Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Phantom in Coney Island?

Back in 2001, my friend CF and I saw The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Certainly this show reigns as one of the best musicals ever produced. It is considered to be the longest-running show on Broadway and the second-longest-running show in London's West End theater district. When it opened in 1986, Andrew Lloyd-Webber was known already, but this show made Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman stars. Lloyd-Webber and Brightman were married for some time (no surprise that he's a major collector of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art; Brightman looks like she stepped out of a painting by Rossetti or Waterhouse). Some songs, such as "The Music of the Night" and "All I Ask of You," have become standards. If you haven't seen it, you should, because it is a masterpiece of musical theater. That said, I was a bit surprised to read in The New York Times that Lloyd-Webber is crafting Phantom: Love Never Dies, a sequel to the first. Do we really need a sequel? Why can't it stand alone on its own? Even more startling, he revealed in an interview in the London Times (which you can read here) that he's setting it in Coney Island. Yes, the amusement park area of Brooklyn. Apparently after escaping from the French mob, the Phantom escapes to New York and meets up with Christine ten years later. To quote Lloyd-Webber: "He started in one of the freak shows there but, by the time we meet him, being the Phantom he has become the most powerful operator in Coney. He's pulling the strings and running the island.” Why Coney Island? "It was the place. Even Freud went because it was so extraordinary. ... People who were freaks and oddities were drawn towards it because it was a place where they could be themselves." Of course, the irony of this is that Coney Island is now being transformed into high-rise condos and everything for which it has been historically known is disappearing. I don't know about you, but why do I feel like this has the makings of a disaster? It's unfortunate, but Lloyd-Webber's most recent musicals have all pretty much flopped. Still, he is a powerhouse in the musical theater industry, so if he wants to do this, he will. Undoubtedly, there will be many people who adore Phantom that they will wait in line for tickets for the sequel. I can only hope that he'll take advantage of Cirque du Soleil-like performances for the so-called "freaks and oddities" like the Tattooed Man, the Bearded Woman, and the Sword Swallower, because that will at least help craft an amazingly entertaining spectacle on stage. The show is scheduled to open late in 2009 in New York, London, and possibly China. I'll close by adding that I think the funniest part of this entire story is that at one point apparently Lloyd-Webber's cat Otto destroyed segments of the musical score for this when he pounced on his digital piano and deleted the files. I wonder if Otto knew something Lloyd-Webber didn't?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Artists' Models

Today on NPR.org, there was an interesting article and audio clip by Susan Stamberg about Dina Vierny, an 89-year-old French woman who was a model for the sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and the painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The image here is a photograph of Vierny with Maillol taken shortly before the sculptor's death. Vierny has opened the Musée Maillol in Paris. Her home above the museum is filled with sculptures and drawings that the sculptor did of her. The article and audio clip provide an interesting assessment of a mid-20th-century model and the role she played in the lives of these two important artists.

The study of artists' models is a burgeoning area for the past 15 years or so, in part as an extension of women's studies. The vast majority of work done on models relates to the female model because of her figurative predominance in Western art. The study of models, especially in primi pensieri (literally, "first thoughts," early sketches), often help scholars understand the artist's intent in capturing the model a specific way for a picture or sculpture. The goal, of course, was always to find a beautiful model so as to create a beautiful work of art. One of the great legends of art history is the story of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who sought to create a painting of the most beautiful woman of the day. When he could not find one perfect woman, he drew the best features of five different women, thus creating a single ideal woman.

In art, the model also can be an enigma. People still ponder who the Mona Lisa actually was. Contrary to popular belief, she is not Leonardo da Vinci in drag; recent evidence suggests she was Lisa Gherardini and probably lived in Milano. Seeking out the identity of models also has served its own purpose in modern times, specifically to give life to these women beyond an artist's idealized impression of their features. To be an artist's model was considered scandalous. It was known that they may pose in the nude, and of course a model would be seduced by the artist and be forever an impure woman. On the other hand, a model could become an artist's muse, as was the case with the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie Siddal famously posed for John Everett Millais's exquisite painting of Ophelia by lying in a bathtub to help him capture the realistic image of a woman floating in water. But Siddal is better known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's muse, painting and drawing her over and over, teaching her how to paint, eventually marrying her, and then apotheosizing her in Beata Beatrix after she died from an overdose of laudanum that may or may not have been accidental (Rossetti was with another model, his mistress Fanny Cornforth, when his wife died). Both Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler shared a lover and model, the Irish-born Jo Hiffernan, who posed for works such as the former's La Belle Irlandaise and the latter's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. And then there are the famous models of artists like Pablo Picasso, women like Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter, who were as famous for his Cubist-like representations of them as they were for being his mistresses.

