Monday, March 28, 2011

Congrats to Top, Strange, and Charm Quark

Laila Lalami has spoken for the 3Quarks Daily Literary Prize.

"The finalists for this year’s 3QD prize write in very different genres, but they were all very impressive, which made the task of choosing just three difficult indeed."

She did not chose my musings on Alice. The winners offer an enormous breadth of literary thinking, not constrained to the Western tradition. In other words, she went beyond the usual suspects (and we mean you, Brideshead).

Here are the winners:

Top Quark: Namit Arora, Joothan: A Dalit's Life
"Namit Arora’s powerful review of Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan: A Dalit’s Life for 3Quarks Daily places this 1997 memoir in a personal, cultural, and literary context. Arora gives a very moving portrayal of a kind of life I knew little about, an honest reckoning of the privileges of his own upbringing, and a thoughtful analysis both of Valmiki’s work in Hindi and its translation into English."

Strange Quark:
Edan Lepucki, Reading and Race: On Slavery in Fiction
"All too often, the subject of race is felt to be the sole purview of people of color —-as if white people were completely unaffected by racial history or reality. Edan Lepucki’s candid piece for The Millions, in which she discusses her exposure to questions of race and slavery through various novels, shows us how literature, which requires us to have imaginative empathy, can also help us develop actual empathy."

Charm Quark: Elliot Colla, The Poetry of Revolt
"Elliot Colla’s analysis of Egyptian revolutionary slogans for Jadaliyya is both
sensitive and original. In discussing how poetry is created, performed, and remembered —-not just right now in Tahrir Square, but also during earlier historical periods-—he reminds us that literature and life are not distinct or divergent spheres, but indivisible aspects of the human experience."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Shadow of Her Smile: Elizabeth Taylor

Every movie lover has some sort of relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, one of the screen's all-time greatest lovers. Her career spans the lifetime of the “between the wars” generation, born in the 1920s and 30s. They grew up with her, matching her age for age as she went from the girl in Lassie Come Home to National Velvet, to the fiancée in Father of the Bride. Once she hit A Place in the Sun she was a young woman, and her natural, ultra sexiness was about to explode in technicolor and bewitch several generations.

I never saw her girl pictures (I didn't have a dog or horse phase myself). The first film I saw was Cleopatra on the ABC 4:30 Movie in grade school. The spectacle was the thing then, but I do remember that love scene with Richard Burton amid drapery. Hot is hot, and when you see the real thing—especially at a time before everything was so sexualized—-it is truly memorable.

I think Butterfield 8 was on the 4:30 movie too! That was over my head, and I have only the vaguest memory of it. Giant was the first film I was old enough to appreciate. I loved her with Rock Hudson, I loved the story of this young woman falling in love and then struggling to fit into her husband’s world.

But my favorite Elizabeth Taylor film is The Sandpiper (1965). The independent, single mother Laura Reynolds living in a beach house with her son was a great role for her, if a little ahead of its time for such a situation being sanctioned. She was convincing and exotic. And the plot point that Richard Burton, the prim headmaster of the Episcopal boarding school, just couldn’t stop himself from showing up at her door was beautifully erotic. Wouldn’t that be the best of all worlds: your own space, and a man who is driven to distraction by you? (Hmm.)

It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, written by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, from an original story by Martin Ransohoff, and it embodies, quite literally, the cultural shift that was happening in the midsixties, a.k.a. the sexual revolution.

The New York Times's Bosley Crowther was having none of it:

"THAT shabby old Hollywood custom of pretending to a great piety while flirting around with material that is actually suggestive and cheap has seldom been more adroitly practiced than in Martin Ransohoff's "The Sandpiper," which opened at the Music Hall yesterday.

"Built up to give the impression that it is taking a disapproving view of an adulterous affair between a free-thinking woman and an Episcopal clergyman, it is really a slick and sympathetic sanction of the practice of free love-—or, at least, of an illicit union that is supposedly justified by naturalness. And because it has Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles, the indelicacy of its implications is just that much more intrusive and cheap.

"Actually, the most distasteful aspect of this picture, which was made from a script by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, based on a story by Mr. Ransohoff, is that it uses the formidable Miss Taylor to rationalize values and views that are immature, specious, meretricious and often ridiculous.


"A viewer who is not careful may be deceived by the tricky blend of piety and physical allurements that Miss Taylor presents. But don't let it fool you. It's the same old Hollywood stuff."

