Archive for March, 2010

Prayers for peace

Despite living in New York for years I had never walked by Marble Collegiate Church on 29th and Fifth Avenue until this weekend. So I had not seen these ribbons which have been in place since March 19, 2006 – the third anniversary of the start of war in Iraq – and beautifully represent the congregation’s prayers for peace:

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I love this protest about the fare rises and service cuts on the trains and subways  – for those of you who don’t live in New York, the poster uses exactly the same typeface and fonts as the official MTA announcements:

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In this interview, Christopher Walken says he told his agent that he wanted to play a wholesome family man. Instead, in A Behanding in Spokane he stars as one-handed Carmichael, a racist homophobe with a very macabre hobby.

As a  birthday treat, I was lucky enough to see Walken in his first appearance on Broadway in a decade in the premiere of Martin McDonagh‘s latest play. According to the interview with McDonagh in the program, Walken was the last actor to be cast – which I find amazing as the play revolves around his performance. I can’t think of anyone else who could carry off the mixture of menace and dark humour which is so necessary for the part as well as Walken.

In the opening scene Walken makes you laugh despite the fact that you think Carmichael has shot someone in the head, in a similar way that Fargo or Pulp Fiction make you uncomfortable at laughing at appalling acts of violence.

To see how he manages this in his own inimitable style, just watch Walken reading the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s Pokerface on the Jonathan Ross show:

(Off course, YouTube than had a Lady Gaga/Walken mashup.)

In the play, Carmichael has been searching for his hand for 47 years after it was allegedly chopped off by hillbillies in Spokane, Washington, who then use it to wave goodbye. I say allegedly because it is unclear what is the truth and what is delusion in the stories that we hear from any of the characters –  Carmichael, the weed dealers and con artists played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan or the hotel receptionist, who doesn’t like being called a receptionist, played by Sam Rockwell.

Ultimately, I think is where the play falls down. It is ninety minutes of very dark humour but once the shock and the laughter- and there is plenty of both – die down, you are not left with anything more profound about the characters or the situation they find themselves in.

I guess it would be unfair to expect a play about a one-handed sociopath to say something deep about the world  and it is still worth going to see as you get a fantastic performance by an actor who is unlike anyone else and for 90 minutes you do manage to suspend disbelief in a plot that is unlike anything else I have ever seen.

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Have been reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is not something I would normally choose but was picked by my book club and proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. An endorsement on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert had always caused me to run a mile from this book as I hate memoirs/self-help tomes that bash you over the head about teaching you a lesson.

As is obvious from the title,  the book is set in Guernsey, but what may not be so obvious is that it takes place just after the island’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. Although I am English, this was something I knew very little about, and am ashamed to say that I knew nothing at all about the Todt workers, the slave workers sent over from Europe by the Nazis.

Despite these serious issues, the book also manages to be really funny, especially in the letters written by the heroine, Juliet Ashton. She manages to perfectly capture the tone of English sarcasm, no mean feat given that the book’s author, Mary Ann Shaffer, was American.

Living in New York I was particularly interested in Juliet’s impressions of her American suitor:

“He’s always had more than his fair share of what we call cheek and Americans call can-do spirit.”

Another reason I loved the novel is because the characters are passionate about reading, using the book club of the title as an escape from the horrors of Nazi occupation. As Eben Ramsay, one of the Guernsey residents, writes to Juliet:

“We clung to books and to our friends.; they reminded us that we had another part to us. Elizabeth used to say a poem. I don’t remember all of it, but it began “Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived life in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done, to have advanced true friends? ” It isn’t.”

My only quibble with the book is that it is totally in the form of letters, but the only really distinctive voice is Juliet’s, so sometimes you get confused about which character is actually writing.

A reaction from the people of Guernsey can be found here.

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“Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Today is World Water Day and while we have been busy developing  technology for renewable energy, I have heard relatively little about how we plan to tackle the looming problem of water shortages.

Peter Brabeck-Letmanthe, chairman of food company Nestle, has written that “we will probably run out of water long before we run out of fuel.” He says:

“The 2030 Water Resources Group estimates that global water requirements will grow by over 50% over the next 20 years. Such levels of usage will be 40% greater than what can currently be sustainably supplied.

By 2030 one third of the global population, mainly concentrated in developing countries, will have only half the amount of naturally renewed water available they need.”

In a reminder of both the necessity, and beauty, of Earth’s waterways, Wired has a slideshow of satellite images of some of some of the longest, twistiest and and most interesting rivers in the world.