The study of the artists' models involves biography, social history, connoisseurship, and aesthetics. From it, we can learn much about artists and their work, assuming of course information about these often unknown people is known. For more on Dina Vierny's life with Maillol and Matisse, click here for the NPR article and audio file.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Benjamin Button

The other night I went to the movies with family (JP, DG, & JB) to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The movie has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, and I'm sure there will be a few Academy Award nominations as well. The movie was fascinating. It tells the story of Benjamin Button, who was born just after World War I in New Orleans. Although he's born as a baby, his physique is that of an old man, and as he ages, he grows younger. The movie is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Brad Pitt really does an amazing job in this film. His acting is superb as he captures the nuances of learning about life from a child's perspective, despite his own uncertainty about how old he actually is. The fact that he is raised in an "old folks' home" works beautifully, because although he fits in with the other residents physically and emotionally, as he grows younger and stronger, he is exposed to the reality of death as an omnipresent element in our lives. The childlike spark of romance between him as an old man and Daisy, the visiting young granddaughter of one of the residents, is charming, but becomes the impetus for a love story that penetrates the entire film. As adults, Benjamin and Daisy's love story is everything a romance should be, although the harbinger of storms and dark times always overshadow their romance and are seen in the film as a reminder of this.

Cate Blanchett is magnificent as Daisy, and I feel like she has been robbed by not being nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress. Tilda Swinton puts in another superb turn in her brief role as well (although after throwing away her Oscar for Michael Clayton, I suspect no one in Hollywood will ever nominate her again for an award). Many of the other actors who star in supporting roles are excellent as well, such as Taraji P. Henson who plays his adopted mother Queenie, and Jared Harris who plays Captain Mike.

The movie conveys important lessons about living and dying, about time, experience, and kismet. These are lessons we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Death is what makes us appreciate the ones we love and our own life. Without death, we would never understand the purpose of living. This film is a drama, a fantasy, and a romance, and it works uniquely in all three ways. It unfolds over the course of some 80 years, but unfortunately it feels like it. In other words, it's a long, drawn-out movie. During our showing, one group of people got up and walked out, and we still think my aunt nodded off once or twice (although she denies it). Still, though everyone may have thought it was long and required much attention on the viewers' part, what surprised me was that not another person in the theater moved or got up to go to the bathroom or get a snack. The movie mesmerizes you with its dialogue, its acting, and the aging make-up. It truly is a brilliant film, but one that requires a lot of patience and a very comfortable sofa on which to relax and ponder the messages it seeks to share.

Click here for the official website for the movie, and below is one of the official trailers for the film.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Review: The Historian

Earlier this month in a post on the Books of 2008, I had mentioned that I was reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005). I finished it last night. The book is another contribution to vampire lore, although in many ways it fits more in line with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and less with Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat (1985). Indeed, at times I felt like there were elements of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) at play here as well (fortunately, Kostova's writing is much stronger than Brown's). The primary narrator is a scholar who recounts her own experience as a teenaged girl in the 1970s. She recounts how after finding in her father's library mysterious papers related to Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula from the late 15th century, her father had told her about his own research and that of his mentor/advisor at university who disappeared after researching the real Dracula as well. This interest becomes in truth an obsession, as each person who has received a mysterious book with a woodblock print of Dracula as a dragon becomes enthralled to discover another piece in the great story about where exactly Dracula is buried and if he is still alive. And, yes, each encounters vampiric activity along the way. The story becomes layered, with narrative voices relaying other narrative voices, and moves backwards through time from the 1970s to the 1950s to the 1930s, ultimately to the late 1400s. Despite what the book jacket on my paperback copy of the novel says, if you're looking for a thriller about vampires, this really isn't it. Rice more successfully wove stories that incorporated philosophy, religion, sexuality, morality, history, and violence in the guise of vampires that kept you on edge and turning page after page. Kostova's book follows more the pattern of Stoker's work, although if memory serves me correctly, even Stoker's version had more thrills at times.