Crowther's assessment in many ways is accurate, and he does like the Big Sur scenery and that "Vincente Minnelli captured the style and charm of an artist's beach house and the clatter and splash of an artist's friends." Taylor's own life unfolded during the 20th century as the world of Bachelor Mother (where a presumably unmarried woman abandons her child) gave way for the Erin Brockoviches, both in life and in film. Elizabeth Taylor was an important part of that cultural shift, even as she apparently didn't believe in cohabitation outside of marriage herself.

Besides Sandpipier, of course her Maggie the Cat was superb, and I stumbled on Raintree County at 1:00 in the morning a few years ago and was compelled to watch all three hours of it 'til the end (and still get up for work). I ran across The V.I.P.s recently and loved the insane glamor of it all.

Her Equally Compelling Reality

My mother is a year younger than Taylor, and has followed her career my whole life. She’s the one who told me all the little tidbits about the star through the years: about ET’s extreme health problems she suffered her entire life; she grew up in the studio system and didn’t have much of a childhood; that the truest love of her life was Mike Todd, and her life would have been very different if he hadn’t died in the plane crash; that when she and Burton really wanted to hurt each other, he would harp on her double chins, and she would razz on his bad skin.

These doses of everyday reality that required a steely reserve off screen certainly enriched her onscreen performances. But it was her understanding of MAN/WOMEN that lit-up her acting. And it’s why she and Richard Burton were a couple for the ages. Two souls with a shared exhausting appetite, a real life Scarlett and Rhett who let too much of their own fears get in the way of their love.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” is the Academy Award-winning song from The Sandpiper. The words have a nice resonance today. Sung here in mashup of Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand, with some nice photos from the film.

The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn
Look into my eyes, my love, and see
All the lovely things you are to me
A wistful little star
Was far too high
A tear drop kissed your lips and so did I
Now when I remember spring
All the joy that love can bring
I will be remembering
The shadow of your smile

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring, Sprang, Sprung: The Jesuit asks "What is all this juice and this joy?"

The 2011 verbal* [sic] equinox was yesterday, March 20. “An equinox occurs twice a year, in March and September, when the center of the Sun crosses directly over the Earth's equator, as the Earth is tilted neither away nor toward the Sun.”

The poets have honored this season with their best. I love the phrasing of their thoughts. Rilke offers the very definition of spring: "Harshness vanished." Here's a sprinkling of some of the most famous lines about the season.

A Pang is more conspicuous in Spring
In contrast with the things that sing
Emily Dickinson

I cannot meet the Spring unmoved --
I feel the old desire --
A Hurry with a lingering, mixed,
A Warrant to be fair --
Emily Dickinson

Spring is the Period
Express from God.
Among the other seasons
Himself abide,

But during March and April
None stir abroad
Without a cordial interview
With God.
Emily Dickinson
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
What is all this juice and all this joy?
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Early Spring
Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows' wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,

hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees.
Rainer Maria Rilke

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven—
All's right with the world!
Robert Browning

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
Tennyson Locksley Hall

If Winter’s comes, can Spring be far behind?
Lord Byron, Ode to the West Wind, 1819 Florence
(I happened upon the plaque in Florence near the train station that commemorates the site where Byron lived when wrote this important poem. It’s up quite high and it was a fluke that it caught my eye. A classic cheap thrill.)

Spring, when the dead earth stirs to life. We each experience many personal springs, when our body and/or soul comes back to life after an illness, or a depression, or a failed love. That’s why the poets feel such an affinity to this season, and we are each blessed by its restorative power.

*A typo that I quite enjoyed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lit/Crit St. Patrick

The Irish Arts Center of NYC has a novel way to celebrate the Irish on St. Patrick's Day, pun intended. They sent the word out last month that they were collecting books by and about the Irish to hand out on St. Patrick's Day by teams of volunteers at a specific location in each of the 5 boroughs. And so we have the first annual IAC BOOK DAY. It's a nice twist on pubs giving out a free glass of green beer. Best tweet about that: Jim Gaffin (via Nancy Franklin): I always imagine St Patrick is looking down today thinking, “What are they doing? I didn’t even drink”

The Irish Arts Center is a great place. It offers all manner of Celtic film, theater, and dance, plus classes on all the classic arts: tin whistle, fiddle, harp, Bodhrán, bag pipes, Irish language, step dancing, Céilí dances, and more. It's so important to keep these arts alive from generation to generation. Erin Go Bragh.

