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Eve L. Ewing Adds a Dash of Black Girl Magic to STEM-Based Learning


MAYA AND THE ROBOT
By Eve L. Ewing
Illustrated by Christine Almeda

Diversity (or, more accurately, the lack of it) has long been a Very Big Problem in technology and science. Google and other Silicon Valley giants, for example, have disclosed that their work forces are dominated by white men. And the companies point to a “pipeline” issue — not enough Black and Latino children getting into tech and science in the first place whom they can later recruit. Now here comes a book that tackles this “pipeline” issue head-on.

“Maya and the Robot,” a delightful tale by Eve L. Ewing, champions young people’s interest in technology and the world of science fairs. The heroine is Maya, a shy brainiac who is Black and a fifth grader. The novel takes us through Maya’s first-day-of-school jitters and swiftly sets up a story line where she finds, fixes and amazes everyone with an artificially intelligent robot named Ralph.

Along the way, Maya explores popular tech tools and trends. Emailing with a renowned robotics professor at Stanford? Check. Learning about different types of batteries? Check. Finding out about a flavor of A.I. known as “natural language processing”? Check. The book even weaves a glossary of robotics terms — actuators, anyone? — into the story. Animated by Christine Almeda’s engaging illustrations, it all makes tech and science seem cool, fun and accessible. And the message, to me at least, is clear: Young readers, don’t be daunted by technology and science. Everyone can get into these subjects.

This message makes sense given Ewing’s background. As an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, she has focused on how social inequality and racism affect public schools and young people. Ewing, who is Black, also wrote “Ironheart” for Marvel Comics, featuring a superhero who is a Black girl genius.

The beating heart of “Maya and the Robot” is Ralph. A once-neglected project stowed away in a dusty store closet, the robot bursts to life with an unmistakable personality, smiling through his LED screen and even knowing how to hug people. Ralph, we learn, is part of a mission by his creator “to heal the world, to use technology to make the world a kinder place.”

Ralph leads Maya into a subplot that grapples with the sad consequences of gun violence. He helps her see some of her classmates in a new light and forge stronger connections with her neighbors, friends and teachers, ultimately deepening her understanding of human relationships.

I couldn’t help wondering what children might think of this novel, since they’re its target audience. So I asked my kids, ages 13 and 17, to read “Maya and the Robot,” too. My 17-year-old, who declared that she was too mature to read the book but did so anyway, immediately came to the same conclusion I did about how the portrayal of the intelligent and gutsy Maya would empower girls to get interested in STEM.

My 13-year-old had a different take, maybe because he finds it unsurprising for kids to be steeped in tech projects and science fairs, which have increasingly crept into school curriculums. Reflecting on Maya’s interactions with Ralph, he said the book is about friendship and how friends have each other’s back. Which, in the end, is a much more universal message.



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Floyd Cooper, Illustrator of Black Life for Children, Dies at 65


Floyd Cooper, a celebrated children’s book illustrator who explored the African American experience in stories rooted in history, like one about a boy in Alabama in 1955 trying to comprehend why a Black woman on his bus refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, died on July 15 in Bethlehem, Pa. He was 65.

His wife, Velma Cooper, said the cause was cancer.

Over 30 years and some 100 titles, Mr. Cooper illustrated children’s stories that not only carried his earthy and golden pastel impressions of Black life, but that also strived to recount chapters of African American history that he felt weren’t taught enough in classrooms — if they were taught at all.

In “Brick by Brick” (2012), he illustrated Charles R. Smith Jr.’s story of enslaved people who toiled to build the White House. In “Juneteenth for Mazie” (2015), also written by Mr. Cooper, a father tells his daughter about the origins of the holiday Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery one June day in 1865. And in “Granddaddy’s Street Songs” (1999), by Monalisa DeGross, an old man spins yarns for his grandson about his past as one of the Black fruit vendors who once traveled around Baltimore on horse-drawn wagons. The story about the boy in Alabama riding with Rosa Parks, “Back of the Bus,” by Aaron Reynolds, was released in 2010.

“To put a book about a little Black child into the hands of a little white child and to put a book about a little white child into the hands of a little Black child,” Mr. Cooper said in a 2016 interview, “it has been something that has been part of my career from the very beginning.”

“Right now,” he continued, “it’s very important that we all get a grasp on what it is that can build bridges between us. I really do see children’s books as a way to build those bridges early on.”

Mr. Cooper’s signature was a subtractive technique that he called “oil erasure,” in which he would wash a board in oil paint and use a rubber eraser to methodically knead the paint away. He’d then create radiant images in soft, shimmering tones.

“Floyd’s legacy is that he was storyteller who believed the greatest gift you can give is the truth,” Ms. Weatherford said in a phone interview. “And he believed that children deserved the truth. He didn’t hold it back from them. He believed in filling in the gaps of the African American story, which is to say, the American story.”

“Before there was any national conversation about these things,” she added, “Floyd had been doing that work all along.”

In a fruitful collaboration with the poet Joyce Carol Thomas, he earned finalist citations from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, which recognize work for children and young adults, for “Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea” (1993) and “I Have Heard of a Land” (1998). And in 2009 he won the illustration award for “The Blacker the Berry” (2008), which pairs a series of Ms. Thomas’s poems celebrating the diversity of skin color with his illustrations of children as their narrators.

