Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hurrah for positive deviance

Just a quickie today to say, if you haven't seen the piece in the Science Times on clinician and researcher Dr. Donald Redelmeier, take a look. I have a thing for people who can not just think out of the box (because that can be as hasty and end up as wrong as sticking with cherished notions - just because you think something or belive something doesn't make it true) but those who bother to question accepted wisdom and who put their hunches to the test. Here is one of those positive deviants that our belief-obsessed world so desperately needs in a nicely written profile by Katie Hafner.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The presence of the artist in the art - developing talent versus promoting it (Exhibits - Matisse: Radical Invention & Film - A Single Man)

I just stared and stared at this painting at the stunning show currently on at MoMa - Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917. Exploring its pleasures intertwined with the experience of the film I watched two night ago - A Single Man - to reveal to me something essential about my aesthetic taste. I like it when the act of creation shows (by design) in the work of art. Perhaps that is just because I made art myself for such a long time and because creative process is an obsession of mine. Perhaps the relationship goes the other way round - maybe I became obsessed with process because I have always been drawn to this kind of work. Whatever the case, this was very much evident in Matisse's work of this period. As he developed these paintings he adjusted the placement of figures as well as their form, he obscured details that he had earlier spent much effort in representing, and what's radical is that he leaves evidence of these changes rather than covering them up. It is a practice which creates a conversation between the subject of the art and the mode of its making, something I find interesting as well as inspiring. It is also a way for the artist to develop their talents, as awareness of technique progresses in parallel with the making of art, not separately from it. The simultaneous dialogue of the two is the artists' daily reality. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will always produce satisfying art, nor does it necessarily mean that this dialogue will be of interest to every member of the audience, but it is of great interest to me.

Matisse: Radical Invention is thoughtfully curated - it has a narrow thematic focus and therefore it is not too big (a pet peeve of mine with museum shows), it brings together different works of Matisse, not just the greatest hits, it creates a thoughtful narrative in tracing its theme of interest - a period of creative transformation in Matisse's art - seen against the backdrop of cubism in the art world and World War I in the world-at-large.

This experience was very much in contrast to that of watching A Single Man, photographer Tom Ford's feature film debut as both writer and director, adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood. I had heard a few interviews with Ford and his lead actor Colin Firth on the radio and was hoping for something better. The story concerns the last day in the life of a gay college professor in the 1960s who decides to commit suicide because of the sudden and devastating death of his partner of 16 years, and the unusual perspective that gives him on the things commonly around him in his daily life.

Ford, a visual artist, seems to have been captured by the notion of a unique perspective on the ordinary and perhaps felt his vision would express the lead character's heightened experience of the day. This was the film's defining feature, but the lack of access to other techniques was also its downfall. Every person in the film was beautiful - ridiculously so. Nicholas Hoult as the young student who becomes obsessed with his professor, was an expensive haircut draped in a pink mohair sweater that was glowed like cotton candy against his California tan. In fact, desserts are a good metaphor for the little visions of sweetness that Ford made of everyone George encountered, but there was no meal to accompany them. One could call this the heightened reality called for by the story, but I experienced it creating only an icy remove that destroyed any emotional impact this film could have had, despite Firth's intelligence, deep investment, and subtle portrayal. While this aspect of George's experience is important, it seems to me one should also be moved and this film's attempt at visual perfection held everything at arm's length.

One choice I particularly appreciated in this film was the lack of attention called to the sexuality of the lead character. Although his relationship was with another man and created interesting conflicts in the relationship between him and Charley (the female friend played by Julianne Moore), Colin Firth simply played George's circumstances and character qualities but did nothing to telegraph his gayness. He was middle aged, fastidious if a bit controlling, and was masculine. No limp wrist, no lisp. Thank you, Colin. Together the two of them captured that wonderful kind of friendship possible between a straight woman and a gay man that is full of intimacy but not sex and can be sustaining but can sometimes tip over into frustration for the woman if it is her primary intimate relationship, she is attracted to the man, and it cannot be consummated.

