Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dribs and Drabs

So much to say and so little time to say it. Isn't that always the story. A few things:

  • I like to talk but don't definitely don't love to hear myself talk. Still, I loved listening to the Performance Club audio that Claudia just put up. Despite cringing when I heard my own voice (I find that so unnerving) I liked revisiting bits of conversation with more distance from the performance and also hearing things I missed. And selfishly I hope that these audio recordings are done for more events, particularly ones I can't attend with the P. Club, because the post-show conversations are such an enriching experience for me and it would be fun to sort of eavesdrop when I can't take part. 

  • I'm really enjoying New York magazine's "Vulture Reading Room." I have no desire to read Charlotte Roche's Wetlands. It sounds genuinely awful, and not in a fun way but in a just-plain-atrocious way. But reading about it has been genuinely entertaining and this back-and-forth particularly so. Hopefully they'll continue the feature for other books. 

  • My younger sister is hiking the Appalachian Trail right now and the other day she did 29 miles. Seriously. In one day.  I, meanwhile, walked to Central Park and, entering from the southeast,went up around the Great Lawn, and back. I promised I'd hike with her for a few days later on, you see, and I need to train. So far? Not such a good start. 

  • PEN World Voices has started and as always I'm looking forward to it. Although it's a disappointment that the NYPL doesn't seem to be taking part this year as their panels, etc. are usually particularly interested. Tomorrow--today, really--I'm going to watch a panel about women translating women. I'm looking forward to that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space

There are so many books published every year, such a deluge of good, bad, and indifferent writing, that it's easy for books--even very good books--to disappear. They get tucked onto shelves, or added to reading lists only to be forgotten about. And eventually time passes and they haven't become classics so they fall out of print. Which is all to say that there are more good books than there's time to read and as a result, every reader has their little--or big--mental list of books that aren't as well known as they deserve to be and/or are out of print when they should be in print. Kathryn Cramer's A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space is one of the books on my list. I bought it several years ago at a Strand sidewalk sale where you could fill a bag with books for $10. I've been thinking about the book lately and was surprised that I'd never blogged about it before. I must have read it just before I started this particular exercise in solipsism. 

Published in 1984, Handbook now feels very much like a product of it's time. It opens describing a war that isn't the Cold War but resembles it: 
The war had been going on for some time now, through sun and sleet, through lenient days when the buds bloomed according to the old seasons and the light breeze rattling windows and doors brought thoughts of white triangles scudding across a blue surface, through March thaws when the heavy, wet snow slid from the tankslike blankets from people asleep.

No one knew when the war had started, by whom or with what purpose. It had not been declared. Those who tried to join up could not discover where to present themselves. They knocked on doors of official-looking buildings, wrote letters to the government, but received no response. The government appeared to draft its forces according to some rationale not divulged to the public. Nor did it provide information about the progress of the war; ambiguous reports occasionally appeared in the newspapers but were printedin the back pages among advertisements for notepaper and knitting wool, so that onehad to look hard to find them. Tradition, people complatined, entitled them to more than vague uneasiness--someplace to volunteer their services for the wounded, a slogan or two, a battle hymn. But in this war there was nothing to do except wait around to see what would happen next.