Book Distribution Locations for Book Day

72nd Street and Broadway (Entrance to the IRT 1,2,3) North east corner of Dyckman/Broadway in Inwood (Entrance to the subway at Dyckman/200th Street)

Parkchester #6 Subway Station

Jackson Heights Post Office, 78-02 37th Avenue Station at 78th Street

Northeast Corner of 7th Ave and 9th Street F Station

St. George Ferry Terminal, 1 Bay Street

And because we can all use a smile, the Muppets sing "Danny Boy."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Center Is Not Holding

The ceremony of innocence was long ago drowned, but Yeats was not imagining this much destruction, even as his beast slouched toward Bethlehem.

First numbing thoughts were of the sheer force of the water: the speed and sickening ruthlessness with which it pushed and drowned everything and all in its way like some crazed, insatiable water beast. The order of civilization’s control—-that cars neatly sit on roads and houses sit stately on land--- demolished as though we are devoid of all power, and our possessions mere matchbox cars and train set props.

Aching for the individual lives killed and hurt by this wrath of nature, washed away as though they were nothing more than twigs in a raging stream.

Admiring all the acts of courage and the ingenuity of the human survival instinct.

Now the nuclear threat, to the same people still in shock from the flood. Praying that the best minds in Japan, and those who have gone to help, can figure out how to contain this potential death for so many more.

Feeling safe. Is it all an illusion? While this was unfolding over the weekend, two close-at-home events helped to shatter further the veil of safety I try to believe in. And that’s besides the bus crash that killed 15 sleepy people returning home from Mohegan Sun.

The first was a strange attack by a Goth-clad 21 year old in my hometown of Massapequa Park. He jumped in front of a car, strapped with knives, and started banging on the car’s hood. He then ran back into his house as the woman called the police. This lead to arrival of multiple law enforcement responders, and before the incident was over, the 21 year-old was dead, as was a 40-year old, 12-year veteran of the force, the father of 2 small boys. A terrible tragedy for these lives. It’s a mess of finger pointing now. No one is writing much about the crazy 21 year who started it all.

The second news item was 1010 WINS saying that there have been more muggings on Broadway on the Upper West Side, in broad daylight. The assailants punch the victims in the face, then steal their money and cell phones. As I was walking on Saturday, I was hyper aware of my surroundings. Were all the victims unaware that they were about to be hit in the face?

Is “feeling safe” just the lie we tell ourselves so that we leave the apartment in the morning? The world doesn’t always feel this fragile, to use a word of Tom Watson’s that I like. But right now we are collectively in a raw zone. As they say, we need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's Mardi Gras (but not in NYC)

New York does not join the rest of the world in the celebration of Carnival. Why is that? Discuss. In truth, the excesses are more interesting in a world where Lent had some meaning, where an austerity of the 40 days following was palpable. Now it's a celebration of life that just blends into the all the other days.

Amazing photos curated by The Atlantic's Alan Taylor, via Sullivan.

Friday, March 4, 2011

3 Quarks Daily: The Arts & Literature Prize. Vote for Me!

The other day I followed a tweet link from the uber-connected Maud Newton and ended up on the info page for the Quarks’s Arts & Literature prize. Can I say here how much Twitter can be like a box of Cracker Jacks? You never know where you are going to land when you click a link.

I’ve visited the 3DQ before, but I’m not a regular reader, so I didn’t know that they started a series of prizes for web writing in 2009, in the categories of Science, Philosophy, Politics, and Arts & Literature.

The Arts & Literature prize this year is being judged by the fabulous Laila Lalami. I nominated my essay about Alice in Wonderland & Tim Burton’s film in the open nominating phase, and then it was chosen to go on to the next round.

Vote Here!
That’s where I could use your help. Go here if you would like to vote for me to go on to the finals round.

It would be nice to win something, but it’s equally nice to see a bunch of good blog writing brought together for any reason.

Back to those Quarks

A little bit more about the 3 Quarks Daily website:

"When Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig postulated the existence of three new subatomic particles in 1964, Gell-Mann decided to name them "quarks", an unusual word meaning "croak" or "caw" which James Joyce had used in Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" In present-day physics, there are more than three quarks, and some are said to have properties named strangeness and charm, which, we think, describe this weblog as well."