“I feel children are at the front line in improving society,” Mr. Cooper said in a 2009 interview with the Brown Bookshelf, a website dedicated to books for children by Black creators. “This might sound a little heavy, but it’s true.”

Floyd Donald Cooper Jr. was born on Jan. 8, 1956, in Tulsa, Okla. His mother, Ramona (Williams) Cooper, was a beautician. Floyd Sr. built houses. A grandfather had Muscogee Nation, or Creek, heritage, and his family had settled in the area after the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans from Southeastern states in the 19th century in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Raised in poverty, Floyd grew up in public housing projects, and he attended 11 different elementary schools.

As a boy, while his father labored on a house one day, Floyd picked up a piece of scrap and used it to etch drawings on the home’s exterior. His father rebuked him and told him to scrub them away. By Mr. Cooper’s account it was the start of his subtractive illustration style.

Encouraged by his art teachers, he developed his talents in high school and earned a scholarship to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he studied advertising and graduated in 1978. He became a greeting card designer for Hallmark. But aspiring to illustrate children’s books, he headed to New York in the 1980s, and as he tried to get his portfolio seen by publishers there, he worked as a designer for Olmec Toys, a company that produced multicultural dolls and action figures like Sun-Man.

Mr. Cooper got his break in 1988, when he illustrated Eloise Greenfield’s “Grandpa’s Face.” He went on to write and illustrate his own stories, like “Max and the Tag-Along Moon” and “The Ring Bearer,” and he was drawn to projects involving Black history. In “​​African Beginnings,” he illustrated ancient African civilizations like the Nubian kingdom of Kush, and in “Bound for America: The Forced Migration of Africans to the New World,” he chronicled the Middle Passage.

“I’m from Jamaica,” said his wife, who was Velma Hyatt when she married him, “and when I first came to America and met Floyd I didn’t want to believe what he was telling me about what we had to go through here. Who does these things? But that was his mission. He wanted to educate people about what really happened because they don’t teach this stuff in school. They don’t give the Black perspective.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Cooper, who died in a rehab facility, is survived by two sons, Kai and Dayton; two sisters, Robin and Kathy; and two grandsons.

Mr. Cooper kept up with the urgent conversation roiling the country about systemic racism and how African American history is taught in the classrooms. Galvanized by the moment, he undertook one of his most personal projects, illustrating “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre,” a collaboration with Ms. Weatherford, published this year, that recounts for young readers the destruction of Tulsa’s prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood in 1921, an incident that had been largely ignored in history classes.

As a son of Tulsa, Mr. Cooper had long been interested in the massacre. His maternal grandfather had narrowly escaped the carnage.

“Everything I knew about this tragedy came from Grandpa,” Mr. Cooper wrote in a personal note in “Unspeakable.” “Not a single teacher at school ever spoke of it.”

To work on the project, Mr. Cooper shut himself inside his studio and drew feverishly for months. He emerged with illustrations that brought the past back to life.

“It happened in the place where he was born,” his wife said. “His family was involved in what happened. It was his history. It became his last book. He put everything he had into that book.”



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At The Ranch in Montauk, Plenty of Room for Art and Horses


“Renate, both due to geography and gender, has until now remained a subterranean figure of Anger’s underground, as if her multiple talents and interests in film, costume design and literature precluded serious attention to her work as a painter,” Levai said. “At a place like The Ranch, with its multiple histories,” he added, “it makes sense to showcase artists with this complexity.”

Born in Vienna in 1921, she studied painting at the Vienna Art Academy for Women. Druks, who was Jewish, fled Austria in 1938, on the brink of the Nazi occupation, with her husband, who was an American citizen. In the 1940s, she arrived in Los Angeles, where she became immersed in a midcentury art scene. A close friend of Anger and the writer Anaïs Nin, she threw famous (and infamous) costume parties in Malibu, including one for which she asked guests to come dressed as their particular madness — which inspired “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.”

“Her paintings are extraordinary, like a missing link between Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini,” said Lisa Janssen, who is working on a biography of Druks. Carrington, a British Surrealist who worked mostly in Mexico beginning in the 1940s, was known for her fantastical figures, many inspired by mythology and folklore; Fini, born in Argentina and raised in Italy, created groundbreaking paintings of powerful women and was part of “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

Druks, for her part, “paints women with their animal familiars and pagan accouterments, still lifes of twilit tables set with magic objects, all in deep, jeweled colors, full of hidden dream meanings,” Janssen said. “She should be in the canon of women Surrealists. ”⠀



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‘The Evening Hour’ Review: Heart of the Country


A colleague of mine once floated a memorable thought experiment: if you could visit the picturesque fictional towns portrayed in 1940s Hollywood dramas in the present day, they might be ravaged by the opioid epidemic. The idea traces a thread of continuity in American life, which I believe is partly what “The Evening Hour” is trying to do.

Set in a small Appalachian town, Braden King’s luminous second feature centers on a wholesome nursing aide, Cole (Philip Ettinger), who moonlights as a drug dealer. His daily rounds of checking on seniors — including his grandmother — also entail picking up and dropping off pills. He’s a peacemaker with a casual girlfriend (Stacy Martin), a clingy old friend (Cosmo Jarvis), another pal (Michael Trotter), who’s also a client, and an absent mother (Lili Taylor), who suddenly shows up when his grandfather dies.

