Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Nimrod Flipout

We had a briefly impressive storm here in New York on Sunday night. I had to run around closing windows and by the time I got to the balcony door--I leave just the screen door shut pretty much all summer, rain or shine--there was a puddle on my kitchen floor. Yesterday morning there were big branches covering the sidewalk near my apartment. I don't think there've been any storms like that in the time I've lived in New York so it felt a little bit like being back in Buffalo.

I finally read a book that cured my case of the blahs. Unfortunately that's because I really didn't enjoy it. It's an awfully slim book--about 160 pages--and yet it includes thirty separate stories. And they all start to seem awfully similar pretty rapidly. The names are different, and the details of the story are different, but really, underneath the frippery, they're the same: anxiety-ridden, jittery, relentlessly modern. The characters are glib and disconnected, the storytelling truncated. And, with the exception of the sameness, there's not really anything wrong with those things. It's a sort of fiction that's not really to my taste, but I think it's good that someone's writing it and I think it engages with the present day in a different way than a lot of the fiction I like best.

At first I thought maybe it was the length, or lack there of, that was giving me a problem. That the stories didn't have a chance to develop properly. But the longer stories--and "longer" is relative here--get tedious quickly. Maybe it's the prose that throws me. It's not a prose style I'm particularly fond of and that probably contributes to my boredom. I'm reading this in translation and speak no Hebrew whatsoever so it's hard to know where exactly the problem lies for me. But nevertheless, the stories have a very distinctive (and consistent) tone.

One story, "Glittery Eyes," starts:
This is the story of a little girl who loved glittery things more than anything else in the whole world. She had a glittery dress, and glittery socks, and glittery ballet slippers. And a glittery black doll named Christy after their maid. Even her teeth glittered, though her father insisted that they sparkled, which wasn't quite the same.
In the story the little girl wants glittery eyes to go with her glittery dress, and her glittery teeth, etc. But she can't have them. Another story, "A Thought in the Shape of a Story" features a similar theme, and that one begins like so:
This is a story about people who once lived on the moon. Nowadays, there's no one up there, but up until just a few years ago, the place was mobbed. The people on the moon thought they were very special, because they could think their thoughts in any shape they wanted. In the shape of a pot, or a table, or even in the shape of flared pants. [. . .] It was all very impressive, all those shaped thoughts, except that as time passed, all the people on the moon came to a kind of agreement about how every thought should look.
There's a man on the moon and he wants to think his thoughts into different shapes. But he doesn't get what he wants. Both stories are about three pages long. They're not next to each other in the book, and are separated by a good number of stories, but they're close enough that you can easily read them in one sitting and they're not the only two such stories in the book anyway. Individually, I don't dislike the stories. In fact I find the ending of the one about the people on the moon oddly, beautifully sad. they're not really as interesting in combination as they are on their own merits.

I think that's what was particularly frustrating about this book for me. Keret has something to say and the skills to say it. But actually sitting down and reading my way through The Nimrod Flipout made me want to toss it out the window. Perhaps it's a book I would have been better off dipping in and out of rather than reading straight through . . .

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mary Stuart

Sunday was my monthly dinner-and-a-show outing with my grandmother--although this time around we daringly mixed things up and made it lunch and a show. We ate at a Greek restaurant on 42nd that had delicious food. More specifically, good baklava (just so my priorities are clear here).

The acting in Mary Stuart was of that stylish, stylized British variety where the audience gets to sit and watch the actors declaim--beautifully, of course--from the stage. It's a sort of acting that I sometimes like and often dislike, but it works quite well when the focal point of the play is a conflict between two of western history's most famous queens. And it's elegantly written and crafted and feels like it should be so much more powerful than it actually is.

Mary Stuart is about any number of things--power, appearances, penance--but one thing it's not about is history. Which isn't a bad thing or a good thing, per se, but I often feel wary of work that seems intent on using history to speak to the present day. And the modern ambitions of Mary Stuart--or at least this production--seem evident in everything from the set (stark, black brick, wooden benches) to the costumes (the men are dressed in the suits of today, although the women are in Elizabethan-style dresses). Yet for all that the show attempts to drag these characters into the present day, the production isn't doing anything innovative or daring and perhaps as a result it feels stranded between the two eras.