The actors were on their own (that or Ford could express his insight into the lead character but no other). The result was a beautiful performance from Firth but Julianne Moore's performance suffered for it. I find Moore a glimmering but delicate talent. Capable of flights of transparent vulnerability, she also reads to me across her body of work as wildly insecure. When she collaborates with a good director it is a joy to watch her. Here, while she communicated some of Charley's desperation to the screen it was too decorous. Her character is at the point where she can no longer control herself yet Moore's performance reeked of the kind of control exercised by an actor who is afraid to be unattractive. This coupled with Ford's own repressive control, motivated by his strictly visual talents, did not allow Charley the rawness a director like John Cassavetes and actress like Gena Rowlands might have brought to this part and this story. That, in my estimation, is what this film lacked. I wanted to feel the artistry, as with Matisse's painting, but not the artiness. I wanted to see the actor and film maker work together to make this story. I wanted to witness the beauty of the little accidents of human behavior, see her eye makeup smudge, see her nose run a little, not look at a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. The limits of Ford's filmmaking were also evident in his use of music. With two composers, a music advisor, and a music consultant listed in the credits I felt as though too many cooks may have spoilt the sound track. The result was a hodgepodge of unspecific but superficially arty choices. I thought the choice of the aria "Ebben? Ne andro lontana" from the opera La Wally a particularly misguided choice, so associated is it with another high style film (and one I happen to love) - Diva. Similarly self-conscious choices visual choices also clouded the integrity of this film. The slow-motion sequences of waving children seen from a moving vehicle seemed to be straight out of Blue Velvet.

The 'making of' extra provided on the DVD was particularly embarrassing - self-aggrandizing and affected, with Ford's narrative scripted to death, interviews with each of the actors edited down to nothing but glib praises of Ford's filmmaking talents. Me thought the ladies did protest too much. It read like an advertisement - over controlled and pretentious - exactly the same problems as with the film itself. There is a difference between leaving elements of the creative process present in the work so it becomes a discussion between the artistic content and the art-making, and using the work of art to showcase one's talents at the expense of the content. Ford doesn't yet have the talent to recognize the difference.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Correcting our misinterpretations of the world (Books - Full House by Stephen Jay Gould)

As a working scientist, Stephen Jay Gould had a good deal of practice thinking about trends in the natural world in the language of statistics. Statistics get a bad rap as merely a fancy way to lie, but really they are a system of tools that allows us to infer the likelihood of something occurring in our world as a rule (and hence in the future) given what has already happened before in some subset of that world. For example, the likelihood that Drug X will cure a case of malaria can't be tested in the abstract, it must be tested by actually administering the drug to a group of people with malaria for, say, two weeks. At the end of that period, the number of people who survived or succumbed to the disease are counted. But we still don't know everything because a certain portion of any group would live or die anyway, those numbers will be estimated by comparing them to a group who does not receive the drug. This group should, if they are like most, have the same chance of living or dying as the other group. Then we can begin to infer how many people as a rule will survive because of the drug. Some math is applied to adapt the number from that small group and apply it to everyone, since it is impossible to give everyone the drug. The result is stated as a probability, the language of science, as it acknowledges the ubiquity of error and the inferential nature of estimates, as we can never know all the cases of anything.

