Friday, July 20, 2007

Being Ian

I am a big fan of the British writer Ian McEwan and particularly loved his previous books The Cement Garden (1978), his first novel, and Atonement (2001). Both knocked me out in a way that his newest novel On Chesil Beach decidedly does not. Of course he deals with fairly sensational topics in both of the earlier books: the death of a mother and the hiding of her corpse by the children in the first novel; love, and the betrayal of that loved one, in a WWII setting, in the latter book.

His last book, Saturday (2005), the novel immediately before On Chesil Beach, was disappointing. It felt like an exercise in writerly conceits. One small example: McEwan loves and regularly plays squash (by his own admission) and he has a long excruciatingly detailed scene of a competitive squash match in the book which is of no interest to the non-enthusiast. He obviously wanted to depict his hero, the London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, in an authentic manner (as every good novelist should), yet bores, rather than engages, us with all the little details of the trade that prove he did his research as a writer. And the soap opera ending! Dr. Perowne is forced to operate on one of the villains who torments him and almost kills him during the course of the novel. It was like a bad B movie ending.

I did feel a pang of sympathy last year when reading about the accusations that McEwan had lifted passages from a wartime memoir, No Time for Romance, by the now deceased Lucilla Andrews for the WWII sections of Atonement which I loved. This 2006 Times article cites three distinct passages which are too similar to be dismissed. McEwan claims that he used Andrews' book for research only and is adamant that he is not a plagiarist; if so, he was too sloppy in utilizing her work and reworking it for his own purposes as these quoted passages demonstrate.

However, I do know as a fiction writer that I have "lifted" certain images and passages that I thought I had created wholesale out of my own head and imported them into my fiction and only realized it after I reread certain favourite books. One was a scene from a book by A.S. Byatt and the other was a bit of dialogue from an F. Scott Fitzgerald book (and those are the two that I've caught so far!). Only steal from the best, that's my motto.

However, on to McEwan's latest book On Chesil Beach. Does this slight novella set in the 1960s merit the 160 odd pages to explain why the sheltered, middle class 20-something virgins Edward Mayhew and his new bride Florence Ponting are unable to copulate in their hotel room on Chesil Beach in southern England on their honeymoon night? No, it does not. Their sexual inhibitions do not intrigue; they make the reader yawn.

The two are pleasant enough: educated, smart, funny, kind, politically aware. Edward's background is more humble with a brain damaged mother and a self-sacrificing father. He is a bit rough edged. In fact, one of the few moments of drama is Edward's rememberance of punching a man full in the face after he struck his smaller, nebbishy school chum on the street without provocation. Edward flushes with shame at the thought, thinking himself an uncouth ruffian who embarrassed his friend. Me? I was praying for a few more shows of similar violence to end my ennui while reading this tedious book.

Florence's family is more cerebral and bohemian with a slightly sinister businessman for a father and a haughty academic mother. She is musical and a bit dictatorial with the classical group that she plays with. She dreads the honeymoon night and recalls Edward's physical advances with horror, almost palpable nausea, at the smells and feel of physical intimacy. Their brief courtship and attraction is recorded; the emotional tumult before the wedding duly noted.

This does not suffice for the basis of a novel that engages on any level. Perhaps I enjoy McEwan when he is being more lurid? Perhaps I miss what the writer Colm Tóibín has called the "delicious cruelties" of his earlier books in this London Review of Books review?

There may be some merit in trying to imagine how sexually repressed and unknowledgable the young were in 1962. Is there? To what end I wonder? Colm Tóibín also points out in the same article cited above how similar the two main characters are to those in the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch, a script written by McEwan in the 1980s.

Thinking I might be a bit off on my assessment of the book, I started checking other reviews ... Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it "small, sullen, unsatisfying". The Guardian claims that McEwan is "word-perfect at handling the awkward comedy of this relationship" in a very favourable review. The Washington Post said "Tension and surprise are constants in McEwan's fiction, and never more so than in On Chesil Beach. Suffice it to say that the turns taken are at once surprising and totally true to human nature." So it appears to be a mixed bag critically.

Edward acts on his sexual impulses at Florence's timid instigation on their wedding night; Florence is repulsed, more than repulsed, at the result, and issues an edict that Edward cannot live with. Of course it ends in tears or what would be the point of this exercise? And I believe none of it.

If one bad sexual experience was all it took to put humans off intercourse, even in the pre-hippie era of 1962 Britain, most of us would never do it again, ever.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Two Buddhists walk into a Tim Hortons ...

Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Scribner, 2007)

Literally. I was sitting in a Tim Hortons, contemplating this book, waiting out a huge rainstorm last week, and then these two Buddhists (I think), with shaved heads and brightly coloured robes of gold and red, walk in for a coffee and sit down beside me. I began to think how someone with strong religious convictions deals with the nature of evil and the events of 911.

I know what a writer like Don DeLillo does, or tries to do. He tries to crawl into the head of one the 911 survivors, his family and one of the hijackers.

I must confess that I haven't read DeLillo in years but was intrigued by the post-911 theme of his newest book Falling Man. I tried to wade through the literary behemoth Underworld and had to stop in the middle of an interminable baseball game he writes about at around page 70 or so. I was also intrigued by the "Falling Man" documentary (see the photograph above by Richard Drew which inspired the documentary by the same name) which I urge you to watch here or on YouTube. This is the book I hurriedly finished before we went to NYC because I didn't want 911 to be lingering in my thoughts while we were there.

The "falling man" in the novel refers to a performance artist who "recreates" this photograph during the course of the novel before bewildered New York spectators. DeLillo says he was unaware of the title of the photograph when he selected the name of the book which does seem odd considering the notoriety and controversy surrounding it. The origin of the unknown man was written about in Esquire.

The novel dreamily, almost poetically, follows different subplots surrounding those affected by 911. The main characters Keith Neudecker and and his estranged wife Lianne respond quite differently. Keith, a lawyer who was working in the World Trade Centre the day of the 911 attack, manages to escape while injured and walks to the apartment he used to share with his son and now divorced wife Lianne. During the attack, he witnessed the death of a co-worker and friend with whom he played poker regularly. Keith moves about in an almost somnabulistic state and ensconces himself, unasked, with Lianne while he recovers from his physical and psychological injuries.

Temporarily, Keith resumes his role as father and husband but then slowly abdicates that role. He begins a tentative "courtship" of a woman named Florence, another WTC survivor, whose briefcase Keith had impulsively taken from a stairwell while fleeing the crumbling tower. He eventually tours the world playing in professional poker tournaments. Why is unclear, perhaps he does so in homage to the friends lost during 911, particularly the friend whose death he witnessed. It is an odd turn of events in the novel which I don't fully understand the meaning of.

Meanwhile, his wife Lianne angrily confronts, and then assaults, a neighbor in her building who plays music that sounds "middle-eastern", perceiving the music as, at best, insensitive, at worst, aggressive and provocative. She leads a writing group for Alzheimer's patients and literally watches as participants drift away in a cloud of evaporating memory (perhaps a metaphor for Lianne's desire to escape the new reality of a post-911 world in New York). She watches her vibrant, intellectual mother Nina disappear too into illness and death and confronts the possibility that Nina's boyfriend, the somewhat mysterious jet-setting art dealer Martin, whose aggressive anti-American rhetoric might, or might not, indicate that he was a member of a 1960s terrorist group similar to the Baeder-Meinhof gang in Germany.

Periodically, Lianne encounters a performance artist, the notorious "Falling Man", in different parts of the city. The artist suspends himself upside-down in the pose of the "falling man" dressed in business attire, emulating in the famous photograph taken on 911 alarming spectators everywhere he appears.

Their usually reticent son, almost always referred to as "the kid", and two friends covertly scan the skies with binoculars for an unseen enemy named "Bill Lawton", a corruption of the name "bin Laden" which they have overheard, waiting for the inevitable return of the terrorists.

One false note is Keith's recollections of escaping from the tower which the writer recounts at the very end of the novel. Perhaps it is too raw, too fresh a wound for me, even as a mere spectator of 911, but it felt gratuitous, almost obscene. Of course, DeLillo has the right to imagine and write about anything he likes. Personally, having read as much as anyone about the plight of those trapped in the WTC I felt uneasy reading DeLillo's imaginings about their fate. I felt like I didn't need those details to believe in Keith's trauma. His trauma and shock were utterly believable to me, especially in the way he is ferociously protective of Florence but seems to want little from her, only her presence.

But oddly, I did not feel that watching Oliver Stone's film World Trade Centre. I'm trying to analyze the difference in my response. Is it because the two police officers placed by Nic Cage and Michael Pena trapped in the concourse of the building when one of the tower collapses live at the end of the film but thousands of others, like the co-workers of the fictional Keith in Falling Man, did not? More on WTC soon ...

