The correspondence of Nelle Harper Lee and Wayne Flynt

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE middle-aged narrator of “Quicksand”, a zany novel by Steve Toltz, gloomily reflects that “though I could always make friends, I could never again make an old friend—that time had passed for me forever.” One of the pleasures and consolations of “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee”—and there are many—is that it refutes that seemingly ironclad observation. Even at a reasonably advanced age, if two people share as much in taste and background as Nelle Harper Lee and Wayne Flynt, a depth of feeling can develop, a kind of melding of minds and lives that is worth a lifetime’s intimacy. 

Mr Flynt, an eminent historian at Auburn University in Alabama, got to know Nelle (as friends and family called her) through her sister Louise. In “Mockingbird Songs” Mr Flynt has collected their correspondence, which began in 1992 when she was 66 and he 52, but was concentrated in the years from 2004 to Lee’s death in 2016. There are a few letters here by Dartie, Mr Flynt’s wife, and by Alice,…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The correspondence of Nelle Harper Lee and Wayne Flynt


“Casting JonBenét” offers a fresh take on true crime

(K. Brent Tomer),

“MY NAME is Anne, and I’m auditioning for the role of JonBenét Ramsey.” The opening shots of this intriguing documentary show a small blonde girl wearing bright lipstick and a dress with puffy, star-spangled sleeves and a red sequined neckline. She pauses for a long beat before her curiosity gets the better of her. “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” 

With “Casting JonBenét”, Netflix returns to a profitable and attention-grabbing seam: true crime. Unlike “Making a Murderer”, however, this latest offering takes a fresh and critical approach, interrogating the seamier side of its own genre, even while appealing to its legions of fans. The conceit is that the film is examining a 20-year-old cold case by auditioning local people to play the roles of the protagonists: JonBenét, the victim; her parents, Patsy and John; her brother Burke; a local Santa Claus, who attended a party at the Ramsey house the night before the murder, and so on. Of course, all those auditioning have pet theories and suspicions about the case, and are only too willing to share them—along with all sorts of other nuggets of personal information. 

The result is subtly layered. As well…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC “Casting JonBenét” offers a fresh take on true crime

The English were surprisingly divided about the break with Rome

(K. Brent Tomer),

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation. By Peter Marshall. Yale University Press; 652 pages; £30. To be published in America in June, $40.

JUST a day after the English Book of Common Prayer was first used in Sampford Courtenay, Devon, on Whitsunday in 1549, an angry mob appeared at the church door. They demanded that the elderly rector reconsider using the new liturgy. Somewhat sheepishly, one imagines, he decided to don his popish vestments and revert to saying the Latin mass.

That village protest was the first of a series of English uprisings in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and the south-west, which led to perhaps 10,000 deaths as King Edward VI’s regime suppressed dissent. It would be a mistake to think that the English Reformation was mostly peaceful, with beheadings and burnings confined to a small and fervent elite.

The historiography of Tudor England usually focuses on the monarchs’ Reformation: how the state imposed religious change on the nation. Shelves groan with royal histories, but new accounts of how the ordinary English felt, objected to and imbibed it all are much more scarce. On the 500th anniversary…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The English were surprisingly divided about the break with Rome

The Museum of the American Revolution

(K. Brent Tomer),

FOR people who pride themselves on keeping their eyes on the future, Americans often seem mired in their own history. Here the past is never safely buried, but is continually exhumed to shape and reshape the present. Political battles are waged through contested narratives that have been centuries in the making.

The new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which is only two streets from Independence Hall, the nation’s birthplace, will help shape people’s understanding of the founding struggle for many years to come. David McCullough, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian and long-time champion of the project, believes it will serve as an exemplar for an age sorely in need of a moral compass. He hopes that learning more about those who were engaged in the desperate struggle for liberty—in particular the example of George Washington—will inspire current and future generations. “Character, it’s what counts most of all. [That is] what’s taught in the story of the revolution,” he says.

The museum tries hard to break down the barriers that separate the 18th…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The Museum of the American Revolution

Sheryl Sandberg on grief

(K. Brent Tomer),

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Knopf; 240 pages; $25.95. W.H. Allen; £16.99.

IN 2013 Sheryl Sandberg became famous, thanks to “Lean In”, her book about how women can control their own fate if they “lean in” to opportunities. But in 2015, the senior Facebook executive was reminded that you can lean in and still fail to control the direction of your life. While on holiday in Mexico, her husband, Dave Goldberg, suffered from a heart arrhythmia, fell off a treadmill and died.

Ms Sandberg shares a great deal of herself and what she has learned since in “Option B”, which she has written with Adam Grant, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of “Originals”, a business book about “out-of-the-box” thinking. “Option B” takes its name from an anecdote in which Ms Sandberg tells a friend that she does not want to take part in a parent-child activity without Goldberg; with option A not available, she has to choose the second-best option.