Paleontologist, biologist, and science writer Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma at age 40, a disease with the median mortality rate of eight months. As most general readers of probablistic statements would, Gould first interpreted this statistic to mean he was likely to be dead in eight months however, his training as a scientist made him think twice about this interpretation of the median or the mid point of a group of numbers. This is one of three ways statistics describe the central tendency of any group of numbers - baseball scores, people who earn $30,000/year or more, people who will vote for Charlie Rangel in the next election, etc. Central tendencies are statistics way of summarizing what is usual in nature with one number. However, after thinking, Gould realized:
I am not a measure of central tendency, either mean or median. I am one single human being with mesothelioma, and I want a best assessment of my own chances - for I have personal decisions to make, and my business cannot be dictated by abstract averages. I need to place myself in the most probable region of the variation based upon particulars of my own case; I must not simply assume that my personal fate will correspond to some measure of central tendency.
Full House is a 190-page disquisition of what one might assume to be dry and obscure notions - means, modes and medians, spreads of scores, skewed averages - but because they spring from a personal confrontation with mortality as well as Gould's love of baseball, and because they are written in Gould's down-to-earth prose, this book is anything but dry. It is a lively, entertaining narrative on our tendency to misinterpret the world given our misunderstandings about what statistics are telling us. The writing is cogent, the format concise, and the references various as they are learned. Plato, Shakespeare, Huxley, Darwin, nameless drunks weaving down the sidewalk, Bill Gates, and the Brooklyn Dodgers all put in an appearance in Gould's attempt to make plain to the lay-reader concepts like measures of excellence, the likelihood of survival, or whether development - of skills or species - means a trend toward greater complexity or less. These phenomena are continually misrepresented in everyday conversation and reporting about our world, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes with malice aforethought. If you have ever wanted a better understanding the daily missives we receive in the language of probability through our senses or our news sources then read this book. The next time I teach a class which would benefit from an understanding of statistics, Full House is going to be required reading.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The value of picturing others (Books - Getting the Picture by Sarah Salway)

Sarah Salway's Tell Me Everything was not only my favorite novel of 2007, it introduced me to an artist who, like me, is fascinated by unusual human souls - the people life would typically try to ignore - obsessed with the creative process, and, through these common points I made a friend. So I read Sarah's recent novel Getting the Picture in that context (full disclosure complete).

The novel references a visit made by Maureen, a reserved, conventional, and married young woman, and her more adventurous friend, to Martin, a photographer who photographs woman nude. Martin not only ends up photographing Maureen, but also falling in love with her. Cut to the present day at Pilgrim House, a home to which Martin retires. There he writes long letters to Maureen, who has since died, and hatches a plan to be near George, her stern husband of many years, so that he may infiltrate her family. This body of the story is told through a series of letters, emails, and phone messages written by the book's cast of characters and in this way the reader uncovers the story (as Martin does), rather than reading a straightforward narrative account of it. This could be gimmicky but I found the form made the plot into a puzzle while at the same time making the novel very easy to read. One could call it a light read, but by that I don't mean insubstantial, because its themes are anything but. It deals with love and regret as seen from the perspective of the end of life. It observes the way people can close themselves off, how they can hide from the difficult experiences life throws one, particularly within families - and there are two families in this novel - one is Maureen's husband, daughters, and grand daughter and the other is the residents of Pilgrim House who themselves constitute a family. It also treats accessible human beings in a familiar, I would almost say ubiquitous situation - dealing with the needs of aging family members. It does so with realism and humor and it uses imagination to bring complexity and dignity to the aging characters; it does not rely on cliches, defining them by their diseases and limitations. In this way I would think Getting the Picture a shoe-in for book clubs. It is so much about our every-day experience. Upon finishing it, I immediately recommended it the Ragazzo's mother for her's.

I found Martin's need frighteningly desperate at times. He questions George trying to discover what he aspired to be in his youth. When he says "An accountant," Martin is incredulous:
I tried to look interested but not even his dreams were original. Remember you telling me you wanted to be the fairy at the top of the Christmas tree? And how you once spent all holiday crying because your father wouldn't put you up there. I would have made a tree big enough for you to stand on if you'd have spent even one Christmas with me. You know that. I felt like breaking down your window one Christmas when I saw you'd put up one of those artificial trees. I knew that wouldn't have been your choice.
Later in the story Martin sets himself up as a creative mentor to Robyn, George and Maureen's grand daughter, in a way that first seems helpful but later turns manipulative and even abusive of her. I'm not sure if Sarah intended Martin to come off as manipulative in a quirky but charming way or somewhat pathological, but his treatment of Robyn ultimately came off the latter to me.

