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Confessions of a Justified Pi Enthusiast

by Lucia Ryan

Posted: Jun 24, 2015 10:10 AM


Chao Lu receiving his Guiness Book of World Records plaque

Like all things unresolved and supposedly infinite, the number, or rather the concept, pi, is totally intriguing to the human mind. We know that we may apply pi to finding the area of circles or the period of sine graphs or the volume of spherical objects, but what is it? Over one trillion of its digits have been calculated yet still pi has no tangible or known end. We acknowledge this paradox—that pi is infinite yet we could know each digit if we wanted to—and we also acknowledge its ceaselessness and wonder: Does it really go on forever? How much can we know?

These questions have prompted a niche sub-culture of people who devote hours (if not weeks, months, years) to memorizing the digits of pi. According to the Pi World Ranking List, the world record for pi recitation is 67,890 digits, set in 2005 by Chao Lu of China. It took him one year to memorize and 24 hours and 4 seconds to recite. He was allowed no more than 15 seconds between each digit—this meant no bathroom, food, or water breaks for the entirety of the performance.

The Pi World Ranking List requires that “performances of 10,000 digits or more must be certified by an additional academic or scientific witness. Alternatively this may be an official such as a lawyer, notary, or minister.” Until 10,000 digits, a contestant just needs two independent, unrelated witnesses to verify the recitation.

Chao Lu undoubtedly has a freakish memory and a wicked work ethic. He also had a serious incentive: breaking the world record, eternal fame in the math world (or, rather, the faux-math world), and a general sense of unequivocal awe when we hear his name in relation to that number.

Freakish would also be an understatement. Google “how to memorize pi” and several articles suggesting image association, or word association, or creating a story using the phonetics of each number will pop up, promising that in eight short steps you can nail down the first fifty.

Pi Day, March 14th (3.14), usually falls in the final week before my former school’s Spring Break, and memorizing numbers to literally no end hardly takes priority over final exams and papers to most students at my high school. I, however, have always been one of those people whose memory has an affinity for numbers, and rarely forget a birthday or telephone number. The three years I competed in the annual Pi Recitation Contest at my high school, I had little to no competition—in that only one other person showed up—except for my first year, when the winner claimed to have memorized 500 back in middle school, sat down, and managed to recall 350. After he graduated, though, I resolved to memorize as much as my schedule allowed time for. I did not use any image association or phonetic tricks, but rather memorized pi in chunks of ten, to the rhythm of a telephone number (3.14159, 265-358-9793). This trick allowed me to memorize and recite 305 by the time March 14th arrived. 

Outside of my high school, however, Pi Recitation Competitions and general celebration of Pi Day are both well-tended-to and attended. This year, Pi Day was especially glorified, almost as a mega-Pi day, as we not only lived the first three digits, but the first nine, on March 14th, 2015, at 9:26:53 AM and PM (3.141592653.) Pi Day celebrations across the world consisted of not only pi recitation competitions, but also pi(e) eating contests, pi(e) making contests, pi(e) throwing contests, pizza pi(e) making contests, 3.14 mile long races and the like.

Perhaps our obsession with pi comes from its accessibility: 3.14 is a number that manifests in our daily lives as easily as we want it to. Or in the case of pi recitation, anyone can memorize for as long as he or she wants, at no cost other than time. Or maybe it really is the immortality, rather, eternity that is pi that challenges us to unpack it.

 

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The Critic's Notebook for June 22, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 23, 2015 10:10 AM


Mel Bernstine, Red Light District, 2015, Posca on Mountboard, 7.5x7.5"

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Salter, Sound, and Streaming.

FictionA Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): It’s an unfortunate truth that great writers often go unread until their deaths, like literary Van Goghs, never enjoying the benefits of fame during their lifetimes. Even writers who receive some acclaim during their lives are often buoyed posthumously, and James Salter belongs in this latter category. Though long-recognized as a “writer’s writer” (a damning euphemism for lack of sales), Salter will surely be the recipient of renewed interest following his death this past weekend at the age of 90. As such, there appears to be no better time than now to reexamine his most-known work, A Sport and a Pastime, detailing the amatory exploits of a Yale dropout in the south of France. —BR

