Tuesday, May 31, 2005

DIA: Beacon

We went to Dia: Beacon yesterday. It was great. I don’t know that much about contemporary art and don’t know much about how to look at minimalist art in particular, but the experience was sublime, moving, and fun. 280,000 square feet of art in a former box factory, full of natural light.

The big hit was this piece by John Chamberlain—a Hoosier it turns out, and a new discovery to us. The piece is enormous and very bright and an amazing combination of randomness and precision.

And then, in searching for more information, I found this link to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Odd. We found Beacon because it was featured in the Times real estate section this fall—a great essay about this Hudson River town’s revival. Now, it turns out that many of the same artists are represented in Marfa—a town about which we read avidly in a recent article in the Times real estate section—my new source for taking baby steps into the art world.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Cowardice and Authenticity

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

”You are naturally a coward, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “but so that you will not say that I am stubborn and never do as you advise, on this occasion I want to take your advice and withdraw from the ferocity that frightens you so, but it must be on one condition: that never, in life or in death, are you to tell anyone that I withdrew…out of fear.” (173 in Edith Grossman’s translation)

So, I will admit that I’ve lost a little momentum in my reading. But, I’m saddling up the pony again: I will not be deterred by the accidents and errands of life. I will read Don Quixote. Thinking that, feeling that, considering that, I’ve also been considering Bud’s question: Is Don Quixote a coward?

When I returned to the book last night then, I discovered, to my relief, that, behind as I am, I am also at the beginning of the Cardenio episode (I’m on page 203 of the Grossman translation now—that’s in the middle of chapter 25). I thought about the question as I read and found myself thinking more and more about questions of authenticity. The very questions, it turns out, that Ana Maria is mulling over in her post. When Quixote looks about for a priest and finds none, she writes: “I don't think he was ‘greatly troubled’ because he truly needed consolation, but because finding a hermit would make the scene that much more ‘authentic.’"

That seems right to me—it’s a symptom I recognize of having spent too much time in books. From books, we feel we know how things go; in life, we find ourselves trying to set the scene to make it match the representation. Here begins the hall of mirrors of life imitating art that so excited and dizzied Wilde, Borges, Nabokov and others.

Bud writes: “while Cardenio's scorn is also imagined, it is far more real than Quixote's. But Cardenio does go mad and seems quite committed to it until heaven hearkens his pleas.” And I agree that Cardenio’s madness seems more real, somehow, but I’m not quite sure why. (And, as I ‘ve confessed I’m not done with the episode.) One answer to the purpose of this interpolated scene, however, might have to do with the parallels it provides to Quixote’s own setting of the stage. Like Don Quixote, Cardenio has set the stage, too. We know that, when he arrived he asked shepherds for the remotest spot (179-80), that he announce himself as a penitent (180), whose grief made him unpredictably violent (180). He left behind money, lovely shirts, and poetry: enough evidence to prove himself a gentleman in some sort of romantic distress. In the end, that’s not that different from Don Quixote hoping for a rustic priest to witness his penance (or from the many other moments when Quixote and Sancho debate the merits of performing acts of heroism without a witness). In this, then, the Cardenio story might be a story about one kind of limit of Quixote’s quest: what begins as art (acting out penance) ends in madness.

At this point in the story, Quixote still has enough wits about him to be ticking off the elements of the genre like a Russian formalist studying the folktale, choosing which brand of penance suits him best.

All of which brings me back to the quotation with which I began. Don Quixote calls Sancho a coward when they retreat from the angry Holy Brothers. I read the tone of the book much as Ana Maria does—these quixotic moments are gently comic, wry. If he is “a type of artist” (and I think he is), part of his art consists in choosing the way in which he plots his own romance. Calling Sancho a coward is a lovely moment of cowardice masquerading as courtesy and manifesting itself as class-based contempt and bad logic:
  • Lowborn people are cowards.
  • Sancho is lowborn.
  • THEREFORE, Sancho is a coward.