The photographs in the novel function as icons, as they do in life, symbols of people - they are not the people themselves. Photographs are frozen in a past time, so this book also treats the theme of memory and how as one ages life can become less about day to day activities and interactions and more about past ones. Artists too can rely on memory to fuel their imaginations and there were times I could imagine Sarah, although I dont' know whether this is true, having found a few sepia photos at a flea market, and how these may have unleashed her imagination to create this story. What she has made in this novel is not as integrated a creation as Tell Me Everything, it does not have as coherent a narrative thrust, but nor do I think it means to. It is like a visual art installation in which each message is an image or object we can pick up in our hands. I am more aware of the artist working in this piece. In fact, when Martin mentors the character of Robyn to to try to bring the sullen teenager out of her self, it is through imaginative writing exercises that he is successful. So Getting the Picture means to make the reader aware of its process, it means to show its seams, for in some ways it is about the creation of character - in life as in art.

The novel's leitmotif is a photograph and a negative, if you will: the superficial versus interior knowledge of another person. The snapshot one gets when knowing someone only from the outside in a single context, versus who they are inside, who they are when they relate to their intimates, who they are to themselves in their fantasies, and sadly, who they become when there is no one to whom they show their deepest selves. As a literary device the letters and messages are an appropriate form for this novel in that they are like snapshots, you need more than one to know the whole story. And while a nude picture is literally revealing, it does not necessarily give the viewer an intimate relationship with the subject. However the subject themselves possesses that whole story and so posing for that photograph feels a kind of risk, perhaps akin to the risk we take when we tell someone we love them, or the risk artists take when they put themselves into their work. That is the reverse image contained in the novel, the risk that it takes to be known. This is not just the artists' journey, it is everyone's and this novel's message is that the risk is worth it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Broadway in love and war (Theatre - South Pacific & A Little Night Music)

Two musicals in two weeks, and on Broadway no less, that has to be a record for me and the Ragazzo. We saw the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific last week and last night, Sondheim's A Little Night Music with two heavily announced cast replacements - Bernadette Peters replacing Cathrine Zeta-Jones and Elaine Stritch replacing Angela Lansbury.

South Pacific is as classic as they come and this production demonstrates that Rodgers and Hammerstein (and the director Barlett Sher) really knew what they were doing. Set in the Asian theatre of war during World War II, it manages to spin out 11 great songs with memorable melodies, tell a classic Broadway love story, have some great laughs, break your heart, seriously treat the subject of racism in American (this was written in 1949, mind you), create a good amount of suspense, and although it lasts three hours I was scarcely aware of the time. It was great to hear secure singing voices that could handle legit as well as belt voice production rather than over-miked pop yelling. Paulo Szot who played Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner on the Island with whom American Ensign Nellie Forbush falls in love, is an opera singer (as Ezio Pinza who created the role was). He showed a range of vocal colors and an ease of stage presence not common to opera singers. Laura Osnes as Nellie was charming and open, if a little green as a performer.

The production was long on character development rather than establishing stereotypes through behavioral shorthand as so many Broadway productions do. This is important since one of its subjects of the show is racism. Even the smaller, non-singing roles of the commanding officers were given detailed, lived-in-the-moment performances. There was a large male chorus of soldiers and Bartlett Sher made the smart and, no doubt, accurate choice to usually have the black and white soldiers working separately on stage. The choreography for the male chorus was particularly strong. Christopher Gattelli found a masculine guy-like repertoire of movements that let them move like their characters - American soldiers in the 1940s - and not like Broadway dancers. I thought Danny Burstein a stand-out as Luther Billis - hilariously funny, but played as a person not a clown. Sher's production with its fluid, cinematic set design, its detailed characters, strong singing, and topical story would travel well. Since so many of Broadway's recent successful musical productions have been British imports, I left this one hoping that the exchange might go the other way - any chance for a London transfer?