Nonfiction: Experience, by Martin Amis (Vintage): Although Martin Amis’s memoir Experience was published back at the start of the millennium, I have only just read it. I did so reluctantly, at the behest of a friend, because I’d read a couple of MA’s novels and hadn’t liked them. I am an avid fan of the work of Amis père, Kingsley, whose novel Lucky Jim is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Martin’s oeuvre, what I know of it, is distinctly less agreeable. But I am glad I read Experience. It is a remarkable memoir, moving, deep, and, yes, funny by turns. Above all, perhaps—and this was the real surprise—it is gratifyingly affectionate, about friends, family, about almost everyone with the possible exception of Eric Jacobs, the official biographer of Kingsley Amis. Experience is a remarkable book that conjures winningly with life’s principle mysteries. A line from Amis’s friend Saul Bellow which is repeated a few times is worth the price of admission: Death, said Bellow, is “the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But don’t let that somber (if eloquent) observation put you off: Experience is an allegro performance full of joy and fun, as well as a harrowing account of dental catastrophe. Be thankful for your snappers. RK

Poetry: The Typewriter Project: The Subconscious of the City (Through July 29): One does not think of Tompkins Square Park as a font of poetry, but that changes with the installation of The Typewriter Project this summer. The project, which has popped up around New York since 2014, places typewriter booths in various locales, allowing users to contribute original poetry and prose to an ever-growing text that lives on the web. As far as public instillations go, this seems not only innocuous, but also fruitful, giving every budding McGonagall a chance to practice his doggerel. —BR

Art: June Bugs (Through June 27): The Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a cult favorite for Young's ability to attract some top names and great works to his small second-floor gallery (all despite a charmingly out-of-date website). On view now is "June Bugs," featuring a dozen works each on paper by Brenda Goodman and Mel Bernstine, along with a selection of other work that includes James Siena and Fred Tomaselli. Goodman and Bernstine are each coming off of big New York shows (Goodman at Life on Mars; Bernstine at McKenzie), but here is a chance to see their smaller work in an intimate (and always well curated) two-person exhibition. This Saturday at 6pm, the gallery will stay open late for a performance by "Brooklyn's own" Chris Dingman's Subliminal Trio. —JP

Music: The Tchaikovsky Competition (Through June 30): One of the world's most prestigious musical contests, the Tchaikovsky Competition, has been going on for a week now, and for the first time in its more than fifty-year history, the entire proceedings are being live-streamed, courtesy of Medici.tv. The competition's laureates include many of the most celebrated performers of the last half-century, most recently Daniil Trifonov, whose Grand Prix in 2011 vaulted him to the top tier of concert pianists. Round II is being heard right now, with the finals scheduled to begin on Sunday and continue through next week. —ECS

Theater: The Sound and the Fury (Through July 12): The Public Theater recently extended the run of The Sound and the Fury for a second time, adding two weeks on to its prior closing date of June 27. The play has received praise for its chaotic and enthralling interpretation of the first and most famous chapter of the 1929 masterpiece by William Faulkner. Performed by the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, who first worked with The Public Theater in 2010 with Gatz, this dramatization of the incomprehensible Benjy chapter is confusing but engrossing, and requires every ounce of your attention as the novel opens before your eyes verbatim on stage. —LR

Support Our Friends: First Things is pleased to invite you to a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study pre-assigned classics from Western Civilization in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants. There are no prerequisites to attend. This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals in a spirit of friendship and common purpose to discuss big, timeless ideas, and how they inform the cultural issues occupying our nation in recent years.

From the archive: The Amis country, by David Yezzi: Speaking of Kingsley Amis, here is our Poetry Editor, David Yezzi, writing in 2007 on his verse, which Yezzi finds “bare-knuckled, witty, [and] light but never ‘lite.’”

From our latest issue: Doing as the Romans do, by William Logan: On recent verse.

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Two B's, two pairings

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jun 22, 2015 11:35 AM


 

From Decca, there is an album featuring Britten’s Piano Concerto and Barber’s Piano Concerto. Each composer wrote just one. The pianist on this album is an American previously unknown to me: Elizabeth Joy Roe. The conductor is a Bulgarian previously unknown to me: Emil Tabakov. (He was once in his country’s government, as minister of culture.)

The orchestra is very well-known, and one of the best in the world: the London Symphony Orchestra.