Clearly, proposition one is false on its face, but the reasoning that comes after cannot be faulted. And he leaves the implication of his own bravery hanging in the air so he cannot be accused of speaking false. In the end, I think the question of whether or not he’s a coward is provocative and interesting to consider because it turns out to be a bit beside the point. The question that must accompany this one is, something about authenticity. At what point does reading so pollute our experience that it is no longer authentic? What is the relationship between authenticity and reading? Even the most blockheaded soldier going to war may likely be doing so in the service of some idea, some story; even the most illiterate lover may be serving some notion of romance. But, at a certain point, is there too much reading, too much of an expectation that life will conform to the rules of a genre?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Music meme

1. The person who passed the baton to you.
Dave, who added the pressure that I do something unique. (Sorry to disappoint.) Dave might marvel at moments when the self-obsessed major bloggers from on high deign to comment on his blog, but, like the ingénue with her first Oscar nomination, I’m gushing just to be tagged with my first meme.

2. Total volume of music files on your computer.
3.7 GB—more amazing is that I was actually able to find this information. (I was worried!)

3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.
Les Sénégalaises by Sanseverino (months ago), but I wish I’d bought Benabar instead. His “Sac á Main” is amazingly hilarious: a song about a man digging through his girlfriend’s purse and, through a catalogue of its contents, discovering that she has moved on: “Les cigarettes, oui mais / elle a decidée d’arreté” (Cigarettes, but—she decided to quit); “Et vendredi prochain / avec un certain Sebastien” (And next Friday, a meeting with a Sebastian…”)

4. Song playing at the moment of writing.
Some flute piece by Holst on WNYC’s evening music.

5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs)
  1. “Hackensack” by Fountains of Wayne. Like Benabar, it’s got some great surprising rhymes and I’m all about the lyrics: “I heard you talkin’ / to Christopher Walken” cracks me up every time and that, combined with the plaintive, soaring chorus:
    But I will wait for you
    As long as I need to
    And if you ever get back
    to Hackensack
    I’ll be there for you.

    I love its attitude to New Jersey: ironic and tender.
  2. “New York City Blues” by Peggy Lee. Because, as she belts it out, “I got to get back to it, if I have to walk, or train, or fly…” A song about triumphant return: mine is not a return—and, living here across the Hudson, I may not have even arrived, but I love it and, when it’s on my iPod, I feel like it’s mine.
  3. “Tranquilo” by Luis Vargas. We got into Dominican music during a service learning trip that we lead to the D.R. the year before the beloved toddler was born. (What is service learning? Well, for students, it’s a combination of mission, tanning, cultural imperialism, and resumé building. For faculty, an opportunity to watch students persist in blind cultural imperialism while you [I] teach [taught] Dominican orphans how to make origami cranes.) This song is particularly lovely because it’s got the speedy, cheerful Dominican syncopation followed by moments where the music stops and the great Luis Vargas calls for everything to get tranquilo. It’s meaningful because, in the hours before the beloved toddler’s birth, things got quite hairy indeed. When they calmed, my husband put this cd on and everything was better.
  4. ”Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel. Hard to pick just one Brel song but this is terrific: full of tempo changes, accordion, and a lovely list of what it means to love a second city. I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but this makes me think of Seattle and makes me remember listening to Brel as a girl in Seattle, waiting for life to start. He manages to sound angry—almost spitting—in his passionate singing.
  5. ”Hello Hello” by Dan Zanes. This is one of Dan Zanes’ original folk songs—an instant classic. Its message of greeting each day and taking it seriously as your own, as a day to honor and celebrate calls me back to myself and makes me a better mom in all the best ways. The beloved toddler loves it, too.
  6. Honorable mention to “Brick House” by the Commodores, “Super Freak” by Rick James, “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by the Gap Band, Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” and the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” You gotta love those songs that carried you, dancing, through the worst years of high school and college. The still make me dance now. Crank it up!

Sorry, Dave, the old school stuff doesn’t make the top bit but, after a few beers (even before) I can still do most of “The Message”….

6. The five people to whom you will ‘pass the musical baton.’
Bud, because he’s got a musician in the family, but I bet he won’t do it.
Sarahlynn, because she’s always got something interesting to say.
Wendi, because she’s always wanting to know what’s on other folks’ iPods.
Genevieve and Ana Maria because I’m genuinely curious.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Graduation Party

“‘Lord,’ [Orlando] thought, as she raised the sugar tongs, ‘how women in ages to come will envy me! And yet--’ she paused; for Mr. Pope needed her attention. And yet--let us finish her thought for her--when anybody says ‘How future ages will envy me,’ it is safe to say that they are extremely uneasy in the present moment.”--Virginia Woolf, Orlando(1928)

It’s May and everywhere people are graduating. Yesterday, we braved it into the wilds of Connecticut to celebrate with one of my very best friends in the world: her husband finished his Ph.D!

