Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Art of the Interview – Questions for Sandra Day O’Connor

My college hosted a distinguished guest this week, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It was exciting and generated considerable buzz, but ultimately there were empty seats in the arena. Students were a minor segment of the audience.

The event was titled “A Conversation with Sandra Day O’Connor” and a “moderator” put questions to the Justice. She neither gave prepared remarks, nor answered any questions taken from the audience. I was dissatisfied by the moderator – I feel we could have learned much more about our guest. Plainly the moderator greatly admired the Justice. That’s fine. His desire to get her to recount certain anecdotes from her books was awkward.

I had been told O’Connor wouldn’t discuss Supreme Court cases or “anything controversial”. That’s okay – her decisions are undoubtedly available in the Court’s records, and why should she participate in controversy? She is 83 years old and deserves to be selective in her comments.

I wish questions from students had been solicited in advance, in writing. I’m sure they would have been interesting, and given the students a sense of participation.

So what would I have liked to hear about?

  • What does she like to read? Is there a book (or several) on her bedside table or in her suitcase during travel?
  • Growing up on a ranch, did she have animals? a favorite dog or horse?
  • What was her favorite course or teacher in high school? In College?
  • What does she wish someone had told her when she was 20 years old?
  • When did she decide to study law? What branch of law did she specialize in?
  • What “technology” does she use? Is there any technology she has decided against for her personal use?
  • Does she identify as a feminist? a role model?
  • What organizations did she join in college?

You get the idea… My son, who has worked in radio, sometimes slips into “interview mode” and elicits interesting information that others of us have missed. One year at Thanksgiving, he asked Grandaddy (my husband’s father) what Thanksgiving had been like when he was young. That triggered reminiscences that kept us entertained for an hour! He told us how to catch an alligator in a North Carolina swamp…

I checked out Sandra Day O’Connor on Facebook. She does not have a personal page, but Facebook posts information from Wikipedia. Interestingly, O’Connor is listed as “politician”, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is listed as “author” and Sonia Sotomayor as “public figure”.  Hmm…

The College is fortunate to have an endowment directed towards bringing distinguished speakers to campus. Who will be next?!

Vermeer in Philadelphia

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon enjoying Philadelphia with my son. We walked from Center City along the Schuylkill River to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Museum manages to be more than “just” a museum. It has character. It floats majestically over the City, a modern Parthenon. The iconic Museum steps are an amazing public space. Of course, some people can’t resist running up them, a la Rocky. But many more stroll, sit, visit, consult maps, converge and disperse. 

We hadn’t any plan. It was too close to closing time to venture into the big featured exhibit, “Treasures from Korea”. We visited a few favorite galleries, then I realized that a Vermeer was on display. Having read I was Vermeer: the Forger Who Swindled the Nazis (by Frank Wynne) a few years ago, I was thrilled. We found our way to the painting, hanging on a wall like any other canvas. (I expected it to be more “featured”.) It’s a tiny work entitled “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal”. The virginal is a keyboard instrument. The woman is playing, but she looks straight at the artist, very composed. The light and color are lovely. It is said to be the only Vermeer privately held. The owner is identified as the Leiden Collection.

There aren’t many Vermeer paintings in existence, and their number is uncertain, because of attribution issues and forgery. Wynne’s book recounted the exploits of Han van Meegeren, an artist and art dealer who took up forgery because he felt his work was not appreciated. He was an accomplished artist and premiere forger. I recommend Wynne’s book highly. 

I guess this means I’m a fan of the Dutch Golden Age. The Philadelphia Museum owns 300 paintings in that category – enough to keep me entertained for many for visits!

Guilty pleasures – “A Song of Ice and Fire” aka “Game of Thrones” #2

As I indicated when I wrote about the first two books in this series (July 14, 2013), I had to pace myself or be overwhelmed by the vivid world created by George RR Martin. So here I am, eight months later, at the end of the fifth (and for now final) book. 

SPOILER ALERT: If you are watching this on TV, better not read further.

There are so many plots and characters in this series that I wonder what the author is thinking. Does he want the TV version to turn into a soap opera, like “All My Children” or “As the World Turns” and run on for twenty seasons? He could do it.

Stephen King, whose memoir I reviewed in December, said that he once got so tangled in multiple characters and subplots that he couldn’t write his way out. Finally, he “staged” a terrorist bombing and eliminated many characters, then was able to finish the book. I believe it was The Stand.

I keep waiting for Martin to arrange a “terrorist bombing” or other plot simplification device, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, people come back from the dead… The level of complication continues to rise.

Sometimes I feel like I’m reading junk, but then Martin presents something so compelling I decide to keep reading. An example is when Jon Snow brings the Wildlings through the Wall. What kind of wall are we talking about, anyway? When was the Great Wall of China built, and for how long did it serve its purpose?

