Shop where the popes do

Categories: Rome | Travel










Now that you can pretty much find anything anywhere, it's not so easy to find a unique gift to bring home from your travels. If you're going to Rome, however, you're in luck. Located just behind the Pantheon is a tiny treasure of a shop: Ditta A. Gammarelli's. The Gammarelli's, tailors since 1790,  have outfitted popes, bishop, and cardinals since the 1850s.

Assuming that you don't need the full papal garb, I recommend their beautifully made socks--my favorite are the red cardinals socks, though the purple bishop socks are nice too. I once asked the salesman if it was sacrilegious to wear them, as I'm not  exactly a cardinal (although I am originally from St. Louis). He laughed and said that fortunately it was not, pointing out that his clientele is a little limited.

For those not planning to go to Rome anytime soon, check out:

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 19th 2010 | Add a comment

Kevin Wade recommends Against All Odds directed by Taylor Hackford

Categories: Arts & Letters | Movies

Now that Jeff Bridges has received official recognition for the wonderful actor he is, please check out playright and screenwriter Kevin Wade's recommendation for Against All Odds directed by Taylor Hackford.  .

 Against All Odds

Taylor Hackford, 1984
Screenplay: Eric Hughes

The Need to Escape not only drives the action of many movie stories, it can also drive us to the movies-whether it's to fool loneliness with a love story, trick boredom with a thriller, or duck the blues with a bright comedy. One of the best ways to take a two-hour vacation is with Against All Odds, director Taylor Hackford and writer Eric Hughes's loose remake of Out of the Past, a 1947 RKO film noir that starred Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas.

The story, now featuring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and James Woods, serves up some of the genre's standard characters-the weak-willed Handsome Man, the reptilian Nightclub Owner, the sultry Femme Fatale-in a story of corruption, murder, and betrayal interwoven with a couple of decent twists and a satisfying ending. But the plot is not why we're here.

Against All Odds may be the most sun-drenched film noir ever made. From its opening shots in Mexico, over the wonderfully languid guitar score of Michel Colombier and Larry Carlton, the screen shimmers in the heat like an airport tarmac in the tropics. The story moves from Los Angeles (featuring a Sunset Boulevard game of chicken between a Porsche and a Ferrari that's among the best car chase sequences ever filmed) to various locations in Mexico (including two weeks of sex, sand, and tequila in the beachfront shack of your dreams) and back to L.A. in a haze of brutal sun and turquoise waters with barely a breath of breeze.

The lust between Bridges and Ward is convincing, adding to the general humidity. The supporting performances are uniformly good, especially Saul Rubinek's sweaty turn as a duplicitous sports agent and Swoosie Kurtz as his pining assistant. And, in a nice tip of the hat to the original film, Jane Greer returns as the picture's viperish Mrs. Big.   

In films of this kind, the characters are usually in dire need of money, guns, or a second chance. In Against All Odds, everyone also needs a cold beer. And watching it, even on a long winter's night, so will you.

Kevin Wade
Author of the plays Key Exchange, Mr. & Mrs., and Cruise Control and the screenplays for Working Girl, True Colors, Junior, and Maid in Manhattan. He also co-wrote the screenplays for Mr. Baseball and Meet Joe Black.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 18th 2010 | Add a comment

Noah Baumbach recommends La collectionneuse by Eric Rohmer

Categories: Arts & Letters | Movies

Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding) says of this movie, "And for all its sadness, I wish I could climb inside it and live there."

La collectionneuse

1967, Eric Rohmer

Patrick Bachau, who plays Adrian, looks so great in this movie: tall, lanky, long-haired, wearing an unbuttoned shirt, black pants, black boots. Adrian takes a vacation on the Riviera with his friend Daniel and he wants to do absolutely nothing-even thinking is too much. To his dismay, a stunning woman named Haydée joins them. Adrien worries she'll be a distraction-but a distraction he also craves. Bikini-clad Haydée is amazing-and director Eric Rohmer gives us tantalizing close-ups of her crotch, breasts, neck, and back.

In La collectionneuse, Rohmer reveals the discrepancy between who we are and what we want to be. We're left with a sense of longing and missed opportunities, reminding us of our maddening inability to change course.

I think about this movie often. And for all its sadness, I wish I could climb inside it and live there.

Noah Baumbach

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 12th 2010 | Add a comment

Jane Smiley recommends Little America by Henry Bromell

Categories: Arts & Letters | Books

Henry Bromell's 2001 novel, Little America, should have been a best seller -- so thinks Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley -- and provided answers to some of our big questions (like, for instance, "Why do they hate us?").








Little America 

By Henry Bromell

After the World Trade Center attacks, when George W. Bush asked (rhetorically, mind you, not really caring), HneyI thought I knew, having just read a novel by my friend Henry Bromell called Little America.