This isn't to say that The Historian is a bad book. On the contrary, Kostova's writing is wonderful. Her descriptions are detailed, which I appreciate, and the book reads like historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of Paul and Helen's visit in the 1950s to places like Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria, in particular because this is during the days when Eastern Europe was Communist and Americans were not welcome. The unfolding of history as each character uncovers some other piece of the mysterious puzzle about Dracula's burial location makes for an interesting read. I found myself especially interested in the descriptions of the historical Vlad the Impaler and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The book involves libraries and archives so much that I almost thought the book should have been called The Librarian, but that might have caused confusion with the trilogy of action movies starring Noah Wyle. Kostova's panoply of characters is not unlike a Charles Dickens novel, where even less important characters are given their fair share of descriptions and contributions to the main storyline. The Bulgarian peasant woman Baba Yanka who sings folk songs and the Turkish professor Turgut Bora are beautifully written characters, but one of my favorites (I'm smirking as I write this) has to be the "evil librarian."

The Historian moves slowly, but that is part of Kostova's intent. Here's a sample from page 100-101 that I think conveys the tone of the book without revealing anything; the narrator is the unnamed daughter who is listening to her father's story:

I uncurled my cold hand from the edge of the bench and made the effort to be lighthearted now, too. When had it become effort? I wondered, but it was too late. I was doing his work for him, distracting him as he had once tried to distract me. I took refuge in a slight petulance--not too much or he would suspect it. "I have to say I'm hungry again, for real food."

This dedication to a slow-paced tale allows the reader to get into the characters and the storyline. Indeed, this ultimately serves a purpose: by slowly telling the tale, Kostova allows the story to unfold in such a way as to make the vampire part of it more believable. This, added to the successful historical component, make for a fascinating read. Still, as far as the plot was concerned, sometimes there were just too many coincidences and there never seemed to be a wrong turn as the story unfolds. Although I looked forward to sitting down to read the book each day, it didn't have me on the edge of my seat like I initially had hoped. So if you're interested in an alternative version of the Dracula story and you enjoy historical fiction, then this book is for you. But if you're looking for suspense and thrills, you may want to hold off on this for now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas 2008

bklynbiblio will be on the road for a while and may not be posting regularly, so here's a shot of my Brooklyn mini Christmas tree, and consider this my official holiday wishes to everyone for a Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeaux Noel, and all that jazz...

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Snowstorm: 2008-2009 Winter

The other day I posted about our first snowfall, but it barely held its own and was gone by later that night. About an hour ago, it started snowing for real and it's sticking to the ground. It's heavenly! To quote my co-worker JAM, "It's like living in a snow globe!" Here's a picture I took with my mobile at 11:15 am. It's definitely starting to pile up. I just hope this doesn't interfere with my travel plans for tomorrow...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hawk in the Yard

For the past few mornings, I've been struck by the beauty of this creature that has been sitting in the bare tree in my backyard. I took this picture using my digital camera and the zoom feature. The juxtaposition of natural wildlife and New York may seem anomalous, but here's proof that it does exist even in the big city. It's fascinating to watch him look at everything around him. Curiously not another bird is in sight whenever he's in the tree. After he leaves, all the doves and pigeons come back. Watching him brings back memories of when I used to work at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, FL. I used to perform parrot shows with macaws (oh, the stories I could tell...), but we also did occasional shows with birds of prey. Other times, I would wear the thick leather glove and bring the hawk out onto the grass and let him get sun. I think birds of prey are gorgeous creatures. This bird is a hawk, but I don't think it's a Red-tailed Hawk. I did some poking around on the Internet and found this site to help, so I believe this is a Broad-winged Hawk. If anyone thinks otherwise, let me know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

First Snowfall: 2008-2009 Winter

We had our first official snow flurries in the City today! They were actually huge flakes too, but they dissolved pretty quickly. I took these two pictures with my mobile phone while I was walking from the gym to school early in the afternoon. (Yup, that's the Empire State Building.) Unfortunately, it's hard to see the snowflakes, but I thought I'd share the pictures anyway. I love it when it snows, but I'll love it even more when we get the first snow that sticks and stays on the ground.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Gilbert & George

