing.

It is an old chestnut that one might look at the world as a village. At Thanksgiving time, especially, it is important to reflect on all the things we have in our country—even when we’ve recently learned to focus on our shortfalls—and turn our minds to the hungry and needy here and abroad. In doing so, we might see ourselves as a potential donor of one of the Ingredients needed for some much-needed stone soup: “Care for others and the world.”

This ingredient describes the way that we might choose to participate in community and world outreach—in what many churches refer to as their “Missions” component. Missions includes things like a Walkathon for a children’s summer camp, a food pantry, soup kitchen, local or world disaster relief organizations (providing such things as school supplies, hand-made quilts and health kits), Fair Trade Coffee, projects in Africa, a college campus Food-Not-Bombs Freeganism initiative, and so on. Of course this idea is not limited to churches, but I do believe that there is an important reason for working together on these initiatives.

Here’s a thought. While we can imagine doing this type of outreach ourselves, singularly, when we do this together as a group we’re more powerful—both spiritually and materially.

Here’s a fact. Sometimes when we act alone to help others, we consciously or subconsciously get into a “siege mentality”—believing that we’re living inside a tiny fortress with a forbidding world outside.

In that instance, though we give to others, to a degree we remain worried about our own personal time, resources and personal finances. We worry that we are not setting aside enough for our own future need. Thus, we continue storing up unused goods and funds and girding ourselves against strangers. We bury our ‘talents,’ in a manner of speaking.

When we do this in some ways we are like the Stone Soup villagers whose first reaction to the itinerant men was to shut their doors, ears and hearts to the poor and needy.

However, when we realize that we are not just acting for today, but that—together as a world—we are busy building a better place here on earth, then we become aware that those who we imagined to exist on the other side of our door are actually on the inside, members of our same loving community.

To realize this is to understand the poignant wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, spoken so many years ago: It is in giving that we receive.

For, indeed, when we share our time and resources—our ‘talents’—we are really opening a connection with others in our world community, to our own brothers and sisters.

I like to think of it in this very tangible way:

When I give food to my local Open Door Pantry, for example, I may be taking food out of my cupboard, leaving a temporary space in there—but even so—I’m never afraid that my own family will go hungry. WHY?

First, because I know that I am doing the right thing by feeding those who are hungry NOW. That food is worth so much more in their empty bellies than it is in my storehouse. That’s a very comforting feeling.

But, moreover, I know very well that someday I might find myself in their shoes. And, if I ever did get to the point where I had a bare cupboard and hungered, I have faith that the Open Door would be there for me—ready to return the favor—stocked by folks just like me who gave because they believe in spreading the wealth here on earth.

The example can be multiplied a hundredfold: think about that winter coat you don’t wear anymore, or the toys your kids don’t play with, or even those 10 extra inches of hair! (My eldest daughter and I gleefully shared the latter “kindest cut” side-by-side in a salon last year.)

In giving, we invest in the others in our community who are currently on the down cycle of fate’s ever-turning wheel.

In giving, we remember that even when things are going well in our home—when we’re on the ascent in the world—there are others who are hungering and thirsting—literally or metaphorically. Such as the people of Wunlang, South Sudan for whom I’ve worked and written about building a new water well.

In closing, this is why we should work together to build a better world, stone by stone, here and now, with hand, heart and all the resources given us. For, we are our brothers’ keepers and when we do justice to the least of us, truly we cause great joy and healing.

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Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Freedom Paintings

by Editors

NEW VOICES / JOURNEYS

Freedom Paintings

By Jessica Miles

While studying abroad this past June in Prague, Czech Republic, I traveled outside the city to gain a better understanding of the effects of Nazism on the country. I arrived in Terezín on a hazy Saturday afternoon and toured the Small Fortress of the Terezín Ghetto where thousands of prisoners were held against their will during the Holocaust.

“It mustn’t be forgotten,” she said.

This is why Mrs. Helga Weissová-Hošková visited that day; this is why she spoke. Mrs. Weissová-Hošková had come to share her story as a Holocaust survivor from Prague who was sent to the Terezín Ghetto on December 17, 1941. She was twelve when she arrived at Terezín.

“It mustn’t be forgotten,” she boldly stated.

She toddled into the room that day in a taupe pant suit and a clunky gold necklace holding a purse that was half her size on her forearm. She was no more than five feet tall with a slight arch in her back, salt and pepper hair, and crystal blue eyes. She gently placed her bag down on the chair and paused.

