Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Handful of Dust

Every book I read by British satirist Evelyn Waugh seems to make me into a bigger fan, and A Handful of Dust is no exception.  It is superbly funny, until it turns wickedly macabre in one fell swoop.  It is a biting satire of the idle British landed class, and it ends with one of Waugh's notable short stories, "The Man Who Liked Dickens." 

The novel opens with a glimpse into the life of John Beaver, a rather unlikable man (with which description most of London society apparently agrees).  He's a social climber, lives with his mother, has neither money nor a job and connives for free meals and lodging whenever he can.  He invites himself to Hetton, an unfashionably Gothic estate owned by his not particularly close friends Brenda and Tony Last.  Tony loves Hetton and is unspeakably irritated by Beaver, making himself scarce for the weekend.  Brenda, left in the position of entertaining Beaver, finds him duly annoying, and ultimately begins an affair with him anyway.

The ensuing pages follow the unraveling of the Lasts' marriage, and the further unraveling of Tony specifically.  It is hilarious and clever and expertly well written, and I will tell no more about it for fear of ruining the fun.  I recommend it unconditionally.

Next up: The Double and The Gambler, two novellas (published together) by my dear Fyodor Dostoevsky translated by - you guessed it - the genius duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why I love NYC #4: Central Park

This one is so non-controversial as to be almost boring, but Central Park is an urban oasis and cannot be overlooked. 

In the mid 1800s, New York was the most populous city in the country and on its way to becoming the capital of the world.  As such, real estate on the island of Manhattan was already proving far more valuable that the load of wampum and muskets that it had been purchased for.  The city was stretching north, with the mish-mosh of lower Manhattan giving way to the delightfully orderly uptown grid.  Yet despite this trend, the city planners had the incredible foresight to carve out almost 850 acres to house an amazing public work.  The original design from Frederick Law Olmsted and English architect Calvert Vaux remains virtually unchanged today.  The variety of flora is breathtaking, with different varietals in bloom for most of the year. 

Organized spaces contrast with the wild Ramble, enormous lawns are flanked by tiny bridges, there's a wide range of playgrounds for the kids.  Central Park houses a sailboat pond, a fishing pond, a couple of my favorite sculptures, a random obelisk, a zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Free concerts draw huge crowds, as do speakers like the Dalai Lama.  Joggers and rollerbladers and enjoy the park paths year round, couples canoodle on benches or blankets, ice skaters flock in the winter and the free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park go like hotcakes. 

Upper East Siders and Upper West Siders each claim the park for their own, but it really belongs to the entire city.  I don't know a person here who doesn't have a fond memory or two of Central Park, and it's a must-hit stop on the tourist circuit.  If only every city could have invested half so well in their public spaces a century and a half ago!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Finker Question

I've read some reviews of Howard Jacobson's 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question, and am rather surprised by most of the descriptions.  Perhaps I missed something core to the book, but I would call it neither a "wonderful comic creation" nor a "riotous morass of jokes."  It is a book about Jewish identity, with a protagonist who is not particularly endearing.  For that reason, it recalls a bit of Philip Roth or John Updike, though it's neither as good as Roth at his best, nor as boring as Updike.

Set in London, The Finkler Question focuses on Julian Treslove (the rare non-Jew in the book) and his two friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Treslove and Finkler were childhood friends who remained in touch as they grew older, and their mutual disrespect was, in many ways, what kept them close.  Libor, an old Czech who had a second career as a Hollywood gossip journalist, was their former teacher.  Now a widower who dearly misses his beloved wife Malkie, Libor hosts frequent gatherings of the trio, where they drink wine and reminisce about loves lost.

Treslove is an ex-radio producer who left an undistinguished career at the BBC to become a celebrity impersonator.  Finkler, by contrast, is a popular television personality, a sort of self-help guru whose massive ego and self-aggrandizement have only served to increase his fan base. Finkler has always represented all things Jewish to Treslove; hence, the titular "Finkler Question" is really a "Jewish Question," which Treslove hashes time and again in his own mind.  He's not Jewish, but obsessed with Jews (though not necessarily with Judaism).  When Treslove finds himself the victim of a supposed anti-Semitic attack, this obsession triggers a reinventing of himself as the perfect Jew.  He somehow believes it was Finkler's fault, but gets past (or, perhaps more accurately, dwells on) the attack by emulating what he perceives as Finkler's Jewish essence.

Reviewers have found this book to be hilarious; I found it rather dull.  Critics praised Jacobson's prose and writing style; I found them to be ordinary.  Perhaps this book just wasn't for me.

Next up: A Handful of Dust by master satirist Evelyn Waugh.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An intro to Loire Valley wines

Joker and I had an absolutely delightful mid-afternoon date yesterday: we got set up by my brother-in-law to attend a wine class focused on the Loire Valley.  It was at the Tarry Market, an Italian market in Port Chester opened late last year by celebrity chef Mario Batali.  It was a blast!

