It’s “Nordic Cool” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Yes, it’s big and Nordic and it kicks off tonight for a whole month with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo and with Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen performing Nordic music by Sibelius, Alfvén, Grieg, Leif and Nielsen.Nordic Cool 2013

Never before, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, has such a broad Nordic culture initiative taken place, and in this case it was a Kennedy Center’s initiative, with support from the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).

– Yes, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity for the Nordic countries to showcase what is best in Nordic culture, said Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth at a press briefing today at the Swedish Embassy, ​​House of Sweden, here in Washington, DC.

All the Nordic countries, plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands, have turned up in full force with all they have to offer in music, theater, film, food, dance, architecture, art and design. From Sweden, except for the Royal Philharmonics, there is the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Fanny and Alexander”, performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, workshops on Nordic literature, not the least detective novels, and films like Jan Troell’s newest, “The Last Sentence.”

It will be interesting to see how this major Nordic venture is received by the American audiences. In any case, it’s a great chance for them to learn a lot about what makes northern Europe tick, and to tick so successfully.

Cool.

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Yes, I believe it’s now time to talk about a turning point

Home again in Washington, DC after two weeks in the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, primarily to participate in the publication on September 20 of my book “Amerika – drömmarnas land” (America – country of dreams) in Stockholm.

Nice book release party at the Dance Museum in Stockholm with many old friends, a book discussion at the ABF educational association with journalist colleague Stig Fredrikson, a lengthy interview on the Knowledge Channel about the book. The American election campaign is the center of attention in the Swedish newspapers and on radio and television. The coverage is amazingly extensive.

On the way back home, a short visit with good friends in Reykjavik and a lunch seminar at the Icelandic Foreign Ministry about my book and the U.S. elections. Lively and fun!

The return home came just in time for today’s big event, the first of three televised debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But before that, I will also head to the ballpark to cheer on my Washington Nationals on the last day of the regular season for winning the National League Eastern Division and for taking the local baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933!

Tonight then, in Denver, Colorado? I remember the first TV debate ever, in the autumn of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time. JFK won the debate and he won the election, albeit with the slimmest of margins. Ever since then, the importance of these debates has been discussed. The conclusion? Not unanimous. Sometimes, as in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, Reagan came out on top and then won the election. Sometimes, as in 2004, John Kerry won dthe debate but George W. Bush the election. And last time, in 2008, the debate winner, Barack Obama, also won the election.

The Washington Post summarizes the situation ahead of tonight’s debate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that something had happened after the two party conventions but that I did not want to call it a turning point in the campaign. Since then, the situation for Mitt Romney through a series of mistakes, especially his talk about America’s “47 percent,” has steadily weakened. And now the conclusion is inescapable: we have reached a turning point. Obama has strengthened his position on a wide front and time is running out for Romney.

To reverse this trend, Romney tonight needs not just to have a major breakthrough, but he also needs a major mistake, a major gaffe, by Obama. That is unlikely to happen.

Oh, how I wish I had gone to The Last Book Sale

I was thinking of going, but, somehow, it didn’t work out, and now, reading Larry McMurtry’s own account in the New York Review of Books of The Last Book Sale at his store Booked Up Inc. in his home town Archer City, Texas, out there northwest of Dallas/Fort Worth and south of Wichita Falls, I realize how much I would have loved to have gone.

300,000 out of McMurtry’s 400,000 books were on sale on that hot recent August weekend. The 200 bidders came from the all over the country, from Oregon, Wisconsin, Tampa, San Francisco, Natchez, Austin, and Magnolia, Arkansas. Most of the books sold, except the fiction, McMurtry, eminent author but also eminent book dealer, writes.

Readers of this blog know how much I like the old book stores, and that I have found many wonderful such stores all around America. But I have never been to Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, and this was the time to go. Or maybe there is a next time?

For Pittsburgh, a new future without steel

On the road again…

…and once again to Pittsburgh, the old steel city among the green hills of western Pennsylvania, where old friends live in a city of optimism and hope.

From Mount Washington, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers come together and become the Ohio River, the view of downtown Pittsburgh from the steep mountain as dramatic as in any other American city. Below, some twenty bridges in all directions cross the rivers between the city’s many neighborhoods. Among the skyscrapers downtown are some of America’s finest buildings, from the days of Carnegie, Heinz, and Mellon to modern masterpieces by Philip Johnson and others, and to native sons Andy Warhol’s and August Wilson’s museum and cultural center, respectively.

And across the rivers lie the splendid ballparks for the Steelers and the Pirates, important landmark in a city of passionate sports fans.

Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s south side reminds me of Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s old hippie neighborhood, with its galleries, rock clubs and small shops. Old mixes with new, former philosophy professor Edward Gelblum’s lovely old bookstore “City Books” with young Jake Nickman’s “Buddy’s Brew on Carson” – the finest of beer stores.

Coming into the city, along Monongahela River in Mon Valley, where the steel mills lie as giant monuments to a bygone era, side by side, mile after mile, in the small towns of McKeesport, Braddock, and Homestead, with furnaces long since cold and chimneys without smoke, the optimism and sense of hope might be a bit hard to understand. At its peak, the steel mills employed well over 100,000 workers, but in the crisis of the 70s and 80s, most of them lost their jobs, and Pittsburgh’s steel industry is only a fraction of what once was.

Today, Pittsburgh is the prime example that the old industrial cities in the “Rust Belt” can come back. But the recovery is based on something completely different than the steel, on distinguished universities and hospitals – biotech, green technology, health care, finance, and research. Today, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) logo is seen on top of what once was U.S. Steel’s 64-story headquarters, and with its 50,000 employees, the university hospital is western Pennsylvania’s largest employer.

It’s a city of history and character, and of excitement. I will return, again.

The importance of a real bookstore close by…

The other evening, I was reminded of how important it is to have a real bookstore close by, as I visited “Politics & Prose” in Washington, DC to listen to Richard Ford, one of my favorite American authors, talk about and read from his new book “Canada.” What a treat!

Ford, author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy and of short stories like “Rock Springs,” was on book tour around America, to some of the best bookstores the country has to offer: “Barnes & Noble” at Union Square in New York, “Books Inc.” in Palo Alto, California , “Powell’s” in Portland, Oregon, “Elliott Bay Book Company” in Seattle, Washington; “Square Books,” in Oxford, Mississippi, “Parnassus Books” in Nashville, Tennessee, “Tattered Cover Book Store” in Denver, Colorado, etc.

All of them are like little oases out there in America, and I always try to make time to visit them in my travels. To enter the mighty Powell’s in Portland or to stroll around on the many floors of Union Square’s “Barnes & Noble” or grab a cup of hot chocolate at “Politics & Prose,” and then listen to Richard Ford is just a great adventure.

Here in Washington, in this time of crisis for our bookstores, we are fortunate still to have “Politics & Prose,” and every time I visit San Francisco I am glad that the “City Lights Books” from the 50’s in the city’s North Beach is still open, or that small used bookstores like “Bookends” in the little Florence, Massachusetts, or “City Books” in Pittsburgh, have survived. Too many have already perished, like our “Borders” in downtown Silver Spring, MD, or the “Hungry Mind” in St. Paul, Minnesota, or Cody’s, the legendary bookstore in Berkeley, California, and like so many more, which Amazon can never replace.

“The Republicans are the problem”

When two of Washington’s political veterans, two of America’s most respected political observers, write that the political paralysis in American politics is the Republicans’ fault, you need to sit up and pay extra attention. Such clarity is rare in the American capital.

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. “

The two are Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, from the venerable Washington think tanks Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute. On Tuesday they will come out with their book, “It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” Although Brookings leans towards the Democrats and the American Enterprise towards the Republicans, neither one of the authors can be accused of being partisan.

In an excerpt from the book in today’s Washington Post, they write that it is no longer so that the fault can be found in both political parties.

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

The Republicans are now more conservative than in a century and for American democracy to regain its health and vitality, the Republican Party has to change. However, they note, that is unlikely to happen. Instead, the ideological divide will probably grow after the election this fall.

Sad, but true, words. Read for yourselves!

A mound of flowers at Apple in memory of Jobs

On the sidewalk below Steve Jobs’ office at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, the mound of flowers in memory of Silicon Valley’s perhaps the greatest name ever is still many feet high. 

At Stanford University, a few miles north, a memorial service in the church on the campus was recently held, where one computer giant after another, Bill Gates, David Packard, William Hewlett, Paul Allen, Jerry Yang, have their buildings on the university’s fabulous, still unfinished science campus. There is no building with Steve Jobs’s name, at least not yet.

Today, his biography came out, written by veteran journalist and author Walter Isaacson, who wrote the brilliant biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Isaacson was contacted by Jobs himself a few years ago and asked to write about his life. Jobs knew he was dying but refused for years to undergo the surgery that the doctors recommended. It was something that Jobs came to regret, according to Isaacson.

The book, “Steve Jobs” will certainly become a bestseller, and certainly not the last book about Jobs. But here, just a few weeks after Steve Jobs’ death, the book is a little strange to read, wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times this weekend under the headline “Making the iBio for Apple’s Genius.”