Monthly Archives: January 2017

Fact Or Fiction? Even When It Comes To Food, It’s Hard To Tell With Rasputin


Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

He was Russia’s Mad Monk. A pale, bearded, wiry, horny, green-eyed debauch who was the preeminent power broker of the Romanov dynasty in its waning years. A party fiend, a drinker, a healer and a prophet who was poisoned, shot, drowned, and burned by his enemies.

But was he really?

The answer is, we will never know. The life of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant who, through a charismatic combination of spiritual and sexual power, rose to become chief mentor to Alexandra, the last czarina of Russia, is such a thick borscht of fact and fiction that it’s hard to distinguish the truth from the lies.

But historian Douglas Smith, in his magnificently researched new book, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs, attempts to do precisely that. It’s a herculean task, for as we soon learn, even when it comes to something as seemingly uncontroversial as food, there are competing versions of the truth.

Did Rasputin have a sweet tooth? Was he a glutton who feasted on champagne, ice-cream, expensive fish, and caviar? Did he really lick his fingers at the dinner table and hold them out for the grand dames of Saint Petersburg’s salons to kiss?

As Rasputin’s notoriety spread and his hold over the lonely and impressionable empress tightened – she fervently believed he could soothe and protect her hemophilic son and heir to the throne, Alexis – whispers about him being a wicked, orgiastic cultist began to grow, as did his list of enemies. It was put about that the rube who once slurped on cabbage soup and raw garlic now glutted himself on the finest fruit, fish, caviar and champagne. It turns out that while Rasputin’s love of fresh fruit – oranges, strawberries – was real enough, the rest of the menu was made up.

Rasputin

Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

by Douglas Smith

Hardcover, 817 pages |

purchase

“He did not eat too much or rich, heavy foods,” says Smith. “He kept a simple table. It may have at times been loaded with fancy foods and drink, but these were gifts from admirers and petitioners trying to curry favor. He liked ukha —fish soup — and dark bread, radishes, onions and other plain vegetables. He drank tea, like nearly every Russian. Also, note that Rasputin never became fat or really even portly. His body remained trim his whole life.”

His table manners, it is true, were alarming. His beard was flecked with food, he licked the spoon before using it to serve others, tore the bread and fish apart with his fingers and wiped them on the table cloth. Some were revolted by his crudeness, others saw it as part of his charm, and it’s quite possible that he exaggerated his gaucherie to set himself apart from the effete and mannered aristocracy. He cast such a spell on his worshipful female followers that they were known to kiss his freshly licked fingers, and vie for the leftover crusts of bread on his plate.

It was Rasputin’s rootedness, however, that made him sensitive to the hunger pangs of ordinary Russians. He immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg – the food transportation system had broken down as a result of the First World War – were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution.

Rasputin driving his carriage. Of peasant stock himself, this close adviser to the czarina immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution. His warnings went unheeded.

Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Genuinely stricken to learn that corn was rotting in the imperial warehouses while the people starved, he sent telegrams to Czar Nicholas II, who was away fighting the Germans on the front line, begging him to increase food supplies. But Nicholas – despite Rasputin’s missives, the labor strikes, the 300 percent inflation, and simmering anger in Moscow and Petrograd (the city ‘s new name that replaced the German-sounding Saint Petersburg) – did nothing.

Rasputin tried to get Alexandra to distribute food in the streets to show that she felt the people’s pain, and though she seemed agreeable, it never happened. He even wrote to senior government officials appealing for action – short, unpunctuated notes that testify to the sincerity of his pleas:

kind dear apologies forgive me much meat is needed, let Piter [Petrograd] eat, listen help rosputin

kind dear apologies allow oats taken, much woe in zlaenburg province, lots of oats, Petrograd cart drivers are worried, that’s not good, Siberia is full of lard please feel Petrograd and Moscow

“His notes were often scribbled and hard to decipher. His grammar and spelling were atrocious. His meaning was often hard to make out,” says Smith. “But yes, Rasputin was very serious about the food problems in Petrograd. The czar did not heed his advice, regrettably.”

