It can't be the end of the year, but it is. There's still too much to do in 2015. But, in the meantime, let me record some of my favorite things about this year before it is completely gone.
My very favorite thing to do this year was spend time with my grandson Calder, who just turned one year old. The joy of time spent with him – and seeing the TG, my son, my daughter-in-law, the Flower, and everyone else with him – towers over everything else.
But here's the best of everything else:
(Most of these I've already blogged about, so go to the links for more.)
The best book I read this year was the first draft of my new novel. (That's only half a joke; by next year, it will bethe best book of the year. For now, it is my constant companion, my shadow, my difficult friend.)
But besides that, the best book – and the longest book – I read this year was Andrew Roberts' 976-page biography NAPOLEON: A LIFE. I'm a middling student of European history, but I never read very deeply into the story of M. Bonaparte. I never understood why, after Jesus and Abraham Lincoln, he is the third most-often "biographed" person in history. Now, after Roberts' book, I understand. Napoleon had perhaps the most eventful, complex life I've encountered, and his story is fascinating.
From an obscure village in Corsica, he wound up conquering most of Europe and became the most celebrated and controversial political and military figure in Western history. And while he waged terrible wars of aggression, he also did many good things. As Roberts writes:
"The ideas that underpin our modern world -– meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on -– were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire. ... Napoleon directly overthrew feudal remains in much of Western Europe. He liberalised property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalised divorce, closed the Jewish ghettos and made Jews equal to everyone else. The Inquisition ended, as did the Holy Roman Empire. The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men."
A quarter of all the world's legal systems – from Japan to Canada – are based in some way on the Napoleonic Code.
Listen to Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski on the Napoleonic Code in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Napoleon was an extraordinarily competent, extraordinarily flawed man. He had an enormous capacity for work and attention to detail, dictating hundreds of letters on matters great and small. His life goes from one huge event, one love affair, one screwy relative, one war to another. Sometimes you can't believe the history as you read it: the French overthrow their king in a major revolution, and just a few years later name Napoleon as "Emperor." Fou! The problem I have with Napoleon finally is that he was responsible for the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people. That is not my definition of a "great man."
I know that Andrew Roberts is a conservative thinker, yet I still feel that I got a balanced, unbiased view of Napoleon. I liked Roberts' history of World War II entitled THE STORM OF WAR, and I feel that my long time with his long book was time well spent.
I had a great year, seeing music. I'm lucky to live in southern California where there is so much to see and hear. The TG and I have a subscription to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so we are guaranteed a certain amount of great music each year. This year, the highlights were:
-- the glorious French soprano Natalie Dessay singing highlights of Cleopatra in Handel's "Julius Caesar" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (I see that Dessay is going to play Fosca in Sondheim's "Passion." May she go on to a great, extended career in musical theatre, like Ezio Pinza, now that she can no longer sing entire operas.)
-- Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting, at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. ("Mirga-Mania" will soon sweep the classical music world ... what's left of it.)
And in the "pop" arena ...
A tie between two of my long-time favorite artists: Steve Earle at the El Rey and Rosanne Cash at some civic center someplace in the way west Valley that I'll never drive to again -- both in superb form. Rosanne was coming off a bunch of awards for "The River and the Thread," and Steve was coming off his eighth divorce. See them or listen to them if you can.
This was a good year for art, too. Our trip to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Foundation was unforgettable. There are few experiences like it in North America, to see so many masterpieces in such a small, concentrated space. The collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings including many major works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Giorgio de Chirico is unequalled in the Western Hemisphere. (Hell, some of the collection is unequalled anywhere: they have 181 Renoirs!!) There are also American masters Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin and Maurice Prendergast, and Old Master paintings, mixed in with important examples of African sculpture and Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles, American paintings and decorative arts and antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia – all recreated the way it was presented in nutty old Albert C. Barnes' original mansion in Merrion, PA, in his "ensembles." If you like any of the above-listed painters, you must go to Philadelphia to the Barnes ... and next door is the sweet, small Rodin Museum and up the street is the Philadephia Museum of Art with its many treasures.
The best single art show I saw this year was the show of late Turner at the Getty Center in Brentwood – J.M.W. TURNER: PAINTING SET FREE. There was one main room where I had a commanding view of perhaps twenty major Turner masterpieces. It was like being in London at what is now called the "Tate Britain," which houses the entire Turner Bequest. I have a lot of Turner art books, but there is no substitute for seeing the actual paintings, close up – to see, as best you can, the hand of the genius at work.
I grew up on Broadway musicals. My first musical was "THE MUSIC MAN," so in a way, it's all been downhill from there. (The TG was Amaryllis in the first national touring company, further proof of our predestination together.) So I'm always happy to see a great musical, when everything comes together. This year, I finally caught up a touring production of "WICKED" and saw why it is such an enormous hit wherever it plays. It's a very good musical with two great roles and four or five outstanding numbers. I've never been a fan of Stephen Schwartz and maybe "WICKED" is good because of the underlying concept and the work of book writer Winnie Holzman (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life), but whatever the reason "WICKED" was probably the best thing I saw this year.
I did see a very good production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. (It was the third time I've seen the play, so much better than the misfired movie.) For many years, I've seen excellent productions there, often featuring my friend Alan Blumenfeld, actor and friend extraordinaire.
And Helen Mirren was very good in THE AUDIENCE.
A teaser for the play
Her "Best Actress" Tony Award acceptance speech
Helen Mirren on THEATER TALK with my old friend from Sarah Lawrence, Susan Haskins
I listen to Sirius radio, so my favorite listening of the year has been:
-- Howard Stern's long interviews
-- live opera from the Metropolitan Opera
-- Steve Earle's "Hardcore Troubadour" show on the Outlaw Country channel on Saturday night
-- Thom Hartmann on Sirius Left (when he doesn't have commercials)
-- Seth Rudetsky on the Broadway channel
Part II, next week.