A Little Night Music is as rich a concoction as Stephen Sondheim ever composed. The story is adapted from Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, a farcical meditation on the experience of love as we age. His musical inspiration was Brahm's Liebeslieder Waltzes. The sophisticated lyrics are strictly Sondheim's own, intellectualizing the world to hold his heart at arms length from the rest of him. Trevor Nunn's production has been roundly criticized but I'm not sure why. The set was simple and flexible, panels like antique mirrors framed the stage, through which could be seen either wall surfaces when the setting was indoors or trees when the setting was outdoors. My one complaint of this production would be that it was over-miked. Alexander Hanson, as Fredrik Egerman was the perfect mixture of assured performer and clueless middle-aged man, chasing after his youth by marrying a girl of 18 who is so terrified she refuses to have sex. His singing and acting were seamlessly blended, although if he had sung behind the beat a bit less I wouldn't have minded. Leigh Ann Larkin brought a no-nonsense freshness to her playing of the maid Petra and sang her great song I Will Marry the Miller's Son with intelligence and aplomb.

Bernadette Peters plays Desiree Armfeldt, an actress with whom Fredrik had once been involved and to whom he returns in dismay when his new marriage is on the rocks. Peters is a veteran performer of Broadway and of Sondheim in particular (she created Dot in Sunday in the Park with George). She has made her reputation playing tart, perky characters with her trademark voice, a combination of a little-girl cry, a sweetly produced top, and a brassy Broadway belt. But she is over 60 now (although she doesn't look it) and when I heard she had taken this role, usually played by a non-singing actress, I envisioned that she might be trying to re-make herself. Right from her entrance, hidden in a company dance number of waltzing couples at the show's opening, I could feel her presence because when she switched partners, her contrasting relationships to each were clearly expressed (although only subtly demonstrated outwardly). The highlight of the evening was her deeply inhabited Send in the Clowns - living the wounded irony of her character with a devastatingly raw emotion.

The production's other star - Elaine Stritch - is surely no typecast for Madame Armfeldt, the worldly dowager who has dandled, it seems, most of the European continent's male royalty of her day to attain her position of power. Now in her late 80s, Stritch is known for her her wry, sarcasm-soaked, roar of a voice, and an utterly transparent vulnerability that bleeds touching desperation, but she is all-American. Not a touch of any other continent across the Atlantic in her voice or manner. I found this a strange, idiosyncratic, but gutsy choice. Unstereotyped, sure, but that is what exciting performing art is all about. As a director and actor I loved casting or playing against type to reveal things about character more common choices never would. What Stritch brought to the evening was an amazing ability to be sharply attuned to her present moment, always responsive along with the ability to imbued the past of her character with blood and bone. Armfeldt's reminiscences of men that she shares with her grand daughter are not just the charming lines read by an elderly actress. It's so easy to say the words "Oh, I remember when...." in a shaky voice and to be applauded for one's past roles. But when Stritch as Armfeldt remembers a man, her person glows from the inside with the pleasure of that memory. She gave every word she spoke sense, and depth, when she could remember her lines. I suspect Stritch may have occasionally read from the text, and that was okay with me. In fact, I wish she had read more so that she had been more secure. Stritch's weakness as an actress has always been a desire to give such import to her text that she plays every word rather than moment to moment. One could fault her for that in A Little Night Music, but I can't say that it diminished my pleasure of seeing her in this role, or my enjoyment of Sondheim's sophisticated confection of a musical.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Documentary and artifice to reveal and obscure (Film - The Beaches of Agnes & The September Issue)

By coincidence the Ragazzo and I ended up watching two documentaries last weekend:

