Swans Commentary » swans.com July 30, 2012  



Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films


Summertime Escapes


by Jan Baughman



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(Swans - July 30, 2012)   For this wonderful assignment, I imagined myself spending a leisurely summer on an island in French Polynesia and asked what books, music, and movies would I pack to enhance my experience and transport me into other cultures and eras. I make no claim to choosing the top classics in each category, so many of which I have yet to read, watch, or hear -- I'll leave that strategy to others. Instead, this is a selection of some of my favorites that I am confident will enrich your summer.




•   Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), by Gabriel García Márquez. (English translation, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)

A colorful, rich novel about unrequited and enduring love, in youth and old age, sickness and death, with cholera as both a metaphor and reality in the late 1800s to early 1900s Colombia. I'd love to be able read in its native Spanish, but the English translation is a veritable wonder to savor and behold.


•   The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone

A biographical novel about the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, which Irving Stone based on the great Renaissance artist's prolific letters. From Florence to Rome, the book chronicles the struggles he faced with the commissioners of his work, in particular Pope Julius II; his closeness with the Medici family and the difficulties with his own; and his enormous creativity that is portrayed in meticulous detail, painting a portrait of the painstaking labor of his masterful creations, whether the Sistine Chapel, or the myriad sculptures in which he carefully and passionately chipped away at the marble block to unleash the figure that lived inside.


•   The Art of Racing in the Rain (2009), by Garth Stein

I've read this book more times than any other. The story is narrated by Enzo, a dog who wants nothing more than to be a man in his next life and who learns life lessons through the metaphors of racecar driving. You don't have to be a dog lover or a racecar fan to appreciate this wonderful book. Visit Swans archives to read my full review of this book: A Canine Perspective On Humanity, May 17, 2010.


•   The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984; English translation, Harper & Row), by Milan Kundera

Also an amazing movie, this book transports us to the Prague Spring and the entangled lives of a man, his wife, their dog, his lovers, and the weight and lightness of the personal and political choices that define their lives. Does one choose heaviness -- the burdens that bring us down to earth, or the absence of burdens that makes one lighter than air...half-real? "The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all."


•   Ararat (1983), by D.M. Thomas

A story, within a story, within a story in which the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred as an ending for Pushkin's unfinished Egyptian Nights is improvised by the main character through his imaginative tales.




•   Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), music by Joaquin Rodrigo

Tranquil, melodic, dramatic, and tranquil again, this concerto is unique in its prominent feature of guitar. My favorite version is by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal on a recording that also includes Falla's "Noches en Los Jardines de España" and "El Amor Brujo" (see Films) by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Miles Davis includes a fabulous interpretation of this concerto worth listening to on his Sketches of Spain recording.


•   Pavarotti and Friends (1992) "Pavarotti International" Charity Gala Concert recorded at Modena on 27 September 1992

This is my go-to CD when I can't decide if I'm in the mood to listen to opera or something more contemporary. Pavarotti and Sting sing "Panis Angelicus" and "Muoio Per Te"; Pavarotti and Lucio Dalla perform a wonderful rendition of "Caruso"; Suzanne Vega charms with "In Liverpool"; Patricia Klass gives a haunting, Piafesque performance of "Les Hommes Qui Passent"; with much more from Sting, Zucchero, Brian May, Bob Geldof, the Neville Brothers, and Mike Oldfield. A wonderful concert with a sampling of many genres and talents. Donations from the sale go to the Berloni Foundation for the Research and Care of thalassemia.


•   Terra (2008), vocals by Mariza

Mariza is a Portuguese singer, or fadista, of fado, which Wikipedia defines as "a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia (loosely captured by the word 'saudade,' or longing)." For a taste, do a YouTube search on "Mariza minh'alma" and you will get a preview of her mesmerizing, sultry, and passionate interpretation of this melancholic genre.


•   The Best of Friends (1998), John Lee Hooker

The great Johnny Lee is joined by Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Robert Cray, Booker T. Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and many more equally-talented artists in this classic blues/rock compilation by the best of the best.


•   Gipsy Kings (1988), the band's debut album of the same name.

French performers of Roma decent, singing in raw-voiced Spanish, with exquisite flamenco-style guitar and palmas (hand clapping), create a recipe for unmatched high-energy songs and tender ballads. For me, no summer evening on the deck is complete without the Gipsy Kings for ambiance. If you have the opportunity to see them in concert, be prepared to witness a performance of a lifetime.


•   Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 (ca 1830), music by Chopin

I'd put this on an endless spool because this beautiful, romantic piano piece, like "O mio babbino caro" (see A Room With a View), is far too short.




•   A Room With A View (1985), directed by James Ivory; with Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel-Day Lewis, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands, Denholm Elliott, among other great actors.

A classic film adaptation of the E.M. Forester novel with sensitivity, humor, beauty, and intrigue that also quenches my musical thirst with a wonderful soundtrack, including a piece at the top of my musical favorites, Puccini's "O mio babbino caro," brilliantly sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.


•   Carmen (1983), adaptation of the novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (1845); directed and choreographed by Carlos Saura and Maria Pagès, with the amazing dancers Antonio Gades, Laura del Sol, Cristina Hoyos, and Paco de Lucia

The fictional Carmen comes to life for the cast of characters rehearsing a flamenco version of the tragic love story set to the music of Bizet's opera, with dancing that is beyond the imagination. It is the second film in the Carlos Saura trilogy that includes Bodas De Sangre (Blood Wedding), based on the play by Federico García Lorca, and El Amor Brujo, based on the Manuel de Falla ballet -- also poignant, life-imitates-art plots with powerful flamenco music and dance worth seeing, hearing, and experiencing.


•   Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais, screenplay by Marguerite Duras; with Emmanuelle Riva as Elle (her) and Eiji Okada as Lui (him)

This stark, black and white film captures a dialogue, and an unprecedented use of flashbacks interposed with shocking documentary scenes, between a French actress from Nevers with a tragic past and a Japanese architect who have a brief affair in post-war Hiroshima. The story is best described by Kent Jones, who writes "There is a dominant motif, which is the sense of being overpowered, ravished, taken -- a French woman who wants to be overpowered by her Japanese lover ('Take me. Deform me, make me ugly'), an Asian man who is consumed by his Western lover's beauty and unknowability, a fictional peace rally overwhelmed by its real-life antecedent, everyday reality droned out by a flood of memories, a city devastated by nuclear force." A cinematic tour de force that still resonates in our present reality, in which beauty and desire continue to confront devastation and destruction.


•   Fitzcarraldo (1982), written and directed by Werner Herzog, with Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale

Klaus Kinski was brilliantly cast -- though not as the first choice -- as a would-be rubber baron in the steamboat days of Iquitos, Peru, who goes to unbelievable lengths to claim the last remaining parcel, only to -- well, you'll have to see the movie. Fitzcarraldo is an opera lover, and Enrico Caruso permeates the movie with the works of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, and more, adding to the drama and to a breathtaking operatic ending.


•   The Sound of Music (1965), directed by Robert Wise; music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein

I'm willing to be pilloried for this sappy choice, but I've never tired, since my youth, of singing along with the many great songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Christopher Plummer's "Edelweiss" never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. Why not watch it again and be transformed to a beautiful setting in a troubled era?


This list represents a synergy between books, music, and film, and the rich contributions by artists and genres from around the world. I trust that my husband, Gilles d'Aymery, would be with me on this fantasy summer vacation so that I could also enjoy his music and film choices, which also top my list. Enjoy the journey, and a magical summer!


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Published July 30, 2012