Another section which plucks the strings of my incredulity is the subplot regarding the imagined experiences of one of the 911 hijackers named Hammad who crashes into one of the WTC towers. I think we will have to wait for a sensibility closer to the mindset of the hijackers to have a believable literary rendering of what transpired that day although I admire DeLillo immensely for trying.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

There's no place like MOMA

Monday, July 9, 2007: Day 5 in NYC

Last day in NYC. We are leaving with regret. We wanted one or two days more. I didn't find Madame X, we didn't go to Washington Square, we didn't see a Broadway show, we didn't explore Soho fully. But we leave wanting more not less which is a good thing! We had breakfast again at Pershing Square, this time getting a seat in the back. A great place with terrific atmosphere! You can see a pic of it here.

We headed out for the MOMA at 53rd and 5th (yet another City Pass attraction - I reiterate it's a great deal!). I am still alarmed at how it appears that all the gallery attendants there are black, everyone at the reception desk is white or Asian, the people in the cafe appear to be Hispanic. Is it just me? Am I being overly sensitive about this? This is particularly odd when viewing the cubist works of art which have African themes and faces in the work.

The new MOMA is beautiful, spacious, completely pristine, with the 4th and 3rd floors having a giant floor to ceiling window which faces the street (5th Ave.?) and a truly Manhattan landscape: elaborate 19th c. buildings and new office buildings juxtaposed against a busy urban street with yellow taxis scurrying up and down the avenue.

How odd, and exciting, to see the original works of art in front of you as my brother-in-law T said. It's a bit disorienting. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (create in 1907 - now 100 years old) by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian's intriguing boxes and lines in Broadway Boogie Woogie, Gustav Klimt's Hope II, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico's The Song of Love, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans and Double Elvis, Jackson Pollock's splatter paintings, so close you can see the brush strokes. And the kids were admirable in their patience.

But we only had a hour at the MOMA and could do no more than two floors at best. We had to rush back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and get to the airport. Our flight was at 3 and luckily it all went to plan. We even had time for a nice lunch at the airport before we boarded.

We were home by six. None of the pets perished, the grass in the backyard did not wilt and die, the house was well taken care of due to the care of family and friends. We were tired but happy - it was a great trip!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Madame X in New York

"... Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor." The Great Gatsby, 1925

Sunday July 8, 2007: Day 4 in NYC (continued)

One of my goals in coming to New York was to see the original painting of the portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My interest was piqued again, in the recent past, when I read two books: Strapless: The Rise of John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis and I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto a few years ago. Both were mediocre, disappointing books about an intriguing subject: Virginie Amélie Gautreau, the infamous Madame X, who still fascinates me with her mystery and scandalous past more than 100 years later. There is a good synopsis of the book Strapless here.

More commonly known by her middle name Amélie, she is not conventionally beautiful but she is elegant with seemingly flawless skin and a beautiful figure. Her black dress is somehow ravishingly modern. I find her endlessly appealing to look at. The 1884 painting by John Singer Sargent still captivates me.

John Singer Sargent met Amélie in Paris in 1881 and immediately attempted to induce her to pose for a portrait "as an homage to her beauty". She was an American born beauty who was already attracting the attentions of the press in Paris, a sort of 19th c. Paris Hilton (with more brains hopefully) who was known for being known and for being beautiful. Initially, the sittings for Sargent appear fruitless. He complains in a letter to a friend that her beauty is "unpaintable" and he is discouraged by her "hopeless laziness". To enhance her pale skin Amélie was said to apply a form of arsenic to whiten her skin. But the portrait was accepted for the prestigious Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, despite his reservations. Between 1748-1890 it was considered the greatest annual or biannual art event in the world drawing crowds in the thousands.

The portrait was immediately condemned by the critics and the public as well as Amélie's family. Her family demanded that the painting be removed. Of particular concern was the depiction of a strap on her right shoulder which had fallen, an accident which was considered sexually suggestive. Oddly, her luminously white skin also disturbed and annoyed the viewers of the painting.

The painting was removed from the Salon and Sargent reluctantly agreed to repaint the right shoulder so that it would not appear that the strap had fallen (this is the painting we see most). Amélie was said to have come to hate the portrait and agreed to other portraits by wellknown artists with the hope that the image of Madame X would eventually be effaced. It would never be surpassed by others or forgotten by those that had seen it.

Amelie was a classic example of what Fitzgerald would describe as the type of life that "wealth imprisons and preserves". Eventually Amélie, aware that her beauty was fading after a many years of notoriety, ridicule from the press and unhappy relationships, sought refuge at St. Malo, where, it was said she wrapped herself in veils and frequented the beach only at night. The mirrors of her home were covered with sheets. Beginning her life as a great beauty and celebrity, she ended her life as a recluse. Sargent, of course, after a brief interlude of being out of favour with society, prospered from the notoriety and continued to paint for many years achieving fame and wealth.