“I am here…to tell you…my story,” she said in broken English.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s nightmare began in Prague in 1941, when the Nazi regime expanded to the Eastern Block. She did not know her fate that day when her family was forced into a crowded truck and blindly relocated one hour away to Terezín, a small town in northwest Czechoslovakia. The Nazis had transformed Terezín into a labor camp where Czech Jews would work before being transferred to a concentration camp.

In December 1941, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her parents arrived at the Small Fortress of Terezín. Arbeit Macht Frei, read the message over the entranceway. Work Brings Freedom. The brick fortification surrounded by sprawling green hills was secluded and bare. Barbed wire lined the fortress walls, which were adorned with barred windows and doors.

J Miles 2Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s home was in the barracks of the Small Fortress isolated from the outside world. She was housed with several other Czech Jews. Yet, even in the dismal conditions, together they created normality however they could.

“We kept our traditions. We were always together,” Mrs. Weissová-Hošková said as she recalled lighting the Chanukkah menorah in a dark loft within the fortress. She remembered gathering around the menorah with the other children, their eyes brighter than the burning flames.

However, the desolation overshadowed the mere moments of contentment. The smell of rotting bodies, the threat of typhoid, and the lasting despair lingered around every corner of the ghetto, but she never lost hope.

By night Mrs. Weissová-Hošková was crammed into the rickety wooden bunks overcrowded with emaciated figures yearning for sustenance as bugs crept across their frail bodies. By day she was one of thousands of Jews identified by the yellow Star of David on her sleeve, which she still carries with her.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková considered herself quite lucky, as she was never separated from her mother during the selection process. Her father was not so fortunate.

“We were told we were going to another ghetto. My father went ahead of us. I did not know I would not see him again,” she said. “We never found my father’s name on the lists [of prisoners registered at Auschwitz]. He was probably gassed before arriving at Auschwitz.”

Days later in October of 1944, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her mother were loaded into crowded trucks and once again blindly transferred from Terezín to Auschwitz. Sixteen days later, along with thousands of other Czech prisoners, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her mother were liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.

* * *

Aside from her words Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s story is also told through her artwork. With her paints and brushes, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková painted the truth behind the walls of the Small Fortress and was eager to share her work that day.

painting 1

Violinists in the barracks. This painting of three prisoners providing entertainment in the barracks of the Small Fortress represents an escape from Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s surroundings. It is a symbol of unity; a man wraps his arm around a woman, while a young girl holds her knees to her chest as she listens to the violinists draw their bows along the strings of the violins.

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Terezín’s children. This painting symbolizes the children of Terezín who banded together and celebrated the traditions closest to their hearts. Lighting the Chanukkah menorah was one such tradition that took place within the walls of the barracks.

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Vanished hope. A man falls against the jagged wall of barbed wire surrounding the Small Fortress. “This man had no more hope. He did not want to live anymore,” said Mrs. Weissová-Hošková. His gaunt figure falls to the ground, his hands still grasping the piercing barrier.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s drawings were later recovered following the termination of the Nazi regime and represent a cultural commemoration to the battle millions of prisoners fought for survival. Today, she is recognized internationally for her artwork and as an outspoken survivor of the Holocaust. Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s pieces have been featured in several exhibitions, including A Child Artist in Terezín: Witness to the Holocaust. She has also been spotlighted in various publications for sharing her voice and her art with those who believe in her message, for those who believe it mustn’t be forgotten.

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Jessica Miles is a Bread and Circus Magazine contributing writer.

Text and photographs © 2009 Jessica Miles.
Paintings © 2009 Helga Weissová-Hošková. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the Artist.
Thanks to Milan Polák of CIEE, Council on International Educational Exchange, for assistance in the preparation of this article.

NEW VOICES is a Bread and Circus Magazine feature in which emerging writers share their views on aspects of contemporary culture.

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by Editors

AMERICAN IMAGE

DUST STORM RISES OVER PHOENIX ON LABOR DAY, 1972.

Environmental Protection Agency photograph in the collection of the National Archives Administration.

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Poetry: The Confessional

by Editors

POETRY

The Confessional

By January Gill O’Neil

For more than a year, I’ve posted a series on my blog called Confession Tuesday. I wanted to dig deep and really discuss the small things, poetic and nonpoetic, happening in my life. Somehow it caught on, and I’ve kept it going as a regular feature on my Poet Mom blog.

Poets have a keen sense of mining deep into their everyday lives for material for their poems. When I consider the personal as subject matter for our work, I think of the opening lines of Stephen Dunn’s poem “The Routine Things Around the House”:

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable
yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

Every poem is a confession.