Published in the spring of 2001, it concerns the attempts of an historian, Terry Hooper, to decipher the events of a particular year-1958-in a particular Middle East nationette-Kurash (imagined by Bromell as a hypothetical representation of other nations in the region). It is the late '90s, and Terry, now fifty, is perturbed in his conscience about what he suspects his father, Mack Hooper, has done, and, in a larger sense, what he suspects his country has done. Bromell weaves together Terry's investigation and the events he discovers in an extremely graceful but suspenseful narrative. I wasn't the only reader impressed by the package-Joan Didion called it "the best and smartest novel I've read in a long time."

The gist of Terry's story is betrayal. In 1958, Mack Hooper is sent out by Allan and John Foster Dulles to control and manipulate the new young king of Kurash, the grandson of the king originally imposed upon the Kurashians by the British, and propped up there for several decades. The British are now on their way out, and the Americans plan to take over, using the king and his country to foil the designs of the Soviets and the Egyptians (Nasser and his pan-Arab League present the principal danger to American designs). Bromell is explicit in his portrayal of American fears. In the late fifties, the Soviets are riding a tide of success, and seem to be expanding their influence all over the world. The Americans fear they are in a losing battle with the ideology of Communism, and are willing to do just about anything to stem that tide.

The young king's fatal flaw, from the point of view of geopolitics, is that he isn't important enough to stand in the way of the Dulles brothers' schemes. Toward the end of the novel, Bromell shows that, when they finally do discuss him, the Dulleses spend only ten minutes on him before moving on to more important matters. But what Bromell does, and what the novel itself is designed to do, is to show that to the Kurashians, to the king himself, to ten-year-old Terry, and to the CIA operatives in the Kurash office, what goes on in Kurash is all important, important enough to shape many lives and much Middle Eastern history. Because the Dulles boys think the way they do, and because the Kurashians think the way they do, profound resentments are inevitable and important. The answer to the question "Why do they hate us?" in my reading of Little America was a nuanced and tragic one. I of course thought Bromell's book should be, could be, and would be a best seller. Silly me.

There were signs that the book was being taken seriously in certain places. Bromell heard through the grapevine that Richard Helms was reading it. A friend of mine with lots of former-spy friends called one of them and said, "I've just been reading about your life." She sent the book to her friend, who subsequently ordered fifty copies. But that was that. Just when the book should have hit the best-seller list and provided answers to some of our big questions, it died.

I've been thinking about Little America for almost eight years, so I went back and reread it. I was not disappointed. Bromell uses the resources of the Novel (character, plot, narrative technique, dialogue) in a beautifully sophisticated way to both inform the reader and move her. But Little America is more than a novel. Bromell's childhood was spent not in Kurash but in Iran. I know this because he told me long ago, when we were friends in our twenties. His sense of what we as a nation did there, and how we screwed up there, is informed and evenhanded. He has a strong empathy with every character and a terrific take on the interlocking relationships they have that cross all sorts of lines and boundaries. Americans are frequently guilty, one generation after another, of not knowing how current events got to be what they are. Were it not so obscure, Little America could correct that flaw with regard to the Middle East.

Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including A Thousand Acres, Horse Heaven, and Ten Days in the Hills, as well as several works of nonfiction, most notably Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, an anatomy and history of the novel as a form. She lives in California.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 8th 2010 | Add a comment

Gregory Mosher recommends Fat City directed by John Huston

Categories: Arts & Letters | Movies

I have known and admired Gregory Mosher for 25 years.  Currently directing on Broadway, A View from the Bridge with Liev Schreiber and Scarlet Johansen, he is a Tony award winning director and producer of nearly 200 stage productions at the Lincoln Center and Goodman Theatres, on Broadway, at the Royal National Theatre, and in the West End.  He is director of the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. When he makes a suggestion, I listen.

Fat City
John Huston

John Huston had already made some pretty good films (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen) by the time he got to Fat City, his ballad of down-and-outers set in Stockton, California. In collusion with writer Leonard Gardner, designer Richard Sylbert (who clearly studied his Hopper paintings), and the great cinematographer Conrad Hall, Huston creates an extraordinarily moving film without much use for the director's usual best friend: a plot.

Redolent of Steinbeck's novels or The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan's barroom classic, Fat City reeks of the physical and spiritual exhaustion of its characters. Hall's remarkable juxtapositions of California's glare and its darkest bars are a constant treat.

Huston's impending old age and illness hang over the film, but never intrude. As you'd expect from him, compassion for his characters never spills over into sentiment, and the film sneaks right up on you. See it in a theater if you can, if only for Hall's extraordinary nighttime work. Otherwise, grab a drink, turn out the lights, and surrender.

