Kissing at the New York Public Library

Tim and I went to the New York Public Library a couple weeks ago and saw the exhibit about its legendary Picture Collection.  It’s been the source of inspiration for myriad artists and writers over the past century — everyone from Andy Warhol to Diego Rivera sourced images through the library’s collection.

We pulled out a portfolio labeled “Kissing” — here, in honor of Valentine’s Day, are five of my favorites.


NYPL Kissing 5

New York Reading

I spent a month living in New York this year, house-sitting for a friend in Brooklyn.  There’s something exceptionally nice about borrowing a friend and fellow-writer’s entire book collection.  I read my way through a lot of Meghan’s books during my ad-hoc New York residency: in addition to having Brooklyn’s handsomest and most hilarious kitten, Meghan has a fantastic book selection.

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So, for my second installment on reading in 2015, here is the best of what I read in New York this year:

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is rich with insight, an ambling and sharp examination of language and culture and the construction of self.  The novel follows Adam, an American poet living in Madrid on a writing fellowship, as he navigates the dislocations of living in another language.  This concise novel roams through Adam’s experience abroad, following him to parties and museums and Retiro Park hashish dealers, and through two romantic relationships.  It is obliquely comedic and at once densely intellectual and compelling.  For me, Leaving the Atocha Station reaches its height in its exploration of language.  Adam often self-consciously exploits the gaps in his Spanish fluency to create a particular projection of self.  Wandering with his Spanish girlfriend through a museum, for example, he trails off at the end of sentences as though his ideas exceed his Spanish vocabulary — so as to suggest that he has depth and insight that only his linguistic limits veil.  For Adam, comprehension and incomprehension become tools that allow him to mediate himself and craft a self-translation.

The novel sounds dense and esoteric, but it is vivid and comedic and brief.  A surprisingly engaging read that had me pausing to marvel over sentences of startling and recognizable insight.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things

I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s essays when I was in graduate school, and at various times read her Dear Sugar column.  But it was newly impactful to read the columns collected into a book.  Strayed is candid in a way that defies the advice column genre and insightful in a way that transcends the ways we normally talk about life with its myriad hardships and windows for growth.  She writes openly about her own family, her life as a writer, her second marriage, her divorce.  Tiny Beautiful Things becomes a second memoir, except in a radical new form.  A memoir that is relational and interactive and directed outward.  Strayed uses her columns to provoke and console and stand with her letter-writers in the precarious, disquieting spaces of life.  Strayed offers a distinct perspective, delivered in a frank and uniquely intimate way.

 

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You tells the story of a family in the 1970s after the drowning death of its teenage daughter.  But Lydia Lee’s inexplicable death is inextricably linked to the family’s larger story: its history, its myriad secrets and private disappointments.  Weaving through time, Ng explores the experiences of Lydia’s parents, Marilyn Lee, who had aspired to be a doctor before conceiving her children, and James Lee, a professor of Chinese-American heritage.  The Lees live in the intersections of personal experience, racial prejudice, and gender expectations — and each of these plays out to devastating consequence in the life of their daughter.

Reading Ng’s novel is pure pleasure.  Engaging and suspenseful, I read it in the course of one day during my New York residency, carrying it around with me through the Botanical Garden and finishing it in Prospect Park just as the sun set.

But it’s one of those books that sticks in your bones, manifesting slowly in the months afterward.  And in part that is because I realize how alive anti-Chinese-American prejudice can be — how actively it is at play in our contemporary institutions and culture.  And partly this novel stays with you because of Ng’s capacious emotional depth and generosity.  Her characters, in all their tragic flaws and shortcomings, cannot escape grief, but they are never beyond grace and redemption.

 

Never Let Me Go

I don’t want to say too much about Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative novel Never Let Me Go because part of the delight and reward of reading it is discovering as you read what you’re reading about.  But I will say this: Ishiguro draws you into an enveloping world through the eyes of his narrator, who goes back over her childhood memories of being away at school — memories that feel at once strange and lullingly familiar.  Ishiguro’s narrator is searching and observant, noting with great insight the dynamics at play among friends as they grow older, and noting with remembered puzzlement the dislocations that comprise her life’s central mystery and meaning.  Ishiguro is master of the details — a cassette tape found in a seaside secondhand shop, for instance — that shade a life, and ultimately of the subtleties that make us human.

 

 

* The first installment of the best books I read this year is here.  And see more of my New York residency here, including New York writing, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the new Whitney.

Resolutions and Rivulets

Two years ago, at a New Year’s Day brunch in New York City, my partner Tim and I made a resolution:

Write a book.  Record an album.  Enjoy.

(Somewhere, there is a video of us resolving this.)