An apocalyptic novel (which is normally really not my thing) that revolves around the disintegration of the traditional world and of meaning, Handbook slots in nicely with contemporary post-modern novels like White Noise.  Except without the pop culture reference piled atop pop culture references (which are also really not my thing). Instead Cramer gives us a memorably quirky royal family in exile, about as far removed from popular culture as it's possible to be.
"Royalty in exile is a curse, like insanity or an enherited inclination to murder," the woman who had called herself the Crown Princess Theobalda said on her deathbed. "Find the cure!" she whispered hoarsely, and expired. (This was in New Jersey, in 1902.) But her son Langoustino (so named in tribute to one of the Crown Princess's gastronomical fondnesses, not by way of a clue to the Ludwickers' country of origin) was more impressed by the cleverness of his mother's epigram than by its entreaty and did little during his unofficial reign to advance the family cause. His only contribution was to produce, with the half-hearted assistance of a frivolous but apathetic local girl named Jeannine, four children to carry on the Ludwicker line.
The Ludwicker family lives in isolation from the rest of the world, and whenever they leave their estate they upset the balance and bring chaos with them and this clash between old and new is what the book revolves around. But as nutty and divorced from normal people as they are, they do, on a certain level, represent tradition. They're a stand-in for modern people, overwhelmed and unable to comprehend the pace at which the world has changed around them. This is all a tremendous oversimplification of course, and it doesn't sound terribly appealing. I mean, if someone told me about this book I would probably think hmm . . . doesn't sound like my thing. But I love Handbook despite that. Or perhaps because of that. Unexpected loves are always particularly satisfying.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fort Tryon Park

Saturday was such a gorgeous day here in New York that it would have been criminal to spend it inside. So I took the subway up to Fort Tryon Park, which is one of my favorite parks in the city--I love the hilliness and the views of the Hudson--but also one I never get to because it's so far from me. It was a perfect temperature and there were a lot of people there, but it wasn't too crowded. I probably spent more time on the subway than at the park, but I'm still glad I went. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Brief Hockey Moment . . .

Well fuck you, Bucky Gleason.  That out of the way, and only because I'm so annoyed that I feel the need to write about this all over the damn place, here's my problem with Bucky Gleason's latest. 

Here's the meat of what he had to say:

Twenty years ago, when the economy was weak but stronger than today, when the population had decreased but was higher than today, Buffalo fans were tougher and more judicious with their money.

Their voice was stronger. Their backbone was thicker. Their collars were bluer, and they demanded the same from their teams. They wouldn't have tolerated, let alone contributed to, what they're getting these days from their teams.  [. . .] 

The passion for the Bills and Sabres is no weaker, but the landscape has changed. Buffalo fans have lowered their standards and settled for mediocrity. [. . . ]

Marketing has played a huge role. The Bills haven't reached the playoffs since 1999, but they're masterful in selling the game experience. The Sabres' variable-pricing system is the best in the league, a terrific power play to be sure.

But attendance also remains strong because enabling fans feed the beast. There was no real urgency to keep Jason Peters last week. Why would the Bills spend $10 million a year on a left tackle when they've proven they don't need him to fill the stadium? Why make any real changes to the Sabres when it's obvious that fans will keep coming? [all emphasis mine]

I think this idea that Buffalo fans are somehow unique in tolerating mediocrity seems endemic to the Buffalo News. For example, see this Top Shelf interview with Harrington where he claims that Buffalo fans are just different than fans in other cities. That annoys me, but it's far less offensive than Gleason's condescension toward the fans because it doesn't carry the same implication that we fans are somehow complicit in the crappiness of our sports teams and doing the wrong thing if we support them. I'm sorry but it's not the job or duty of the fans to somehow hold ownership or management accountable for the quality of the team they put on the ice (or the football field). We're fans because it gives us pleasure, not out of some kind of obligation and it's insulting to claim that we're somehow responsible for mediocre teams. 

If fans decide to let their season tickets lapse or buy fewer tickets because they're not happy with the product on the ice they're not bad fans. They're just choosing not to spend their money on a product they no longer enjoy. And if they keep their season tickets or keeping buying tickets to games because they still have fun going to the games, they're not necessarily stupid idiots who buy the management's excuses. They're not ignorant, or weak, or willful enablers. They're just fans who still enjoy going to see live hockey (or football) even when the team isn't good. Bucky Gleason doesn't get it. That's his problem, not the fans' problem. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hawksley Workman, St. Matthew Passion, Death is Certain

I've loved Hawksley Workman's music for years. He's pretty eclectic and, frankly, his work is fairly uneven, but when it's good it's really good. So I was looking forward to seeing him perform live, particularly since he doesn't play in New York very often. As it happened, he was ill and the performance was pretty so-so, although the talky guy who got to go on stage and play guitar for one of the songs seemed thrilled. And I was tired enough that even if it had been an awesome concert I would have probably felt sort of blah about it. Fortunately it was at Joe's Pub and started at 7:00 then ended by 8:30-ish.