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One of my favourite British artists, Antony Gormley, is having his first public art project in New York – Event Horizon – which looks amazing judging by this photo in the New York Times. Unfortunately it doesn’t start until next week and patience has never been my strong point.

The concept is similiar to what Gormley did in London in 2007 when he dotted statues around the South Bank of the Thames.

What I love about Gormley is how he challenges our notion of art. I was lucky enough to be in London last summer for part of One & Other when he invited ordinary people to become living statues on the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Gormley chose 2,400 plinthers at random, from 35,000 applicants, to fill the space  for 24 hours a day, for 100 days.

I  was part of a lively crowd watching a poetry reading but the plinthers also used their one hour to publicise charities, look for jobs, and even go nude.

Given that New Yorkers are far less reserved than Brits, it will be interesting to see their reaction to Gormley’s work. I wish he had also asked them to be living sculptures – but can hold out hope that one day he will.

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Achilles ?

David Beckham ?

The British poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a poem “Achilles” inspired by David Beckham’s injury which will make him miss this year’s World Cup.

She told Radio 4’s The World At One:

“He  is almost a mythical figure himself, in popular culture …..it’s fascinating that the injury takes its name from Achilles… The whole point of Greek myths is the combination of triumph and tragedy that we follow in them.”

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National Geographic Traveler’s feature on Buenos Aires has this photo of the stunning Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid – a bookshop set in a 1920s theatre : (hat-tip: novelwhore.com). It makes me want to go and buy books there despite not being able to read Spanish.

In more Latin American-related reading, The Millions has an essay on earthquake literature in Chile. Back in 1835 Charles Darwin experienced a quake on the outskirts of  the town of Valdivia and he subsequently wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle :

“A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid ….If beneath England the now inert subterranean forces should exert their powers…how completely would the entire condition of the country be changed!”

Luke Epplin, the author of the essay, brings us up to date by describing when he lived in Santiago in 2004:

“I learned the Spanish word for earthquake before the word for thunderstorm. But that’s not uncommon for someone who learns the language in a country where thunder rumbles infrequently but the earth shakes every few months.”

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Finished watching season three of The Wire while I am in the middle of reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. British reviewers have said that if Charles Dickens were alive today he would have written for The Wire. In the same way I imagine that if McCarthy lived in Baltimore he would be part of  The Wire’s team.

In All The Pretty Horses, McCarthy pays homage to the iconic American cowboy and the loss of Wild West – and the streets of inner city Baltimore embody the same lawless frontier. However, unlike the traditional Western, The Wire does not divide its characters neatly into good guys and bad guys. While the  modern day gunslingers have no compunction in killing those who get in their way, they also have their own code of honour, as shown in one of my favourite scenes from the series featuring Brother Mouzone and Omar :

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“Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement. Shut that and ’twill out at the key-hole. Stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke at the chimney.”

Rosalind, As You Like it, Act 4, Scene 1

Rosalind’s words are the perfect introduction to the Morgan Library’s exhibition of Jane Austen’s life and works through its collection of her letters. Austen wrote about 3,000 letters, but only 160 survive and the Morgan owns 51.

I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was 14 and was immediately hooked by one of the most famous opening lines in literature, without understanding why. Since then, I must have read her books at least once a year. As I became older, I grew to appreciate the precision of her language, her ironic wit and cutting social commentary which lie just under the surface of her English gentility. Her letters are remarkably similiar in tone to the narrator of her novels:

15-16/9/1796, comments on a Miss Fletcher:

“She wore her purple muslin which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion.”

14/9/1804, comments on a Miss Armstong:

“I do not perceive wit or genius – but she has some sense and some degree of taste, and her manners are very engaging. She seems to like people rather too easily.”

8/2/1807, on the death of Mrs WK :

“I had no idea anybody liked her, and therefore felt nothing for any survivor.”

As well as her own letters, the exhibition also includes letters by other writers who admired Austen – which I knew nothing about and surprised me as many were by men. Walter Scott, one of Austen’s favourite writers, said:

“Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is some of the most wonderful I have ever met with.”

Rudyard Kipling wrote a story about Janeites, a group of World War I soldiers who were secret Austen devotees while WB Yeats had “great satisfaction” reading Austen when he toured America in the 1920s. Vladimir Nabokov initially excluded Austen from his course on the Masters of European Fiction at Cornell, until persuaded otherwise by Edmund Wilson, who wrote:

“She is one of a half dozen of the greatest writers – the others being Shakespeare, Milton , Swift, Keats and Dickens.”

I would wholeheartedly agree.

The New York Review of Books’ take on the exhibition can be found here.

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