So based on my enthusiastic ravings about this painting, this next bit will surely disappoint. At the end of long day I made my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with only an hour or so to get to see the painting. The Museum is massive, gorgeous, Neo-Classical and infested with tourists like me. It made the Royal Ontario Museum look like a pioneer schoolhouse.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how large the museum was and started out for the American Gallery which I had read featured the work of Sargent (but did not specifically mention Madame X). The gallery itself is difficult to find and I literally had to ask attendants several times how to get to it, getting perpetually lost. It took at least 20 or 30 minutes of searching to get to the gallery. I couldn't find it in the section I was in which encompassed a number of rooms, oddly situated.

Undone by the heat, crowds and rushing (we are still talking about 40 degree Celsius weather), I gave up and went to sit at the little cafe on the balcony of the Met to recuperate. As I left, when the museum was closing, I asked if the paintings at the museum could be sourced on-line. Yes, when I checked it was there on-line (but don't ask me where in the museum!) when I got home.

I departed, tail firmly tucked between legs, and wandered south on 5th Avenue much as Nick Carraway did after Gatsby died when he encountered Tom Buchanan contemplating the purchase of jewelry for Daisy, perhaps at Tiffany's or Cartier, at the end of The Great Gatsby.

R and J arrived shortly after I did at the hotel that evening. We headed south to Greenwich Village , en famille, which we hadn't had much of a chance to see. It was getting late and the natives were restless. We did manage to find a good Japanese restaurant called Go Japanese at 30 St. Mark's Place at 8th St. and right across the street we found the CBGB store at 19-23 St. Marks Place, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, which was a bonus for the wannabe punks and little punkettes on this trip.

A nice way to end our next to last day in New York.

Notes on Madame X from:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Voices Full of Money (or not)

Sunday July 8, 2007: Day 4 in NYC

'She’s got an indiscreet voice,' I remarked. 'It’s full of—' I hesitated.
'Her voice is full of money,' he said suddenly.
That was it. I'd never understood it before. It was full of money - that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it... The Great Gatsby

I can think of few better ways to see the various strata of New York society than to walk down Broadway Ave. which I had an opportunity to do on Sunday by myself. I was determined to go to my favourite bookstore, the Strand at 12th St. and Broadway and parted company with family as they made their way to the American Museum of Natural History (another City Pass attraction). Woolly mammoths and dinosaur bones are not for me. This is the museum that the film Night at the Museum (2006) was modelled on. Book worm that I am, I was looking forward to stocking up for the next few months with a few choice volumes.

We all started with breakfast at the Pershing Square cafe at 90 E. 42nd St. near Park Ave. across from the hotel. It is built under the Park Avenue Viaduct but is much much pleasanter than that sounds! Try getting a seat in the back of the restaurant to appreciate the 19th c. charm of the place. Again, not inexpensive but worth the trip at least once. Check out the AOL city guide review for more deets.

I started in the theatre district at 42nd and started walking south on Broadway. This brought home a lot of happy memories from previous trips when R and I would walk the length of Broadway to Greenwich Village sometimes walking for 30 or 40 blocks. I would walk a few blocks and then stop at a square to read Gatsby (Broadway is blessed with many such little intimate squares). My first stop was Herald Square which is formed by the intersection of Broadway, 6th Ave. and 34th. The area was named for the New York Herald (now morphed into International Herald Tribune). The most notable attraction in the area is Macy's which I didn't go into as I have an allergic reaction to department stores.

I also stopped at Greeley Square just two blocks south. It is a pretty little oasis on the Avenue. I wandered into the Madison Square Park at 24th and looked up to see the Flat Iron Building at 175 Fifth Ave. and 23rd, one of my favourite NYC landmarks. I discovered, after the fact, that I was very close to one of the homes of my idol Edith Wharton nearby on West 23rd Street. I'll always remember that great establishing shot in the film Reds (1981) of Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant) stepping off a bus in NYC to see Warren Beatty (John Reed) for the first time with the Flat Iron Building in the background.

The composition of the Avenue constantly shifts from multicultural pear shaped tourists (like moi) in the theatre district to dozens of black, South Asian and East Asian immigrant families running slightly seedy little shops that sell kitschy costume jewellery and handbags. But then everything seems to change just south of the Flat Iron Building and it's trendy white NYers and tourists with dinero ready to invade beautiful stores like ABC Carpet and Home described as "Disney Land for interior decorators". I must say I was dazzled a bit by it ... one blog described it as "Lovely, but, alas, beyond my means today." and "Have lunch at Gramercy Tavern, rob a bank, then come here." and that's how I felt, leaving frustrated and a bit guilty over wanting some of the beautiful stuff in the store.