The beloved toddler was down below, watching a video with the other babes. I sat nursing a cup of white wine at the breakfast room table. I looked around and saw my husband, my dearest beloved friend with her baby, and two senior faculty members from graduate school. Now, when we were in school, these two men were legend already. Now, a decade later, they bear themselves like great and successful senior professors. Although they do not teach in what was my department, I knew of them and about them. Suddenly, here I was, sitting and talking like a normal person about summer plans, about how Jersey City has and hasn’t changed since one of their wives grew up there. I thought, “Wow! Here I am sitting with these two legends. Who would have thought, a decade ago when I was toiling away in the library—“ Just then, my husband interrupts my reverie, “Hon--” and the beloved toddler swoops into view, in the arms of a willowy young babysitter, “Mommy, I need you to change my diaper.”

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Civilized and Content

I’m reading Christine Froula’s Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde. It’s really wonderful, brave, smart, opinionated, and informed; it works its way through Woolf’s novels, one by one, tracing the development of Woolf’s thinking (especially about aesthetics and feminism) through the plot. Reading it, one gets the sense of how lucky it would be to sit in on a lecture course of hers. But then, reading it is like being in that course—and perhaps better, because I can set it down and stare out the window on the train as we hurtle through the Bronx. (I come by “little excursions around the room” honestly: Woolf herself was an obsessive documenter of her own distractions and the fruits they bore.)

Christine writes unabashedly about the Bloomsbury project of civilization. Such a lovely word, civilization. And then, well, lots of really brilliant people whom I respect tremendously pointed out all the flaws with the idea of civilization—its patriarchal bent, its racist perspectives, its tremendous elitism, its dependence on the oppression of others, its emphasis on the mission of civilizing others—and the word, the idea became taboo. I love projects of recuperation, though, and this seems worth thinking more about. Tentatively, then, it might make sense to look to the Bloomsbury Group, those Londoners who welcomed Freud, the author of Civilization and Its Discontents, when he was exiled, as a movement in which one might find a way to reconsider the idea of civilization as something revolutionary, positive, and valuable. What do you think? Is civilization still a dirty word? If it is, how would you describe the society you seek?

For more news from the heights of the civilized, you might want to check out this post from if:book which includes a clip from a silent film of Hamlet (!). It seems the BBC is gradually making bits of its archive available. That’s cause for celebration.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Writing in Public

Many days, I marvel that my life passes as I move from one windowless closet, through a tunnel, to another windowless closet. Is it any wonder, then, that I spend whatever writing time I can writing and reading in public? In A Room of One’s Own and Jacob’s Room, Woolf wrote about the oppressive atmosphere of the British Library, with its vast dome encircled by a band of seventeen male names. While I’m sympathetic to her irritation, I have seldom felt excluded (though often intimidated). For me, studying in a great library’s reading room is one of life’s richest simple pleasures. Something about being in the midst of books in a high-ceilinged room with shafts of dusty sunlight pouring in inspires me and provides just the right amount of distraction. The books around-- reference works and encyclopedias--tend not to tempt but to inspire. The people around are interesting in their foibles but mostly silent. I get caught up in the competition of being able to stay concentrated as long as the others.

Today, though, the weather is grand and I remembered that Bryant Park is a wi-fi hotspot, so I’m writing from a little green desk in this little patch of green, surrounded by skyscrapers. In front of me, kindergartners play duck, duck, goose; behind me, a man reads into a microphone. Thanks to Google & wifi, I can tell you that it’s Elmore Leonard. I’m tempted to abandon my own book and listen to him talk about his, but, for once, I’ll resist.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Small Island, Small World

I am making my way through Andrea Levy’s wonderful Small Island so I read Moorish Girl’s recentish post on the novel with great interest. She quotes a nice but provincial write up from AP and then writes:
Just once I wish the reporter assigned to Levy wouldn't make the comparison with Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. (One wonders why those comparisons were not made on the publication of Levy's previous novel, or, for that matter, why Smith and Ali weren't compared to Levy, who's been writing and publishing for far longer.) And while I'm at it, I do wish reporters would just stop making stories by writers of color seem like the flavor of the moment. Newsflash: writers of color are here to stay.