Britten wrote his piano concerto in 1938, revising it in 1945. It is in four movements, all of which are interestingly marked: Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu, and March. With the composer on the podium, Sviatoslav Richter made a recording of this work.

Barber composed his concerto in the early 1960s, on commission from G. Schirmer Inc., the music publisher—Schirmer was celebrating its hundredth birthday. The concerto’s premiere was in 1962, at the new Lincoln Center. The work is in three movements, the middle one of which is Canzone. If Barber could do anything, he could write songs.

In 1964, John Browning recorded the concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

This is a smart pairing, the Britten and Barber piano concertos. Each composer is quite famous, and each concerto is not. The CD is filled out with another smart pairing: two nearly unknown pieces by the two featured composers, and, specifically, two nocturnes.

Britten wrote his Night-Piece (Notturno) for the Leeds piano competition—the first one, in 1963. Just for the record, that competition was won by Michael Roll, a Briton (and the son of Jewish refugees from Vienna). The jury was chaired by Arthur Bliss.

Barber wrote his Nocturne in homage to John Field, the Irish composer (1782-1837) who is considered “the father of the nocturne.” And you recall that one of his best songs (for voice!) is, in fact, “Nocturne” (words by Frederic Prokosch).

The cover of Decca’s CD booklet shows the pianist, Elizabeth Joy Roe, in a beautiful blue gown, standing on rocks at the edge of the ocean. The inside cover has her in a different dress, crouching on the same rocks, it appears. The back of the CD container (the “jewel case”) has her in a third outfit, lying languidly on what may be a glass table.

Is there anything much weirder than classical-CD art, especially when attractive young women are involved?

Miss Roe has written her own liner notes, in exuberant and impassioned style. She clearly loves these composers—Britten and Barber—and points out similarities between them. She also loves their piano concertos.

About Britten, she writes some of the usual stuff, such as that he was courageous in his homosexuality and pacifism. (For a contrary view—mine—see this article.)

About Barber, she writes that his concerto “may arguably be the preeminent American piano concerto and Barber’s pièce de résistance.” Huh. Let’s consider the first part of that statement, putting the pièce de résistance business to one side.

Can we count Rhapsody in Blue as a piano concerto? We can certainly count the same composer’s Concerto in F. What about MacDowell, Copland, Menotti . . .?

Another question, for which I borrow language from William F. Buckley Jr.: Is hailing the preeminent American piano concerto on the order of hailing the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas?

Anyway, Miss Roe has raised an interesting question.

But enough prelude: How’s the playing on this disc? Good, very good. The pianist is smart, poised, understanding, and committed. Maestro Tabakov is the same. And the orchestra is beautiful and virtuosic.

I recommend this disc, both for its performances and the repertoire (including those bonuses, the nocturnes). We should know these works, even if we are unable to consider them neglected masterpieces.

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 19, 2015 10:15 AM


Description: Shared:BEN:BLOG POSTS:06.19.2015 ICYMI:Fenton_1-062515_jpg_600x648_q85.jpg

Waddesdon Manor, UK/Historic England/Bridgeman Images

Recent links of note:

Country house picnics (with some ace opera attached)
Guy Dammann, The Specator
Only the English could turn the high art of opera into an excuse to have a drunk picnic. Guy Dammann presents a humorous take on the very-English phenomenon of the country house opera picnic. From Glyndebourne to Garsington, the English like nothing better than a muddy romp in black tie, with opera serving merely as an entertaining diversion.

Bloodless Headers in Lifeless Papers
Stefan Kafner, City Journal
A remembrance of legendary New York Post headline writer V.A. Musetto (of “Headless Body in Topless Bar" fame) leads Kafner to assess the lamentable state of newspaper headline writing in our modern age. While not every headline must be a zinger, we surely can do better than “Isis Vows Revenge.”

The Rothschild Taste
James Fenton, The New York Review of Books
Fenton explores the persistence of le goût Rothschild. He determines that, despite some incongruities, the value of their taste is evident, and that the family “score[s] highest when you can tell that they see the point of being Rothschilds…They like to do things well, but they prefer to do them really really well.”

Meet the Banking Regulator with an 8,000-Mile Commute
Max Colchester, The Wall Street Journal
How many central bankers do you know who take calls from their citizens on talk radio? And how many do you know who travel 8,000 miles to the office? Until now, the answer was assuredly none. The Journal helps us get to know Chris Duncan, the island of St. Helena’s Chairman of the Financial Regulatory Authority.