Rasputin proved fatally prophetic. The February 1917 Russian Revolution was ignited by food riots, when hungry marchers stormed the legendary Filipov Bakery, whose delectable black breads, piroshky, kopeck buns, and chocolate cakes were daily delivered to the czar’s palace. The Cossacks, called out to quell the riot, refused to open fire. A petulant Alexandra, sounding like Marie Antoinette, relayed it all in a letter to her husband: “They smashed Filipov’s bakery completely. … A hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite…”

By then, Rasputin, whom Alexandra lovingly called “our dear Friend,” had been dead for two months — murdered in the early hours of Dec. 30, 1916 (Dec. 17, according to the Russian calendar then in use).

Which brings us to his sweet tooth.

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Several biographies state that Rasputin was exceedingly fond of sugar – with one even citing his black teeth as proof. But his daughter Maria flatly states that her father disliked sweets. A trivial point of discrepancy — except that it has a bearing on how he died. The standard version is that Rasputin’s murderers, a group of monarchists led by Prince Yusupov, knowing of his supposed weakness for sweets, laced cakes and wine with cyanide and served them to him, and, when he miraculously survived the poison, shot him dead.

So whom do we believe? Smith is unequivocal. “I believe his daughter,” he says. “The stories that he loved sweets come from less-than-reliable sources. Black teeth? Hard to say. I’ve never seen a single photograph of him with his mouth open. The love of sweets belongs, I would say, to the realm of myth.”

And while it’s true that the 48-year-old Rasputin was lured to a cellar and served cake and wine on his last night (perhaps Yusupov & Co. bought into the sweet-tooth myth as well) while Yankee Doodle played on the gramophone, neither contained any poison. The autopsy report said as much.

“As I write in the book, either no poison (real or fake) was used, or it was substituted for something else — maybe ground-up aspirin,” says Smith. “The entire description of the murder, which comes to us from the memoirs of Prince Yusupov, is highly unreliable, if entertaining.”

Rasputin’s excessive fondness for Madeira is undisputed. “Go on, drink, God will forgive you,” he would urge his dinner companions. “I love wine,” he declared in 1916, by which time he had become a functioning alcoholic.

His daughter Maria, while admitting that her father’s drinking was out of control, said he was far from a typical booze-hard. “She noticed,” writes Smith, “how he never spoke so beautifully about God as when he was drunk.”

Nor dance so well. After a few glasses, Rasputin was known to leap to his feet in his tall, patent leather boots and dance with ecstatic abandon to the music of three minstrel gypsies who accompanied him to his evening parties.

What comes as a surprise then, is to learn that the Madeira Monk supported the temperance movement, speaking out against the scourge of vodka and endorsing the Sobriety Society in his village. Smith spotlights this paradoxical nugget:

“I would not say I’m the first to write about this, but no previous biographer has explored it in such depth,” he says. “It is a definite puzzle, given his own troubles with the bottle in his latter years. I’m still not fully certain how much of the press coverage about his support for the temperance movement was genuine or ‘fake news.’ It’s difficult to say for certain.”

Smith’s comprehensive biography portrays an intriguingly multifaceted figure who enjoyed power and had a seductive vitality, but who was also an earthy and compassionate family man. It’s a far cry from the demonic Rasputin of the irresistibly catchy 1978 Boney-M song, with its fantastical claim that Ra-Ra Rasputin was a “lover of the Russian queen” and “Russia’s greatest love machine.” The former is salacious gossip. The latter is hard to prove, but in the succinct words of another historian, Robert K. Massie, “He would send out for prostitutes late at night as people might send out for pizza.”

Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

‘Breaking News’ Artists Use Mass Media As Their Medium


An exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles features some 200 works of news-inspired art, dating back to the 1960s. Above, The Air Power of the World from Masao Mochizuki’s 1976 “Television” series.

Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris


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Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris

An exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles features some 200 works of news-inspired art, dating back to the 1960s. Above, The Air Power of the World from Masao Mochizuki’s 1976 “Television” series.

Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris

Breaking news is everywhere, 24 hours a day. And now, it’s made its way into an art gallery as well — in an exhibit called “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media.” In Los Angeles, a Getty Museum show examines artists’ reactions to mass media in decades past.

The exhibit includes more than 200 photos and videos, from 17 different artists. They’re not photojournalists — these artists take the work of photojournalists, and turn it into something else.

They appropriate images of terrorism, war, natural disasters. For two of the artists, the Vietnam War is a major theme; They lifted deeply disturbing images from magazines, newspapers, TV screens, and collaged or manipulated them to reflect their horror at the war. (Caution: As you scroll down further, you’ll come to some of those disturbing images.)

Balloons is a part of Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series.

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY


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The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Balloons is a part of Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series.

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Martha Rosler clipped a Life magazine color photograph of a handsome 1960s living room, and on top of it, pasted a shot of a devastated, Vietnamese man carrying his blood-spattered child. The sobering juxtaposition brings the war into the American living room.

“Often these images from Vietnam were appearing in the exact same issues as these interior scenes,” explains Arpad Kovacs, who curated the show.

A reader could easily flip through the magazine and miss one or the other. But the artist intervenes. “What it does is it makes America confront two different realities. …” says Kovacs. “It’s very political, it’s very aggressive. But it’s meant to be. You know, a lot of these pictures initially circulated in underground magazines. These are pictures that are not on the fence. They really stake a claim and stand for something.”

Rosler was a student of John Baldessari — the 85-year-old artist is an iconic figure in the Los Angeles art world, with works in major American museums. He, too, manipulates photographs, adding text, and lettering. He once had students in his Conceptual Art class react to undated, uncaptioned news photos he pinned to a bulletin board. In one news picture, a uniformed man kneels, bending his face to the ground. He could be kissing the ground, or smelling the grass.

“You don’t know,” Baldessari says. Which is exactly the artist’s point — he wanted his students to ponder what was going on in the photo.

Meaning is slippery, Baldessari says.

Donald R. Blumberg’s Untitled work from his series “Daily Photographs, 1969-1970.”

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


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The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Donald R. Blumberg’s Untitled work from his series “Daily Photographs, 1969-1970.”

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

There’s clear meaning, though, in the newspaper photographs Donald Blumberg uses in his art. During the Vietnam years, he had a photo show at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Police occupied the campus during an anti-war student protest. A flying wedge of cops ran by, chasing the students.

“They were trapped in the stairwell of the campus and beaten with clubs,” Blumberg says. And for him, that was the last straw “in thinking I was going to be a decorative, fine art photographer, doing beautiful photographs for people to look at.”

He started clipping news photographs that captured the disaster in Vietnam. He enlarged, and then photographed page one of the New York Daily News — a photo of the massacre in the town of My Lai, with the headline, “GI Shot Child, Walked Away.” Another headline reads “Grenade Is Cut From Prisoner’s Face,” with the X-ray of that face, and the lieutenant who dug out the live grenade with his pocket knife. Around each story, Blumberg shows a thick dark black frame — the black is in memoriam, like the black ribbon worn after a death in the family.

“I like to be as political as I can,” Blumberg says. “One of the ways of being political is through my photography.”

Every day we are bombarded by photographs — more images than we can possibly absorb. For Donald Blumberg and other photographers in this exhibition the magic of still photography is that it stops time. It gives viewers the chance to really look and think about what’s happening in our world.

“I think good art is always about something difficult. Art is more than a pretty picture,” Kovacs says. “Good art is about sort of challenging the status quo and making a statement.”

Through their photographs, these artists are bearing witness for future generations — those who weren’t there when the news actually broke.

Attention Must Be Paid To What ‘The Salesman’ Is Selling


Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group


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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The first images on screen in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated Iranian drama, The Salesman, look like a spread in House Beautiful — a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite, all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier.

In the next shot, high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini), and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who’ve been rehearsing Death of a Salesman on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls, gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it’s a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment he can rent them. As it happens, it’s not entirely vacated. A woman’s cat and belongings are still there — a woman who neighbors tell them, had many male visitors.