They could not have been more different. Agnes Varda, the French film director, has made open, frank films with idiosyncratic subjects for her entire career - Les Glaneurs (The Gleaners), for example, follows people who live on the detritus of others, food from waste bins behind restaurants, the potatoes that are left over after the harvest for having the wrong shape to sell, those who furnish their homes from discarded tables left on the street. Varda was part of the Rive Gauche film movement including many artists who often collaborated with one another, like director Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras. Varda was married to director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

Varda's film acknowledged its artifice from its opening scene, involving the placement of mirrors of all sizes on the beach with shots angled to catch their subject, framing her at odd angles - so that her image, an artificial concoction, appeared floating or sitting in the natural vast setting of the sand and the ocean. In another, Varda's office was taken out of its usual setting and reassembled in the middle of a street, carrying out its business there in a detailed but stylized manner. The film was peppered with these off-kilter touches that exemplified how Varda's films, a self-conscious artisitic form, worked amidst and against the bustle of real life that existed around it. They capture something that feels real from that juxtaposition of intentional art and happy accident. Varda traced her trajectory chronologically with the story of her parents, her schooling, her filmaking, her children and husband, and her political activism - revealing much along the way about herself, the images, people, and ideas important more to her internal life than to its external events, but not necessarily explaining them. For example, we learn the intimate detail that Demy died from complication due to AIDS in 1990. We learn not from Varda's words, but from her behavior, of her profound love for him but we are not explained the details of why he contracted the virus or what each week of his suffering was like. So the film is intimate without being explicative or invasive. The strength of The Beaches of Agnes is revealing the depth, the reality, and the beauty of an inner life through the strengths of a superficial medium, but not through narrative explanation.

This is polar opposite of The September Issue, made by R. J. Cutler., a film about Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and her staff through production of the 2007 September issue - what is always the biggest issue of the year, that one that introduces the look of the year to come in fashion. Though this film pretended to get the gritty backstage view of operations of Wintour - their icy queen and her yes-saying minions - it was, as far as I was concerned, a superficial bore. It was highly set-up, not surprising for a film about fashion, but the artifice was about not revealing its subject, rather than offering us detail about its subjects or what moves them to act as they do. It wished to tell a story about Wintour as a cold, decisive pragmatist who will never show the workers around her admiration to their face, even though she values their talent. Rarely are we permitted a glimpse through her dark sunglasses. The story is void of human detail, I know that she holds a Starbucks coffee, but I don't ever see how it got there, which would be an interesting detail for a celebrity who seems not to like to interact with others. I know that she comes into the office, but not at what time. I know she is muscular and perversely thin but don't know if she does that through exercise, sports, or dieting. There was one nice touch, a brief moment in Wintour's home with her daughter who tells the interviewer that she has no interest in fashion and intends to go to law school. Mama Wintour gives a mild, embarrassed smile, "we'll see," she says.

The film reveals Andre Leon Talley, Wintour's former editor-at-large as a clownish, self-obsessed egotist who does nothing but pose for the camera. The operation appears to be largely dependent on Sarah Coddington, former model and now creative director, a down-to-earth, imaginative worker who gets her personal opinion out of the way and gets the job done. In the end, the film was an utter failure to me because it called itself a documentary and yet it lied. For example, it gave the impression of Wintour as an ice queen with no sense of humor however, in either a scene that ran beneath the closing credits, or it may have been a cut scene included on the DVD, following a meeting with a nervous designer Wintour quips "give that man a drink!" A sense of humor! If you are going to develop a character, always show the flip side, or any discerning audience member will know you're lying. The biggest failure of the film was its biggest lie. Unfortunately, a key staff member commits suicide during the period during which the film was made. This was undoubtedly a terrible event tragic on both a corporate and on a personal level for people we never meet, so I do not believe that this should have been dwelt on or that people who knew the deceased should have had their lives pried into in any way, however, it was an event that had undoubted real and human consequences in this artifice-obsessed factory. Its occurrence had to touch the lives of the film's subjects and was part of the story behind their behavior which revealed their stresses and pleasures through their movement, their words, their emotions. And yet, we were made to think that all these behaviors revealed nothing but the story the filmmaker wished to tell about the production of the September issue of Vogue. What a big fat lie. Varda gave a perfect example in her film about how one can be intimate without getting specifically personal. Here was one of those tragic accidents of life that would have offered an artist a real opportunity to document who these people and this organization really were. This was purportedly the reason this film was made. It might have revealed them as more human than we suspected or perhaps as more ugly, but at any rate, the filmmaker ignored the real story thrust upon him by life and tried to stick to one he had in his head, or the one Vogue's lawyers told him he could tell. As a result we watched not a documentary but rather a big wet kiss on Vogue's butt. What a bore.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Recent acquisitions...