The Labour leadership election is an oasis of boredom
Frankie Boyle, The Guardian
Add another strike against Britain’s embattled Labour Party. Not only is the Party entirely lost, it is now to be led by bores, who, in the words of Frankie Boyle,“have few redeeming features, or features of any kind. They work most successfully not as politicians, but as a sort of broad-ranging challenge to satire.”

From our pages:

Doing as the Romans do
William Logan
On recent verse.

 

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Singing the middle-class blues

by James Bowman

Posted: Jun 17, 2015 02:58 PM


Hillary Clinton on Roosevelt Island

One sympathizes, naturally, with the incomprehension of Ella Whelan of Spiked Online when she writes of Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech as follows:

She claimed she would be running ‘for all Americans’ and presented herself as having come from a history of hardship. Apparently, Clinton’s late mother, Dorothy Rodham, had a relatively tough start in life. . . Yet, in the context of the Great Depression, Clinton’s mother’s tale is not that startling. And, unlike a great many people of that period, Dorothy Rodham’s life turned out all right. In fact, Clinton’s own bid to join the oppressed club seems a bit of a stretch as, in her own words, her mother and father worked to ‘provide [her family] with a middle-class life’. Why then is Clinton so hell-bent on presenting her past as a misery memoir?

But what Ms. Whelan fails to understand is that “middle-class” in America today doesn’t mean middle-class anymore. In the political and media codes of today, which have so largely displaced the rational discourse to which the English of our forefathers was so admirably adapted, to be middle-class is ipso facto to be a victim—if nothing else, a victim of “the rich,” “the one-percent,” or the “millionaires and billionaires,” whose good fortune is now routinely supposed to have been illegitimately won at the expense of everybody else.

That’s why the more aggressive, or “fighting” side of Mrs. Clinton’s appeal on the same occasion, was so largely directed against those unnamed “billionaires and corporations” whose tax cuts, enacted by Republicans out of sheer greed, have supposedly impoverished those lower down the economic scale, and whose money is said to be corrupting the democratic process with the help of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. No doubt on the principle that the best defense is an offense, this attack on the rich is designed at least in part to deflect Republican criticism of the Clinton family’s own riches and the highly dubious means by which they have been acquired. But such transparent cynicism would hardly be possible without the groundwork done by the media over the past two decades and more in continually singing, not the “song called ‘Yesterday’” that Hillary says the Republicans are singing, but the middle-class blues.

Do you doubt me? Just look at this story from last weekend’s Washington Post. “How theme parks like Disney World left the middle class behind,” the headline promises to tell us. It seems that, since the admission fees at Disney World, etc., are up by more than the rate of inflation, it must follow that they have “priced middle-class families out.” True, attendance is also said to be up, but somehow that never troubles the reporter, Drew Harwell, with the obvious question of who, if not the middle classes, is attending in such numbers? If what is implicit in such reasoning had been made explicit in the headline—“Only the Rich now able to afford Disney World”—the absurdity of the proposition would have been apparent. But the Post, like the rest of the media—like Hillary Clinton—now expects the media audience to be willing to take it for granted that the mere mention of “middle-class” carries with it—as does that of “women,” gays, and racial or ethnic minorities—the suggestion of victimization. They also know that these would-be victims do not need to be told who their alleged victimizers are.

 

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The Bloomsday book

by Lucia Ryan

Posted: Jun 16, 2015 03:45 PM


 

Today we celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses unfolds. In recognition of the holiday, we spoke to our colleague Nola Tully, whose eBook Ulysses Bores Me So: First Reactions to Joyce’s Masterpiece, is just out from Random House. A compilation of quotes, essays, and articles about Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, the collection follows Tully’s 2004 book yes I said yes I Will Yes (Vintage), and offers us a peek into the minds of great readers, including Joyce’s contemporaries.

TNC: What inspired you to compile these reactions to Joyce's work?

TULLY: My interest in literature. I had actually just done a writing program in fiction and was working in publishing. Dan Tucker at Sideshow Media produced yes I said yes I will Yes in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday and it was a nice opportunity to focus on Joyce. The story of the publication is so interesting, and my book is really about the history of the publication. It’s not a textual analysis of Ulysses. I had fun looking at it from that side.