Touché. Comparisons are helpful when they actually help us understand more fully what a book is, what it’s about, but the same old tired comparisons over and over become wearing and show laziness, not helpful insight. If every writer about black Britain now has to be compared to Zadie Smith, then comparisons are no better than a parody of a Hollywood pitch: “It’s like White Teeth but without the Islamic fundamentalism and forty years earlier and not so funny…”

But really, what got me excited what the link Moorish Girl had a few days later to Book Coolie’s comments on Levy. Oh Book Coolie! What a great site to have found. Here’s someone who has read a lot, it seems, and really knows the older Caribbean literature (Selvon, C.L.R. James, Lamming, Naipaul) upon which Levy builds and draws. A great site. Check it out.

Plus, more than Moorish Girl (who is great but has a different kind of blog), Book Coolie has those meaty little essays I love AND not about the same books that everyone else is talking about. Go there.

And, while you’re wandering the globe, check out Chippla’s blog for an African man’s take on carrying babes vs. strollers. He’s all about “attachment parenting,” but coming at it not from the oppressive American granola context. I’m not about to give up the stroller, but I found his post fascinating. (Via Black Looks)

Monday, May 16, 2005

Dan Zanes at BAM

Last Saturday's cultural event was Dan Zanes’ Brooklyn Ballyhoo at BAM (falling squarely between Dora at CMoM and Chivalrous Misdemeanors in the Time Warner Center). What’s not to love? We had tickets for the toddler-friendly eleven o’clock (a.m.) show and arrived to find a bustling house. The crowd was solidly Brooklyn. My spouse and I felt the man in the Grinnell College sweatshirt was laying it on a little thick, being a little obvious. I’d guess a substantial majority of folks in the audience had liberal arts degrees. (I see your Grinnell and raise you an Oberlin and two Williamses…)

The lights were dimmed (not enough to scare the toddlers, but enough to hush them) and we could see the enormous silhouettes of the performers projected on the scrim behind their instruments. Dan Zanes (who used to be with the Del Fuegos, a band I dimly remember as being too cool for me) teased his trademark finger-in-the-lightsocket locks and gave the others high-fives before they wandered out in front of the screen to play. Barbara Brousal was there with her haunting and divine voice and so was Rankin’ Don, aka Father Goose. He came out at the end and, as he had at Symphony Space in the fall, stole the show, doing a medley of nursery rhymes Jamaican dub style. Seriously. It’s amazing (it’s on Rocket Ship Beach—you can hear it for yourself). Another highlight included French horn solos by Anna Zanes (age 10) and her fifth-grade classmate on the great old Salvation Army tune, “Roll the Chariot Along.” In case you’re curious, you can still eighty kindergarteners who’ve been jumping up and down like pogo sticks in front of the stage with dueling French horns. All the kids stopped and gathered in front of the older children, stock still, in awe.

Zanes plays with four others, plus Father Goose who comes out for the last few songs, but there are many special guests. In addition to those already mentioned, Joan Osborne, Bonga (a Haitian drummer) and Wunmi (who does African dance and singing) came out for a song apiece and the Rubi Theater Company took the stage (with babies and children) to do some human beatboxing, just like back in the day, as they said.

The beloved toddler clapped enthusiastically, swayed, and yelled “Yay!” at the end of each song, but, after begging to go down to the stage, spent most of the hokey-pokey a little clingy and teary. Sweet potato fries and a Shirley Temple at Junior’s did the trick afterwards. As for me, I teared up at “Down by the Riverside.” I remember learning that as a girl and being so convinced (this was during, or just after, Vietnam) that war was over for all time, that we all saw how scary it was. Now, thirty years later, my babe hears it again in wartime. How will she hear it when she knows what the words mean? How much will the way she hears it matter?

(If you look around on Dan Zanes’ website, you can find information too on the South African orphans whom he’s helping. There was an article about them in the Times last week.)

Friday, May 13, 2005

A Chilling Effect

Recently, my mom and I ware talking about the changes at the helm of America and what they might reveal about the new Pope, what they might portend. (We’re not Catholic.) I made a parallel between the chilling effect there and what happens in small with college newspapers, where authors are called in to speak with the dean to consider the wisdom of their publishing this or that. I was confident that she would share my sense of allegiance with the students against a paternalistic institution but she disagreed. More vested in the administration’s role in loco parentis, she felt that a dean might well be right to caution a young journalist to consider the wisdom of what she writes.

The more I think about when this is and is not advisable, the more complex it becomes. Reading in a friend’s memoir of how she knowingly harmed another made me see her in a different, less favorable light. What might have been brave and honest in the memoir of a stranger became, for me, evidence that she was capable of knowingly harming others. Our friendship cooled. What would have happened if she had been asked to consider the wisdom of what she revealed?

And how might my life be different if I spent less time considering the wisdom? After all, mine are the parents who called out, as I was leaving for a date, “Remember, honey, wherever you go, we’ll be right there with you!” Hilarious, even at the time, but definitely a chilling effect. It’s a line a fully intend to deploy, on an as-needed basis, when the beloved toddler gets older. Now, it’s not longer my parents exhorting me. The reminders to consider the wisdom are fully and completely internalized. And I wonder, is that for the best? Often, I think it is. Still, I wonder.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Overheard, Columbus Circle Edition

The longer I’m here, the more likely it seems I’ll write about Jersey City, and not Manhattan. I like the smallness, the not-quite-hip-ness of my little neighborhood. But one does overhear things in New York, too. Today, I had an earful. I tried to be a polite eavesdropper--I certainly was a distracted latte-sipper.

I got off the train at Columbus Circle and headed into Starbucks for a latte, found a good table, and sat down. Facing me was a handsome, familiar-looking man, fifty-ish. I decided that, since this was Starbucks and not, say, Café Gray, it was likely that he was just a Hollywood-type (expensive gray t-shirt, olive khaki slacks, two different slick cases containing organizers of some kind), dressed to look like a handsome, familiar-looking man. Whomever he was waiting for was late.

Mr. Late walked in, young enough to be a son, wearing a plush headband with lemon yellow and pink bunny ears. (He took them off pretty fast.) He starts talking about “the meeting.” It turns out that they were planning their upcoming meeting to pitch a sit-com idea. Once Mr. Late calms down, Familiar-looking starts coaching him:
Familiar-looking: I want you to understand that this isn’t scripted at all, so we should just be ourselves, be casual. If you want to interrupt me or add something, you should absolutely feel free to do so. I want them to have a chance to see how we work together. I’ll feed you lines, like, well, Ned has such interesting parents… And then you could jump in. Wll, how would you describe your parents? (I think he found the bunny ears a little worrying, too.)

Ned, aka Mr. Late, says something I can’t quite catch about their being the perfect combination of something.

Familiar-looking: Great! That’s a perfect line! Then, I’ll say something about how important it is that it’s set at Stuyvesant and what a great reputation the high school has, and how it’s so multicultural and you could just jump in with, well, what was it like for you to be there?

It was actually very sweet and enthusiastic and irresistible to listen to. The men were a little desperate, a little nervous, very excited about the possibility of some cable tv “one camera show. I don’t do three-camera” and the possibility of bringing Ned’s fantastic book of stories to television. So, I googled “Ned” “Stuyvesant” and “short stories” and got here. Has anyone read these?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Mother’s Day (ambivalence file)

I think four items mark a trend, even if two of them are from the Times. The cover story of Sunday’s magazine was about the emerging father’s custody movement. (NPR picked up the story, too.) The often irritating “Modern Love” column in the Styles section was a woman’s account of her husband’s efforts to gain (more) custody of their children, the Mother’s Day episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was about a single father, and this month’s Elle (gym reading—and good, too!--article not online, though, sorry!) has an essay by Bliss Broyard (Anatole’s daughter and the reviewer on Sunday of Happy Booker favorite Roxana Robinson) about forgiving her mother for having been an alcoholic. So, Mother’s Day is a chance to explore our ambivalence? What we’re missing?

Broyard’s essay has a moving and mature point: while her therapists helped her explore her pain, they were not helping her build a bridge back to her mother. What disturbed me and evoked my pity and suspicion was the photograph of Broyard towering over her mother, who looks like what she is: a fragile, bohemian WASP, recovered alcoholic, the widow of a brilliant public intellectual who hid his Creole heritage. Seeing that woman now and then reading about her drunken stupors thirty years ago made me sorry, not inspired.