Still, Emad and Rana are desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on. As do their lives. About a week later Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

It’s at this point that the film starts to become morally complicated, something you’ll be expecting if you’ve seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s other films — his Oscar-winning marital drama A Separation, say, or his missing-person conundrum About Elly, both of which put characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations, then settle back to watch what they do.

Farhadi, had been planning to attend the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26, but told the New York Times he changed his plans after President Trump signed an executive order banning visas for 90 days for anyone from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. The director explained in a statement that the “unjust conditions” of the executive order, even if he were to be granted an exception, would be “accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me.” He went on to articulate the hope that “the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”

That faith in the similarities that connect us is inherent in the way he constructed The Salesman, using everything from a construction-site accident to a classic of the American stage to illuminate fault lines in a marriage in Tehran.

The Salesman is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as that apartment was shattered at the film’s beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that — invasions of privacy in Emad’s classroom and his home, judgments about prostitution among actors and among neighbors.

And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it’s also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality. How the formal beats of tragedy in Death of a Salesman, contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing Death of a Salesman, to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury on stage at the man who rented them the apartment.

In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family; Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family — connections that tell you attention has been paid, and that there’s what you might call universal value to what Farhadi’s The Salesman is selling.

‘Perfect Little World’ Imagines Family Drama Inside A Utopian Compound


Utopian communities don’t fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult. Think of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia or Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, two recent novels that have imagined alternative communities and their inevitable crack-up.

How could it be otherwise in fiction? As the Talking Heads told us, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” A novel about heaven, about a successful utopia without sin or tension, would be pretty dull, indeed.

Fortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception.

Wilson broke out with his 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, about two married, avant-garde artists who deploy their children as props in their performance pieces. That novel was ingenious — a whirlwind of screwball comedy, art and sad realizations about the limitations of family.

Wilson is still thinking hard about the idea of family in Perfect Little World. This is in some ways a calmer, less quirky novel, but what Perfect Little World loses in eccentricity, it gains in emotional depth.

Wilson’s story focuses on Isabel “Izzy” Poole, a smart, self-contained, high school senior in Tennessee who falls in love with her depressed art teacher and becomes pregnant. Izzy’s mom is dead, her alcoholic dad is just barely scraping by, and her teacher-lover is too entangled with his own demons to be of any use. Izzy, who’s a quietly compelling character, has decided to keep her baby.

She comes to the attention of something called The Infinite Family Project. Cooked up by a child psychologist named Dr. Grind and funded by a billionaire who cherishes happy memories of being raised in a caring orphanage, the project aims to place 10 infants and their parents in a state-of-the-art commune for 10 years. The children will be raised by all the adults, and for a long stretch, they won’t know who their biological parents are.

The aim is to see if both adults and children are happier and healthier when the pressures of child rearing are widely distributed. Young as she is, Izzy knows this mega blended family is probably doomed, but single motherhood isn’t looking like a walk in the park either. Here’s her rationale for taking a chance on the project:

[Izzy] thought, for the millionth time, of her future as it lay before her without the aid of this project, working two jobs to make ends meet, her son in the cheapest day care she could find, so tired at the end of the day that her baby felt like an unbreakable curse, failing each and every day until the bottom fell out of the world.

Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled.

A year in, a research assistant to Dr. Grind declares: “The kids are going to be great; the parents are the unstable element.” That’s partly because the adults have trouble figuring out what they are to one another: “Brothers and sisters?” “Second cousins?”

One night, as Izzy and some of the other parents are sitting around drinking whiskey smashes, another mom suggests that they’re all “like the cast of Gilligan’s Island.” One of the fathers points out: “There was a lot of sexual tension on that show.” Uh huh. The snake has been let into this nursery-land Eden, which is soon rocked by illicit hook-ups, the likes of which Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann dared not even dream of.

Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged.

The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s “perfect little world” of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.