Gregory Mosher

Director, Columbia University Arts Initiative, theater director and producer

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on January 3rd 2010 | Add a comment

Patty Marx recommends The Big Love

Categories: Arts & Letters | Books
Patricia Marx is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a former writer for Saturday Night Live, and a party planner for the C.I.A. Her most recent novel, Him Her Him Again the End of Him, was a Thurber Prize finalist. Her most recent children's book, Dot in Larryland, is the 2009 winner of the Friedrich Medal (an award made up by Marx and named for her air-conditioner). She lives in New York City, and, as far as she knows, has never killed anyone. She once traded a puppy for a book.










The Big Love
Mrs. Florence Aadland as told to Tedd Thomey

"There's one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn." How can you resist a story that begins like that, especially when I tell you that this ludicrously odd, icky, riveting, sweet, hideous, and unintentionally comic account of the amour between the boozy swashbuckler (who'd already been charged with statutory rape of minors) and Beverly Aadland, the so-called baby, is narrated by her mother, an unreliable raconteur if there ever was one? Mrs. Florence Aadland, as she calls herself on the book jacket, proudly tells us that her ingénue daughter, who'd started modeling at six months and taking singing and dancing lessons at age two, was noticed by forty-eight year-old Flynn on the Universal Lot when she was fifteen, and that they did it soon after, because their love was "preordained." As it happened, "He overwhelmed her. He tore her dress, the black one with the bolero ruffles in the back, and he was so eager she cried and she fought him." How does Mrs. Aadland know so much? "When the time came she told me everything she did with Errol Flynn. . . . Everything. And in detail, because she and I love details and get a kick out of sharing things like that." The public did not find out about the liaison, however, until Flynn died of a heart attack shortly after Beverly turned seventeen, and Mrs. Aadland was convicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and denied custody of her daughter. In retrospect, would she have been so supportive of her Beverly's carrying on with this middle-aged reprobate? "Of course I would. And I mean it from my heart. I would let Beverly have those two wonderful years again--even if I knew in advance what the ending would be!" Indeed, in one of the last scenes of the book, mother and daughter, visiting the grave of Errol Flynn, decide that, though his tombstone was graced with more flowers than any other in the cemetery, this extraordinary man deserved more still. And so they steal a larkspur from one dead person, a daisy from another, and a lily from another. What is it that separates this too-candid tale from trash? Is it Mrs. Florence Aadland's voice-somewhere between Anita Loos and Nathanael West? Or is it because the book is out of print and copies are fairly uncommon? Or is it, in fact, trash?

Patty Marx

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on December 20th 2009 | Add a comment

Henry Griffin recommends Always for Pleasure by Les Blank

Categories: Arts & Letters | Movies
This is a piece Henry Griffin wrote for City Secrets Movies. It’s a fascinating documentary of New Orleans festivities in 1977.

 Always for Pleasure
1978, Les Blank

Every city needs its cinematic love letters. New York, Paris and Rome, for example, have them in spades. No curveball there, the cities have all spawned generations of great filmmakers. I can't say as much about my hometown, New Orleans. Most of the best films shot there (and all of the worst) were made by tourists-and Yankees at that. One theory holds that you really have to have your ducks in a row to get a movie made, and most people in New Orleans are too busy dancing and drinking in the street. That's certainly the impression you'd get from watching documentarian Les Blank's Always for Pleasure, my favorite New Orleans movie. Blank may live in Northern California, but he's as New Orleans as an outsider can get. I'll put it to you this way: more than half of his movies are about music and food. This one takes us through the city's major festivities of 1977, a glorious season of Afros and knee-high tube socks. Dancers buckjump on the hoods of cars as nearby cops suck their lollipops; clown faced carnival revelers drink beer straight from the pitcher; a local chef upends a gallon jug of hot sauce into his crawfish boil. We witness a jazz funeral, Mardi Gras Indian practice, St. Patrick's and St. Joseph's Days' observances, and the stewing of a pot of red beans, all of which seem to inspire a street parade. In between, locals explain their traditions, employing as much street jive as they mean to translate. My favorite moment is this unnamed black woman's interpretation of Mardi Gras: "If you wants to be white today, you can be white today. Superman, Batman, Robin Hood . . . you can be anything you want to be today. But, now, tomorrow? You got to be a nigger tomorrow, 'cause that's what you is." With the exception of one word, that applies to just about everyone in town. It's a hard film to categorize. Not a full feature, not narrated, not a biography or a history. It doesn't even try that hard to tie all its elements together. Taken as a whole, it comes off like a recipe (one of Blank's favorite subjects): Play dress up. Dance whenever you get the chance. Eat well. Enjoy yourself before you're in the ground. Make sure to have a good band at your funeral. Then chill. Serves everybody.

Henry Griffin

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on December 15th 2009 | Add a comment

James Bone recommends Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

Categories: Arts & Letters | Books
As Books came together, it became clear early on that war was on people's minds.