That was Wednesday and on Friday I went to BAM to see St. Matthew Passion (why no apostrophe in that title?). Which was a bit too much Jesus for me. I mean, I'm not stupid so obviously I knew it was about Jesus. But still. That's more religion than I've subjected myself to in quite some time. Which would have been fine, I think, if the guy singing the role of Jesus hadn't bored me so much. I know nothing about music and for all I know he's actually fantastic. But he just seemed kind of lumpen (his presence not his singing since, again, I certainly couldn't judge anyone's singing and wouldn't know what constitutes lumpen singing anyway). I did think the circular staging was neat and also liked that everyone was dressed casually. And I very much enjoyed the guy singing the Evangelist--Rufus Müller--probably at least in part because I could understand everything he was singing. What I really loved though, were the chorale parts. 

As a sidenote, I sat next to a very nice man who gave me a cough drop during the intermission (the two of us had a little two-person chorus of allergy-related sniffling during the first act) and chatted with me. Also, there was a guy on the subway Friday afternoon asking me about my e-reader (I have it for work) and then I ran into him at BAM as well. Which has nothing to do with anything but was kind of funny in a small world sort of way. 

Then on Saturday, wrapping up my happening week, I went to see Jack Ferver's Death is Certain at St. Mark's Church, which was a Performance Club outing (P. Club post here). I'm not really sure what I thought of the performance as a whole but there were a lot of things going on that I was interested in; I felt like there was a kind of overflowing of ideas which is far preferable to watching something that's lacking ideas. And there were numerous times when I felt emotionally engaged/invested in these people and scenarios I was watching. I also spent a lot of time thinking, ooh, that even sounds painful. You could really hear the dancers hitting the floor, hitting each other, etc. At one point Tony Orrico (one of the three dancers in the performance) was shaking Ferver hard enough that you could hear Ferver's cheeks flapping and I was a bit worried that it could cause whiplash. What I liked best though was the way the piece explored how the same people can be both a burden and a support, at one time pulling you back or obstructing you, at another time lifting you up, the ways we have power over one another. Or maybe this is too literal an interpretation? Anyway, I'm really glad I went. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beowulf: 1000 Years of Baggage

This was one of the performance club shows this month. I wasn't able to go with the club but I did go on my own. The performance club discussion is here. I started writing this blog post days ago and if I had started now instead I might have written something slightly having read the comments over there. As always, they've given me all kinds of things to think about. But I'm lazy, and my general take on the show hasn't changed, so you're pretty much going to get what I wrote before. (This is what happens when you leave your taxes to the last minute. I did them Tuesday night and was so tired that I fell asleep at about 8:45 yesterday [that's a little sad and maybe shouldn't have been admitted publicly].)

I'm a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I thought it was fun and funny. On the other hand, I felt like what I was seeing was Beowulf divorced from its context and that this was being put forth as more desirable--less "stifling"--than academic study. The three academics featured throughout the show are basically caricatures. But was it really less stifling? The poem is part of a formulaic Old English literary tradition. And also related to a body of interconnected Scandinavian work that features the same people and places. Does knowing that--being familiar with these traditions--turn the work into a museum piece or does it deepen and strengthen one's appreciation for it? 