Attention Must Be Paid To What ‘The Salesman’ Is Selling


Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group


hide caption

toggle caption

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The first images on screen in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated Iranian drama, The Salesman, look like a spread in House Beautiful — a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite, all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier.

In the next shot, high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini), and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who’ve been rehearsing Death of a Salesman on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls, gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it’s a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment he can rent them. As it happens, it’s not entirely vacated. A woman’s cat and belongings are still there — a woman who neighbors tell them, had many male visitors.

Still, Emad and Rana are desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on. As do their lives. About a week later Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

It’s at this point that the film starts to become morally complicated, something you’ll be expecting if you’ve seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s other films — his Oscar-winning marital drama A Separation, say, or his missing-person conundrum About Elly, both of which put characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations, then settle back to watch what they do.

Farhadi, had been planning to attend the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26, but told the New York Times he changed his plans after President Trump signed an executive order banning visas for 90 days for anyone from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. The director explained in a statement that the “unjust conditions” of the executive order, even if he were to be granted an exception, would be “accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me.” He went on to articulate the hope that “the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”

That faith in the similarities that connect us is inherent in the way he constructed The Salesman, using everything from a construction-site accident to a classic of the American stage to illuminate fault lines in a marriage in Tehran.

The Salesman is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as that apartment was shattered at the film’s beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that — invasions of privacy in Emad’s classroom and his home, judgments about prostitution among actors and among neighbors.

And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it’s also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality. How the formal beats of tragedy in Death of a Salesman, contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing Death of a Salesman, to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury on stage at the man who rented them the apartment.

In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family; Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family — connections that tell you attention has been paid, and that there’s what you might call universal value to what Farhadi’s The Salesman is selling.

‘Perfect Little World’ Imagines Family Drama Inside A Utopian Compound


Utopian communities don’t fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult. Think of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia or Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, two recent novels that have imagined alternative communities and their inevitable crack-up.

How could it be otherwise in fiction? As the Talking Heads told us, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” A novel about heaven, about a successful utopia without sin or tension, would be pretty dull, indeed.

Fortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception.

Wilson broke out with his 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, about two married, avant-garde artists who deploy their children as props in their performance pieces. That novel was ingenious — a whirlwind of screwball comedy, art and sad realizations about the limitations of family.

Wilson is still thinking hard about the idea of family in Perfect Little World. This is in some ways a calmer, less quirky novel, but what Perfect Little World loses in eccentricity, it gains in emotional depth.

Wilson’s story focuses on Isabel “Izzy” Poole, a smart, self-contained, high school senior in Tennessee who falls in love with her depressed art teacher and becomes pregnant. Izzy’s mom is dead, her alcoholic dad is just barely scraping by, and her teacher-lover is too entangled with his own demons to be of any use. Izzy, who’s a quietly compelling character, has decided to keep her baby.

She comes to the attention of something called The Infinite Family Project. Cooked up by a child psychologist named Dr. Grind and funded by a billionaire who cherishes happy memories of being raised in a caring orphanage, the project aims to place 10 infants and their parents in a state-of-the-art commune for 10 years. The children will be raised by all the adults, and for a long stretch, they won’t know who their biological parents are.

The aim is to see if both adults and children are happier and healthier when the pressures of child rearing are widely distributed. Young as she is, Izzy knows this mega blended family is probably doomed, but single motherhood isn’t looking like a walk in the park either. Here’s her rationale for taking a chance on the project:

[Izzy] thought, for the millionth time, of her future as it lay before her without the aid of this project, working two jobs to make ends meet, her son in the cheapest day care she could find, so tired at the end of the day that her baby felt like an unbreakable curse, failing each and every day until the bottom fell out of the world.

Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled.

A year in, a research assistant to Dr. Grind declares: “The kids are going to be great; the parents are the unstable element.” That’s partly because the adults have trouble figuring out what they are to one another: “Brothers and sisters?” “Second cousins?”