At its core “Option B” is a…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Sheryl Sandberg on grief

A magnificent exploration of anxiety

(K. Brent Tomer),

No hygge for her

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. By Dorthe Nors. Translated by Misha Hoekstra. Pushkin Press; 188 pages; £10.99.

SONJA, the heroine of “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal”, is single and perplexed, and has reached the age when “everything that’s supposed to get easier in life persists in being complicated”. Dorthe Nors (pictured) wraps bittersweet recollections of Sonja’s girlhood on a farm in Jutland and her lonely, “oddball” youth around her driving lessons through the Copenhagen suburbs.

Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International prize, this sly, deadpan Danish novel steers its mischievous comedy of character and manners over a “viscid underworld of sorrow”. Always the outsider, Sonja evokes her smugly well-adjusted sister Kate, once a “barn-dance femme fatale” and now also a caring super-mum; Ellen, a massage-therapist; and a psychologist chum called Molly. All are overconfident interpreters of a reality that Sonja “was never able to explain”. There are also glimpses of a vanished lover, “Paul the Ex”.

If the present baffles, the past consoles. Sonja sees…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC A magnificent exploration of anxiety

A shorter Brexit primer

(K. Brent Tomer),

Cold shoulder

Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union. By Harold Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley.Cambridge University Press; 256 pages; £15.99 and $19.99.

THERE are many theories about why Britons voted last June to leave the European Union. They include hostility to immigration, dislike of Brussels bureaucrats, worries about sovereignty, an anti-elite mood, the discontent of those left behind by globalisation, a long history of Euroscepticism and a stridently anti-EU press. Yet analysis of hard survey data is rare. The great virtue of “Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union”, by three academics, is that it is based on detailed regression analyses of panel surveys carried out both before and after the vote.

Using data as opposed to hunches yields interesting results, even if many confirm conventional wisdom. One concerns who mostly voted for Brexit. The answer is old people, non-graduates and those from lower social grades. Although members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), founded to take Britain out, tend to be male, there was no gender bias. Nor were Brexit voters…Continue reading

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Machine translation

(K. Brent Tomer),

ARAB newspapers have a reputation, partly deserved, for tamely taking the official line. On any given day, for example, you might read that “a source close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry told Al-Hayat that ‘Tehran will continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement as long as the other side does the same.’” But the exceptional thing about this unexceptional story is that, thanks to Google, English-speaking readers can now read this in the Arab papers themselves.

In the past few months free online translators have suddenly got much better. This may come as a surprise to those who have tried to make use of them in the past. But in November Google unveiled a new version of Translate. The old version, called “phrase-based” machine translation, worked on hunks of a sentence separately, with an output that was usually choppy and often inaccurate.

The new system still makes mistakes, but these are now relatively rare, where once they were ubiquitous. It uses an artificial neural network, linking digital “neurons” in several layers, each one feeding its output to the next layer, in an approach that is loosely modelled on the…Continue reading

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“The Promise”: an unflinching depiction of the Armenian genocide

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE road that an idea takes from the screenwriter’s mind to your local multiplex is besieged by obstacles political, financial and practical in nature. The average blockbuster has to contend with budget fights and studio meddling; a film like “The Promise” is even trickier to bring to the screen. A sweeping historical drama about a national tragedy, it is the sort of movie that Hollywood used to love. But for more than a century, writers and studios have turned their faces away from the story. In many ways, the film succeeds simply by exploring an event that others will not. 

Set in 1915, “The Promise” centres on a passionate love triangle but is informed by the genocide perpetrated against Armenians by officials of the Ottoman Empire. Oscar Isaac plays a humble Armenian medical student who tries to escape the massacre and save his family, while falling in love with an American dance instructor (Charlotte Le Bon) thereby earning a rivalry with her journalist boyfriend (Christian Bale). It is a stirring, if somewhat by-the-numbers depiction of heroism and survival in horrifying times, but it will not make the pantheon of great historical films. The love story is shallowly written, and the…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC “The Promise”: an unflinching depiction of the Armenian genocide

The ethereal power of the ondes Martenot

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN “The Exterminating Angel”, Thomas Adès’s new opera, a group of people find themselves mysteriously unable to take their leave from a dinner party. Trapped in their genteel surroundings amid the remnants of the soirée, they succumb to claustrophobic puzzlement and, eventually, anarchy. As in Luis Buñuel’s film from 1962, the spell that keeps them captive has no name. But Mr Adès’s opera gives it a voice—an unearthly wail that rings out whenever the dinner guests try to escape their prison.

This siren song is produced by an ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument conceived nearly a century ago by Maurice Martenot. A trained cellist and composer working as a telegraph operator in the French army, he was inspired by the sounds his valve-powered radio equipment made when he scanned the frequencies. It took a decade of development before the first iteration of the instrument that bears his name had its premiere in Paris.

Meaning “Martenot waves”, the ondes Martenot is far from the earliest electronic instrument, yet most that came before were curiosities (like the clavecin électrique, a bell-ringing machine invented by a Jesuit priest in 1759) or highly impractical (it…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The ethereal power of the ondes Martenot