On Sunday, I finally had a chance to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Gilbert & George 40-year retrospective. This exhibition has been traveling to other museums for the past three years, and this is the last stop. The artist duo helped install the exhibition itself, suggesting that the arrangement of the pieces in the show was as important to G&G as the works themselves. As they've claimed in writing about their work, it is about life experience, not the art historical process. They prefer the viewer to look at the art from an experiential point of view; what the viewer thinks is more important than what they are or a critic is expressing. The duo appears in almost everything they've ever done, and as time has passed, their own faces and bodies age as well. Their presence becomes like an omnipotent force through their oeuvre and through the exhibition. G&G first met in 1967 when they were students at St. Martin's School of Art in London. They paired up and, so they say, the rest is history (and by "pairing" the implication is that they are partners in work and love). Both of them were sculptors, and they quickly took to stretching the definition of sculpture beyond static form, creating living sculpture. They would perform "actions" or "happenings" (i.e., performance art), one of their more famous being The Singing Sculpture (1969) in which they performed as bronze-like mannequins. (Street performers who dress up as statues for photo opportunities and for money are derived from this G&G trope.) They expanded out of performance pieces, however, and moved into photography. Today they work in just about every medium, but they usually refer to all of their pieces as sculpture.

The work you see here is one section from the polyptych called Death Hope Life Fear (1984) at the Tate in London. Don't let this digital image fool you in its size. The work is massive. The grid you see is actually a series of thin black frames for each individual part, and each of those is about A4 or approximately 12"x10" in size. Calculate that, and you realize that this piece is close to 8 feet high! And this is only one of four parts, two of them stretching horizontally so that all four pieces took up an entire wall of a large gallery at the Brooklyn Museum. But what of the piece itself? The combination of the words tells you much. G&G have explored aspects of living throughout their career. They've never moved away from their East London home, and so they often incorporate aspects of urban grit, youth, and fear into their works. In this piece, you see G&G replicated in the center with a rose behind them and a daisy in front of them. They become a totem, and the replication of them and the flowers conjures images of Buddhist tantric mandalas. The incorporation of the boys adds the triangulated foundation that one finds in Renaissance paintings of saints, and so this work in many ways takes on a highly spiritual message. It is Death as one aspect of Spirituality. The tantric connection suggests sexuality as well. When you consider this work is from the early 1980s when AIDS had begun to ravage the gay community, it takes on a serious political message, one which can only be seen in conjunction with its companion messages of Hope, Life, and Fear. (Here's a link to an image of Life.)

If you don't see it, don't worry about it. If you think I'm looking too hard at it, maybe you're right. To be honest, it's difficult to really assess what their work is about, especially because the imagery is so complex at times. And if you follow their guidelines, then keep in mind this is just my experience of their work. Perhaps you are just supposed to admire its monumentality and aesthetic appeal. The intensity of color and the optical illusion quality of the figures is hypnotic. Their enormous charcoal drawings affixed with prose, like The Nature of Our Looking (1970) make you almost wish you were walking in their animated, impressionistic life. Later work, like Fates (2005) uses digital manipulation to enhance the surrealistic quality of their art. Other subjects are controversial, such as Sperm Eaters (1982) from a London private collection (hence the warning to parents and teachers at the museum, and that so few really provocative works were on display, as this one wasn't, so here's a photo of it from Flickr). Work such as this last one remind me of Keith Haring. All in all, the exhibition was fascinating, and I'm very glad I went. I can't say I "like" G&G's work, but I respect their production and can appreciate the messages they share and suggest. Know that if their work seems like it shocks you, they claim that isn't meant to be the case. They prefer that it makes you think about art, about life, and about yourself. So sit back, look, and just think.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Alphabet Killer