The class was in their event space, which is a really cool room upstairs from the market and adjoining wine shop.  They brought in Jenn Zala, a woman who's spent  a great deal of time in the Loire region, to teach the class.  The wine was great, and Jenn described everything from the grape growing and harvesting process to the vintners to the wines with obvious joy and regard for it all. 

French wines intimidate the hell out of me.  Something about the naming conventions (the region? the grape?) confuses me from the get-go.  Plus, knowing as little as I do about them (and having as limited a budget as I do), I find that it's easier to stick with wines from places I'm more comfortable with.  But Jenn really gave some great insight into this wine region.  Plus, she used adjectives that I could understand, describing the mood of a wine (wines were "jumpy" or "energetic") rather than sticking to pretentious-sounding language like "oaky" and "a hint of cherries" and what have you.  I'd highly recommend this pleasant experience to everyone local.  Or at least, everyone local who enjoys drinking wine.  We hope to attend the next one, too!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why I love NYC #3: Live Music

New Orleans has its funk, Nashville its country, Austin its indie, Los Angeles its hip hop, but New York is the place to see it all.  I have seen hundreds of shows in dozens of venues across the city, every genre you can imagine, and I haven't come close to cracking music scene. 

I have seen Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Opera play free shows in Central Park.  I fondly remember seeing Jerry Jeff Walker at the long-gone Tramps, bands I'd never heard of at CBGB, all sorts of noodly jam bands at the Wetlands.  Deep Banana Blackout at Irving Plaza, Phish at The Garden, Angelique Kidjo at the Apollo, Doughty at the Bowery Ballroom, the Allmans at the Beacon. I've banged my head with Metallica at Giant's Stadium, shaked my pregnant ass with Ozomatli at Irving Plaza and smoked pot with the String Cheese Incident in Radio City Music Hall.

There are more concerts seven days a week than any person could ever hope to see.  There is no such thing as the "concert season" here - live music is year-round.  If you're a music fan in New York City, there is always something fun to do tonight.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Why I love NYC #2: Tourists

This is a controversial one.  Lots of New Yorkers absolutely abhor tourists.  Yeah, they walk too slow.  And yeah, they justify the existences of some of the worst abominations in the city, like Jekyll and Hyde or Times Square.  But I love 'em.

Tourists flock to the city that I have called home for years, and that just doesn't happen everywhere.  People from all over the world - families with children, young couples, old people, hard partying 20-somethings - want to see the sights and hear the sounds of New York City.  This place inspires the imagination because it is the biggest and the best in practically every category.  Even the fat midwesterner in his bad shorts and fanny pack got off his ass to see the big city, because New York is amazing.

And tourists remind me of travel, because they're doing the things I do when I'm in foreign cities: sight-seeing, people-watching and taking pictures.  They sip coffee in corner parks while the commuters flood past.  They stand in line to see famous paintings.  They hump miles and miles in a single day so as not to miss anything on their to-do lists.  They photograph the skyscrapers and the sports stadiums and the parks and all kinds of strange and wonderful items of interest just to them.  (Just this morning, an adorable young European couple asked me to take their picture in front of - I shit you not - a bus stop billboard.)

I'm proud of New York, I love New York and I love people who want to see the great things about New York.  So when a pack of Asian retirees is blocking the whole sidewalk, trying to find the Empire State Building which is all of one block away, I just step around.  I might laugh at them a little, but really, I'm glad they're here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bucket lists for you and me

With my NYC departure looming in the not-too-distant future, I'm working on compiling my New York Bucket List.  So far, it includes:

  • Take the Bug and the Bunny to the Statue of Liberty
  • Bring the Bug to work
  • See a Knicks playoff game
  • Take the audio tour of Grand Central
  • Visit the Morgan Pierpont Library
I'll keep adding to it (and crossing things off), and I am solicitous of any suggestions! 

On the flip side, I will be posting about some of my favorite things about New York - things that I hope you add to your own bucket lists!  So here goes, the first in that series...

Why I Love NYC #1: Grand Central Terminal

Sitting in the shadow of the art deco Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal has a history as storied as New York City itself.  It was a technological ground-breaker when it was built, and every great new invention was embraced here first.  The exposed lightbulbs throughout the terminal, for example, date back to the invention of the incandescent light bulb, when no one wanted to hide that cool new invention behind a fixture. 

The ceiling of the massive lobby includes a representation of the major constellations of our galaxy, including Pegasus (above the gate to Track 21) and the signs of the zodiac.  One of my favorite trivia nuggets: it's exactly backwards from what you see standing on Earth; rather, it was painted as the view the gods have when they look in to the Milky Way.

Grand Central is part of my daily commute, and every time I walk in I am struck by its magnificence and beauty.  And not every old-ass building can accommodate the sheer volume of traffic that it handles day in and day out with remarkable accuracy.