TNC: Do you have any favorite pieces in the book? Did certain pieces surprise you?

TULLY: There’s a bunch! For instance, Virginia Woolf was very critical — her response was interesting and funny to read. And Edmund Wilson was amazing. And Judge Woolsey. You know, after the book was published it was banned in the United States. Random House went to court to defend it, and they did win, and Ulysses circulated in the States. But Judge Woolsey’s decision is so eloquent and his writing is really amazing.

TNC: What was your own reaction to the book?

TULLY: Admiration. Awe. Ulysses is not easy; it’s an interesting book in that way. It’s a challenge. The fact that Joyce writes it from such a realistic and day-to-day perspective makes it somehow universal.

TNC: Do you have any advice for readers who feel daunted by it?

TULLY: I think you can read a lot of the surrounding annotations or even books like this to get you interested in it. That’s really the challenge: picking an angle that makes it more fun.

TNC: How do you feel that the book is still relevant today?

TULLY: It was an incredible moment in the history of literature and the arts. So much was changing and if you want to understand where we are now, you need to go back and understand how we got there. And Ulysses is a pretty towering work. Aside from all the contextualizing and historical perspectives, it has merit as a work of art.

TNC: What did you enjoy most about the project?

TULLY: The quotes were really fun to work on: gathering them and sifting through them. Really parsing it out and seeing how monumental Ulysses was. You know, there’s a quote from Malcolm Cowley about a stone dropping in a pond — a moment of silence and then all the frogs in the pond start to talk.  

And Joyce’s life was really fascinating. He chose Bloomsday because it was his first date with his future wife Nora. They went out for a walk on June 16th. At Columbia I took a class on Joyce and Yeats and we got a facsimile of that day’s newspaper. He mentions everything on the newspaper’s front page in the book.

TNC: Any major findings during the course of your research?

TULLY: The timing in the arts — there was the big Armory Show before [the book's publishing], in 1913. The Cubists broke out, so there was a lot of stuff percolating. And Virginia Woolf was also doing stream of consciousness. Maybe she found Ulysses too close for comfort.

But that time was really interesting. Things cracked apart, cracked open, and so much emerged. Diving into that subject led to many discoveries — it was very exciting and inspiring.

TNC: How will you be celebrating Bloomsday?

TULLY: Symphony Space has a radio program that does readings of Ulysses, so I'll be listening to that and drinking Irish whiskey. 

 

***

 

A selection of Tully’s favorite reactions to Ulysses, found in Ulysses Bores Me So, available now on Amazon Kindle:

I rather agree that Joyce is underrated: but never did any book so bore me.—Virginia Woolf, December 1, 1923

As I have stated, “Ulysses” is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places, it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of a mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.—John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge, December 6, 1933

...The more we read “Ulysses,” the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional, and their emotional lives.—Edmund Wilson

Jane Balkoski also contributed.

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The Critic's Notebook for June 15, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 16, 2015 10:13 AM


Peter Reginato, Tangerine Dreams, 2014 (Adelson Galleries)

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Hot rods, Heaven-taught Ploughmen, and High Bridges.

FictionThis Life, by Karel Schoeman, trans. Else Silke (Archipelago): Schoeman’s novel uses the unforgiving setting of the South African veldt to frame the unfulfilling life of an Afrikaner woman on her death bed. Describing four generations of a single family, Schoeman explores the poverty of the Afrikaner experience, especially the alienated place of daughters in that culture, showing that a broken society affects all of its citizens, not just its most persecuted. —BR

Nonfiction: The Cost of Courage, by Charles Kaiser (Other Press): Before he became a notable socialist politician in France, André Boulloche was an important member of the French Resistance movement. In 1943, he was appointed de Gaulle’s personal military delegate in Paris and, along with his family, organized Resistance activities in northern France. Many of the Boulloches were caught— André himself survived three different camps by the end of the war—and all had to cope with the countless ordeals that came with their dangerous work. Though for long the surviving members of the Boulloche family had kept quiet about their activities, they agreed to work with Charles Kaiser to tell their story here. –RH