King works to portray a tight mesh of relationships around Cole, directing Elizabeth Palmore’s valiant adaptation of the sensitively rendered Carter Sickels novel. But lacking a strong central performance from Ettinger — who gets stuck on a half-pained, half-exasperated setting — much of the movie feels like a series of comings and goings, entrances and exits. And from the moment that a ruthless dealer in town gives Cole a hard look, there’s no question where his side hustle will lead.

In flashbacks, Cole longs for time spent with his grandfather and at religious gatherings. The movie opens and closes with appreciative pans of the verdant hills that suggest the heartland will live on. But what comes in the middle doesn’t quite hold together.

The Evening Hour
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.



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Bob Odenkirk in Stable Condition After Collapsing on Set of ‘Better Caul Saul’


Bob Odenkirk, the star of the AMC series “Better Call Saul,” was said to be in stable condition on Wednesday evening after suffering what his representatives said was “a heart-related incident.”

Odenkirk, 58, who plays the underhanded title character on “Better Call Saul,” was hospitalized on Tuesday after he collapsed on the set of that show, which is filmed in and around Albuquerque, N.M.

Representatives for Odenkirk said in a statement, “We can confirm Bob is in stable condition after experiencing a heart-related incident. He and his family would like to express gratitude for the incredible doctors and nurses looking after him, as well as his cast, crew and producers who have stayed by his side. The Odenkirks would also like to thank everyone for the outpouring of well wishes and ask for their privacy at this time as Bob works on his recovery.”

Odenkirk had previously written for “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and co-created the HBO sketch series “Mr. Show With Bob and David” before he came to wider renown as the comically unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on the AMC series “Breaking Bad.”

After “Breaking Bad” concluded in 2013, Odenkirk’s character was given his own prequel series, “Better Call Saul,” which charted his character’s descent from a good-hearted but corner-cutting lawyer named Jimmy McGill to his sleazier Saul Goodman persona.

On “Better Call Saul,” which made its debut in 2015, Odenkirk received four Emmy Award nominations for lead actor in a drama series. The sixth and final season of “Better Call Saul” was expected to make its debut next year.

In a statement Wednesday night, AMC said: “The immediate outpouring of affection and concern from fans around the world is a clear reflection of his immense talents and ability to both move and entertain people. Like everyone else, we are so grateful to know he is in stable condition and receiving excellent care. We are holding him close in our thoughts and wishing for a fast and full recovery.”

Earlier, as news of Odenkirk’s hospitalization spread, there was an outpouring of support for him on social media.

David Cross — who co-created and co-starred in “Mr. Show” with him — wrote on Twitter: “I will share what I know when I can but Bob is one of the strongest people I know both physically and spiritually. He WILL get through this.”

And Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” wrote on Instagram that he had been “anxious all morning” about the news of Odenkirk’s collapse. “He is in the hospital in Albuquerque and receiving the medical attention he needs but his condition is not known to the public as yet,” he wrote. “Please take a moment in your day today to think about him and send positive thoughts and prayers his way, thank you.”

This past spring, Odenkirk starred in the revenge thriller “Nobody,” which required him to undergo several months of physical training in preparation for the lead role.

Discussing his exercise regimen for “Nobody,” Odenkirk said in an interview with The New York Times that he had never previously attempted anything more strenuous than cardio.

“And I had never hurt my back, my knees,” Odenkirk said. “Everything’s good enough, it works. It stressed me to drive to the training facility — an hour and 10 minutes, some days more — in L.A. traffic, and think, ‘You’re training for a movie that’s never going to happen, what is wrong with you? What kind of midlife crisis are you going through?’”

He continued, “But I also thought, ‘If the movie doesn’t happen, well, I’ll be in shape. And I’ll have learned something about my body.’”

Odenkirk won Emmy Awards as a member of the writing staffs at “Saturday Night Live” and “The Ben Stiller Show.” He also directed the comedy films “Let’s Go to Prison” and “The Brothers Solomon,” and he acted in TV shows like “Fargo” and in films like the 2019 adaptation of “Little Women.”





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Dusty Hill, Long-Bearded Bassist for ZZ Top, Dies at 72


Dusty Hill, the quiet, bearded bass player who made up one third of ZZ Top, among the best-selling rock bands of the 1980s, has died at his home in Houston. He was 72.

His bandmates Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons announced the death on Wednesday through Facebook and Instagram. They did not provide a cause or say when he died.

Starting in the early 1970s, ZZ Top racked up dozens of hit records and packed hundreds of arenas a year with their powerful blend of boogie, Southern rock and blues. But the band really took off in the 1980s, when Mr. Gibbons, the lead singer and guitarist, and Mr. Hill grew their signature 20-inch beards and the band released a series of albums that added New Wave synthesizers — often played by Mr. Hill — to their hard-driving guitars, producing MTV-friendly hits like “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man.”

The band paired their grungy sound and innuendo-filled lyrics with a knowing, sometimes comic stage act — Mr. Hill and Mr. Gibbons, in matching sunglasses and Stetson hats, would swing their hips in unison, spinning their instruments on mounts attached to their belts. (Despite his name, Mr. Beard, the drummer, sports just a mustache.) Their stage sets might include crushed cars and even livestock.

Though in public Mr. Hill and Mr. Gibbons were often mistaken as twins, their musical styles differed — Mr. Gibbons a showy virtuoso, Mr. Hill a grinding, precise musical mechanic.

Mr. Hill rarely gave interviews, preferring to let Mr. Gibbons speak for the band. And he gladly accepted his supporting role for his bandmate’s masterful lead guitar playing.

“Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I hate that in a way, but I love that in a way. That’s a compliment. That means you’ve filled in everything and it’s right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”

Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas on May 19, 1949. He started his musical career singing and playing cello, but he switched instruments at 13, when his brother, Rocky, who played guitar, said his band needed a bassist. One day Dusty came home to find a bass on his bed; that night, he joined Rocky onstage at a Dallas beer joint.

“I started playing that night by putting my finger on the fret, and when the time came to change, my brother would hit me on the shoulder,” he said in a 2012 interview.

In 1969, Dusty was living in Houston and working with the blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins when Mr. Beard, a friend from high school, suggested that he audition for an open spot in a trio, called ZZ Top, recently founded by Mr. Gibbons. They played their first show together in February 1970.

The band’s humor was evident from the start: They named their first album “ZZ Top’s First Album.” Real success came in 1973 with their third release, “Tres Hombres,” which cracked the Billboard top 10. That same year they opened for the Rolling Stones in Hawaii.

Many of their early songs leaned heavily on sexual innuendo, though sometimes they set the innuendo aside completely. “La Grange,” their big hit on “Tres Hombres,” was about a bordello.

In 1976, after a string of hit albums and nearly seven years of constant touring, the band took a three-year hiatus. Mr. Hill returned to Dallas, where he worked at the airport and tried to avoid being identified by fans.

“I had a short beard, regular length, and if you take off the hat and shades and wear work clothes and put ‘Joe’ on my work shirt, people are not expecting to see you,” he said in a 2019 interview. “Now, a couple of times, a couple of people did ask me, and I just lied, and I said: ‘No! Do you think I’d be sitting here?’”

The band reunited in 1979 to release “Degüello,” their first album to go platinum, and the first time Mr. Gibbon and Mr. Hill grew out their beards. It was also the first sign that they were going beyond their Texas roots by adding a New Wave flavor to their sound, with Mr. Hill also playing keyboard.

They achieved superstar status in 1983 with “Eliminator,” which included hit singles like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Give Me All Your Lovin.’” It sold 10 million copies and stayed on the Billboard charts for 183 weeks.

In 1984, Mr. Hill made headlines when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach. As a girlfriend was taking off his boot, a .38 Derringer slipped out, hit the floor and went off.

The band’s success continued through the 1980s, and while later albums — in which they returned to their Texan blues roots — didn’t climb the charts, the trio still packed stadiums. And despite their raunchy stylings, they began to draw grudging respect from critics, who often singled out Mr. Hill’s subtly masterful bass playing.

“My sound is big, heavy and a bit distorted because it has to overlap the guitar,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Someone once asked me to describe my tone, and I said it was like farting in a trash can. What I meant is it’s raw, but you’ve got to have the tone in there.”

ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Mr. Hill married his longtime girlfriend, Charleen McCrory, an actress, in 2002. He also had a daughter. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 2014 he injured his hip after a fall on his tour bus. He required surgery, and part of the tour had to be canceled. On July 23, he left their latest tour, citing problems with his hip. It is unclear whether that had any connection to his death.

Contrary to their image — and the hard partying that their music seemed to encourage — Mr. Hill and his bandmates kept a low, relatively sober profile. And they remained close friends, even after 50 years of near-constant touring.

“People ask how we’ve stayed together so long,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 2015. “I say separate tour buses. We got separate tour buses early on, when we probably couldn’t afford them. That way we were always glad to see each other when we got to the next city.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.





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11 New Books Coming in August


This debut collection, set in the Cambodian American community in California, focuses on queer characters. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide looms, but So, who died in 2020, creates plenty of lighthearted moments, too. In one scene, a character chides a member from an older generation: “Violence will not solve our problems, and neither will the model minority myth.”

[ Read more about So. | Read our review. ]

King recounts the major accomplishments of her professional and personal life, from winning 39 Grand Slam titles and demolishing Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” match to throwing herself into political and social activism.

Mildred Harnack, born in Milwaukee, lived an extraordinary life: She was studying at a German university when the Nazi party, exploiting the country’s economic and political instability, rose to power. Alarmed, Harnack organized a large underground resistance group in Berlin, and was eventually arrested and killed on Hitler’s orders. Donner — Harnack’s great-great niece — draws on notes, diaries, letters and declassified intelligence materials to offer this window into 1930s Germany and Harnack’s remarkable actions.

Billy Summers isn’t a typical hit man — he’s thinking about Émile Zola when the book opens, for starters, and has a strict rule of only killing “bad guys.” Though he’s close to retirement, he’s persuaded to carry out a last hit, but is wary: “If noir is a genre, then ‘one last job’ is a sub-genre,” he thinks. “In those movies, the last job always goes bad.” His prediction comes true, of course, but King offers plenty of unexpected swerves.

Wilson, a noted literary biographer, uses Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” to structure this book, which focuses on the middle period of Lawrence’s life, from 1915 through 1925. Each section finds the author in a new location — England, Italy and the American Southwest — and follows how he essentially became a different man in each place. As Wilson writes: “For all his claims to prophetic vision, Lawrence had little idea what was going on in the room let alone in the world. His fidelity as a writer was not to the truth but to his own contradictions, and reading him today is like tuning into a radio station whose frequency keeps changing.”

Current discussions around the ethics of A.I. and other technological advances center on essentially ancient questions, O’Gieblyn says: “Today artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality.” The philosophical queries that guide her book remain clear and accessible, and O’Gieblyn, who was once religious but no longer believes in God, draws on her own experiences to strong effect.

The first novel in a planned trilogy, this book borrows from Slimani’s family history in Morocco after World War II. Mathilde, a Frenchwoman, struggles to adjust to life with her Moroccan husband, Amine. The lead-up to Morocco’s independence exacerbates tensions at home, as Amine reconciles his political beliefs with his marriage to a Frenchwoman, and Mathilde works to find a measure of autonomy in a country that she finds hostile.

In her first novel, Jeffers, a nominee for the National Book Award in poetry, traces the history of one family from the arrival of its first enslaved ancestors. At its heart is Ailey, growing up in the 1980s, who returns each year to her family’s ancestral home in Georgia. As she gets older, she uncovers secrets about her history that challenge her sense of self and belonging.

“Like many of the ghost stories I’ve grown up with, this one needs to start with a death,” writes Chow, a founding member of NPR’s “Code Switch.” The death at the heart of this book is of Chow’s mother, in 2004. For years, Chow and her family rarely spoke of their mother, and even avoided looking at pictures of her. Now, Chow dives deeper into her mother’s life and the history of her family, from Hong Kong to the U.S. and beyond.

Kleeman’s fiction veers toward the dystopian: Her debut, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” focused on characters whose enchantment with television led them down disturbing paths. Now, she follows a novelist, Patrick Hamblin, who arrives in Los Angeles to help with the film adaptation of one of his books. The usual Hollywood horrors are here — corruption, outsize egos, an unruly former child star — but Patrick is unnerved by the extent of the ecological damage he sees in California, which seems headed for an environmental apocalypse.

“America’s colleges and universities have a dirty open secret,” writes Harris, a staff writer for The Atlantic. “They have never given Black people an equal chance to succeed.” He details the lengths states have gone to to avoid integration — at the time of the book’s writing, six states had “not proved to the federal government that they have desegregated their higher-education systems” — and explores how these exclusionary approaches perpetuate inequity.



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In ‘Monsters at Work,’ a Roz by Another Name Is Just as Sour


Roz gets an “identical twin sister,” Roze, in “Monsters at Work.” Their voices sound identical. Please settle the score: Are they secretly the same slug?

Aren’t twins very much like the same person? Mike thinks he’s rid of Roz, only to meet Roze, who, except for her colored hair and no glasses, sounds exactly the same. People should keep watching Roze — there are some surprises coming up, and people can conjecture, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to guess what they are.

When can we expect a Roz/Roze spinoff series?

That would be fun. We could do it — I’d find a way.

You’ve voiced a number of memorable Pixar characters, including the squirrel-loving dog Dug in “Up” and Mr. Ray in “Finding Nemo.” What are some of your others?

I generally do scratch recording [a temporary voice recording] for every film I work on. For “Luca,” I played the dad for a while, and, at that time, it was more of an Italian accent, and I just could not do it. I was so glad when they said, “We’re not going to use you.” I was in “Finding Nemo” as the jumping dolphins and as the bird who, when the bubble comes up, says, “Nice,” and flies away.

Do you ever break out the Roz voice in public?

Before my mom passed away, when we’d go to the Monsters, Inc. ride at California Adventure, she’d want to make sure all the ride operators knew I voiced Roz. As we were getting on the car, she’d say, “Oh, my son, he does Roz; do the voice.” And I’d be like, “Eeeeeeh … Wazowski,” and the ride operator would be like, “That’s great, come on, let’s get on the car.” No one cares. I don’t do it too often, but sometimes I’ll do it to make a point — if someone insults me or something, I’ll give them an “Eeeeeeh” [in Roz voice]. Mostly I keep Roz contained, but, like the Hulk, she breaks out every now and then.



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Amar Ramasar, City Ballet Dancer, To Retire After Texting Scandal


A star dancer at New York City Ballet who came under fire for sharing vulgar texts and sexually explicit photos plans to leave the company next year.

The dancer, Amar Ramasar, will retire in May after a 20-year career with City Ballet, according to a 2021-22 season announcement released by the company this month.

Ramasar has been under intense scrutiny since 2018, when he and two other male dancers were accused of sending inappropriate texts and photos of other City Ballet dancers.

The scandal roiled the ballet company and became a high-profile test of the #MeToo movement. One female dancer accused the company of condoning a “fraternity-like atmosphere.”

In 2018, City Ballet fired Ramasar. Months later, he was reinstated after an arbitrator ruled that the company had overstepped.

City Ballet confirmed Ramasar’s retirement but did not offer further details, saying only that his farewell performance would be in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Ramasar did not respond to a request for comment. He has previously said that he has learned from past mistakes. He has argued that he only shared pictures of his own consensual sexual activity.

Ramasar, a principal dancer, has also had success on Broadway, appearing in productions of “West Side Story” and “Carousel.”

But the texting scandal has continued to cloud his career. Critics have held protests at his performances and called for his firing.

Other City Ballet dancers have also accused Ramasar of inappropriate behavior. Georgina Pazcoguin, a soloist, writes in a new memoir that Ramasar often greeted her by touching her breasts. Ramasar has denied the accusations.

City Ballet has grappled with a series of scandals in recent years, including allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse by Peter Martins, its former ballet master in chief. (Martins has denied the accusations.)

The pandemic has also posed a challenge for the company, resulting in the cancellation of its winter and spring seasons.

City Ballet is set to return to the stage on Sept. 21 with a program featuring Balanchine’s “Serenade.”



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The Woman Who Captured ‘Jaws,’ Then Worked to Undo the Damage


Steven Spielberg needed a real shark. Before the young director began filming “Jaws” with his famously malfunctioning animatronic beast in Martha’s Vineyard, he hired two underwater cinematographers to film great white sharks off the coast of South Australia.

Skilled divers and well-known in their home country, the Australian couple Ron and Valerie Taylor set off to capture the footage that would be used in the climactic 1975 scene in which Richard Dreyfuss’s Hooper, seemingly safe in a shark cage, confronts the monster terrorizing beachgoers.

But, as Valerie Taylor, the subject of a new documentary, said in a recent video interview from her home in Sydney, “You might be able to direct a dog or a human or a horse, but you can’t direct a shark.”

It quickly became clear that the Taylors were battling two unwilling parties: the shark and the professional stuntman, Carl Rizzo, who didn’t know how to dive and panicked at being lowered in the cage. As he waffled on the boat deck, the shark approached, became tangled in the wires supporting the cage and ultimately snapped the empty container loose from the winch, sending it plummeting into the depths.

Ron filmed the whole thing underwater, while Valerie grabbed a camera on the ship and shot overhead. Spielberg was so enamored with the footage of the unexpected turn of events, he had the script rewritten to accommodate it, altering Hooper’s fate from shark bait to survivor as the animal thrashed overhead.

Valerie’s work on “Jaws” is just one chapter in her incredible life, which saw her shift from lethal spearfisher to filmmaker and pioneering conservationist. “She was like a Marvel superhero to me,” the Australian producer Bettina Dalton said. “She influenced everything about my career and my passion for the natural world.”

That reverence led Dalton to team up with the director Sally Aitken for the National Geographic documentary “Playing With Sharks,” which follows Taylor’s career and is now available on Disney+.

Born in Australia and raised mostly in New Zealand, Valerie, now 85, grew up poor. She was hospitalized with polio at age 12 and forced to drop out of school while she relearned how to walk. She began working as a comic strip artist then dabbled in theater acting, but hated being tied to the same place every day.

“I had a good mother. She said, just do what you like. Try what you like. It can’t hurt you and you’ll learn,” Valerie, her statement earrings swinging under her silver hair, told me emphatically. When she began diving and spearfishing professionally, however, her mother was “horrified.” Valerie added, “I was supposed to get married and have children.”

She did eventually marry Ron, a fellow spearfishing champion who was also skilled with an underwater camera, and they began making films documenting marine life together. Valerie, with her glamorous “Bond girl” looks, became the focal point since they could fetch more money if she appeared onscreen. They were together until Ron died of leukemia in 2012.

“Here’s this incredible front-of-house character, and here’s an amazing technical wizard,” Aitken said. “Together, they realized that was a winning combination.”

Not only did Valerie have a magnetic on-camera presence, she had a rare ability to connect with animals, including menacing sharks, which were then little understood.

“They all have different personalities. Some are shy, some are bullies, some are brave,” Valerie said. “When you get to know a school of sharks, you get to know them as individuals.”

After she killed a shark while shooting a film in the 1960s, the Taylors had an epiphany: sharks needed to be studied and understood, rather than slain. They quit spearfishing entirely, and Aitken likened their journey from hunters to conservationists to that of John James Audubon.

“I have that sort of personality that I don’t get afraid. I get angry,” Valerie said. “Even when I’ve been bitten, I’ve just stayed still and waited for it to let go — because they’ve made a mistake.”

Still, she conceded, “I don’t expect other people to behave like I do.”

Her signature look, a pink wet suit and brightly colored hair ribbon, could be seen as a defiant embrace of her femininity in a male-dominated industry, but it was also a simple way for her to stand out in underwater footage. “Ron wanted color in a blue world,” Valerie said. “He said, ‘Cousteau has a red beanie, you can have a red ribbon.’ That was that.”

When asked, she shrugged at the idea that she faced additional challenges as the only woman on boats full of men for most of her life, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, when women were still largely expected to stick to traditional roles.

“I was as good as they were, so there you go. No problem,” she said. “And, although I didn’t realize it, I was probably as tough.”

The “Playing With Sharks” filmmakers, who pored over decades of media coverage and archival footage, described Valerie as someone who faced an uphill battle on multiple levels but who was also seen as an intriguing novelty.

“Of course, she had to fight to be taken seriously,” Aitken said. “She was working class. She was someone who really had very little education. I think the culture saw her as extraordinary. That in itself can be a liberating path, precisely because you are singular.”

When “Jaws” became an instant, unexpected blockbuster in 1975, the Taylors realized that the movie was doing harm that they’d never considered: Recreational shark hunting gained popularity and audiences feared legions of bloodthirsty sharks were stalking humans just below the surface. In reality, there are hundreds of species of sharks, and only a few have been known to bite humans. Those that do usually mistake people for their natural prey, like sea lions.

“For some reason, filmgoers believed it. There’s no shark like that alive in the world today,” Valerie said. “Ron had a saying: ‘You don’t go to New York and expect to see King Kong on the Empire State Building. Neither should you go into the water expecting to see Jaws.’”

In an attempt to quell public fears, Universal flew the Taylors to the United States for a talk-show tour educating the public about sharks, and Valerie said, “I’ve been fighting for the poor old, much maligned sharks and the marine world, in general, ever since.”

In 1984, she helped campaign to make the grey nurse shark the first protected shark species in the world. Her nature photography has been featured in National Geographic. The same area where she and Ron filmed their “Jaws” sequence is now a marine park named in their honor. And she still publishes essays passionately defending animals.

Yet, shark populations have been decimated around the world, primarily because of overfishing, and Valerie said many of the underwater scenes she witnessed in her early days no longer exist.

“I hate being old, but at least it means I was in the ocean when it was pristine,” she said, adding that today, “it’s like going to where there was a rainforest and seeing a field of corn.”

Despite all that’s covered in “Playing With Sharks,” Valerie said, “it’s not my whole life story, by any means.” There was the time she was left at sea and saved herself by anchoring her hair ribbons to a piece of coral until another boat happened upon her. Or the day she taught Mick Jagger how to scuba dive on a whim. (He was a quick study, despite the weight belt sliding right down his narrow hips.) She also survived breast cancer.

Though she still dives, her arthritis makes being in the colder Australian waters difficult, and she’s eager to return to Fiji, where swimming feels like “taking a bath.”

“I can’t jump anymore, not that I particularly want to jump,” she said. “But if I go into the ocean, I can fly.”



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A Trick of the Eye Turns a Luxurious Embassy Inside Out


ROME — In a city of spectacular offices, Christian Masset, France’s ambassador to Italy, has perhaps the most spectacular of them all.

Smack in the middle of Palazzo Farnese, a high-Renaissance masterpiece, his workplace has cavernous marble fireplaces and columns, wall-to-wall frescoes and a central window and balcony, both modified by Michelangelo, that look out onto twin fountains made from ancient basins. On some nights the office lights are left on, giving Romans strolling through one of the city’s most elegant piazzas a glimpse of its glorious interiors.

So it was no small ask when the French artist JR proposed blocking half the view.

“Yeah, it was a long discussion,” the almost anonymous artist said, wearing his trademark fedora, shades and trim beard.

He spoke in front of the Palazzo Farnese on a recent afternoon to inaugurate his new work, a more than 6,500-square-foot, black-and-white trompe l’oeil mural running like a gash, or a rash, up the building’s facade, or more accurately up the scaffolding installed for the palace’s restoration.

“At first,” JR said, the embassy officials told him it was a no go “to cover any of the office.”

But he argued that rerouting the mural around the windows would ruin the optical illusion of a crack that worked like an X-ray, revealing the frescoes in the ambassador’s office, barrel vaults and Doric columns, but also elements from the palace’s past, including a grand statue of Hercules that once stood in the courtyard but is now in a Naples museum.

JR won the argument and the ambassador lost half his view.

“I still have a window,” Masset said with a shrug.

JR’s project is part of Open for Work, Palazzo Farnese’s four-year, restoration of its facades and roof at a cost of 5.6 million euros, about $6.6 million. Flanked by a convent and arguably Rome’s most louche and Felliniesque see-and-be-seen cafe, the sublimely mannered 16th-century palace will be an open canvas during the renovation for contemporary artists playing on its history.

It kicked off on the evening of July 13, when three large white helium balloons, gleaming like moons, suspended a 60-foot cardboard bridge in the air over the Tiber River, fancifully fulfilling an uncompleted Michelangelo project to connect the Palazzo Farnese and the gardens of the Villa Farnesina, another sumptuous property on the opposite bank.

That work, by the French artist Olivier Grossetête, was followed by last week’s inauguration of the JR mural.

Some critics, who find JR’s work more advertorial and obvious than inspired and nuanced, worry that the venerable building is wearing something that it’s too old for, with an unseemly slit up the middle that evokes the outfits of its boozy neighbor more than its stately history.

But the French say they are injecting some life during the architectural surgery and helping, in a spirit of fraternité, to jump start a Roman art scene that needs a little lifeblood.

“We gave a big push. Because I think that the Farnese Bridge and this one are the two biggest projects so far of this kind, in Rome in this period,” said Masset, standing quietly to the side as reporters and photographers clamored around JR.