As for the Modern Love essay, I want to try to write about it without too much Schadenfreude. Chronic infidelity is a difficult problem to understand because I live in a one strike and you’re out universe. Certainly, the woman with three children, and a distant, unfaithful (redundant?) husband, evokes sympathy. The byline, identifying her as the author of a book on attachment parenting, however, unleashed a different set of feelings.

On of the odd truths of parenthood is its ability to evoke simultaneous feelings of passionate expertise and intense insecurity. Hence, we drown in battling advice books. I have tried very hard—still try—to take theories and styles lightly, to remember always that what seems to work today for my family is merely that—today’s solution for us—and not a prescription for motherhood. Thus, no current phrase rankles me more than “attachment parenting.” When I’ve been asked if I’m an “attachment parent” (people ask these things, you’d be surprised), I always counter, “no, we’re detachment parents.” But in fact it hurts, angers, annoys, amuses. So, perhaps you’ll understand the little jolt of “ha!” I felt upon learning of the misfortunes of a proponent of a theory that, in my experience, has only ever been deployed against me.

Mother’s Day is not a big deal to me. The sentimental tripe is as depressing as the barely concealed resentment. Still, there are good mothers out there (I had one and she had one, too), some of whom are also interesting people (mine is and hers was). I would like to have heard about—or from—some of them.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Jazz Quixote, 2

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Ron Westray’s Chivalrous Misdemeanors consists of twenty-three short pieces inspired by Cervantes’ novel played in two long sets of about an hour each. While the first set is a little too picaresque, the second soars. This was the premier of the first extended jazz homage to Cervantes and there is a lot to celebrate. You can read more about Westray and the genesis of his piece at Jazz Times and All About Jazz.

I had anticipated, just from trying to imagine how I would face the challenge, an evening more indebted to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain than to Cervantes and I was delighted to be surprised. Instead, Westray has written a lovely, romantic suite, less about existential alienation and lonely questing than about the courage to dream. The music is beautiful and also diverse; for me, the vocals were the consistent stars. Dulcinea, sung by Jennifer Sanon, has a lovely song, “Never Knew,” that deserves to become a standard: it is a love song about just Dulcinea’s situation, the odd feeling of not knowing how much emotion she has inspired. It does not turn into love or resentment; the song just stays in this state of dreamy, puzzled wonderment: a great addition to the catalog of love.

The actor Patrick Tull read the narration and he brought humor and gravitas to the proceedings. Amazing as it is that Westray has boiled Don Quixote down to seven pages, there is still too much text. It is hard to switch from listening to a story (and sometimes reading along) to listening to music—partly because I, at least, found myself trying to figure out how the music represented the episode. At the opening of the second set, for example, we hear the story of the incredible loyalty of Anselmo and Lothario, which blends into a lyrical piece, one of the evening’s most melodic. Suddenly, I was scolding myself for having drifted along the melody, where were we? What was the Cervantes link? But then I saw that this was about harmony. Congratulating myself on my perspicacity, I missed a bit of music.

We were seated in a second tier box. Boxes at the glorious Rose Hall (as stunning as advertised) extend all the way around the stage of and we had the unusual (to me) perspective of being in the first box over the stage, almost directly above the narrator and composer’s heads. Because of this perspective, there were one or two moments on Saturday when I could see Westray’s delight in Cervantes’ humor which had gone by too fast for me to catch. That was a little frustrating but no more frustrating than going to opera without reading the synopsis. Some great works of art have a higher entry point than others and I think I will come to like Chivalrous Misdemeanors more as I learn to know it (and Cervantes) better.

Even on first listen, there are some things that are utterly gorgeous. Sachal Vasandani, who sang the part of Don Quixote, was terrific. He sang the role like Dean Martin at his best, like a slightly dissolute but young Sinatra—a beautiful but slightly boozy voice, a winning, sexy combination of confidence and willful persistence in illusion. All of his songs were show-stopping: his duet with Dulcinea shines but I particularly loved the plaintive ballad to Sancho Panza. He sings “life’s an adventure,” an assertion full of longing for it to be so.