The city has changed a great deal since the 1980s. As I sit in Union Square at 17th and Broadway and listen to the rantings of a homeless man (loud but harmless) I acknowledge that I do feel safer here now, that the city is cleaner. This was the first time that I have gone out completely alone and navigated the subways and streets. But I keep wondering where are the homeless and panhandlers now? Did former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's pre-911 draconian measures work so effectively that they have disappeared from the streets of NYC forever? Read how Rudy dealt with the homeless here. So it does make you wonder what happened since that time

Union Square , at 17th St. and Broadway, has historically been the site for many political demonstrations and has been described as "a frequent gathering point for radicals of all stripes, whom one will often find speaking or demonstrating". It is also the site of the Union Square Greenmarket held on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays between 8am - and 6pm.

Finally! I reach the Strand bookstore at 828 Broadway(at 12th St.), hot, a little tired but extremely pleased to see that it is still there. I found a number of things I had hoped to find and few other great surprises: Hello Americans!, actor Simon Callow's second volume bio on Orson Welles; a collection called Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf (said to be her first published book); The Mrs. Dalloway Reader by Esther Lombardi; When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan; a Frida Kahlo 2008 daytimer for my sister and a new Strand book bag for myself.

As sated as only a very full bookworm could be, I took the subway home to relieve myself of the accumulated booty. R et famille were still at the American Museum of Natural History so I decided to scoot up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to find the original painting of John Singer Sargent's Madame X which I had been reading about for years. More tomorrow ...

Friday, July 13, 2007

The City Seen From The Bridge

"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in the first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world." The Great Gatsby (1925)

Saturday July 7, 2007: Day Three in New York

This day we were to pursue Lady Liberty and dutifully made our way to Pier 83 by bus. The very useful City Pass entitled us to a 2 hour "semi-circle" ferry ride tour of the Hudson River. I have extolled it's virtues in a previous entry ... $65 for an adult pass and access to six NY landmarks/attractions (worth more than $125). The pass advises that the 11.30am tour is less crowded; however, the various lineups to the boats are without signage, a bit chaotic to sort out and the lines are not in the shade so be prepared in hot weather.

The sky and shoreline were very pretty even viewed through a hazy day although the tour guide tends to grate as he talks for the entire two hours. But catching a view of the Statue of Liberty is as thrilling as you might imagine. The statue is on a 12 acre island and was a gift of friendship from the people of France. It was dedicated in 1886 and restored for her centennial in 1986. You pass by all three main bridges: Brooklyn, Manhattan and George Washington (with Brooklyn being the most impressive!) remembered by our tour guide as BMW.

We learned mostly mundane sort of stuff on the tour (lots of sanctimony about 911 unfortunately) except for two things that stood out: pier 54, which we passed, was to have received the Titanic when it returned from its maiden voyage and that 25% of the apartment dwellers along the Hudson River shoreline left after 911.

The Titanic reference reminds me of the book that I am now reading called When the Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan. The book starts with the story of the death of John Jacob Astor IV who died on the Titanic after handing his teenage bride into a lifeboat, a singular act of courage after a lifetime of being called "Jack Ass" by the press (apparently for justifiable reasons).

We raced up to Central Park to 10 Columbus Circle to have lunch at Landmarc, a very chi-chi, surprisingly child friendly restaurant in the Time Warner building at the foot of Central Park. They have a kids menu and crayons for the very young. If it weren't for the indifference, bordering on insolence, of our near teenage waiter, I would have said it was an enjoyable lunch. But it wasn't cheap, R's family don't do cheap.

We wanted to get to the Guggenheim at 1071 5th Ave. on 89th Street (another City Pass attraction) but we needed to cut across the Park from 8th Ave. to 5th Ave. There is a lovely shaded pathway just south of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir which cuts across the two avenues. And there is nothing kids enjoy more at the end of a long sweltering hot day in NYC than to go to a museum of modern art! But with visions of a promised trip to FAO Schwartz dancing in their heads, the children persevered.

With only a hour or so to go before closing we raced to the fifth floor and made our way down through the The Shape of Space exhibit which runs until September 5th. No trip to the museum is complete without a visit to the gift shop where we found a nice T for my niece and some Frank Lloyd Wright note cards for my sister.

