Beginning on Sept. 18, New York City will be seeing all new “Walks of Life.” Madison Square Park, formed by the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway at 23rd Street, provides a comforting patch of green in the midst of the bustling Flatiron district on which Mad. Sq. Art, the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s free contemporary art program has displayed thirty installations by various contemporary artists over the past 10 years.
This fall, the lively 6.2-acre plot is home to British sculptor Tony Cragg’s “Walks of Life,” three monumental bronze sculptures scattered across the park’s three lawns. Cragg, a self-described “absolute materialist,” is fascinated by an artist’s ability to challenge materials and push them beyond their conventional uses. Most of his works distort and bend heavy bronze to form dynamic, winding sculptures.
“Caldera,” the widest of the three installations, finds its home in the Western gravel section of the park. The sculpture’s name likens it to both the natural, as the term is used to describe the cauldron-like depression formed by the collapse of land after volcanic eruption, and the domestic, as caldera is the Spanish word for a cooking pot. By its volcanic definition, a caldera oscillates between demolition and attraction. A destructive explosion creates a beautiful formation that draws admiration and even provides artistic inspiration. By titling his sculpture “Caldera,” Cragg comments on the power of transformation in nature and art, including his own, which aims at transforming bulky bronze material into sculptural formations that are both malleable and graceful. From ugliness or crass material emerges pulchritude, Cragg’s “Caldera” claims.
The sculpture’s deep bronze coloring and rippled texture reflect the heat associated with the title’s volcanic and kitchenware etymologies. “Caldera” is also an impressive betrayal of its bronze material as its three elements balance on small points, the heaviest parts of the sculpture resting on top.
If “Caldera”’s three sculptural components appear on the verge of merging, “Mixed Feelings,” located on the northern lawn, looks like the product of a recent tumultuous fusion. This second work, bearing a blue color resulting from oxidization, undulates and spirals upwards, resembling both a precarious rock formation and a mechanical byproduct.
In “Mixed Feelings,” Cragg has provided the greatest conquering of his bronze material: Upon closer examination, the sculpture looks almost immaterial, a tornado-like gust of wind climbing eternally upwards towards the sky beyond what the sculpture itself presents. The work’s title injects this windy dynamism with emotional significance — viewers bare witness to a sculptural incarnation of a whirlwind of emotion.
The final three sculptures, collectively titled “Points of View,” are located on the Park’s Oval Lawn. The towers twist and turn their way upwards, both futuristic and organic.
Another version of “Points of View” is currently on display at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg, Austria through Sept. 29. Our visual understanding of the three towers, far more than the other two sculptural installations of “Walks of Life,” is deeply shaped by their geographic setting. At the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, the “Points of View” statue blends into the pastoral backdrop of green trees and tall mountains, making them seem like natural formations. Darkened to a deep brown, they almost entirely lose their industrial twist. By contrast, in their Flatiron district context, their mechanized material overtakes their earthiness. They look like distortions of the skyscrapers of New York that have, on 23rd Street, replaced the mountains of Salzburg.
“Caldera,” “Mixed Feelings,” and “Points of View” stand as individual works of art, but also engage in a greater conversation regarding the artist’s ability to conquer his materials and the multiplicity of meanings that viewers can subsequently assign. Cragg’s sculptures celebrate not only the walks of life he has generated, but also those that walk between them, each adding their own perspective and value to his sculptures.
For so many Yalies — myself included — the summer is a time to catch up on that elusive dream of semesters past: reading for pleasure. This summer in book world was marred by the increasingly bitter and intractable feud between Amazon and the French publisher Hachette (over something to do with e-books), spurious charges of plagiarism levied against a respected historian (see below) and charges of manipulating a 100-year-old woman levied against a spurious journalist (also see below). Nonetheless, the summer saw some very good reads!
So, obviously, I figured there was no better time to discuss this summer’s best reads than after the summer, just as a new, time-devouring semester is about to begin. Most of these I have read; some I have yet to read. They are listed in alphabetical order. Enjoy!
1. “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr: “All the Light” tells the dual tale of Marie-Laure, a blind, brilliant Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan with hair so blonde the Nazis call it “snow.” Across pages and pages of beautiful, lyrical prose, we see Marie-Laure and Werner attempt to live through World War II — she from the exploding French countryside, and he from the unforgiving barracks of an elite Nazi military camp. For years, the two protagonists’ paths seem as if they will never cross, but, of course, they do — in an ending as cathartic as it is tragic.
