Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Life Apart

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America wasn't as illuminating as I hoped it would be. I wanted to know more about Hasidic beliefs and customs and how they differ from Orthodox Judaism. And I did get some sense. Basically, if I understand it correctly, Hasidim was a mystical sect that took root in Eastern Europe amongst the peasantry mainly during the 18th Century. Because it was a "puritan" (my word) religion, it advocated simplicity. For some reason, not well explained, it is against everything secular, which would include all change. I think he reason they dress like that is because "that" happens to be how Eastern European Jewish peasantry dressed in the 19th Century and they just haven't changed the customs. Unlike regular Orthodox Jews, the Hasidic do not want to live among the dominant culture. Orthodox Jews can go to universities and partake of culture so long as it doesn't conflict with major practices, whereas Hasidim don't want to compromise their culture at all. I had to sort of piece this together and am not sure if I got it right.

I learned that the Hasidim in America were formed by Rebbes who survived the Holocaust and tried as much as possible to recreate the original communities. Which they are reproducing at an astounding rate. One survivor has 70 grandchildren!

Saturday, March 22, 2008


I love this book of poems by Matthew Rohrer. I like the mix of surreal, conversational and lyrical that he always pulls off so well.


I ate a Morning Glory and turned
yellow on the inside. The garden smelled
like quince, pungent quince, ringed
with white stones. There was a yellow light
on in my insides but it couldn't come out,
not through my waxy ears
or the slit in my underwear.
I balked. I ate a Poppy, which symbolizes artfulness
but also sleepiness
and forgetting
and I fell supine below the quince, among
the jettisoned quince. In this state
I was hyper-sensitized.
I was the planet's nipple and let me tell you:
there was no love anywhere except my own.

And my mind was a tabula rasa, I think.

(the line breaks got fucked up with the image...)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Before the Rains

I went to a screening tonight with my mother of Merchant Ivory movie, Before the Rains that will come out in May. I thought it was just okay. Kind of a cliched morality tale about adultery and covering up guilt...

Johns and Courbet at the Met

I went to the Jasper Johns grey show at the Met today. I enjoyed so much giving myself to this color. I like Johns' work a lot, although I don't think I've seen so many pieces all in one show. This was kind of an intense experience, because I got to get to know some more of the range of his work at the same time that I got to share in this deep involvement with one particular color. That isn't one color. There are so many differences in shade and texture. Creaminess, graininess, sootiness. The blues and browns. There were some pieces done in "sculp metal" that I think I liked the most. Also these small sculptures of light bulbs.
There was also an exhibit of Gustave Courbet, a nineteenth century French painter I know basically nothing about. I went through quickly, after having spent so much time on the Johns. but some of his paintings were so incredibly striking. This self portrait close up of his face that looks like he his flying at you. This sad and weird portrait of a white calf... And there was a room full of nudes that included a very close close-up of a vagina. I knew that the there are lots of openly pornographic oil paintings from this era, but I had never seen it before.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

April & Paris

This afternoon, feeling a little under the weather and a little unfocused, I read David Sedaris' essay "April & Paris: The pitfalls of animal passion" in this week's New Yorker. I know it is very uncool, very plebeian, to like David Sedaris. I know it is particularly un-writerly. But, whatever. I love him. I think his essays are elegant and intimate. His writing is just technically rather flawless. At least I think so. And, he is hilarious.

This essay is about an obsession with spiders that he develops. One spider in particular, in fact, named April.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

Even though it has so many of the things I love about Wes Anderson movies, The Darjeeling Limited just didn't do it for me. There was that wonderful disharmony of tone. A nostalgic wistfulness against a sharp blankness. The wonderful, fanciful clutter of objects and colors. The brilliant shots. The deadpan acting. The rich dialogue. Lost adults. Etcetera, etcetera.

But I just didn't care.

The DVD, however, includes a nice slice of Wes Anderson perfection: Hotel Chevalier, a short with Natalie Portman and one of the characters from The Darjeeling Limited (I think it's technically a prequel). It's like Bill Murray meets Marguerite Duras.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Michael Clayton

Oh, I loved this movie! I didn't realize while I was watching it how good it is. It kind of hit me all at once. Michael Clayton is a legal thriller, and in some ways predictable. It is just so well done that it transcends what it is. There is this slow, humorlessness to it that, combined with the score, creates a sense of dread, a tension that isn't just regular suspense, but a kind of suspended despair. George Clooney's acting is amazing in it. There is this weighty sadness that he carries around, and his eyes communicate so much at once: rage, dismay, contempt. I could go on. The integrity of all of the acting in this movie, the focus of each performance, is so rare to see. It was really powerful.