Poetry: The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I, ed. Nigel Leask (Oxford): Robert Burns, the great bard of Scotland, seems to be constantly in and out of the favor of the literary public. Perhaps the reason is the previous lack of access to his complete and unabridged works. That excuse now disappears with the publishing of Oxford’s first volume of Burns’s complete works. Neilson MacKay reviewed the edition in our June issue, finding that “if there was ever a work to cut through the Scotch mist, this is it.” —BR

Art: Fiction, Peter Reginato, Adelson Galleries (Through August 21): The sculptor Peter Reginato came to his art by way of the hot rod, that energized American demotic craft. Speed and invention, with a flash of machismo, became his hallmarks. So did the painting of metal, with color shifts signaling and interacting with the curves of his forms. Now at Adelson Galleries, Reginato has translated his sculptural polychromy to canvas. The results are dazzling, daring, and, most important, fun — like the feel of a custom car at full throttle. —JP

Music: Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 & 14, by the Borodin Quartet: The Borodin String Quartet has enjoyed a long relationship with the music of Shostakovich, completing a landmark record set of his string quartets many years ago. Borodin, now set with a new roster of musicians, is embarking on a second Shostakovich cycle. The first CD includes String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, possibly the greatest string quartet of the twentieth century, and Borodin's performance is violently riveting. If you don't already know Shostakovich's masterful chamber works, this new album is an ideal way to get acquainted. —ECS

Architecture: The High Bridge, New York: Please forgive my unrestrained civic excitement at the reopening of The High Bridge, the Roman-style aqueduct and pedestrian footbridge that first brought Croton water over the Harlem River from the Bronx into Manhattan in 1848. Shuttered and neglected for over forty years, the bridge has once again reopened to foot and bike traffic, allowing us to walk in the footsteps of none other than E. A. Poe, who as a Bronx resident used to frequent this engineering wonder. The restoration of the bridge and surrounding park is a dividend of the Bloomberg administration, which spearheaded the revitalization of city parks in underserved neighborhoods. From Manhattan, the bridge can be reached directly by staircase at 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, just past the Highbridge Pool (the site of a former reservoir). Access at grade for strollers, bikes, and wheelchairs is at 168th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, followed by a short path north through Highbridge Park. From the Bronx, access is via 170th Street and University Avenue. —JP

Support Our Friends: First Things is pleased to invite you to a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study preassigned classics from Western Civilization in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants.There are no prerequisites to attend. This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals in a spirit of friendship and common purpose to discuss big, timeless ideas, and how they inform the cultural issues occupying our nation in recent years.

From the archive: The silence in South Africa: writers chuck it in, by Sarah Ruden: On the topic of South African novels, we look back to Sarah Ruden’s 1997 exploration of the literary life in the post-apartheid country.

From our latest issue: Jacob Lawrence at MOMA, by Karen Wilkin: A review of MOMA’s current exhibit featuring Lawrence’s famed “Migration Series.”

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 12, 2015 11:00 AM


Lewis Carroll

Recent links of note:

Casualties of the College Culture Wars
Lapham's Quarterly
A short review of those "offensive" mascots who lost their battles with the culture police. Though these mascots aren't the only "casualties" of the so-called culture wars, they're almost assuredly the most visible.

Bank Branch City
Nicole Gelinas, City Journal
Where did the corner store go? And why is there a Chase branch there? And on the next corner, too? That individually-owned small businesses are being priced out of Manhattan storefronts is no secret, but Gelinas explores the cause of the phenomenon, tracing it back to federal interest rates. 

Go Ask Alice
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
The man we call Lewis Carroll was, in fact, a fastidious Oxford don by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Anthony Lane explores the way Carroll's predilections, some of which might horrify the modern reader, influenced his most famous and madcap works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

A Different Sort of Criminal Code
Stefan Beck, The Wall Street Journal
Frequent New Criterion contributor Stefan Beck praises the crime fiction of George V. Higgins, which features dialogue so evocative that it transcends mere crime fiction and stands as "a major achievement of drama in the strictest sense."

From our pages:

Too cool in the capital
Bruce Cole

On the National Portrait Gallery's strikingly foolish recent acquisitions. 