2. “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” by Rick Perlstein: This long-awaited third volume in Perlstein’s epic story of the rise of American conservatism does not disappoint. Though it is an unwieldy 880 pages and almost mind-blowingly comprehensive, critics have described it as “engrossing” and “ultimately irresistible” — perhaps much like Reagan himself. “The Invisible Bridge” doubles as a political biograph, that of a nation in malaise, and an actual biography, that of the strange B-list movie actor who rose unstoppably to national prominence. Though its release was marred by charges of plagiarism, it appears that these do not hold muster. Indeed, I hope it is not a stretch to assert that they illustrate that this history, only a few decades old, remains as hot and controversial as ever.
3. “The Last Magazine: A Novel,” by Michael Hastings: This is the last work by the late, great Michael Hastings, a journalist so dynamic that you’ve probably seen his work, even if you’ve never read his stuff. (Hastings, who passed away last year in moderately suspicious circumstances, wrote the profile that took down Stanley McChrystal and penned several important pieces on the war in Iraq.) “The Last Magazine” is the semi-autobiographical story of a young journalist named Michael M. Hastings, an intern at The Magazine, who is ultimately alienated from nearly everyone he knows — his bosses included — because of his drive to cover the war in Iraq. (Sound familiar?) “The Last Magazine” is a story of the rise of a journalist and of the fall, some might say, of journalism itself.
4. “The Magician’s Land,” by Lev Grossman: The brilliant finale to Grossman’s “Magicians” trilogy, “The Magician’s Land” is magically delicious. Grossman, a former Yale doctoral candidate and a book critic for TIME Magazine, set out to write a sort of Harry Potter-Narnia crossbreed for adults. It has become so much more. The “Magicians” trilogy tells the unforgettable tale of Quentin Coldwater, a boy who dreamed of going to Princeton but found his way to Brakebills (think Hogwarts) instead. This third installment has Quentin returning to Brakebills to teach — but, of course, he can’t stay there for long. Adventures beckon, and it is up to Quentin to save one of magic’s greatest secrets. It sounds dumb, but I promise it’s not.
5. “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” by Marja Mills: Ooh, this book is controversial. It is a sort of biography of Harper Lee, the author of the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a notorious recluse. Mills, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, traveled to Lee’s rural hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in an attempt to profile the author. Mills ended up moving in next door to Lee and Lee’s much older sister, Alice, whom she befriended. It was this friendship — as well as a release signed by the then-100-year-old Alice, that allowed Mills to write this entertaining, if relatively unsubstantial, biography. After its publication, Lee penned a bitter denunciation, claiming she had never, ever cooperated with Mills and that Mills had exploited her sister. Nevertheless, “The Mockingbird Next Door” received mildly positive reviews and sold well — all the better, probably, because of the controversy. Is it a touching, clever profile or a heartless hack job? You decide!
6. “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” by B.J. Novak: From one of the writers of “The Office” comes this surprisingly literary collection of short stories. As with most short story collections, “One More Thing” is difficult to describe except in the broadest terms possible: It is funny, warm, endearing and nearly un-put-downable.
7. “The Silkworm,” by Robert Galbraith: Let’s start with the awesome: Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Yeah. Moving on to the book itself, we can remain within the realm of the awesome. “The Silkworm,” Galbraith’s second mystery starring the crotchety, tough, lovable Cormoran Strike, is as much a critique of the publishing industry Rowling knows so well as it is a breathless tale of murder and revenge.
8. “Stokely: A Life,” by Peniel Joseph: This long-awaited biography by an eminent civil rights historian finally does Stokely Carmichael justice. Carmichael, a Zelig-like figure of the Civil Rights movement, went to school in the Harlem of the 1940s and the Howard of the 1950s, took part in sit-ins and marches with Martin Luther King Jr., founded the original Black Panther Party and became the iconic forefather of the Black Power movement — all before he was 27. Then, at 27, he left for Africa and adopted the name Kwame Ture, preaching an anti-imperial, largely anti-capitalist pan-African gospel until his death in 1998. “Stokely” is a vibrant story, not just of this extraordinary figure, but also of the movement he helped to create.
9. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin: This book is at once heartbreakingly sad and airily light, literary and ephemeral. It is undeniably sentimental, but it also kills off important characters with a sort of blasé shrug. “The Storied Life” tells the tale of a prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller whose life changes irreversibly when someone abandons a baby in his store.
10. “War of the Whales,” by Joshua Horwitz: This last book is a triumph of narrative journalism, the ultimate David versus Goliath story, in which several likeable Davids fight a massive Goliath on behalf of other, massive Goliaths. After a U.S. Navy submarine detection system blasts the ocean with sound waves, whales start beaching left and right. A distraught lawyer and disgusted marine biologist must team up to take on the might of the U.S. government in this epic legal and scientific thriller.