One night, as Izzy and some of the other parents are sitting around drinking whiskey smashes, another mom suggests that they’re all “like the cast of Gilligan’s Island.” One of the fathers points out: “There was a lot of sexual tension on that show.” Uh huh. The snake has been let into this nursery-land Eden, which is soon rocked by illicit hook-ups, the likes of which Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann dared not even dream of.

Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged.

The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s “perfect little world” of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.

Attention Must Be Paid To What ‘The Salesman’ Is Selling


Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group


hide caption

toggle caption

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The first images on screen in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated Iranian drama, The Salesman, look like a spread in House Beautiful — a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite, all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier.

In the next shot, high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini), and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who’ve been rehearsing Death of a Salesman on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls, gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it’s a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment he can rent them. As it happens, it’s not entirely vacated. A woman’s cat and belongings are still there — a woman who neighbors tell them, had many male visitors.

Still, Emad and Rana are desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on. As do their lives. About a week later Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

It’s at this point that the film starts to become morally complicated, something you’ll be expecting if you’ve seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s other films — his Oscar-winning marital drama A Separation, say, or his missing-person conundrum About Elly, both of which put characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations, then settle back to watch what they do.

Farhadi, had been planning to attend the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26, but told the New York Times he changed his plans after President Trump signed an executive order banning visas for 90 days for anyone from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. The director explained in a statement that the “unjust conditions” of the executive order, even if he were to be granted an exception, would be “accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me.” He went on to articulate the hope that “the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”

That faith in the similarities that connect us is inherent in the way he constructed The Salesman, using everything from a construction-site accident to a classic of the American stage to illuminate fault lines in a marriage in Tehran.

The Salesman is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as that apartment was shattered at the film’s beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that — invasions of privacy in Emad’s classroom and his home, judgments about prostitution among actors and among neighbors.

And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it’s also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality. How the formal beats of tragedy in Death of a Salesman, contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing Death of a Salesman, to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury on stage at the man who rented them the apartment.

In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family; Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family — connections that tell you attention has been paid, and that there’s what you might call universal value to what Farhadi’s The Salesman is selling.

‘Perfect Little World’ Imagines Family Drama Inside A Utopian Compound


Utopian communities don’t fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult. Think of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia or Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, two recent novels that have imagined alternative communities and their inevitable crack-up.

How could it be otherwise in fiction? As the Talking Heads told us, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” A novel about heaven, about a successful utopia without sin or tension, would be pretty dull, indeed.

Fortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception.

Wilson broke out with his 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, about two married, avant-garde artists who deploy their children as props in their performance pieces. That novel was ingenious — a whirlwind of screwball comedy, art and sad realizations about the limitations of family.

Wilson is still thinking hard about the idea of family in Perfect Little World. This is in some ways a calmer, less quirky novel, but what Perfect Little World loses in eccentricity, it gains in emotional depth.

Wilson’s story focuses on Isabel “Izzy” Poole, a smart, self-contained, high school senior in Tennessee who falls in love with her depressed art teacher and becomes pregnant. Izzy’s mom is dead, her alcoholic dad is just barely scraping by, and her teacher-lover is too entangled with his own demons to be of any use. Izzy, who’s a quietly compelling character, has decided to keep her baby.

She comes to the attention of something called The Infinite Family Project. Cooked up by a child psychologist named Dr. Grind and funded by a billionaire who cherishes happy memories of being raised in a caring orphanage, the project aims to place 10 infants and their parents in a state-of-the-art commune for 10 years. The children will be raised by all the adults, and for a long stretch, they won’t know who their biological parents are.

The aim is to see if both adults and children are happier and healthier when the pressures of child rearing are widely distributed. Young as she is, Izzy knows this mega blended family is probably doomed, but single motherhood isn’t looking like a walk in the park either. Here’s her rationale for taking a chance on the project:

[Izzy] thought, for the millionth time, of her future as it lay before her without the aid of this project, working two jobs to make ends meet, her son in the cheapest day care she could find, so tired at the end of the day that her baby felt like an unbreakable curse, failing each and every day until the bottom fell out of the world.

Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled.