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Not quite at 'Home'

by Natasha Simons

Posted: Jun 11, 2015 11:45 AM


Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s much-feted graphic memoir Fun Home is a deeply internal work of nonfiction, a philosophical exploration of ipseity that is tightly and almost microscopically focused on the minutiae of human life, while also expanding itself to the epic scope of Greek myth and classic American fiction. It is the coming-of-age and coming-out story of a young lesbian who finds out her father is also gay, and a procurer of underage young men, mere months before his suicide.

Broadway is…an odd place to work that out. Not to play the snob, but the stage is unavoidably a more blunt instrument than a book, and I felt that keenly while watching the musical adaptation of Fun Home. Now playing at Circle in the Square after its original Public Theater run, it has recently won the Tony Award for Best Musical along with four more top categories, cementing its status as the hippest thing going right now. It is certainly an ambitious and often emotional show that nevertheless struggles with the tone and technique of adapting such cerebral material to the stage.

In the show, as in the book, an older Bechdel (Beth Malone) looks back at her unconventional small town childhood, and also at her college years, through the lens of her relationship with her complex and emotionally distant father Bruce (Michael Cerveris). Two younger actresses (Sydney Lucas and Emily Skaggs, respectively) portray Small Alison and Middle Alison, and Ms. Lucas is phenomenal in a way that child actors so rarely are. Her voice is beyond its years, as is her ability to lend nuance to songs that might otherwise be very silly indeed; “Ring of Keys,” about her fascination with a butch delivery woman, is touching largely for her earnest and searching delivery.

Some of the incongruity between source material and Broadway seems to be the point, as though someone were hovering just off stage asking if we ken the dramatic irony in numbers like “Come to the Fun Home,” a cheery Motown-esque commercial performed by the children to bring customers to the funeral home (“fun home”) where they work with their father. In point of fact, that someone may very well be music writer Jeanine Tesori, the talent behind the songs of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Violet. There’s a lot of awareness of the charm in the music, which ends up detracting from the intended effect. My overall reaction toggled somewhere between admiration and resignation during the musical portion of the proceedings.

A particularly interesting framing device at work in the production is that of using Bechdel’s childhood Victorian-renovated manse as a stand-in for memory itself. Furniture exits through a complicated set of trap doors, and overhead lights then outline where that furniture once was, as the older Bechdel looks back and tries–with varying degrees of success–to recall exactly how things in the house were ordered so she can recreate them. This is one of the few subtle ways in which the play draws comparisons between Bechdel and her similarly obsessive, highly ordered father. They both eschew emotional displays for aloof and scholarly approaches to their respective pursuits: him, tirelessly renovating his home; her, tirelessly revisiting her memory for the details of their story.

As for the not so subtle ways…well. Much like another Bruce recently made newsworthy, Fun Home seems to elide the actual tricky person at the heart of this coming-out story. Both Bruce Jenner and Bruce Bechdel provide the basis for storylines that have little or nothing to do with them as human beings, but rather as motives for heavy-handed tolerance PSAs. Setting Alison and Bruce in parallel narratives makes him the de facto tragic figure here, which is slightly myopic given the years of emotional and likely physical abuse (considering his temper) perpetuated on his wife and children.  In a confrontation near the end between Bruce and Helen (Jody Kuhn), he accuses her of being the problem for looking away from what was apparent all these years. There’s a strange implication, not embraced by the play but not entirely rejected by it either, that Helen helped put and keep Bruce in the closet with her fervent wish for a traditional family, a perfect home. You can sense in every balladic moment Bruce is given how much Lisa Kron, the book writer, would like someone, anyone, to blame other than him. But it’s Helen who has the true show-stopping number, “Days and Days,” probably the best of the play. Ms. Kuhn brings a quiet dignity to Helen, who sings “chaos never happens if it’s never seen” in a particularly devastating decrescendo. 

His kids are afraid of him, and his wife has desperately salvaged a life for their family under the tyranny of a man who attempts to sabotage it with cruelly destructive and illicit affairs. It’s a tragedy, to be sure – but not one of a man who simply needed a chance to be out and proud.

In the song “Talk to Him,” Alison’s last wrenching attempt to do just that with her father, Bruce grimly avoids any moment of revelation or connection before his impending death in the next, and final, few minutes of the play. It’s a set-up that necessarily is anti-climactic, which underscores the central issue with Fun Home: it’s operating around a void.