“I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise nearly 100 years ago, “and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.” A lot has changed since then — Yale began admitting women, Commons stopped serving hot breakfast — but the popular conception of Yale has remained the same (think pretentious jocks who wear navy and say, “Bulldogs, bulldogs! Rah rah rah!”). Yale-related television subplots are filled with the airs of silver spoon-having stars. Nowadays, real-world applicants to Yale have about a 6% chance of getting in. But the acceptance rate for the one nerd in every high school drama seems to hover around 100% (See: “Boy Meets World,” “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” “Beverley Hills 90210,” etc.). But not all fictional Yales are created equal. Below, a comprehensive investigation of some of television’s most memorable Bright College Years, from most to least realistic:
Next time you’re in Commons for lunch, take a moment to look around the room. At least 40% of the people you see decided to come to Yale because of Rory Gilmore. Rory, with her gift of the gab and high SAT scores, has all the attributes of the model Yalie. She’s brunette. She’s from Connecticut. She wears cute sweaters in autumn. Though the show was shot in California, the sets are near-perfect replicas of New Haven. There’s something eerie about sitting in a Durfee Hall suite and watching Rory move into a room with the exact same layout and blue curtains. Sure, she takes an uber-dramatic leave of absence in season 5, but when she makes her triumphant return to New Haven and becomes co-editor of the YDN, it’s clear that Rory is embracing the Lux et Veritas way. Hundreds of undergrads agree: This is Rory’s Yale. We’re all just living in it.
Related quote: “You’re in Yale, not Amsterdam. How you conduct yourself socially is as important as how you conduct yourself academically.”
Realism rating: 8
Depictions of Yale on “The Simpsons” are frequent and typically unflattering (what else would you expect from a show written by Harvard grads?). Most often, the show’s anti-Bulldog sentiment comes from its portrayal of Mr. Burns, Homer’s affected, slithery boss, as the consummate Yale man. He’s old (decrepit, really), and obsessed with wealth and status. He donates an international airport to the school to get the admissions office to overlook the fact that his applicant son “spelled Yale with a 6.” In a time-traveling episode, Future Lisa is about to attend Yale thanks to a scholarship from Mr. Burns. Bart steals the scholarship in order to impress a girl, resulting in anger from Lisa and plenty of jokes at Yale’s expense. Good central conflict, perhaps, though in real life it would have resulted in more long phone calls to Student Financial Services.
Related quote: “Even though McDonald’s owns Yale now, it’s still a great school.”
Realism rating: 5
For Blair Waldorf, the backstabbing, headband-wearing queen of the Upper East Side, Yale is the ultimate status symbol. In one memorable episode, the whole gang of high school seniors journeys to New Haven, and stereotypical Ivy League shenanigans ensue. The resulting hour of drama is stuffed with the show’s same-old absurdity, this time done up in Yale Blue. While making an official campus visit, Blair has an inexplicably critical meeting with the dean of admissions, a Yale gentleman (in the Fitzgerald sense) named Dean Baraby. In the same episode, a prospective student is kidnapped by members of Skull and Bones. No one on the tour asks whether Yale will accept their 5 on AP Physics. Viewers don’t even have the satisfaction of recognizing the sight of the sun glinting off Harkness Tower or sweaty freshmen returning from Toad’s — the whole thing was filmed at Columbia. To be fair, nothing on “Gossip Girl” was ever all that realistic. But an admissions visit without the overbearing parents? Please.
This week, I finally got around to watching the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film depicts a week in the life of titular character Llewyn Davis, a hard up singer-songwriter in New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Davis is struggling: His musical partner, Mike (voiced by Marcus Mumford), recently committed suicide; he has had little success with his solo album “Inside Llewyn Davis;” and he keeps off the streets only by couch-hopping at the homes of friends and acquaintances.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, has had critics raving since its screening at Cannes Film Festival last year, where it received the Grand Prix. Many lauded it as the best Coen Brothers’ film yet, perhaps even the best movie of the year. However, the wider response to the film has been mixed, with some calling it out for its unlikable hero and absence of a coherent plot. Nonetheless, the appeal of a film focusing on folk music and its renaissance was too great for me to resist, and so this past Saturday night I dragged a friend along with me to Bow Tie Cinemas to watch it.