No Country for Old Men

I saw No Country for Old Men, the recent Coen Brothers movie, at the Chelsea Clearview on 23rd Street last night. I really didn't like it. I was into it at first, for a long time kind of swept up with the pacing, the arid wide shots, the clipped drawl of all the characters. But after a while it just bored me, alienated me, gave me nothing to connect to. There was no point of view or direction, just endless senseless violence, and vast empty landscapes. I actually fell asleep at the end and didn't feel like I missed anything.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Tall, Wide, and Sharp-Eye

I ordered this used children's book sight-unseen from Amazon in an effort to find a rare and haunting childhood favorite.

Well, I'm pretty sure that Tall, Wide, and Sharp-Eye is a version of the story I'm looking for, but I am positive that this is not the one. The illustrations are completely wrong. They are comical, goofy. And this is a magical and creepy story with a princess kept by a sorcerer who has a castle full of people he's turned into stone. The illustrations in this version, by Mirko Gabler, seem to strike an absolutely off note. Also, this was made in '94, when I, alas, was hardly a child.

The good news, however, is that I'm convinced that the Evaline Ness version is what I'm after, and I'll order that tomorrow. I know that the second I SEE the book, I'll recognize it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gadgets and scents in The New Yorker

I read two charming pieces in The New Yorker this morning. "Tech Stuff: What will the newest gadgets replace in your life?" is a witty review of a slew of products: new-fangled computers, e-book platforms, crazy phones, etc. The writer, Patricia Marx, is apparently just as much a Luddite as I am, although she is much funnier. "Only techno-tards make actual phone calls... Phones now have names like Heat, Chocolate, Rumor, BlackJack, Shine, Tilt, Pearl, and Wing, all of which sound like prophylactics, for what reason I not know."

And, "No matter that I can barely make it through the table of contents of a magazine these days; I am still confident that I will finish every volume of Trollope and run out of reading material by the time the elevator reaches the lobby. That's why I love my Amazon Kindle..."

John Lanchester wrote a wonderful review of a group of books on wine and perfume. In "Scents & Sensibility: What the nose knows" he discusses one book which particularly intrigued me: Perfumes: The Guide, which I've already placed in my Amazon cart. It talks about the science of scent and reviews all these different perfumes. But using language to describe scent become this surprising literary feat, full of apt and amusing descriptions and observations. Of Tresor they write: "From a distance, it's the trashiest, most good-humored pink mohair sweater and bleached hair thing imaginable." Lanchester concludes the book is "quite simply, ravishingly entertaining."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

If I am a musical thinker

This little, special, brilliant book on composition kind of cuts directly to how I feel about aesthetics, consciousness and identity. I first read Talk: If I am a musical thinker, by Ben Boretz, when I was in college, where he was a music teacher. It is an artists book, with images and text laid out on each page, a series of words and ink spots. I remember that it felt so ART to me. It's amazing that it still resonates. Although my grasp of this kind of language has improved tremendously, the words still speak to the very same place in me.

If I am a musical thinker is a transcription of a talk given in Austin to the Texas Society for Music Theory in 1981, and rewritten for the graduate student composers' colloquium at Princeton in '82. I think it's so cool that this is the kind of stuff I was reading and thinking about when I was 18.

It is very short, but very dense. Each sentence needs to be read twice. I would like to quote the entire piece. But won't:

So if I want to know

what music expresses,

and if I want to know why

I think about music,

I have to introspect

my own experience,

my experience of my own needs

an my experience

of how,

and which, and in what way,

needs are being fulfilled or engaged

in the transaction of musical activity.

Primally, I need identity -- as much of it as I can amass; for my need for identity is mutually articulated with my terror of annihilation.

And identity is sought through expression;

the media of expression are what I find

to texture and realize my expressive needs;

and the effectiveness of a medium, of

my media, in drawing out from me

an adequate depth and breadth of expression

will determine, ultimately, what --

and how much -- I can be for myself.