I went with RK to see the new movie The Alphabet Killer. During this time of year when all the major contenders for Golden Globes and Oscars are released, it's unusual to have a movie such as this one with few major actors and a low-key presence come out at the same time. Inevitably, a movie such as this gets lost in the shuffle of blockbusters. Case in point: we saw the movie at a small theater near NYU that usually shows foreign films and art-house films. This thriller is supposedly based on a true story about a series of murders that took place around Rochester, NY in the early 1970s. You can read a bit about the history of the case on Wikipedia. In fact, it's more inspired by the murders and not based on them at all. The premise is that a detective, Megan Paige, is working on the rape and murder of a girl, and becomes so obsessed with the case that she suffers a nervous breakdown that leads to a diagnosis of mental disease. Two years later, in recovery, another attack takes place and she manages to get herself reassigned to the team working to solve the murders. As RK pointed out, every good police thriller has the lead detective suffering from some problem, usually alcoholism or another addiction. Here, it's mental disease. The film is formulaic murder-mystery-thriller, but this film tries to take it to the next level by adding supernatural elements and social commentary on the idea of mental illness. At some moments, it works; other times, it's a bit overwrought. Eliza Dushku plays the detective Megan, and she's quite good. (Among past roles, she played the vampire slayer Faith on Angel.) She has an exotic look to her that makes her stand out in the all-male police squadron. She is in just about every scene, so you follow her through her ups and downs to the point of almost living it with her. In fact, I think that is one of the strengths of this film. As I watched it, I felt very uncomfortable, emotionally and physically. Because of the subject matter, you cannot help but feel disturbed by how it's played out on the screen, but what I discovered was that the way it was filmed was adding to my physical stress. Almost every shot was filmed at some skewed angle, so that it alters your perception of reality. We're used to well-framed scenes in films, but when you have handheld cameras that shake, voyeuristic views of the characters, off-balance perspectives, 360-degree panoramas that make you dizzy, and filters that create a hazy effect, it actually throws you off. I think that's the point. Part of this movie's intent is for you to feel Megan's mental illness along with her, to experience her hallucinations and her shakes. As a result, your own perception of reality gets thrown off. It works, to some extent. After a while, though, it just started to get annoying. In any case, all of the acting is strong (Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes, and so on), and the writing by Tom Malloy (who also plays one of the officers) is well-structured. As far as mysteries go, it keeps you going, which is always a good thing. Should you rush out to seem this film in the theater? Only if you've seen the blockbusters and potential award winners, you have a crush on the main actress, you're a thriller-buff, or you once lived in Rochester. Otherwise, wait for the DVD. In the meantime, here's the official website, and here's the trailer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best-Dressed Dogs of 2008

So what do you think of Petey, the MetroCard Yorkie? For non-New Yorkers, the MetroCard is what we use for the subways and buses here in the City. Petey is one of the top 10 winners of the ASPCA's Best-Dressed Dogs of 2008 contest. See all the winners and honorable mentions by clicking here. When I had my dogs Duchess and Pepper, I used to dress them in fashionable bandannas they wore around their necks. They would have hated it if I had dressed them in sweaters, dresses, t-shirts, or costumes. Still, I have to say, when you see the dogs in this photo contest, be prepared to be laughing out loud because they look absolutely adorable.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breathing Places

I must credit Andy at Towleroad blog for bringing this post to my attention. The BBC has a program called "Breathing Places" that encourages citizens to help wildlife find places for them to survive and thrive. As more of the world gets swallowed up by concrete and construction, it is nature that is suffering. I have vivid memories of living in Florida and thinking it seemed ridiculous how companies kept building new housing developments in the Everglades, and then people living there would complain about the alligators in their backyards and the mosquitoes in the air. Animals need a place to live too!! So check out the BBC's website for "Breathing Places" to find out more, including helpful hints for providing space for wildlife. And in celebration of the upcoming holidays, check out this video from the animals themselves, who tell us that they need our help, because all they want for Christmas is some place to breathe. (Note: this video is hypnotically bizarre the first time you see it, but put it in the context of the BBC's program, and watch it again, and hopefully you'll be grinning like I was at the end.)

Streisand & Kennedy Center Honors

In the center of the photo above is Barbra Streisand, who was among the six people honored this past weekend with awards from the Kennedy Center Honors. The awards recognize lifetime achievement in the performing arts and are named in honor of President John F. Kennedy. The award winners were Streisand, Morgan Freeman, Twyla Tharp, George Jones, and Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who (which is a strange mix of people, if you ask me). Apparently performers like Beyonce and Queen Latifah performed Streisand numbers in her honor. The event was taped and will be shown on CBS on December 30th. Here's a news byte about the awards from The New York Times. However, I think another news byte is even funnier, because it focuses on the fact that Streisand and President Bush kissed one another in greeting and congratulations. It's well known how much she dislikes him, and he's no fan of hers either. Afterwards she said she wished she had been given the award next year by President Obama, but that she was at least pleased that he was going to be the next President. For more on that funny news byte from the AP, click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Review: New York