In the musical* the story rarely felt full-bodied. It seemed like they didn't necessarily believe in the strength of the source material. The biggest victim of this is Beowulf himself, who is portrayed through much of the show as a musclebound idiot--like the dumb jock in a high school comedy--which seemed to me like a strange choice in part because I don't think the violence is really the most remarkable or noteworthy feature of the poem. I mean, that's kind of a feature of Europe in the early middle ages, no? And shouldn't Beowulf be so much more than that. So it's not so unique to see it represented in literature.When the performance focuses less on the aspects of the story that can be reduced to cartoons--or action figures in this case--it starts doing something interesting and distinct from what you'd find in academia. Instead of attempting to understand Beowulf as it was created, it seems to be addressing the ways in which the story can speak to a modern audience across the years. 

Toward the end of the musical, Beowulf challenges the most straight-laced of the three academics (who up to that point has pretty much been a caricature), saying that she hasn't experienced the kind of violence she's describing, a sword slicing flesh, etc. It's true of course, but it's also true of pretty much everyone who is going to read Beowulf or see a play based on it. These people and their concerns are pretty alien to us; we can't really understand them. And maybe that's the point. Or maybe it's not. Still, it feels at the end like they want to be doing something more serious, but because the show up to that point hasn't really gone below the surface it can't really support the reach for something more significant. 

*They call it a songplay, which I found obnoxious until I realized that "songplay" was kind of a kenning and therefore pretty appropriate to a musical based on Beowulf. So now I find the term tolerable--score one for academia and formal teaching there--but not so much so that I actually want to refer to the work as anything other than a musical.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tea Party Robocalls?

I just got a robocall that asked if I was aware of the "tea parties" taking place around the country and asking me to "please take notice today." I've gotten a lot of robocalls in the last year, but I have to say, this one reached new heights when it comes to awkward reading.

Also, if I'm going to attend a tea party I require tea and scones at the very least. Maybe some nice pastries.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A Couple Things

1. I went to see Adventureland Saturday and thought it was good but far less funny than I expected. I mean I laughed and all, but it mostly made me sad. Which is fine, except a little warning would be nice. I like to go in expecting the whole sad thing. (I also like to read the last pages of books ahead of time; I'm not so big on surprised). 

Adventureland also made me miss driving. Which is strange, I suppose, but one of the things I miss most about living in the suburbs is driving home late at night with the streets nearly empty and your headlights sweeping across the road, maybe a sad, quiet song playing. I loved that. 

I was three in 1987 (when Adventureland is set) and I certainly never worked in an amusement park, but the world of the movie still feels totally familiar--an experience I expect many people will have. 

2. In a 280 word review of Buffalo Lockjaw, TONY's Drew Toal manages to say that Buffalo is as grim and frostbitten a city as one can find in the continental U.S. (someone doesn't know their grim and frostbitten cities very well, I suspect), refer to it as a "bleak upstate land," and reference the 0-for-4 Superbowl run. Now if he'd also managed to wedge in Brett Hull's skate and the Appalachia-esque economy I might have been impressed by his "Buffalo is a miserable hole" dedication. But as it is it's just lazy reviewing. I mean, he says that the "scenes of high-blood-alcohol regression flirt with Northern-gothic clichés"--I might argue for realism there*--but then manages to spit out a review where he regurgitates the most hackneyed cliches about Buffalo despite his limited space? How tedious.

*I haven't read the book yet so I can't really say, but I would bet Ames isn't exaggerating when it comes to Buffalo and drinking.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Richard Wilbur (again)

On bad days--and today was a bad day--I find Richard Wilbur's poetry particularly comforting. His poems aren't mannered but they are mannerly--neat, contained, structured, witty, urbane. They're not tortured; they don't demand anything of you. More than anything though, his poems leave you with the distinct impression that Wilbur is, essentially, an optimist who thinks the world is, in the end, a good place filled with good things. But they do so in a way that is affirming rather than intrusive. Which is exactly what I need on those days when things don't go as they should.

Richard Wilbur

Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call
Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air
Over the rotten office, let him bear
The carrion ballast up, and at the tall

Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you’ll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven’s height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;
He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,

The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you
Who dart in the orchard aisles, for it is he
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.

Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset

The people’s ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.