I walked out of the theater with an overwhelming sense of frustration. Having purchased the soundtrack the week of its release, I had fallen in love with each and every one of the songs. From the shiver-inducing duet “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” featuring Marcus Mumford to Oscar Isaac’s melancholy rendition of “The Death Of Queen Jane,” each song beautifully evokes the soulful origins of the Brooklyn folk scene. Yet I felt let down. It wasn’t just Davis’ prickly nature that put me off; his inaction and easy acceptance of defeat made me furious. No! Go do it! Agh! I wanted to shout at the screen.
It took me a while to comprehend my frustration with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Beyond being bothered by Davis’ bad choices or the fact that he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts, I saw aspects of Davis’ inertia in myself. That split-second moment when you have to decide whether to make the harder, greater choice that might change your life, or not to. Because that’s what it is — a choice. Of course, there are obstacles and limitations that can get in the way, and Davis’ bohemian poverty is no exception to this. But over and over again we see him choose not to act: the chance to follow the sign to Akron; the occasion to make things right with Jean; even the opportunity to save the stray marmalade cat — all lost.
And we do it, too.
With this new insight, it dawned on me: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is pure brilliance. The film itself is composed like a folk song: We are presented with an incident, completely out of context and with no such explanation to help us — here, a violent encounter with a shadowy figure in a dark alley. We then embark on a journey with the singer, a tale of woe and mishaps and wrong turns, seemingly unrelated to this first-told scene. Though we do not always agree with what our singer-storyteller chooses to do — in fact, at times we may downright dislike him — we share his emotions down to our very cores: His setback is our disappointment; his pain is our anguish. It is only at the end that the first incident is explained, and we finally understand the path to where we are now.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a triumph. It is not a film with clutch-the-edge-of-your-seat action, nor is it your typical tale of overcoming hardship in the face of great adversity. It’s much more visceral than that. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the 1961 New York of the Coen Brothers, a blue-grey world of cigarette smoke and overcast skies, and you feel every sung performance (which are, in fact, played live) as if you’re sitting right there in the Gaslight Club. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the kind of film that grabs onto your gut and refuses to let go long after you have left the cinema. Llewyn Davis is not a Ulysses reunited with his beloved Ithaca. But as the final scenes draw to a close with the heart-wrenching solo rendition of “If We Had Wings” and the final frame of a poster for “The Long Journey,” we see that perhaps our lost hero is not so far from home.
I’m hopelessly in love with a guy in my English seminar from last semester. We’re friendly, but it is clear I need to make the first move to make things happen. I want to text him, but I’m scared. What should I do?
Sincerely, Desperate Danny
* * *
Wow, what a great question. I would love to send you a list of all the successful texts that I have sent, but my phone went on a trip through a washing machine last June and I lost all of my text history. And anyway, who am I kidding? Even if I had all my texts back from my seventh grade flip phone days, I would not have an example of a successful initial text.
We’ve all been there, though. Especially at the start of a new semester. You saw that beautiful guy/girl/whatever every week during seminar last semester, and your banter was promising. But now, you worry if you don’t take matters into your own hands, you’ll never see them again, ever. So you want to text them — the question is: How?
Well, as I’ve admitted, I honestly have no idea. One of my friends just sent me a link to “100 Ways to Flirt With Guys,” and though I think the advice is intended to be a joke, I am so oblivious that I would probably actually do some of these things. (Number 71 on this list reads: “It’s easy to flirt if you’re famous. Become famous.”)
So, I’ll make a deal with you. I’m going to follow my own advice as soon as I write it. At the end of writing this column, I will text someone that I’m interested in.
I’ve done some recon for us, and I’ve come up with an adaptable game plan. I’ve talked to some of my friends and two baristas at Blue State. A lot of them have been in more relationships than I have. Here’s what they said.
I asked one girl, who is in a pretty new relationship, about the first text she received from her boyfriend. She said he started by saying it was great to run into her. But then he cut right to the chase: “Are you free on Saturday night? If so, would you want to get dinner with me? It would have to be a bit late, but I think it could be fun!”
This was aggressive. He was direct and clear about his intentions from the start, and now they’ve been dating for a few months. I guess they’re not into playing games. She gave him a dictionary for his birthday, and things seem to be going great for them.
In a poll I conducted of the two baristas in Blue State on Wall late Tuesday night, the results supported the importance of making your intentions clear when asking someone out. They said that you should be “practical” and “direct.” One barista said you should invite them to do something you know you’re both interested in. The other said just ask them out for drinks or dinner.
But the thing is, I’m not willing to be so bold (and I bet you’re not, either). I get nervous, start to shake and blush a lot, even if the guy I’m texting is on the other side of campus. One of my friends always wants to touch my cheeks when I get flustered like this. “No, you cannot touch them.” If I’m about to initiate anything, I need a low-risk option.