On to FAO Schwartz for the kids at 767 Fifth Avenue. Must be seen at least once, but not for the adult faint of heart. Each child was rewarded with a small purchase from the store and then the male half of the family (plus daughter J!) wanted to check out the fairly new Apple store next door which has quite a beautiful exterior while the female half (my sister-in-law and I) wanted to go to Bergdorf Goodman at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. Unfortunately the females got the raw end of the deal as the store had just closed so we sat on the plaza in front of FAO Schwartz and kvetched as generations of women have done before us.

Hot, sweaty and hungry we went back down to Broadway and had dinner at Angelo's Pizza at 1697 Broadway which is a family style Italian restaurant just north of the Ed Sullivan Theatre at 1697-1699 Broadway between West 53rd and West 54th Streets where they shoot David Letterman. The adequate dinner was marred only by the inability of our East European waitress to say the word gnocchi (say it with me phonetically - nyokee!).

J was promised a trip to the respective Hershey's Times Square and M&M stores on Broadway(click on this link to see a video of M&M World) The kid was overwhelmed,, she literally placed her hands over her mouth when she saw the wall to wall tubes of candy and chocolate. Her parents? We thought it the coming of the apocalypse ... and thus ended day 3.

One last thing, somewhere in our various subway travels we came across two kids dancing in the middle of a subway car for money. J was suitably dazzled. I turned to her and said "That's New York" which she met with a radiant grin!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What They Witnessed That Day

Friday July 6, 2007: Day Two in New York

When R and I first came to NYC in the 80s we went to the Stage Deli at 834 Seventh Ave. for an old fashioned deli breakfast. We had read about it being an old hangout for theatre actors many decades ago. It has theatre posters and photographs of actors on its walls on the south and north sides and the glassed facade faces Broadway in all its gritty glory. We were served by an older man, a bit tired looking but kindly, with a heavy NY accent. He looked like someone who had done this for many years. He stuck in our minds for some reason.

Jokingly, I said to R that it would be nice to have a memento from the deli; when we left R pulled out a small ashtray with the deli logo on it from his pocket (much to my delight!).

Our second time in NYC we returned and were served by the same waiter. Funnily enough, unsolicited, the waiter initiated a conversation, asked where we were from and gave us a little "loot bag" containing, among other things, another small ashtray! We wanted to take J there although it is not an inexpensive breakfast (about $50 for three) but the food is good and the atmosphere irreplaceable. And our old friend, who had waited on us more than 20 years ago, was now in a photograph on the wall so perhaps that means that he too is gone.

We walked up to Central Park which is only a few blocks north of the Deli. Just south of the park, on the west side at 5th Avenue, is the historic Plaza Hotel which is now being turned into luxury condos starting at a mere $1.5 million. Secretly, I wish for a small fortune to buy one ... It is here that Gatsby, the Buchanans, Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker try to escape the summer heat and where Gatsby's past is exposed to Daisy by Tom setting in motion Daisy's flight and the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress. Through Central Park, Nick and Jordan ride in a victoria carriage as they get to know each other. The Park, possibly because of the heat, held little charm for our offspring who was feeling the effects of our early mornings (we were to return another day).

North of the Park, somewhere on 154th St., the irrepressibly obnoxious Tom Buchanan brings the reluctant Nick Carraway to meet his mistress Myrtle in a rented apartment. A relatively recent NYT article described the facades of the Victorian houses on 154th as being in the Queen Anne style "a mixture of Victorian and colonial decoration in contrast to the uniform brownstone of prior decades".

After lunch we met up with family and made our way to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan facing New York Harbor, where we tried to catch the South Street ferry to the Statue of Liberty. To purchase tickets for the ferry to the Statue you go to a circular fortress called Castle Clinton, built in 1811 to defend against British attacks; it now serves as the ticket and information center for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry rides.

Defeated by the long lines and the sweltering heat, we abandoned that plan and made our way up West Ave. to the site of Ground Zero (which we studiously avoided on our 2003 trip). It is shocking to see that it appears that very little has been done to the site of such devastation since 911 (now six years ago - hard to believe). People were milling about and taking photographs of cranes and construction workers which I thought was odd. Or they were crowding into a firehall directly across from Ground Zero where a number of firefighters who worked on 911 were commemorated.