Through the years, however, confessional poetry has received a bad rap. While the Beats were reinventing language in the late ’50s and early ’60s, poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass removed all poetic artifice to reach a more personal, intimate level of verse. By its nature, poetry is personal. Yet, the word “confessional” has always been code for “women’s poetry,” as if the poetry by, for, and about woman is any less valid, dynamic, or revelatory. Simply not true. When it’s done right and done well, confessional poetry is personal and universal, speaking to the broader spectrum of the human condition.

Under the header of Confession Tuesday, I’ve admitted how my desire to write often overrides my daily duties, such as work, family, and household chores. I’ve discovered that these posts are a tool to work out poems before I get to the page. My confessional also has given me the license to praise or rant about topics important to me regarding the poetry community. For instance, I’ve posted about the myth of the work-life balance for a writer (read: there’s no such thing. You just write, then deal with the rest.). I’ve discussed, ad nauseam, how I much I want to be U.S. Poet Laureate someday (It could happen!). And recently, I came clean about how I feel poets should market their poetry, which is taboo in most (academic) poetry circles.

Through the process of “confessing,” I have been able to work out issues before I get to the page, leaving me available to navigate the open waters of thought.

As one who writes in the confessional vein, I understand that to keep my work fresh and interesting, I must strive for clear, crisp language that expands upon my point of view. But there’s also another aspect I can’t neglect. Admittedly, since we’re talking about confessions, it’s just fun to let loose! A confession is an open invitation to say what’s really on your mind in a safe space.

So, consider Bread and Circus a safe space. This is your chance to let loose. What are your poetry confessions? What are your poetry likes and dislikes? Tell us something that you wouldn’t normally say in polite poetry circles. I bet you’ll find that what might seem outlandish or trite to you is more universal than you think.

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January Gill O’Neil‘s first book of poems, Underlife, will be published in November 2009 by CavanKerry Press. Visit her at the Poet Mom blog.

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Have thoughts or feedback to share about this post?

Join the conversation! Post a Comment or send us an email (click here).

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An Interview with Erin Dionne

by Editors

AUTHOR ERIN DIONNE TALKS ABOUT HER NEW BOOK

By G. Arnold, Co-Editor

The arrival of 2009 brings a new book for young adults from writer Erin Dionne. dionne_coverHer debut novel, MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES, was inspired by two unlikely events that occurred in seventh grade: when she wore what she calls a “scary” peach bridesmaid dress in her cousin’s wedding; and another time, when she threw up on her gym teacher’s shoes.

If you’re a parent , librarian, or educator, you already know that teens and tweens are an important audience for writers. The reading interests of young adults are shaped, in part, by their unique experiences. They recognize authenticity and they demand to be taken seriously by the writers they decide to embrace.

Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, writing for this audience is immensely challenging. Many writers think they can do it, but few make the grade.

Erin Dionne takes this challenge seriously, and her new book is already generating buzz. Recently, she took some time from her very busy schedule to tell us about the book and the process of writing.


Bread & Circus: Tell us a bit about your new book, MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES.

Erin Dionne: MODELS is the story of overweight eighth grader Celeste Harris, who-thanks to her meddling Aunt Doreen-gets entered into the Miss HuskyPeach pageant against her will. While dealing with the chaos and hilarity of becoming a fat model, she also must cope with the fact that her best friend is being stolen by school bully Lively Carson.

B&C: The main character is a teenager named Celeste. What can you say about her?

Celeste is a smart, witty girl who hangs on the periphery of basically everything-her family, the school social scene, and her life. At the beginning of the novel, she’s comfortable with who she is-or, she thinks she’s comfortable. She believes that blending in is better than standing out, especially because her weight makes hiding hard. She’s teased mercilessly by Lively, and doesn’t have the self-confidence to stand up for herself.

B&C: In terms of the writing process, did you envision Celeste’s life and personality before you started writing, or did Celeste evolve and reveal new things about herself as you were writing?

dionne_authorErin Dionne: MODELS originated as a short story entitled “On BBQ Day, No One Brings a Lunch,” and I was encouraged to turn that piece into a novel. But when I began the story, I envisioned an overweight girl, sitting alone in the cafeteria, eating a spinach salad. I wanted to know who she was, why she was dieting, and why she was by herself. Trying to answer those questions lead to the short story. So when I sat down to write the novel, I had a pretty good idea of the character I was dealing with. MODELS is told in first person, from Celeste’s point of view, and “BBQ Day” is in third, so that was a major switch. But Celeste’s voice came right away, and I learned more in-depth details about her as I wrote. Read the rest of this entry »

Season’s Greetings and Good Cheer All Around

by Editors

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

At this time of year, we all feel the hustle and bustle of the holidays swirling around us. Most of us look forward to time spent with family and friends around a heavily laden dining room table, exchanging gifts and good wishes.