Another way to get things going with someone is by initiating flirtation, which puts the ball in their court. Think of something small and funny that reminds you of them. Make sure to choose something that can segue into a longer conversation — you don’t want to just get an “LOL.” If things go well, maybe they’ll get the message, and ask you out, though this might take a few days or weeks.
Alternatively, you could just say, “Hey,” and see where it goes. But be careful of sending a completely ambiguous “let’s hang out” text, because then your intentions are not clear.
Also, be sure to choose your platform carefully. Consider the differences between Facebook chat and text. On Facebook, you can see if they’ve read it. On both, you’ll see a chat bubble if they’re struggling to respond. If one of you doesn’t have an iPhone, that’s kind of quaint, but you won’t know if your message has been delivered, or if they’re typing a response. I’ll be going with a text, because I’m currently off Facebook (see my past column, “A Different Kind of Face Time”).
Oh, and always have a friend (or three) read over your message first. Typos are embarrassing. Weird autocorrects are worse.
Finally, once you’ve crafted the perfect text, just man up. Press send. It will probably be worth it.
My column, of which this is the last edition, has gone through a few titles, usually because someone in copy doesn’t like the one that I choose. My title of choice has been “Tune-Up,” because it has to do with music and it doesn’t seem to mean anything substantive. But when I tune my guitar, I always find myself tightening the strings too much and then loosening them too much, never quite finding the perfect middle ground. A tune-up is an exercise in approximation, in exploring the locus of points around the one that you know you can’t hit. And so it is with writing about music.
If you’re one of the approximately three people (myself included) who reads my column, you might have noticed that, even though this is ostensibly a “music” column, I only rarely write about music. I write around it. I talk about loving CDs, and being a jerk at concerts, and my irrational distaste for old rock stars, and zombies. I’m not trying to use clumsy words to represent sublime sounds, nor am I trying to explain to someone why they should absolutely and unequivocally love “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (although everyone should). When I have strayed into writing about notes and rhythms, the results have been mixed.
Because writing about music itself is hard as hell. Maybe this is an excuse, maybe an explanation. Subjective evaluation is hard in any case, especially when the thing you’re evaluating appeals to you not on an intellectual level — not necessarily as “fine” or even interpretable art — but on some primal and omnipresent frequency. Writing about music is like writing about air. Writing about music is like describing a color. Even writing about writing about music leads to abstract nouns and grandiose metaphors, as evidenced by the preceding sentence. Album reviews, as much fun as they might be, are endeavors in some way doomed to fail. Not only do you eventually have to simply say, “It’s good” or “It’s bad,” but the musical qualities you must consider are as elusive and shapeless as your conclusions themselves.
Weirdly enough, that’s why I like writing about music (or writing around it, with occasional tangential contact). I like writing about music because I like talking about music, and I like talking about music because of that inexplicable understanding that passes between people as they both scramble to put into words the reasons why Pavement is just so fucking … yeah. With that mutual and wordless agreement established, a grin passes between them like a joint, and they go listen to some Pavement, and it’s … yeah. And then I try to write a column about why Pavement is awesome, and unless you’ve listened to Pavement and you know why it’s awesome, you’re going to have no idea what I’m talking about.
This column is not a conversation. It couldn’t be, even if I wished it were. Not only is it one-sided, but I don’t even know who would be on the other side if there were one. All of Yale might read my column (stop laughing). None of Yale might read my column. Or — most likely — my audience might be me, Akbar and that girl in section who always agrees with my comments (thanks). But for whoever’s on the other end, even if we can’t talk about what makes Pavement so … yeah, hopefully I can make you say, “Huh. I never thought about it/listened to it that way before.” And little would make me happier than to be able to do that.
I’m equally happy to have someone say, “I already thought about that, but I like the way you said it.” This result, I think, would be closer to my hypothetical conversation about Pavement — superficially pointless, but satisfying anyway.
At the end of the day, though, I know I’m not going to convince you to love something you didn’t. I’m not going to change the way a given song resonates in your brain, whether or not its waves and yours have the same tempo. That’s the whole point of music: If loving it could be reduced to a column-length argument, it would be boring. But I will close with a list of things I think about music. Which, I guess, is kind of what I’ve been doing this whole time.
So: Originality is good, but weirdness for its own sake is not; if you could die on stage without that stopping the music, then it doesn’t count as a live performance; guitar is the best instrument, preferably with a little bit of fuzz; music is (usually) more important than lyrics; OK Computer is better than Kid A; lyrics shouldn’t make perfect sense; modern band names suck; rock and roll ain’t gonna die.