Down the street, across from the WTC site, is St. Paul's Chapel (built 1766) at 209 Broadway Ave. with a small cemetery in the middle of this busy Manhattan street. What the dead witnessed that day on September 11th! Some of the gravestones are perfectly intact; others have had the stone engravings completely effaced by the elements. The stones are beautiful, of various colours, some bleached white, some rose coloured, some of dark stone. They are neatly arranged and you are discouraged from crossing the plots to inspect them. It remains as it likely appeared in the 18th c. and there is something very reassuring about that. After September 11th, St. Paul's Chapel served as a place of refuge for recovery workers at the WTC site. A sort of myth now surrounds the chapel as the only thing destroyed was a an old sycamore tree which seemed to have protected the chapel from further damage on 911.

We made out way to Canal and Church Streets which was junky, crowded and overwhelmingly ugly and to be avoided at all costs!

We crossed over to Broadway and found Yellow Rat Bastard, a very cool clothing and accessories store at 478 Broadway Ave. and Broome St. in Soho which we all loved. It has denim, Ts and sneakers ... J got two Paul Frank T shirts and R got a great pair of sunglasses here.

North of there, I was searching for Spring Street Books, at 169 Spring Street, which now appears to be gone, much to my disappointment. Instead we found, quite by accident, Pylones at 69 Spring Street (between Cleveland Place and Crosby St.) which had eye-poppingly bright housewares and cute, kitschy gifts for children. Check out the website, it needs to be seen to be believed ...

Exhausted, and somewhat sated as consumers, we headed back to our hotel to clean up. My sis-in-law had a short list of kid friendly restaurants so that night we made our way to Virgil's Real BBQ at 152 W44th St. Let me just say this: if the words "big" and "meat" warm the cockles of your heart, this is the place to go!

In that restaurant, something started to click that made me uncomfortable. For some reason, perhaps this is not so, but it seemed that the city was more racially stratified than the last time we came. Almost all service workers (in restaurants, tour guides, art gallery attendants, waiters/waitresses) we encountered were black, Latino or Asian. Hostesses, receptionists, managers, were white ... very disconcerting. Hopefully I am mistaken.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Her List of Enchanted Objects

His list of enchanted objects had decreased by one. His hopes and dreams came true (or so he thought), so the green light lost its magic. The Great Gatsby (1925)

Thursday July 5, 2007: Day One in New York
At the beginning of Chapter IV of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, its narrator, lists all the guests that appeared at Gatsby's mansion on West Egg in Long Island on July 5, 1922. Charmingly enough, we arrived 85 years to the day of that fictional party.
And luckily, my list of enchanted objects grows (and does not diminish) each time we visit NYC. I knew when we planned our trip to New York that I wanted to re-read The Great Gatsby which I read every summer. There is something about the steamy Toronto summers that remind of that fateful day when the main characters Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Nick Carraway, Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan go to NYC to escape the summer heat of Long Island. I thought it might be fun to trace the locations that Fitzgerald mentions in his book while we were there. Beautiful, flawed, overwhelming, wondrous New York.
My superstitious Sicilian nature forced me to do two things before I left though: I hurriedly finished Don DeLillo's Falling Man, a fictional novel about post-911 New York (more about that anon) and I consciously avoided watching Oliver Stone's World Trade Centre which has just appeared on the specialty channels. I didn't want to think about either while I was there.
We left for a four day holiday with J, our daughter. It was her first time to New York and we wanted her to see the great landmarks of the city. We thought she was old enough to appreciate the beauty (and intensity) of the city and there were places that we had not explored since our first trip there in the 1980s.
We were being joined by family a day later so we had the first day to ourselves. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt at 109 East 42nd Street at Grand Central Station. In a mythical 42nd Street cellar, Nick Carraway meets Meyer Wolfsheim, who was said to be based on the real life gangster Arnold Rothstein. Fitzgerald seems to describe Wolfsheim with an unsavoury anti-Semitic glee.
Our hotel is situated above Grand Central Station which gave us a chance to see it again on our first day. I have to say that, even as a Canadian, I find the gigantic American flag in the middle of the station tremendously moving. With the expanse and beauty of the structure of the building, you also get a sense of the adventure of travel, the excitement of the journey and the marvel that was probably felt by travelers when the building was constructed at the turn of the 20th c. You can see more of it here.
The Station also reminded me of the now demolished Pennsylvania Station on 33rd Street, a monumental 1910 Beaux-Arts masterpiece, which Fitzgerald mentions a few times in the novel. One of the more moving passages of The Great Gatsby is the description of the gathering of the Midwesterners at Union Station in Chicago at the end of the novel, as they disperse to go back home to the Midwest at Christmas time.
R found out about a coupon booklet called the City Pass that gives you discounted entry into six attractions which included the Empire State Building which we decided to tackle on our first day. We had been there once before in the 80s. Oh what 911 has wrought ... when we last went many years ago I remember sailing into the building, going directly to the 86th floor observatory and leaving with ease. Security is now in place with metal detectors and photographers cataloguing everyone that arrives as is true with most of the popular historical landmarks. This (and the intense crowds of tourists) made for a visit that was about two hours long in sweltering NYC summer heat with literally hundreds of tourists in front of, and behind us, in the long line. Luckily J, who had been forewarned that there might be these sort of delays was able to ride it out. As beautiful as the building is, it was disappointing to visit it in the middle of the interior renovations that were underway.
That night, we found a great Japanese restaurant that night not far from the hotel and down the street from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park purely by chance due to my partner's quick observations. Chiyoda Sushi is located at 18 E 41st Street just south of the Grand Hyatt. The menu is a bit limited but the quality is very good. Try the sashimi menu ... seems to be a family operation based on the resemblance between our waiter and the sushi chef!

