Review: ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

beingmortalimage2I was surprised to see Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End near the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list – not because it’s not an excellent book (which it is), but because the subject matter is not, shall we say, easily approachable. (Discussions about death and dying rarely are.)

Then I thought of the number of Baby Boomers now struggling for answers as they deal with aging and incapacitated parents, looking for pathways to follow as they wrestle with an issue deeply affecting their own lives, and it’s no wonder Being Mortal strikes such a major chord.
Read the full review at

On “Gone with the Wind,” 75 Years Later

gable and leigh gone with the windThough it’s considered one of the great love stories of all time, I’ve always been more amazed at how much of an antiwar film Gone with the Wind really is. When one realizes that the movie, which marks its diamond anniversary this year, was released prior to the most crushing conflict in world history, the perception is even more remarkable.

Amidst the spectacle, the emotions, the sheer volume of it all, the underlying “war is hell” theme can be easily overlooked; at best it usually doesn’t leave an overriding impression. In hindsight, however, Gone with the Wind can be incorporated as part of an important group of socially significant films which flourished during the late ‘30s and ‘40s — particularly those of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) — that have yet to be equaled in their capturing of folk America with a populist comment.

I think of one scene that is forever etched as far as its depiction of the brutality of war. Shot in silhouette (a technique used often and effectively in the film), a man loses a leg by amputation without the benefit of chloroform, as a horrified Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, looks on. Though more remembered is the famous panoramic shot of Scarlett as she makes her way through a vast landscape of dead and dying soldiers, the aforementioned scene is infinitely more frightening in its simplicity.  A less sensitive director may easily have deleted it; instead we are left with a moment that is timeless in its depiction of suffering. The depth of the emotional effect is shattering. Its crudity makes it hard to swallow, even in these days when one is inured to superfluous violence — and it’s done without the use of any graphic elements whatsoever. Continue reading

Pieces of Peace

gandhi possessionsThe stark and haunting simplicity of this photograph depicting the last earthly possessions of Mahatma Gandhi was the catalyst for Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, a wide-ranging examination of the history of civil disobedience which opened earlier this month at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. “When I saw this picture [while] reading Gandhi’s autobiography, for me it became like a testament, like a poem. And I never forgot it,” Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, recently commented. The exhibition, which coincides with the 145th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, features a special focus on photography, and uses art and artifacts to depict symbols of protest throughout time, as well as the contributions of icons from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who inspired nonviolent movements that reverberated around the world. Experiments with Truth runs through February 1.

(Photo: Courtesy James Otis/Gandhiserve)

Rebel Rebel

david bowie

I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]

When Nature Collides

water drops spider webWater droplets cling to a spider’s web on a foggy morning in London 9/16/14.

Photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Pop Culture Musings for a Tuesday 9/16/14

joan rivers art
A Piece of Work:
Finally caught up with the documentary about Joan Rivers that was first released in 2010, an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the comic legend whose recent death sparked an outpouring of accolades from colleagues and audiences alike. I was long a fan of the gutsy comedienne, one of the few whose incisive humor could literally reduce me to tears. The film captures many candid – and humanizing – moments, revealing an indomitable spirit that refused to be marginalized despite advancing age or changing times. Rivers had a habit of cataloging all her jokes Rolodex-style, and here’s hoping that some of the best will eventually make it into a book.

housekeeping olympics logoSweeping Towards Gold: Rev up those brooms. In the anything-can-become-an-Olympic-event department, last week marked the 10th annual Housekeeping Olympics, where teams competed in such riveting endeavors as bed stripping, linen folding, and laundry stacking. And shower scrubbing. And toilet cleaning. “It’s really funny,” said the founder of the festivities. Uh-huh. (Bet Joan would have loved this one.)

u2 appleBite of the Apple: So I really don’t get the backlash against Apple for offering the new U2 album as a freebie to its customers. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Actually, I found the whole concept sort of groundbreaking, as well as a clever move on the band’s part to generate sales for the rest of the U2 collection. Don’t like it? Don’t want it? For heaven’s sake, just delete it. (And stop whining.)

The Memory in a Shoe

shoes smithsonian“Object art” carries special meaning in a new installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, which consists of nearly 400 unpaired shoes linked by four miles of richly hued red yarn, each connected with a personal story that imparts the importance of a memory.

Recently unveiled at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and appearing through next year, the exhibit dramatically brings home the point that “presence dwells within absence,” in the words of the artist.

My first reaction to the image shown top was a somber one, as it initially evoked feelings of abandonment, and possibly, misfortune. But the use of the color red was a tip-off. The notes attached to the artifacts are each wonderfully life-affirming, uniting the material and the spiritual in an unexpectedly vivid way.

shoe with note“I can feel the person through their used objects,” Shiota remarked in a recent interview.

Objects that range from the rhinestone-adorned high heel (left), offered as a reminder of a mother “at her most shining moments,” to the shoe used by a boxer to symbolize his commitment to the sport during grueling training, to perhaps most poignantly, a son’s donation of one of the shoes worn by his father on his way to a hospital from which he never returned.

All capture the spirits that fill the inanimate…their presence dwelling within the absence.

Artfully Awful

bad artMasterpieces they surely aren’t, which is the irreverent rationale for the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA)  — with its tagline “Art too bad to be ignored” — and founded in 1993 in Boston as a repository for ill-begotten visions of inspiration gone astray.bad art

The spirit of fun begins with a museum FAQ – “Is this some kind of joke?” – and the answer: “This institution works long and hard at building the finest bad art establishment in the world. We take our mission very seriously. Frankly, we are shocked and indignant at your derisive innuendo.”

Perusing the online collection is a trippy immersion in tacky timelessness, such as the three-eyed fluorescent disaster shown above left, which carries a comical back-story. Informed that his piece had been selected for inclusion at MOBA, the “artist,” Scott Winslow, contacted museum personnel to tell them that he could provide much worse.

mana lisaAnd can it get more terrible than the juggling dog in a hula skirt (above right)? Actually, yes. That would be a cross-gendered Mona Lisa, renamed the Mana Lisa, left. A definite favorite.

Referring to the works, and in a bit of an understatement, the museum’s chief curator, Michael Frank, once told The New York Times that “clearly something has gone wrong, either in the execution or in the concept.”

I’d say both, and that’s the whole delightful point.