I really should be writing about Stephen Jay Gould's Full House which I just finished, and which is a fantastic book on two subjects I consider myself not at all interested in - statistics and baseball. But I have so many recently acquired treasures that I am going to do one of THOSE posts. This is a look-at-all-the-wonderful-books-I-have-to-read post.

William Dalrymple's Nine Lives consists of nine portraits of contemporary Indian mystics of different sorts. It describes how their religious lives have changed in India's transformation to a world-economy. This Scottish-born travel-writer/historian/journalist has a history of writing highly respected books set in the Middle East and Asia on the intersection of spiritual practice and contemporary cultural life. I don't know exactly what drew me to this book. Probably it was the extraordinary people Dalrymple wrote about.
In Kannur in northern Kerala, I met Hari Das, a well-builder and part-time prison warden for ten months of the year, who polices the violent running war between the convicts and imprisoned gangsters of the two region's reival political parties, the far-right RSS and the hard-left Communist party of India. But during the theyyam dancing season, between January and march, Hari has a rather different job. Though he comes from an untouchable Dalit background, he nevertheless is transformed into an omnipotent deity for three months a year, and as such is worshipped as a god. Then, at the end of March, he goes back to the prison.
Or the remarkable Jainist nun he writes about who, as she walks, sweeps a peacock feather fan before each step to be sure to brush every insect out of her way so that she doesn't kill a single living thing. This book has me mesmerized. Remarkable stuff written in crystal-clear prose that, as Dalrymple points out in his introduction, makes every attempt to focus on the subject portrayed rather than on the portraitist's experience of meeting them.

I have so been looking forward to Sarah Salway's next book since reading her Tell Me Everything which I have raved about ad nauseum. From what I can tell, Getting the Picture is a love story that tries to unravel the mystery of why the unrequited love of its narrator had to remain unrequited. It's present time frame is set in a retirement community and the past revealed through letters and emails. Sarah has a remarkable eye for what makes difficult and idiosyncratic people lovable. Her literary vision is singularly humane among her contemporaries which is why I love it so much.

Sybille Bedford's prose is revered by writers as various as Evelyn Waugh, Bruce Chatwin, and David Leavitt. Many of her novels are loosely based on her life and that of her ancestors in pre-war Germany. A Legacy observes three families - one Jewish and two Catholic - one urban the others rural - whose lives intertwine. She is interested in how the Germany that eventually spawned National Socialism evolved from simple lives such as the characters she portrays.

The award-winning book The Beak of the Finch follows Peter and Rosemary Grant, two biologists, as they collect data from finches on Daphne Major, one of the Galapagos Islands. These are among the species originally observed by Charles Darwin in the isolated biosphere of the Galapagos. Weiner portrays the work of the Grants as observing the process of natural selection in real time. His writing is respected for revealing scientific complexity to the general reader without over-simplifying it. Really looking forward to this one.

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is a highly praised new novel of interlocking short narratives concerning a former musician in middle-age trying to connect to the things that used to matter and the woman he employs who compulsively steals and has a thing for Orpheus and Eurydice. It's not the subject matter itself that compels me but rather Egan's eagle eye for the zeitgeist and this novel's reputed success at fusing individual narratives into a meaningful melange about art, self-destruction, and transformation.