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Good Shepherd

Frankly, I am puzzled by the vituperative reviews of The Good Shepherd (Universal Studios, 2006) directed by Robert De Niro which run the gamut of "dreary" to "It's tough to slog through a movie that has no pulse." I was only mildly interested in the film initially but enjoyed it a great deal when it was released on DVD recently.

I will paraphrase the plot synopsis from the film's website (as it is a bit convoluted and I don't want to confuse the details) ...
The film reveals the hitherto untold story of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1939, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a promising Yale undergrad, is invited to join Skull and Bones, a powerful secret society at Yale. His involvement leads him into a relationship with the federal government, which recruits him to help them on several covert operations. He meets General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), a powerful military intelligence official. Sullivan asks him to join the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA).

The film takes us to Cuba, Germany, the Congo and the states of Washington and Virginia (the seats of CIA power), and travels back and forth in time from the death of Edward's father Thomas Wilson (Timothy Hutton), in 1925, to the failed Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961 as Edward remembers the many small steps that led to his present day involvement with the Bay of Pigs. But I think it only requires a little patience to navigate these different scenarios which are supplemented, at times, with news footage to explain the historical context and enormity of the events involved.

Damon, baby faced as ever, is hard to imagine as the father of a grown son in the later scenes and I will admit that Angelina Jolie seems sadly miscast as Clover/Margaret Russell, Edward's lonely, volatile wife whom he is compelled to marry (again out of a sense of honour). It is a bit difficult to swallow that Edward would favour the plain, if virtuous, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), over the fiery and beautiful Clover. But perhaps, from the character's perspective, Laura is a safer choice, easier to contain and better suited to Edward's restrained personality. The character development of Clover seems choppy as if a vast amount of back story had been cut.

William Hurt is more convincing as Philip Allen, Wilson's patrician, slimy superior; John Turturro is effective as Wilson's devoted CIA underling Ray Brocco who does the dirty hands on work and Michael Gambon is wonderful as Edward Wilson's Yale mentor Dr. Fredericks. Robert De Niro, the director, appears as the profane General Bill Sutherland, who pulls the strings and makes Wilson jump; all are convincing and chilling to watch.

I see the resemblances that some critics have pinpointed between Matt Damon's portrayal of Wilson and Michael Corelone in The Godfather: the honest young man, who starts out with the best of intentions, is sucked into a corrupt and evil world, in this case, working for the American government. Even the proper attire that Wilson wears throughout, complete with hat and tie, echoes the somber, overburdened Michael Corleone at the end of the first Godfather. As Corleone pointedly asserts in the film, his way of dealing with the world is not much different than the secrecy and murderous intent of certain large democracies bent on having their way in the world.

Matt Damon has been criticised for playing the role in a subdued fashion; however, personally, this is exactly the way I imagine a key CIA figure would behave in real life (perhaps a stereotypical view?): always correctly, always dispassionately, always with a sense of duty to the higher good of the defense of one's country. And it is utterly believable when Joe Pesci, an Italian American, asks "What do your people have? We have our families, our church." and Wilson answers, "We have the United States you're only visitors here. "

I don't interpret his perceived lack of public emotion as a lack of true passion. Clearly he feels deeply for Laura, his first true love at Yale, although she is hastily dispatched not once, but twice, when their relationship seems to jeopardize the careful house of cards Wilson has created to preserve his true identity and/or his larger obligations. He deeply loves his son, and his father, but all seems subsumed under, I feel, an erroneous sense of duty to one's country.

I think the film very carefully documents Edward Wilson's moral and psychological corruption as well as the dissolution of the fragile emotional bonds that he forges during the course of his life in deference to his country - his willing, and unwilling, betrayals of those whom he loves and respects.