The non-vocal music was no less beautiful but harder for me to write about, amateur listener that I am. I can say that there’s an exciting, funny, tough drum solo, full of cymbals, for the helmet of Mambrino episode; that the encounter with the Knight of the White Moon is violent, loud, and rousing; that Wynton Marsalis had an amazing solo using a mute that looked to me like a derby hat (I don’t know what it’s called), bending the sound around the room; that Camilla’s surrender is sexy and funny, and that the end is very moving deep, rich music and a beautiful envoi from Don Quixote sung in a richer, darker, less pretty style.

There is something really great about this piece. I want to hear it again and I’m sorry that the house wasn’t full on Saturday. Still, I felt like, especially in the first set, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was a little reined in, like things didn’t develop. When Westray loosened the reins, giving himself (he is a trombonist), Marsalis, and others more room to play in the second set, we had all the greatness of Cervantes translated into jazz: digressions, interruptions, gorgeous lyricism, irony, words and music, harmony and chaos, tight composition and imaginative flights. That is an achievement worthy of greater praise than I can bestow, but this little blog entry is a start. Bravo, author!

Thursday, May 05, 2005


I finished McEwan’s Saturday last week and loved it.

That’s saying a lot. I have been quite peeved with him for consistently discounting any connection to Virginia Woolf—even to the point of fabricating a quotation (something about character being dead in modern fiction) on the Op-Ed page of the Times in his appreciation of Saul Bellow.

Still, I felt like the biggest lesson I learned from Woolf about reading was the lesson she imbibed from her father, from her discipline of reviewing: to read widely and generously, judging works on their own terms. This does not mean being only a gentle reader; it does mean reading without prejudice. I felt that, whatever wrong McEwan may have done to Woolf’s generosity (not that she—or her legacy—cannot bear it), I owed it to myself and to Woolf to read Saturday with an open mind.

True enough, it owes much on the thematic level to Mrs. Dalloway: as I surmised, as Katie Roiphe (who read it before me and wrote about it on Salon indicated, this novel about an upper-middle class doctor who spends a day planning a party only to be interrupted by war must call Clarissa Dalloway to mind.

However, in the end, reading it is not at all like reading Mrs. Dalloway. It’s its own book, full of medical arcana and with the surprising reliance on genre fiction for the climax (here, crime) that surprised last time in Atonement. The way McEwan turns to genre fiction seems an interesting and very promising, rich development out of a long British tradition of writers switching from high- to middlebrow works. (Woolf did it when she wrote Orlando but Graham Greene, with his “entertainments” is the most celebrated of many examples.) There were things, however, that I loved. For example, I found myself remembering my own confusion through his daring descriptions of the political confusion of the mainstream liberal in the days before this horrible Iraq war. His protagonist has treated a victim of Saddam Hussein’s torturing goons and, on the strength of that, is more willing than he wants to be to listen to Tony Blair; yet, as a neurologist, he finds himself checking Blair’s face for signs of deception. And, in a very different vein, I found it incredibly moving and interesting to read a novel about the professionally successful husband of a professionally successful woman in which the disintegration of their marriage is not a plot point. Instead, we see them happy together in many different registers over the course of the day—passionate, tender, interested in each other, proud of their children, worried about their children, turning to each other for comfort. (And this, of course, is a loud revision of the functioning but basically celibate Dalloway marriage.)

I am still unsettled by his desire to distance himself from Woolf and interested in his desire to connect himself to Bellow and other Americans. Is it as simple as the fear of being perceived as an effete Brit? Is there any more to it than that?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


My article, though still listed as “forthcoming” is out from Feminist Studies. It’s a look at how Woolf’s journalism, particularly her contributions to the TLS, was informed by her understanding of the eighteenth-century, particularly Joseph Addison’s The Spectator (a periodical that, I think, is a precursor to blogs). Incidentally, Feminist Studies is a cool journal, really doing all the promising interdisicplinary things that one hoped feminism would do: please do support this independent enterprise by encouraging your library to subscribe.

Now you can see it.