Over the past year and a half, I have been watching on DVD one of the best documentary series ever: New York: A Documentary Film. Directed by Ric Burns, this documentary premiered on PBS in 1999, encompassing 14 hours of the history of this city, from its early days as a Dutch colony up to contemporary history. Filled with art work, archival photographs, and early film footage, the visuals of this documentary are supplemented by interviews with so many New York "experts," from former mayors and reporters at The New York Times, to historians and urban planners. The only reason why it has taken me so long to watch the series is because there is a lot to process in each episode as far as factual, social, economic, and political histories, that it really does make you want to think about how New York has evolved into one of the greatest cities in the world. Some of the highlights of the documentary for me included: the initial growth of the city above Wall Street (it was, quite literally, a wall at one time to keep the Indians away from the Dutch settlers); the city's early history as the nation's first capital; the construction of the Erie Canal and how it made the city the economic center of the United States; the story of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge; the building of the first skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building; Robert Moses and the effect of urban planning with automobiles in mind (the result of which I can hear right now outside my window, as my apartment overlooks a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway!); the Great Depression; immigration and racial tensions; the Harlem Renaissance.... As you can see, I could go on and on. But if I had to sum up the one lesson I've learned about this amazing documentary, it is that New York has always been a commercial city first, and in that mindset, it is a city that has always made a habit of tearing down and rebuilding. It is, in that sense, one of the most forward-thinking cities in the world. As a result, it has lost historic neighborhoods and beautiful buildings, but somehow it still manages to move forward and redefine itself over and over. The main documentary premiered in 1999 with seven episodes. One of the interesting things about it is that there is a sense of naivete in many of the interviews and in the perception of New York's centrality in the world. I don't think this innocence was obvious at the time, but seeing the documentary after 9/11, it is striking how New York (and the United States) lived such a very carefree existence. The events of 9/11 changed this city probably more so than any other. As a result, Ric Burns and his team got together and did a followup sequel of another two hours that discusses the World Trade Center from its inception in the 1960s all the way through the events of 9/11. This sequel acts as Part 8 of the documentary. I didn't think I would be as interested in the building's history, but as it turned out, it was an amazing coda to an already incredible story.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Books of 2008

The New York Times has posted its annual list of the "100 Notable Books of 2008." This list comes out at the beginning of each December and thus encompasses things from the previous December. Divided into 1/2 fiction & poetry and 1/2 non-fiction, it is based on the reviews of books that appeared in the newspaper over the course of the year. Sadly, I haven't read a single thing on the list this year. Usually I can claim to have read at least a couple of titles, but no such luck this year. As has been noted on this blog before by me, I usually come late to things like books and films, just because that's the way my life usually goes. But to demonstrate that I have been a busy reader, over the past 12 months I have read 31 books, and in the spirit of "best of the year" traditions, I thought I would share some of the books that I read (with their year of original publication in parentheses).

In terms of fiction, my favorite novels were the literary classic Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and the psychological mystery A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1986). Other notable fiction reads for the year were Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster (1905), Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (1979, translated into English 2007), The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (2003), and Grief by Andrew Holleran (2006). As for non-fiction, the subjects vary and although much from this group was research for conference presentations and coursework, others were for my own pleasure. Two of my favorites were biographies: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1998) [see my review on this blog], and Michelangelo by Howard Hibbard (1974). Other notable non-fiction reads include the history books Longitude by Dava Sobel (1995) and The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 by Donald Quataert (2000), the art historical text Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), and of course the memoirs of David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) [see my review on this blog]. And if you're wondering about the image reproduced here, that is the cover of the latest novel I am reading, the vampire-themed novel The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005), but that will have to go on next year's list.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Library Bytes: LIFE & Google Images

About two weeks ago, Google announced the release of a new feature: digitized images from the archives of LIFE magazine, many of which have never been published before. (Here's an article with more details about the project from Computerworld magazine.) Apparently some of the images date back to 1750, although since they claim they were shot by photographers at LIFE I'm still not sure how they preserved photographs taken before 1840 (someone got their explanation screwed up). Google estimates the digital image package to come to nearly 10 million images, which is an incredible number when you consider that even the largest museums in the world may have only about half that number of objects in their collections. The first group are up already on Google Images, and they look great. There are images from World War II, Academy Award winners, NASA-related events, and so on. My favorites are, of course, the ones from the 19th century. I was quite excited to see so many pictures of Queen Victoria like this one. I wonder if she would declare, "We are amused!"