A year in, a research assistant to Dr. Grind declares: “The kids are going to be great; the parents are the unstable element.” That’s partly because the adults have trouble figuring out what they are to one another: “Brothers and sisters?” “Second cousins?”

One night, as Izzy and some of the other parents are sitting around drinking whiskey smashes, another mom suggests that they’re all “like the cast of Gilligan’s Island.” One of the fathers points out: “There was a lot of sexual tension on that show.” Uh huh. The snake has been let into this nursery-land Eden, which is soon rocked by illicit hook-ups, the likes of which Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann dared not even dream of.

Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged.

The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s “perfect little world” of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.

‘Perfect Little World’ Imagines Family Drama Inside A Utopian Compound


Utopian communities don’t fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult. Think of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia or Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, two recent novels that have imagined alternative communities and their inevitable crack-up.

How could it be otherwise in fiction? As the Talking Heads told us, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” A novel about heaven, about a successful utopia without sin or tension, would be pretty dull, indeed.

Fortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception.

Wilson broke out with his 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, about two married, avant-garde artists who deploy their children as props in their performance pieces. That novel was ingenious — a whirlwind of screwball comedy, art and sad realizations about the limitations of family.

Wilson is still thinking hard about the idea of family in Perfect Little World. This is in some ways a calmer, less quirky novel, but what Perfect Little World loses in eccentricity, it gains in emotional depth.

Wilson’s story focuses on Isabel “Izzy” Poole, a smart, self-contained, high school senior in Tennessee who falls in love with her depressed art teacher and becomes pregnant. Izzy’s mom is dead, her alcoholic dad is just barely scraping by, and her teacher-lover is too entangled with his own demons to be of any use. Izzy, who’s a quietly compelling character, has decided to keep her baby.

She comes to the attention of something called The Infinite Family Project. Cooked up by a child psychologist named Dr. Grind and funded by a billionaire who cherishes happy memories of being raised in a caring orphanage, the project aims to place 10 infants and their parents in a state-of-the-art commune for 10 years. The children will be raised by all the adults, and for a long stretch, they won’t know who their biological parents are.

The aim is to see if both adults and children are happier and healthier when the pressures of child rearing are widely distributed. Young as she is, Izzy knows this mega blended family is probably doomed, but single motherhood isn’t looking like a walk in the park either. Here’s her rationale for taking a chance on the project:

[Izzy] thought, for the millionth time, of her future as it lay before her without the aid of this project, working two jobs to make ends meet, her son in the cheapest day care she could find, so tired at the end of the day that her baby felt like an unbreakable curse, failing each and every day until the bottom fell out of the world.

Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled.

A year in, a research assistant to Dr. Grind declares: “The kids are going to be great; the parents are the unstable element.” That’s partly because the adults have trouble figuring out what they are to one another: “Brothers and sisters?” “Second cousins?”

One night, as Izzy and some of the other parents are sitting around drinking whiskey smashes, another mom suggests that they’re all “like the cast of Gilligan’s Island.” One of the fathers points out: “There was a lot of sexual tension on that show.” Uh huh. The snake has been let into this nursery-land Eden, which is soon rocked by illicit hook-ups, the likes of which Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann dared not even dream of.

Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged.

The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s “perfect little world” of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.

Doctor Considers The Pitfalls Of Extending Life And Prolonging Death


A photo of a patient receiving care in the hospital.
A photo of a patient receiving care in the hospital.

Humans have had to face death and mortality since since the beginning of time, but our experience of the dying process has changed dramatically in recent history.

Haider Warraich, a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that death used to be sudden, unexpected and relatively swift — the result of a violent cause, or perhaps an infection. But, he says, modern medicines and medical technologies have lead to a “dramatic extension” of life — and a more prolonged dying processes.

“We’ve now … introduced a phase of our life, which can be considered as ‘dying,’ in which patients have terminal diseases in which they are in and out of the hospital, they are dependent in nursing homes,” Warraich says. “That is something that is a very, very recent development in our history as a species.”