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The softer side of Neil LaBute

by Kyle Smith

Posted: Jun 10, 2015 02:19 PM


Josh Sadowski and Amanda Seyfried

Labeling the playwright Neil LaBute a misogynist long ago became a reflex among theater writers. “Neil LaBute’s sexist ‘Pig,’” ran the headline of a 2008 Guardian piece about his play Fat Pig. “Mention LaBute's name to some of my friends over coffee,” wrote The Guardian’s Maxie Szalwinska, “and they spit bile across the table, along with bits of their breakfast bun.” That sounds unpleasant. Better find some new friends.

In remaking the 1973 film The Wicker Man in 2006, “LaBute poisoned its well with an old familiar misogyny,” decreed The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson. Those who offered a different take, such as John Simon, who rechristened the writer “LaBrute” in New York magazine, often declared LaBute misanthropic instead.

LaBute has certainly explored some dark characters and themes in his plays and films. But why, I wondered as the audience filed into a performance of The Way We Get By (at the Second Stage Theatre on West 43rd Street through June 21), were so many groups of young women present? Weren’t they supposed to be LaBute’s enemies?

It turns out that LaBute has softened his tone considerably, and his latest is a lightly pleasing romantic comedy – a chick flick for the stage. This gratifying genre has, in recent years, largely been abandoned by Hollywood in favor of more youth-friendly gross-out comedies, so it feels agreeably revanchist for LaBute to reclaim the territory of frisky relationship comedies. Those who were disturbed by such caustic LaBute works as the films In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) would never guess the new play comes from the same source. It’s a breezy, sweet, even hopeful two-hander, though what is most surprising about it may be how formulaic it is. It isn’t a challenging night of theater, and that’s just fine.

Thomas Sadoski, a boyish actor best known for HBO’s The Newsroom who is about to turn 39 but could pass for 25, plays a hesitant fellow named Doug whom we meet as he slinks out of the bedroom of a tidy New York City apartment in the middle of the night. He looks nervous, even ashamed, as he drinks a bottle of water and wanders around the flat. After a few minutes, he is joined onstage by the adorable Amanda Seyfried as Beth, who tracks him around the space as the two make awkward conversation. The two have just had sex for the first time, but it’s not clear how well they know each other.  Teasing out the details of their history is LaBute’s chief business in the play, and as he gradually dispenses clues the play maintains a comic balance that seems equally likely to tip over into catastrophe or bliss for the pair.

The actors have a lot of fun with LaBute’s dialogue, which is full of misdirection and unforced comedy. Early on, there’s some chatter about the T-shirt Doug was wearing earlier in the evening, later discarded on a chair and put on by Beth when she gets out of bed. It’s a vintage Star Wars top signed by Kenny Baker (the actor who played R2-D2), and Doug worries inordinately about its preservation and well-being, much to Beth’s understandable exasperation. Is it his emotional immaturity, then, that’s causing the rift between him and Beth? No, that would be a little too easy for LaBute, though the failings of men are something of a specialty of his. The play depends on our readiness for the clichés of the genre but then upends expectations: Though it seems in the early going that Doug is looking for a way to sneak out of the apartment without waking Beth, or that after she gets up he’d like to find the most passive and cowardly way to slink away from this one-nighter without causing too much turmoil, his reluctance to commit isn’t the problem either.

LaBute is withholding a secret from us, and in the second half, after the big “reveal,” as the Hollywood types call it, the piece lose some of its tension. There is a reason why these two cuties are so jittery around each other, but upon reflection it seems an obstacle that is relatively easily overcome. This is 2015, after all, and the couple’s secret isn’t illegal or even immoral but merely an oddity. Yet LaBute credibly manages the difficulty of the situation as perceived by Doug, and also devises for the closing minutes a grand gesture straight out of a Katherine Heigl movie.

Before we get to that point, as LaBute makes clear in teasing banter, hesitation, pauses, and doleful looks, the couple’s problem is quite simple: They’re in love. Though their sexual encounter at first seems to the audience like something casual and barely-considered, it’s anything but. Doug and Beth aren’t each other’s hookup or conquest, they’re soul mates, and though the prospect seems absurd to them given their past history, they yearn for commitment to each other, even if neither dares mention it. LaBute runs no risk whatsoever of being called “edgy” or “incendiary.” If he’s turning into the new Neil Simon, no complaints he

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