Saslow on 70's Fever

One of my professors, James M. Saslow (whom I mentioned below in connection with Donatello's David), will be interviewed during a documentary entitled 70's Fever, premiering on the History Channel on Sunday night. Saslow will be talking about the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Issues such as this are important to learn about, considering the recent success of the new movie Milk about Harvey Milk from San Francisco, the first openly gay politician who was later assassinated, and the passing of Proposition 8 in California which has now made gay marriages illegal there. Saslow is a noted expert on gay and lesbian history, as well as an important art historian of Renaissance and Baroque art, theater history, and gay and lesbian art history. The image here is the cover of his 1999 book Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, which is an excellent introduction to the topic, although certainly not the only book he's written.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Brooklyn Industries

If you look at this image and wonder if what you think you see is what you see, rest assured you are seeing correctly. That's a pigeon and a rat embracing, with the moonlit New York skyline behind them. It's called "Love Vectors" and it's emblazoned on one of my new t-shirts that I bought at Brooklyn Industries. I love this shirt! Brooklyn Industries is a local clothing company started by two artists, Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar (I swear I'm not making up their names). They started the company in the late 1990s after they began designing messenger bags out of recycled billboard signs. (You should be impressed by now.) Today they design everything in clothing, but their t-shirts are probably some of their best work and are famous throughout the City. I admit not everything they sell is to my taste; their designs run along the "hipster-organic-grunge" crowd. Still, they have great t-shirts and messenger bags. They're also a local company producing local goods, and it's good for the environment to support local companies, and now that we're officially in a recession, it's even better to support local companies like Brooklyn Industries. They have 9 stores in New York City and 1 in Chicago, plus an active online store, so check 'em out! Here's another one of their t-shirt designs modeled by bklynbiblio.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Donatello's David

Continuing my trend of Italian-themed posts, a few days ago the Bargello Museum in Firenze showed off their freshly cleaned bronze statue of David by Donatello. About 60 years before there was Michelangelo's David, there was Donatello's David. You can read about how they cleaned the statue using laser technology and see images of the restored sculpture in this news byte from the Associated Press. The image I'm showing you here (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art) is pre-cleaning and doesn't do the sculpture justice. It really is an amazing piece of craftsmanship in conveying the human condition. It consciously invites you to move around it and look at it from all perspectives. The work is one of the great early Renaissance masterpieces that celebrated the classical ideal of mankind. Scholars still aren't sure when it was made, although best estimates are between 1430 and 1450. It may have been a wedding present among the famous de' Medici family members, but no one knows for sure. Certainly by the time the de' Medicis were exiled from Firenze in the 1490s, the bronze statue was confiscated by the Florentine government. The sculpture was displayed outside the Palazzo Vecchio with another work by Donatello, Judith and Holofernes. If there seems like a theme, there was. Both subjects recounted how so-called weaker Biblical figures overcame adversity with God's help and vanquished their enemies. Judith was a Hebrew maiden who seduced General Holofernes, got him drunk, then cut his head off. David was a shepherd boy who used a slingshot to knock out the giant Goliath, then cut his head off (David later became King of Israel). Both statues became symbols for the city-state of Firenze, for despite its small size the city had defeated larger enemies, including the country of France. Donatello's David is a shepherd boy wearing a pastoral hat on a head with long locks of hair. His nudity emphasizes his youthful, weaker body, but he stands triumphantly with one foot on the decapitated head of Goliath. Scholars such as James M. Saslow (Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts) have discussed the homoerotic quality of this figure. Renaissance Firenze was a haven for homosexuals. That's probably a slight exaggeration, but historians like Michael Rocke (Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence) have shown that there is plenty of evidence that male-male relations were common in 15th-century Italy. Saslow has pointed out that in this sexually liberated environment, an effeminate, youthful David would have appealed to the male homosexual audience as an object of desire. He points to how the feather from Goliath's helmet stands erect against David's leg, but then caresses his thigh with its sculpted feathers. If you were to see it in person, you'd see right away how true it is. Donatello's David was a hero: politically and sexually, he represented the spirit of Renaissance Firenze.