Archive | Book Matters

I’m Everybody! Are You Everybody Too?

I slipped into the theater as Cynthia Nixon was cooing to a newborn: “I’m nobody! Are you nobody too?”

It was the newly renovated Quad Cinema, and I’d scored a ticket because I was presenting the Emily Dickinson film, “A Quiet Passion,” to a cinema club later in the week. Normally I would not be spending such a beautiful afternoon indoors, but I’d had a terrible writing morning—the sort that robs one of all confidence and joy—and I was keen to get out of my house, neighborhood, and head, in that order.

The new Quad seemed a lot like the old Quad, down to ticketing confusion and the long, skinny screening rooms with tiny screens, but the seats were more comfortable and the film, a stately swoon. I settled into the story that had begun 20 minutes before my arrival, and tried to block everything out.

Dickinson was bright and glaring in her strong tempers, with the knit brow and bitten lip of a nineteenth-century woman heeding too many wrong lessons. She and her kin bickered against the austere backdrop of their Amherst estate, and I sat back against red cushions and exhaled in pleasure. This was not the New England of so many films-forbidding and confined to a palette of greys and more greys. This was the New England I long for 25 years after emigrating to New York: amused and amusing, with bursts of colors so extravagant that there’s no point in competing with your own person. Continue Reading →

The Magic Social Realism of Alice Neel

Though it was widely accepted that the artist Alice Neel was a big fibber, her boast that she was “old as the century” was never a falsehood. Born January 28, 1900, she grew up with the twentieth century, and the trajectory of her life – her struggles, her triumphs –twinned that of our country though significant success eluded her until she was in her sixties. Today, her hard gems of truth and beauty continue to find new audiences, most recently via “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an exhibition of her portraits at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. I believe this is because her work, like Neel herself, was not just a product of its time but also ahead of it.

Neel first came on my radar last year, when I was cruising through a gallery of contemporary paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Though I was rushing, I screeched to a full stop in front of “John I. H. Baur,” her 1974 portrait of a former museum department head. With a palette of slate and ochre and a bold, almost slapdash brushstroke, she’d conveyed the man as both an institutional hack and a bemused enabler. It was a funny portrait but rueful and rich, too. I rushed on, but when I saw the Zwirner gallery was hosting a show of her work, I hightailed over not once but thrice. These paintings of her family, neighbors, friends, lovers, and political comrades in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side are not perfect. In some cases, they could ask more; they could tell more. But they grip as few twentieth-century portraits do because they are so vibrant, so cock-sure – and so defiantly resonant.

Though his book, White Girls, offers general cultural commentary, Hilton Als is employed by The New Yorker as a critic of theater, not fine arts. Yet he curated this Zwirner exhibition, perhaps because Neel’s intensely democratic curiosity snags his own. (His book on the topic will be released this June.) In a catalog essay, he shares what this child of West Indian immigrants, raised in deep Brooklyn to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, initially recognized in her work Continue Reading →

Reading Pesach: 5 Favorite Passover Books

Gentiles may be forgiven for thinking Chanukah is the biggest holiday of the Jewish calendar. Certainly it gets the biggest billing in mainstream culture, no doubt because it usually occurs around Christmas. But for practicing Jews, Passover is one of the holidays that looms largest. Beginning on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan – typically sometime in April – it lasts seven days and is a festival to celebrate the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian enslavement. The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, which in turn is based on the root “pass over” – a reference to the belief that God “passed over” the Jews when punishing Egypt; essentially, it’s a festival that celebrates the Old Testament story of Moses and the Exodus. It often dovetails with the Christian holiday Easter, and Jesus’s final supper is widely accepted as a seder, a Passover meal eaten by Jews everywhere since Moses’s time. For Pesach this year, I’ve assembled a menu of our own – one comprised of books about the holiday. Chag Pesach Sameach!

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
One of my favorite young adult series of all time, the All of a Kind Family was a fictional Jewish clan living in a small railroad apartment on New York’s Lower East Side around the beginning of the twentieth century. All the Jewish holidays figure prominently in the books, but Pesach plays an especially important role in the first one. In it, all five children are stricken with scarlet fever except second-oldest Henny. The family tomboy, Henny must ask the questions traditionally posed by the youngest child at a Seder while her quarantined sisters listen from their bedroom piteously. Like the rest of the book, this chapter is plaintive, sweet, and funny, and it breathes life into a timeless tradition like few YA (or adult) books ever have. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy