Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

May the year to come be better than the one now passing (hey, I believe in setting the bar low).

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

I ordered this from the library and there was a waiting list so it took me forever to get it. And then, between the distractions of other books and the holidays and my bugs, I read it very slowly. So at this point I might as well have bought the damn thing in the first place and not had to wait.

I felt like it was a rewarding read, though perhaps better suited, at least from my perspective, to dipping in and out of rather than reading it all in one go. One of the things I particularly like about his writing is the sense of a consistent aesthetic. In his introduction Mendelsohn writes of the title:
Interestingly, Williams phrase occurs in a stage direction not about the play's set design but about a certain musical leitmotif he has in mind, one that (he writes, in his typically meticulous directions)
expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. . . . When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. Both of these ideas should be woven into the recurring tune.

I suppose that one reason that this haunting line struck me with such force when I first came across it is that it acknowledges, with perfect simplicity, the inevitable entwining of beauty and tragedy that is the hallmark of Greek theater, and is a consistent element in the works that have always moved me the most, from the plays of Euripides to the History of Thucydides, from the light comedies of Noel Coward to the films of Pedro Almodovar. As the Greeks knew well, it is the potential for being broken--which boils down to the knowledge that we all must die--that gives resonance and meaning to the small part of the universe that is our life. The necessity, in the end, of yielding to hard and inexplicable realities that are beyond our control is a tragic truth; without that, all you've got is mush--melodrama, and Hallmark sentimentality. That so much of contemporary culture is characterized by this sentimentality, by a seeming preference for false "closures" over a strong and meaningful confrontation with real and inalterable pain, is a cultural crisis. That crisis is another theme that runs through many of the essays here.

But in my mind Williams's haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something of the nature of critics who judge those works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.
I always like to know what a critic is looking for or how they approach what they criticize. As a reader, I think it allows me to get more from their work. I had a history teacher in college who absolutely drilled into us that the first thing we should ask when reading was, "what's their bias?" I figure that pretty much works as a question for all kinds of non-fiction writing. Anyway, Mendelsohn is clear on where he's coming from--although I do wonder how he defines beauty, since I don't think art necessarily has to or should be beautiful--and I appreciate that. Liking his approach wouldn't be worth much though if I didn't also think Mendelsohn was a fantastic critic (who also has the advantage of writing for the New York Review of Books where he has lots of space). He's insightful and thoughtful and informative. I can tell you one thing: I know a good bit more about Greek theater now than I did last month.

I think that any time you read a compilation of criticism--particularly one that encompasses such a broad range: movies, plays, books of fiction, books of non-fiction, opera--there are certain subjects that you'll be more interested in than others. While I eventually read everything, I skipped around reading the essays I was more interested in first. Unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed reading about the plays and movies I had also seen and the books I had also read. Mendelsohn's essays on The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire helped me understand why watching the plays seemed so dead compared to reading them (I've seen three Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway and been disappointed every time). I loved Medea when I saw it but Mendelsohn calls the production, "grotesque, giggling, wrongheaded," and I understand the play better for his critique of it although it doesn't lessen my recollection of it. And I felt like I had a richer view of Colm Toibin's The Master, a book I enjoyed after reading what he had to say about it.

That's not to say that I enjoyed everything. I found his dissection of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe a slog. Academic review and critique is certainly necessary, but there's no pleasure in reading the thorough dismantling of a work over a decade after it was first published and after it's author's death. Also, as interesting as I find medieval history, I can't summon up that much interest in medieval Christian liturgy. I imagine the essay was included in this book because it seems relevant to current political debate. But I can't help but feel that its relevance is only surface deep. And I had to spread out the Greek theater because I can only take so much of that in one go.

What I liked best about the book though, is the way in which Mendelsohn examines what the works he's reviewing tell us about our own culture. I found that analysis particularly interesting.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Notes from the Homefront

1.) The night I got in to Buffalo, my brother (who is 18 and has Down Syndrome) asked me to give him back his Ultimate Spiderman comics. My father took them away ages ago because my brother isn't always so good at recognizing the line between fact and fiction, and stashed them somewhere in my room. I don't know where though and even if I did I wouldn't give them back. So I told him that I didn't really know what he wanted from me and a few minutes later, I got this note:
my things
Now obviously it would be better if he were writing me nice notes, but being able to express himself in writing like that is a pretty new thing so we're all pleased (and amused). It's particularly nice because it's not like anyone ever taught him how to write "bitch" so he obviously sounded it out on his own.

2.) My father took me to a Sabres game while I was home. Fortunately they won, if in an unnecessarily ugly way. Last time I went to a Sabres game in Buffalo was the ice bowl last year. There were an awful lot fewer people yelling, "You suck, Vanek!" this year. Also, we got ice cream, which makes any day better.

3.) My parents have what appears to be an infestation of excessively stupid mice. Not only have they set up residence in a household that has a fairly talented feline hunter, either the cat has taken to putting them there, which we doubt since he's previously shown a preference for eating his kills, or they keep drowning in the dog's water bowl. 5 dead mice between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thankfully there were none in the week I was home.

I am now in possession of a passel of new plants which I will hopefully manage not to kill. The first is a bamboo plant that was a Channukah gift from my brother. We don't actually exchange Channukah gifts, but he couldn't wait until Christmas to give it to me. The other two are cuttings from other plants.
The bamboo (obviously).
A cutting from my sister's Rat Tail Cactus,
which will hopefully not die since it really didn't cure long enough.
They end up looking really neat.

A cutting from my grandparents cactus,
which they've had for over 30 years
and just cut down for the umpteenth time.

5.) I'm glad there was snow when I arrived because the rest of the week was so warm and damp that it all melted and a lake formed in the backyard. On Sunday morning it was so windy that tiny rippling waves were running across the pooled water and you could feel the wind pushing against the car as my sister and I drove toward New York City. Briefly, around the time we passed Rochester, it looked like it was going to clear up. A sharp streak of lighter sky appeared at the horizon, as if the lid of a pot were being lifted up. Instead the rain came back.

6.) Driving up to the Holland Tunnel totally sucks.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Unless you celebrate Channukah, in which case, Happy Channukah! Or you could be like my family, celebrate both, and host a Channukah-celebrating dinner on Christmas Eve. We are, it's safe to say, very festive here today. Well, whatever you celebrate, have a good one!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Today's Calvin and Hobbes...

I particularly love that it looks like a giant ant. Kind of like Them with bed bugs instead of ants. How scary would that be?

P.S. Don't actually use Raid on bed bugs, imaginary or otherwise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Autobiography/Biography: Narrating the Self

I went up to the Philoctetes Center last Saturday to see this roundtable discussion. Partly because I like biographies--generally speaking I'm less wild about memoirs and autobiographies--and partially because I loved Simon Winchester's two books that revolved around the creation of the OED. I thought it was a thought-provoking discussion, so if you're interested in the subject I totally recommend watching it here. (I think it's fantastic that they not only offer these events for free but also put video up on the Web. I wish I'd heard about them earlier.) 

I do, however, recommend turning it off before the audience Q & A starts. It was an interesting afternoon up until that point, but the questions were downright painful and if I hadn't been sitting so far from the door I would have left then and there. Honestly people, if your question is all about you no one in the audience really cares. That means if it requires a two-minute set-up in which you talk about the book you wrote 10 years ago and its critical reception, no one wants to hear it. Skip the personal stuff. If it all comes down to whether or not you should fire the editor you've hired because of a disagreement about ellipses, no one gives a shit. If it involves you wittering on about your opinions at length only to say, "Don't you agree?" at the end, that's not even a real question in the first place and you've only succeeded in showing off what an ass you are. Get a grip, folks.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The McGarrigle Christmas Hour(s)

I suppose it's a mistake to try and force the Christmas spirit, because about half way through this concert Wednesday night I was wishing that I'd just gone home after my office Christmas party and sat down with a book and a cup of tea. Which is such a nice feeling after one has spent money on tickets, no?

I do think, though, that the problem wasn't all me. The ramshackle, disorganized nature of the evening would play better in a venue more modest than Carnegie Hall. It feels like it should be taking place in someone's living room or a community hall, but it's impossible to make Carnegie Hall feel like anything other than a huge concert hall and moments get lost. Particularly when you're up in the cheap seats squinting just to figure out who's who. More problematic was the uneven nature of the material. I mean, was it really necessary to make us all suffer through Rufus Wainwright's (awful) Christmas is For Kids? And the Vincent Dow spoken word piece, which was also on the CD that came out a few years ago, wasn't particularly worthwhile the first time I heard it, much less now. A little editing would probably come in handy.

Still, there was a lot to recommend about the show: Laurie Anderson's spoken word; Martha Wainwright's contributions, particularly the French carol; Jimmy Fallon's imitations of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and David Bowie; Rufus's mic-free rendition of "O Holy Night"; and so on. So it's a shame that I spent most of it wishing I were somewhere else as the hours dragged on. Lesson learned, I suppose. 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

At the Whitney

I met up with a friend at the Whitney Sunday because she wanted to see the Calder exhibit and I wanted to see the Eggleston exhibit. I was somewhat familiar with Calder's mobiles, which were interesting but my least favorite part of the exhibit, and his wire sculptures. Although I'd only seen the ones that are portraits of people and it was his animals that I loved.

The best part of the exhibit by far though, was the video of his witty, clever Circus. A video with clips:

My favorite part of the video isn't in this clip though. A knife thrower comes out and throws knives at a woman standing in front of a curtain. Eventually one of the knives hits the assistant knocking her down. Two little stretcher-bearers trundle out, and the woman is carried off on the stretcher.

I liked the Eggleston exhibit although I thought it was a bit variable. His color photos, with their intense hues, are more interesting than his black and white shots. There was a room full of posed portraits which seemed far less evocative than his more snapshot-like photos. His pictures of the South though, drenched in color and atmosphere, are worth the price of admission. Looking at them is like looking at the world through someone else's eyes: at once familiar and deeply alien. (NYT slideshow here)

Not going to lie though, my dinner of an open faced sandwich with cheese and asparagus, hot chocolate, and apple tart was the best part of the day. Winter always makes me want to eat particularly good food and since I don't really cook and am trying to save money by not eating out, I haven't been doing much of that. I'm totally counting down the days to the time I'm back in Buffalo, eating my mother's food. 

Sunday, December 07, 2008

It might be a little (ok, a lot) sad to spend Saturday night cleaning out your fridge, but I've got to tell you, I'm really enjoying looking at my clean, extremely organized, and rather empty fridge. I feel so accomplished.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Holiday time is when we find out what writers are reading it seems, and the Village Voice has an article where authors recommend their "most favorite" obscure book (which is different than their favorite how?). It's a nice concept, but I really couldn't care less what Ethan Hawke or Anne Rice like to read. Couldn't they choose a more interesting selection of authors?

I was happy, though utterly unsurprised, to see that Harold Bloom recommended Little, Big, which really is that good. The recommendation I liked best though, was Hannah Tinti's of a graphic novel adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which, "The characters are not human—they are strange creatures. Nick is some kind of tadpole/lizard/frog; Daisy is an exotic bird/cottonball; Gatsby is a seahorse." I like seahorses. I would totally read that.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What Girls Want

So I was reading Galleycat yesterday morning and followed a link to this much-blogged-about Caitlin Flanagan article in The Atlantic. It's really a (very positive) of the Twilight series. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I haven't read the series, so I really can't comment on that beyond saying that I am one of those who feels that anything that gets young people--or old people, or any other people for that matter--reading is a good thing. But Flanagan's article covers a lot more than just the series so I can comment on it.

I didn't read much YA fiction even when I was a young adult. So I'm not exactly an expert. But despite that, I think her essay rings false from the opening paragraph.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT divorce—which are unanimously dedicated to bucking up those unfortunate little nippers whose families have gone belly-up—ask a lot of their authors. Their very premise, however laudable, so defies the nature of modern children’s literature (which, since the Victorian age, has centered on a sentimental portrayal of the happy, intact family) that the enterprise seems doomed from the title.
It's rather small-minded to claim that books about unhappy, broken families defy "the nature of modern children's literature." More than that, it seems completely untrue. I can think of many books, going back years, that center around families that are not happy and or intact. To choose just one particularly famous example, L. M. Montgomery's books, with their orphans and motherless children, so often focus on the attempt to create such a family where one does not exist. It seems as if, for Flanagan, an awful lot of children's and young adult literature was just never written.

It doesn't get better from there.
The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.
I loved reading as a teenager. My father used to ground me from reading because my room was a mess or I wasn't doing my math homework and I'd go and hide in my basement, or some corner of my room and read the day away. But I wasn't aware that when I was reading The Son of Tarzan or Deryni Rising I was working out the big questions in my life. I was going on adventures and imagining different lives for myself outside my suburban milieu. I wasn't entering the emotional lives of others but transporting myself. Which seems to me to be an equally valid reason to read. I like to think there's more than one reason for people--yes, even if those people are teenage girls--to read.

And that's really the biggest problem with the article (which is chock full of all kinds of problems). It's generalizations piled on top of generalizations. What young adult books are about, what young adult books should be about, what teenage girls are like, what teenage girls want, and so on. Wouldn't the world be boring if everything and everyone really were that alike?

As a side note, on what was, after all, not a good day in the world of publishing, let me remind everyone that books make great holiday gifts because there's something for everyone. And also that your local independent bookstore is a fabulous place to shop. I'm just saying.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


It's funny that a biopic should feel so impersonal. Particularly one as fantastically-acted as this one. That's not a complaint, exactly. It just felt more like a movie about a movement and a moment in time than a person. In other words, the subject was not Milk's interior world but his exterior world. I think that's a perfectly legitimate tact to take, and certainly the movie is engaging, both intellectually and emotionally (false dichotomy alert). But I do think that it has a distancing effect, particularly for someone like me who wasn't born when these events took place and doesn't have any personal investment in them. And it robs the climax--the assassination itself--of some of the power it might otherwise have. Because it's the movement that matters in the movie, and we know that that continued.

That said, it's the best movie of gone to this year (although I've gone to very few movies) and I really did think it was excellent. Fairly conventional but the subject and performances make it extremely rewarding.