For now, its back to my usual diet of two thirds non-fiction and one third fiction. It’s fun to look ahead to more Game of Thrones.

Introducing… my partners!

One thing I didn’t anticipate when I started blogging was how I would use reference materials. After all, I only meant to record my reactions to books, and this isn’t being graded, so why do I find myself using “reference materials”? I guess its because my standards are a little higher in a blog that can be accessed by anyone who cares to visit, than they were when I was scribbling in a notebook.

My “partners” are two websites, Amazon.com and Wikipedia. I use Amazon to confirm authors names and find out what else they have written. Often I want to know the date of publication of a book, or which came first in a sequence. I use Wikipedia for further information about authors, and for other “fact checking”, especially on historical events. (I can get American President’s out of order, so imagine how confused I feel when pondering the Wars of the Roses!)

If information had been this readily available when I was a kid (and being forced to write book reports), maybe I would have enjoyed writing more. I know, my two sources are “casual” and serious investigation should go deeper, but it’s so nice to have my quick questions answered. Thanks, partners!

One unexpected outcome of my visits to Amazon is that I’ve started to submit reviews to them. Three, so far. In one case, I was shocked to find out that I book I very much enjoyed (Cities are Good for You by Hollis, blog posts dated August 9 and 26, 2013) had only one posted review! So I combined my blog entries and posted. Amazon has such good manners! They thanked me politely and didn’t rebuke me for being lengthy.

In terms of being read, reviews on Amazon are likely seen by many more people than my blog posts, but I don’t expect to become a “regular” with them.

Now I’m headed to Amazon.com to find out about the books of Oliver Sachs. I think I’ve read three or four, and don’t know how many he wrote.

From 1971 to 2011 – two books by Frances Moore Lappe

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappe published Diet for a Small Planet, and a significant number of my contemporaries became vegetarians. Not me, but I picked up a few still-favorite recipes from the book. In 2011, she released EcoMind – Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want. She wrote 16 books in the interim. Her books have been translated into 15 languages. She founded at least three organizations and received more than a dozen honorary doctoral degrees.

Lappe’s message can be summarized as follows: there is no shortage of food (current or immediately pending) and no environmental crisis. We can solve the world’s seemingly pressing problems by redistribution and better utilization. We just need to think “differently” and approach issues from a viewpoint of abundance and possibility.

I didn’t read either of these books completely. (Who “reads” a cookbook?) I was supposed to read EcoMind before attending a workshop with Lappe a few weeks ago, but I only got through a few chapters. 

When someone advocates “thinking like an ecosystem”, all kinds of red lights flash in my brain. AN ECOSYSTEM DOES NOT THINK. It exists because it works. Not to help the species or organisms within it or outside of it. If it works, it persists. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a person who trying to find a reason why ticks (the nasty little blood sucking kind) exist. Having just plucked one from my son’s neck, I was not in the mood for philosophy. “TIcks exist to make more ticks. THAT’S ALL.”

In her workshop, Ms Lappe was not using the “think like an ecosystem” approach. I hope that’s because she recognized its limitations.

Ms Lappe’s book are subjected to extensive fact checking, so I (largely) accept her assertions. But, if she is right, why has she had relatively little impact (that I can see)? One reason is that the framework has shifted. She may be right about food resources, but what does she offer to current discussions of climate change?

Ms Lappe’s most recent book EcoMind reminded me of another author I encountered several decades ago, the feminist Sonia Johnson. Her first book, From Housewife to Heretic (1981) was highly concrete. In 1987 she wrote Going Out of Our Minds: The Metaphysics of Liberation in which it seemed to me she argued that if we changed the way we think about ourselves, our (feminist) problems would be resolved.

Yes, we should, at times, examine our assumptions. But “just” changing our attitudes isn’t enough.

I will probably read further in EcoMind, but for now I won’t be recommending it to my friends.

“My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead

Back in October I enjoyed Middlemarch by George Eliot. Rebecca Mead’s recently published book-about-the-book was a delight. Mead read Middlemarch as a youngster and returned to it at various stages in her life, eventually visiting many locations important in the life of the author George Eliot.

Aside from knowing that “George Eliot” was a pseudonym for a female author, I was ignorant about the interesting life of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot. Mead brought her to life for me. She was intelligent and highly unconventional in a time and place when women’s roles were extremely constrained. She lived with a man who never divorced his estranged wife, and financially supported that woman’s children by another man.

One aspect of Eliot life that was shared by Mead was being a stepmother. Both women “acquired” sons by marriage whom they dearly loved.

Eliot’s appearance is often commented upon. Some found her homely, but it’s clear that many were so charmed by her that they found her beautiful. Mead’s comments make it clear that intelligence and vivacity made up for much in Eliot’s case.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes English novels or is especially interested in women’s writing.