I have Jude the Obscure and Carl Zimmer's book on E. Coli in progress too. Once I get done writing up my patient today, it seems I have a bit of reading to do. Happy Sunday.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Send in the Clowns - Judi Dench

From Sondheim's A Little Night Music - Judi Dench singing Send in The Clowns.

and, oh my god, Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Julien Ovenden, and Bryn Terfel in Everybody Ought to Have a Maid from the Sondheim Proms.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More than just speaking the speech (Theatre - The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare)

A bunch of us did a quintessential summer in New York thing Saturday. We waited on line in Central Park for free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. There are two shows to see. One of them is the line. The cast: New Yorkers - interested in what's going on in their city, always the expert on it, not too nosy, generally respectful of the rules (you have to be in a city of 8 million people). There were Risk players, people playing guitar quietly to themselves, nappers, those studying up for the play, those who brought their New York Times (half of it is printed Saturday), their laptops, library book readers, bookstore book readers, kindle readers, those who brought their picnic (us - whole wheat french bread with nutella, and fruit), and those who called the local deli which actually delivers to the line. They sat on benches, lay on blankets, reclined in beach chairs, and snoozed on inflatable mattresses. There were the line monitors employed by the theatre, the tourists capturing the line on their video cameras, the saxophonist playing Mozart and Cole Porter, and the conspiracy theorist parading up and down the line playing for our sympathy. Then, of course, there was also The Winters Tale by William Shakespeare.

I would call The Winter's Tale Shakespeare's redemptive comedy. It offers one of the most complex plot of any of his plays, probably his strongest female character (Paulina), and it could perhaps be thought a more "modern" play in that the dramatic situation and character trump the beauty of poetry. While I could take a bath in the language of Shakespeare's Richard II or Antony and Cleopatra, one cannot get away with just 'speaking the speech' in this play. In it Leontes, a king, is visited by his childhood friend Polixenes. He becomes rabidly suspicious that his queen Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes and eventually condemns her to death and banishes her newborn child. The child is taken away by a trusted servant and grows up the daughter of a peasant in Polixenes's country named Perdita. She eventually falls in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Meanwhile, Leontes becomes a penitent and Paulina, unbeknownst to any soul, has kept Hermione alive. 16 years pass and this time it is Polixenes who becomes angry when he discovers his son wishes to marry a peasant. So the former advisor to Leontes brings the couple back to Leontes's country where the peasant is revealed as Leontes daughter, Paulina brings Hermione back to life, and the two kings are reunited in friendship, the two children marry. The end.

I find this tale of unrestrained impulse turning to regret one of Shakespeare's deepest and most touching. The plays success relies on the arc of Leontes's feelings being deeply and believably invested by the human being that plays him and in this director Michael Greif was unlucky with the casting of Ruben Santiago-Hudson who strutted about with his heart empty of anything that Shakespeare asks for, apparently unaware that he was asked to do more than speak the words loudly and clearly with some variation in inflection. The fact the playing space was well designed, making good use of the Delacorte theatre's outdoor setting, that Marianne Jean-Baptiste gave a strong performance as Paulina, that Perdita was played with intelligence and vulnerability by Heather Lind, and that Tom Kitt composed a lovely score, played live didn't matter in the end because Leonte's grief is the spine of this play. The one turn that saved the evening for me were the antics of Hamish Linklater as the clown Autolycus. He brought the text to life with colloquial ease, was responsive in the moment to what is going on around him, and filled himself with the circumstances of his character, ridiculous as those are. Usually the stagebusiness of Autolycus who is not only a rustic clown but also a conman, pickpocketing everyone around him, takes up so much energy that I don't know who the man actually is. Not in this case. Linklater seems born to the stage. His performance exuded joy. I'm looking forward to seeing him play Bassanio to Al Pacino's Shylock when the other play of this summer's season, The Merchant of Venice, transfers to Broadway later this season.