But, not everyone is so fortunate. As local food banks this year grapple with a double-whammy of increasingly short supplies and increasing demand, wouldn’t it be great if we could share some of our good fortune and get part of our holiday shopping done at the same time? Sound too good to be true? You can!

For example, here in the Boston area folks can take a minute to jump online to “Project Bread” (www.projectbread.org) and buy things like holiday cards and even some simple gifts while at the same time donating to a worthy cause. Just think, you can check those stocking stuffers, Yankee swap- or Secret Santa items right off your list!

It’s a win/win situation! You get some of your holiday chores done, have a happy heart and those in need get some help.

And, food banks are just one option. Homeless shelters, women’s shelters and many other charitable organizations are now making this type of donation available.

Give it a try, and pass along some good cheer.

Good luck, and Happy Holidays.

 

Book Review: Statecraft

by Editors

BOOK REVIEW

Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World by Dennis Ross (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
Reviewed by Brian Bicknell

A new book by Dennis Ross has just been published, entitled Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World. Ross has been a Middle East envoy and the chief peace negotiator for the United States under both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Both Democrats and Republicans welcome his ideas. The back of the book has laudatory remarks about its contents from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Brent Scowcroft. In this day of bitter partisanship, any author who can write a book about foreign policy that is embraced by both parties begs to be read by anybody who is interested in America’s role in the world.

Ross first sheds light on the differences between the current Bush presidency with both the first Bush presidency and the Clinton presidency by employing case studies such as German unification, Bosnia, and the first Gulf War. Ross then contrasts the efforts of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush’s approach in the lead up to the first and second Gulf War. He is, not surprisingly, critical of Bush 43. His critique of Bush 43’s approach includes a failure of clear objectives, making disastrous assessments, misguided planning, weak diplomacy, and poor communication and framing of the issues.

Ross does an effective job of shedding light on the numerous mistakes made by the Bush presidency with regard to Iraq; ineffective statecraft, not understanding the culture, not sending in enough troops, and the rationale for the war itself being contradictory. While these harsh assessments are undoubtedly accurate, Ross repeats a mistake made by many other current books (such as Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, and Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn) by implying that if things had been done differently we would have been successful, or at least more so, than we have been in Iraq. At one point Ross states explicitly,

“In the end, the Iraq case stands as a model for how not to do statecraft… Could statecraft effectively employed have made for a different situation with far better prospects in Iraq? I believe so” (p. 131).

Ross, like others, does not give nearly enough ink to the idea that the decision to go to war was wrong in the first place.

The sections on negotiating and mediating are especially impressive. Ross provides twelve guidelines for negotiating and eleven for mediating conflicts. These guidelines are well thought out and derive from years of experience. This section is filled with anecdotes from the author’s personal experiences on the world stage, making the book more interesting than a purely academic treatise. The anecdotes provide a compelling insider’s look at what it was like working with world leaders such as Arafat, Rabin, and Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Ross is particularly hard on Arafat. He details how Arafat would delay, equivocate, and obstruct opportunities to peacefully resolving the conflict. He points out that Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini, and now Bin Laden have led movements designed to

“capture the passions and desires of those in a part of the world that felt left out and imposed upon…Charismatic movements depend on grievance, but in the end they cannot succeed only by what they reject. They cannot succeed only by tearing down and destroying. In the end, they must deliver, they must produce. And so our strategy for competing with radical Islam must be geared toward having the reformers deliver change and come to be seen as the purveyors of social justice. While the objective is daunting, we and our allies bring substantial resources to the task. If we also bring the kind of skill and intensive and extensive effort required for executing smart statecraft – the kind seen in past cases of statecraft done well – we will be able to marshal those resources and succeed” (p. 305).

Here Ross provides a conceptual framework for dealing with a combustible Middle East and terror in general. In addition to this overall strategic goal, Ross lays out bullet point ideas for specific and realistic tactics to achieve the overall goal.

Ultimately, the person who should read this book is the current president and the next president of the United States. For the rest of us, however, it is an instructive and compelling read and provides us with important attributes that we need to look for as we elect our next leader. And whoever that leader is, that person should nominate Dennis Ross as the next Secretary of State.
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Brian Bicknell is a Bread and Circus contributing writer.