Prolonging life might sound like a good thing, but Warraich notes that medical technologies often force patients, their loved ones and their doctors to make difficult, painful decisions. In his new book, Modern Death, he writes about a patient with end-stage dementia who screamed “kill me” as a feeding tube was inserted into his nose.

“This is probably one of the encounters that I had in residency that I have been unable to shake from my memory,” Warraich says. “I think if you ask any physician, any nurse, any paramedic, they’ll have many such stories to tell you.”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of having a healthcare proxy, living will and advanced directive

One of the biggest problems that we face in not only modern society, but in societies of olden times as well, is that people have always been very afraid to talk about death. In many cultures it is considered bad luck to talk about death and it is thought to be a bad omen. I think to some extent that extends to this very day. But … I think having a living will, having an advanced directive, or perhaps most importantly, having a designated healthcare proxy, someone who can help transmit your decisions to the team when you’re not able to do so, is perhaps the most important thing that we can do for ourselves as patients and as human beings.

On giving CPR and knowing when to stop giving CPR

Modern Death

How Medicine Changed the End of Life

by Haider, M.D. Warraich

Hardcover, 324 pages |

purchase

One of the things about CPR, Terry, is that almost everyone in medicine knows how to start CPR, when to start CPR, really what to do in CPR under even complex situations, but the one thing that almost no one really teaches us, and there are no guidelines for, is when to stop CPR. I think in some ways that is one of the biggest challenges that we in medicine face all the time. …

I was actually working in the hospital last night and it was about 3 in the morning and I was called by one of my other colleagues who was another cardiology fellow, he asked me, “Haider, I need your help. I have a patient that we are doing CPR on,” and he wanted some help from me. So I walked over to the intensive care unit, and the patient was in her 60s. … There was an entire team in the room doing chest compressions on this woman, and they had been doing it for an hour and a half at that point, much, much, much longer than most CPRs last. …

At the same time while this CPR was ongoing, the patient’s family member, her daughter, was outside the room, and she was crying. … Even though we could give her all the information … that wasn’t perhaps what she was looking for, because what we were asking her to think about or to do was one of the hardest things anyone has to ever bear, which was, “Do you want us to stop CPR?” And that’s the type of thing that I don’t think any of us can ever prepare for, especially when it’s our parent that’s involved.

On why he wrote a book about dying

I really wanted to find answers to some very, very basic questions, like what are the implications of the sort of life extension that we have achieved? What is the role of religion, not only a patient’s religion but a physician’s religion when it comes to dealing with the end of life? How is social media affecting how people experience the end of life? …

So many times I’ve found myself in the room where there are people who were so much more experienced in life than I was, yet knew so little about death and dying. And so I wanted to write a book so that people could go into those really, really difficult places and feel like they’re armed with information, that this isn’t a completely foreign territory for them and that in some way could help them navigate and deal with the sort of difficult situations that lay ahead for them.

On the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act

It is very unfortunate that health is so politicized in this country, because it doesn’t have to be. Health and wellness aren’t red or blue, and they shouldn’t be, but unfortunately that is where we are. I hope that when policies are being enacted in DC, patient’s voices, those who have benefited from the ACA, those who have gained insurance, those voices are not lost in the midst of all of this political activity.

Dr. Haider Warraich has written medical and opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

Shawn Rocco/Duke Health


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Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

Dr. Haider Warraich has written medical and opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

On immigrating to the U.S. from Pakistan

I came to the United States in 2010 and [until now] have only lived in an America in which Barack Obama was the president. I think in some ways Trump’s victory has really shaken me, because of how invested I was in the idea that America is a special place, it’s a truly multicultural society. And I’m still trying to understand, I think like so many others, just exactly what happened. Especially as a writer and as a physician I’ve tried to separate myself from my identity as a Muslim. I’d rather be known as a physician/scientist/writer who happens to be Pakistani, rather than a young Pakistani Muslim immigrant who happens to be a doctor and a writer, but I don’t know. Given how things are changing, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to set that narrative for myself. That’s a scary thought — to live an identity that is so politicized even when you wish for it to not be.