These are some of the titles in the book on the topic of war: Closely Watched Trains, by Bohumil Hrabal; Doing Battle, by Paul Fussel; The Inhuman Land, by Jozef Czapski; The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz; One Woman in the War, by Alaine Polcz; and The White Rose, by Inge Scholl.

James Bone, New York correspondent for the Times (London) and former war correspondent, recommended Kapputt, by  Curzio Malaparte.  









Kaputt: A Novel
Curzio Malaparte

Ever since I first read Kaputt, I have been tormented by Curzio Malaparte's description of meeting Ante Pavelic, the Croatian fascist leader in World War II. The Italian war reporter noticed a wicker basket on Pavelic's desk that seemed to be filled with shelled oysters "as they are occasionally displayed in the windows of Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly in London." He politely inquired if the oysters came from the Dalmatian coast. "It's a present from my loyal ustashis," Pavelic replied. "Forty pounds of human eyes."

Malaparte (whose nom de plume was a play on "Bonaparte") was, as we might say today, "embedded" with the Nazis. As a correspondent for Italy's Corriere della Sera, he was able to tour the Eastern Front behind Axis lines. From this vantage, he recounts the casual, even flippant, brutality of the German war machine. The book is filled with the horrifying, indeed surreal, images of the war: half-buried bodies with their outstretched arms serving as signposts; German soldiers laughing at their starving Russian prisoners feasting on fellow inmates in order to survive; Jews strung up on trees next to their dogs (their "Jewish dogs").

Published in Naples in 1944, Kaputt was a sensation at the end of World War II. I own a ragged English-language paperback from that time that boasts "over a million copies sold." But the book was carefully subtitled "A Novel," making it a profoundly troublesome work. Malaparte, as we know from his newspaper reports, actually did meet Pavelic. But the anecdote about the eyeballs (still a staple of Serb propaganda) is likely hyperbole. Other key episodes of the book were also invented. He never did, apparently, tour the Warsaw Ghetto in his Italian officer's uniform and console the suffering Jews by telling them in French that "un jour vous serez libres, vous serez heureux et libres" (one day, you will be free, you will be happy and free). You have to wonder about the sort of person who would make that up.

The book, assembled from a smuggled manuscript, is an irreplaceable artifact of World War II. Not only was Malaparte an eyewitness to a morbid culture, he was also a product of it-a mercurial personality with a talent for reinventing himself. An early Italian fascist-later expelled from the party and banished by Mussolini to the island of Lipari-he was a Communist at the end of his life (and is perhaps best remembered today for Casa Malaparte, the house he built on Capri that was featured in Godard's Contempt). There are questions about whether he rewrote parts of Kaputt when it became clear that the Allies would win the war.

For a journalist, the fascination of the book lies in how the blending of fact and fiction yields such a powerful and enduring result. (In this, he is a precursor of that other great war reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski.) For, despite being an unreliable and self-aggrandizing narrator, he captured the perverse imagination and aesthetics of that broken world. In one of his central insights, he writes of the Germans: "Their cruelty is made of fear; they are ill with fear."

James Bone

James Bone, the longtime New York correspondent for the Times (London), is a former war reporter who has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iran, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, and Panama, as well as the 9/11 attack on New York. His great-grandfather was Britain's first official war artist.

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on December 8th 2009 | 2 comments

David Ansen recommends Funny Bones by Peter Chelsom

Categories: Arts & Letters | Movies
I was so happy when movie critic David Ansen recommended one of my favorite films, Funny Bones. I talk about it all the time, and so few people seem to have seen or heard of it.

Funny Bones
Peter Chelsom,1995

You've never seen anything quite like this astonishing, completely unpredictable comedy about comedy. Its hero is a failed Vegas stand-up (Oliver Platt) living in the shadow of his famous funnyman father (Jerry Lewis). To learn the tricks of the trade, Platt goes back to his birthplace in Blackpool, where he discovers a brilliant but unbalanced physical clown (Lee Evans) and some dark secrets from the past. This synopsis makes director Peter Chelsom's 1995 movie sound straightforward, yet it is anything but--it veers from piracy at sea to Leslie Caron in a Cleopatra costume to some of the wildest vaudeville acts you'll ever see. Evans is a sight to behold: he does with his body what Robin Williams does with his brain. Funny Bones is a high-wire act from start to finish, and quite unclassifiable: its U.S. distributor, Disney, hadn't a clue what do with it. But if ever a movie deserved a cult following, this one does.

David Ansen
Movie critic

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on December 1st 2009

Answer a simple question to help First Book give away 500 books to children who don't have any.

Categories: Arts & Letters

Please go to the Books for Books Contest page and help us give 500 books to children from low-income families. First Book has distributed 63 million books so far. Let's make it 63,000,500 by Tuesday's deadline. Thanks!

POSTED BY Robert Kahn on November 29th 2009 | Add a comment