Overheard at my Local, Part 3

Dolores and Ann

I was, as ever, at my local on Monday morning. Dolores came early for her coffee date with Ann (not me) and ordered the same sandwich I was having. She’s hard of hearing and 73, she told me. Ann showed up, but I didn’t pay much heed until I heard Ann say, “I said, ‘I was in a coma. How could I call? He asks me why don’t I call. I just says to him, I was in a coma. How could I call? How can you call if you’re in a coma?’” That made me tune my ear to their frequency (which, believe me, was not hard: deaf women with thick Jersey accents broadcast well):
Do you know that woman, Shirley? She’s a diabetic.
Yeah, Shirley. Did you know she’s a diabetic? I didn’t know she was a diabetic.
Yeah. I know Shirley’s diabetic.
Anyway, Shirley came to BINGO on Tuesday and she had these (rustling in her purse for a cellophane wrapper). They’re Tast-E-Kakes.
Yeah, those are good. I got them at the Second Street Bakery
She says you can’t get them here.
I got them at Second Street Bakery
She got them at the Shoprite in Hoboken. You can’t get them here. They’re lite. For diabetics. I thought I’d try them.

There were many significant glances my way when a young woman, all tattooed and punked out came in, “Looks dirty, right?” I shrugged. (I don’t like tattoos, too, but my loyalty here is both indifferent and divided.) As the tattooed young woman was leaving, Dolores begins extolling the virtues of FOX news—they give you news on the hour! You get so much news—“But there was a kid on Reilly. Oooh. I wish you could see this. He had a mohair—a Mohawk—a Mohawk, it was fiery red…”

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Essays: a request for advice

A friend has given me to read a fine, interesting, moving personal essay. He would like to publish it somewhere. If you were a personal essay about finding a vocation, with references to William James and Shelley where would you want to be published?

Two new operas

Matt Greenfield’s review of Julie Taymor (she of The Lion King)’s new production of The Magic Flute got me thinking about opera again. And then, sure enough, on Monday’s Soundcheck, John Schaefer featured previews of two new operas premiering this week. If you’re in London, you might want to see Loren Maazel’s version of 1984 with a libretto written in part by poet, critic, and editor (The Yale Review J. D. McClatchy. Apparently, the seventy-five year old conductor has underwritten much of the production costs, causing skeptics to wonder if it is a vanity production. I’m less inclined to be so cynical: if you can afford to be your own patron, why not?

The second opera, however, really sounds exciting and the websites offer a lot of information (including a fancy video preview). The Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit is mounting Margaret Garner, with a libretto by Toni Morrison. It’s based on the true story of a fugitive slave who killed her children to prevent their living in slavery—a return to the material of Beloved, in other words. The majestic and fantastic Jessye Norman will make a brief appearance but the title role is played by the lovely and much-beloved Denyce Graves, best known in our household for serenading Elmo to sleep with her opera lullaby (to a tune from Carmen). It will be traveling to Cincinnati and then Philadelphia soon. Perhaps a road trip is in store.

In the meantime, and in preparation for a few weeks upstate this summer, I’m checking out the Glimmerglass schedule. Since we last saw Dialogue of the Carmelites, ending, as you may recall, with the dramatic and grim ritual suicide of a long line of protesting nuns, I’m thinking Cosi Fan Tutte or at least Lucia de Lammermoor--the latter features Edgardo, one of my father’s favorite names. It’s lovely and comic, that Scots-turned-Italian, isn’t it?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Monday links

I’m surprised this news—that Apple stores are banning all books published by the company that’s publishing an unauthorized biography of Steve Jobs--hasn’t provoked more comment. I dislike unauthorized biographies; they strike me as cheap and intrusive. And surely Apple has the right to not stock any title it wants. But to ban everything by the publisher seems hysterical and wrongheaded. (It also seems to bode well for sales of iCon. (Number 131 and rising...)

Here’s a lovely little (belated) Arbor Day gift for you: a Brooklyn artist made necklaces for some lucky trees. Aww.

Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World has won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (via House of Mirth).

Jenny Davidson, who reads very fast, has a terrific, sparkling quote on reading—and the fear of running out of stuff to read--from (the often terrific & sparkling) Randall Jarrell.

I don’t have high hopes for Arianna Huffington’s blog, though I like—or am amused by?—her. I did, however, like what Nora Ephron said, somewhat dismissively but not entirely inaccurately, about the appeal of blogging (from the Times):
Ms. Ephron, the writer, who is one of the bloggers, said it was this casual aspect of the venture that appealed to her. "The idea that one might occasionally be able to have a small thought and a place to send it, without having to write a whole essay, seems like a very good idea," she said.