France’s warm, if somewhat patronizing, helping hand reflects a new political symbiosis between France and Italy under the recently installed, pro-European government of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who has become the French president Emmanuel Macron’s mentor and wingman. That is a far cry from just a couple years ago, when Italy’s nationalist-populist government made a habit out of knocking France to trumpet its anti-Europe and anti-establishment credo.

In 2019, Luigi Di Maio, then Italy’s powerful deputy prime minister and leader of the populist Five Star Movement, took a road trip to France to meet with a leader of the Yellow Vest protesters who had called for civil war. “Yellow vests, do not give up!” Mr. Di Maio urged, prompting Macron to recall Masset, the ambassador, briefly to Paris in protest.

Back then, Matteo Salvini, the once powerful interior minister and nationalist leader, said France should get rid of its “very bad president.” His fellow League party member Lucia Borgonzoni — then, and still now, Italy’s deputy culture minister — fought sending Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces to France for a major Louvre retrospective.

But on July 14, France’s national day, and hours after the Farnese Bridge project lifted off over the Tiber, Di Maio, now a less-than-powerful foreign minister, attended a celebration at Palazzo Farnese. Salvini now nominally supports Draghi, and members of Parliament in his League party were among those invited to a soiree after the July 21 inauguration of the JR work. They posted selfies with the artist on social media.

Such heady settings are also a long way from JR’s origins. He came to prominence in the mid- 2000s by wheat-pasting his up-close and exaggerated photos of residents of a housing project in a deprived Paris suburb. He went on to produce huge public photo projects in poverty- or conflict-stricken parts of the world, such as favelas in Brazil, slums in Kenya and on the Gaza Strip. Alicia Keys opened his solo museum exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and last year he designed the 91-foot “La Ferita” or “The Wound,” a similar fault line effect on the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.

But he said last week that little had prepared him for the ambassador’s remarkable office.

“When I walked in — I was mesmerized!” he said. The palazzo’s frescoes were “the kind of wall painting that inspired me,” he added. “That’s why I do what I do.”

He prepared for the project by studying the Palazzo Farnese facade and hanging around the piazza incognito, which is to say without his hat and sunglasses. But now he was done hiding.

Wearing France standard-issue Stan Smith sneakers, he took a trademark leap in front of the building for the benefit of kneeling photographers and his 1.6 million Instagram followers. He spoke good Italian to the reporters and said “Super” in a French accent to his entourage.

Looking on in delight was Hélène Kelmachter, the embassy’s cultural attaché, who wore artsy eyeglasses with swirling bass clefs for temples, an undulating dress made of ruffled blue ripples and shoes stamped with Wonder Woman’s face.

“Rome is a place for patrimony — is a place of history,” she said. “But history can meet present.”

Switching to English, JR said that the art history crowd may know all about Palazzo Farnese, its papal inhabitants, its Renaissance architects and its astonishing frescoes. But his work, he said, spoke to and grabbed “people who walk by.”

On Wednesday, they walked by to see him.

“Is it you? Yes it is! I follow you on social,” said Valentina Ilari, a 49-year-old lawyer who saw JR in the square. “Can we do a selfie? Would you mind?”

“Si, si, si,” JR said.

“Wait, I don’t know how to do it,” said Ilari, fumbling with her phone. “I’m overwhelmed.”

The ambassador seemed more contained.

Standing with folded hands in a navy suit, away from the scrum, Masset acknowledged that, yes, he felt “a little” regret about the way JR’s mural had obstructed his view. “But when you see the result,” he added diplomatically, “I’m very happy.”



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‘Alice Neel: People Come First’


Alice Neel: People Come First,” on view through Aug. 1, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a momentous show of more than 100 paintings, drawings and watercolors from streetscapes, still lifes and interiors to the portraits of a veritable cross section of New Yorkers, occasionally nude, that are considered her greatest work.

The largest Neel retrospective yet seen in New York and the first in 20 years, it reigns over prime Met real estate — the Tisch Galleries, typically host to historic figures like Michelangelo, Delacroix and Courbet, and only now to a female artist. This array confirms Neel (1900-1984) as equal if not superior to artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and destined for icon status on the order of Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.

Neel’s star has been on the rise since 1974, when, after several decades on the art world’s margins, her confrontational, solidly painted portraits were finally acknowledged with an overdue survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, she is a cult figure, an early feminist, inborn bohemian, erstwhile Social Realist, lifelong activist and staunchly representational painter who bravely persisted, depicting the people and world around her through the heydays of Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism.

Her greatness lies in the different levels of reality combined in her art. These include social and economic inequities; the body’s deterioration through time; and the complex interior lives of her subjects. There is also Neel’s own indomitable personality, ever-present in her work; and the dazzling insistence of her paintings as objects. The show is brilliantly installed, seguing from chronological to thematic, linking works early and late and demonstrating Neel’s fluctuations among various realist styles — tight, loose, expressionistic, surreal. The first two galleries encompass works from the 1930s to the late 1950s and show how foundational to her development were New York City — its buildings, problems, people and the neighborhoods in which she lived. There are several middle galleries dedicated to her portraits of the 1960s and ’70s, considered by many to be her best work, but the show affirms that she was outstanding from the start.



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