In the end though, I'm not sure if my inability to feel anything more than a kind of detached admiration is based entirely on the play itself of if the book reading ennui I wrote about earlier is in fact a more generalized entertainment ennui. That would be too bad.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Woman in Jerusalem

I love my family, but oh do they make me long for quiet (well, the loud side of my family anyway, which is the side I mostly spent this latest holiday with). I got home and it was totally quiet and such a relief. Of course my apartment is a train wreck and my cat is essentially dying of a nice heart disease/kidney failure combo (although hopefully he's dying very slowly--keep your fingers crossed, folks) so you can't have it all.

Between the bus rides to and from Virginia though, and some stolen moments during my stay there, I was able to finish A Woman in Jerusalem by A. B. Yehoshua. It's not that I didn't like it, but I had the same problem with it that I've had with most of the books I've read so far this year: I enjoyed it, but I could put it down; it had as its subject an interesting topic, but it never seemed to go as far as it needed to; I wanted to like it but was, in the end, was left with vague feelings of dissatisfaction.

Jerusalem explores issues of societal responsibility, the kinds of love--most particularly those sudden and inexplicable bursts of fellow feeling, sympathy, and affection that can take us unawares--that tend to get short shrift both in literature and in life, and guilt. By identifying the characters by occupation or position in life--the human resource manager, the emissary, the ex-wife, the consul, etc.--Yehoshua seems to be making a sort of gesture toward universality as well as situating his characters within a larger society. It's not an uninteresting set of preoccupations for a book. The problem is that it's so damn tasteful (even the jacket cover is polite). I feel like it's a book that needs a bit of dirt under its fingernails.

Still, I'm beginning to wonder if the problem is really the books or if it's me. Am I too distracted or preoccupied to appreciate what I'm reading? Have I become a lazy reader who wants to be hand fed? Am I just doing a shitty job of choosing books that will speak to me? Whatever it is, I hope my reading luck turns around soon because I could really use some time with a great book just now.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Twelfth Night

Prior to last weekend, I'd never been to Shakespeare in the Park in New York City. I went to the one in Buffalo regularly growing up, but that's pretty different. They use the same set every year, the acting is not particularly good, and you certainly don't have to line up. You just show up kind of early with your lawn chair or blanket and some food and sit on this little slope. At intermission the actors come around collecting donations and while I don't know if it's still there, there used to be an ice cream place nearby in the park and we always made an intermission ice cream run. It's fun and summery and totally laid back.

Getting in line at central park at 6:10 in the morning--and being well back from the front of said line--is pretty much the opposite of laid back. And that's not even taking into account the fact that they have a security guy policing the line and explaining the rules. Which isn't to say that it was a drag or anything. We were right across from a big open space, which was nice.

Right across from our spot in line.

Early in the day the park is full of big dogs running around off leash, and my friend and I had fun watching them play. And there are worse ways to spend a beautiful Sunday then hanging out in Central Park snacking, reading, and playing games. Actually, I can't think of many better ways to spend a Sunday in late June.

We collected our tickets--our seats were near the back but not too far from the center--and walked over to the farmers market behind the Museum of Natural History to buy lunch. A lunch which included some fantastic strawberries. Then right back to the park where we hung out until my friend's parents met us for dinner and the show.

I'd had a nice day anyway, but the fact that this production of Twelfth Night is as good as it is made it pretty perfect. It was funny and full of music and acted with great humor and clarity. I liked the entire cast. Also, this production, which is rather traditional, does a particularly nice job of balancing the comedy with the more serious aspects of the love and loss in the story. And to be honest, I tend to prefer my Shakespeare traditional, particularly when it's being performed in this kind of setting where people just want to enjoy the show after spending a day in line and out in the sun.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the whole day, although it can't hurt that it was such a pleasure just to have a beautiful day after the weather that plagued us for pretty much the entire spring. It's something I'll look forward to doing again (next year).