These weren’t resolutions we expected to accomplish in one year, but resolutions for our largest and most important goals as artists.  And for two years, they’ve been the guiding forces of our lives.

On New Year’s Day this year, we whiled away the entire day in Cambridge — first at Starbucks, perched above Harvard Square, then for several blissful book-browsy hours, at the Harvard Coop.  As I have done most days this year, I worked on my book.  And sitting looking out over the Square, I thought about those resolutions we made.

Tim’s album Rivulets was released today.  Five years in the making, Rivulets is his best work yet.  Dynamic new jazz compositions, filled with a sense of expansion and play.  Check it out:

Announcing Rivulets!

Rivulets is a dynamic album of new compositions from jazz pianist and composer Tim Peck. In support of this release, Tim Peck Trio will take Rivulets on tour in March, with anticipated tour stops in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Nashville, and other cities. Visit www.tpeck.com to learn more.

Building on the strengths of the trio’s 2007 release, Ms. Matched, Rivulets explores intersections between composed and improvised music in the trio format. By combining influences from modern jazz, contemporary classical, and international music genres, Rivulets creates a series of dynamic new vehicles for improvisation.

The members of Tim Peck Trio are in-demand musicians in the greater Boston jazz scene, and have performed with such musical luminaries as George Garzone, Bob Gullotti, Charlie Kohlhase, and Ben Schwendener. The trio has developed an engaging group sound, and Rivulets showcases its lyricism and conversational interplay.

Tim Peck Trio is Tim Peck, piano; Sean Farias, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums.

 purchase Rivulets on 
iTunes • Spotify • CD Baby • Bandcamp

Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Twice now, I have gone to the Brooklyn Museum to see Zanele Muholi’s portrait, video, and installation exhibit, Isibonelo/Evidence.  Muholi’s portraits of South African lesbians occupy one long wall of the gallery.   In the photographs, the women look straight at the camera with the full force of their individual strength and identities.  As portraits unto themselves, the work is captivating.  The photographs are displayed close together and en mass, stretching across three long, tight rows that extend almost the full length of the gallery.  They are sharp and arresting: compelling as portraiture even without their context.

But Muholi’s work derives further impact from its context, and the exhibit is as much installation as portrait gallery.  Isibonelo/Evidence evolved as a form of response to the dire and mounting instances of rape, murder and violence against lesbian women in South Africa.   Flanking the portrait wall in the Brooklyn Museum are two chalkboard panels: one with the daunting facts of violence laid out in the disturbing, orderly neatness of a timeline.  In it, Muholi records incidents of violence against South African lesbians.

On the opposite panel, handwritten messages chronicle women’s experiences of rape, beatings, and murder, the threats they face and fear they live with.  They talk about the practice of ‘corrective rape’ – based on the horrifying notion that through rape men can ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual identity.  It’s a devastating thought, the very mention of which feels like a physical gut-punch.

In response to this violence that surrounds them, the portraits become actualized: they are in themselves radical acts of self-definition and defiance.  The women Muholi photographs look right at us. It is a challenge for action and compassion.  And it is undoubtedly also an act of courage.  By sitting for their portraits, the women have revealed their lesbian identity to an audience that may include the very men who perpetrate this astounding violence.

Muholi’s portrait project is art and it is beyond art.  It is action.  It is advocacy and protest and self-identification in its profoundest sense.

The Brooklyn Museum has a particular commitment to exhibiting art that engages with contemporary injustice.  And leaving Muholi’s exhibit, I thought about how the experience of seeing her work, and Kehinde Wiley‘s before it, feels qualitatively different from the experience of reading a newspaper, which often leaves me with a feeling of hands-thrown-up hopelessness.  Here though, I felt humbled and dazed and spent and also engaged.  I didn’t feel the hopeless resignation sparked by even some of the best journalism.  Instead I felt a heightened sense of empathy and activism in the face of pain.

There are still two more weeks to see Isibonelo/Evidence, and I highly recommend it.  The exhibit will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through November 8.

Whitney

I stopped to check out the new Whitney during my New York residency.  The museum’s architecture is stunning, designed to interact with the outside space in thoughtful and provacative ways.  Walking from floor to floor through utilitarian stairways, one is confronted with panoramic, wall-sized glimpses of New York, windows that take you to disparate views of the Hudson River, the city skyline, and the Department of Sanitation.  On the top several floors, doors lead off from the galleries to interconnected outdoor spaces that function as hybrid sculpture gardens and observation decks.  There the full circumference of the Manhattan cityscape is on view right alongside thoughtful selections of contemporary art that range from your typical sculpture garden selections to video projections and Mary Heilmann’s brightly painted Sunset chairs that invite you to engage with both the art and the space around it.

And because that cityscape is being viewed from the Whitney’s new downtown location, it includes not just the iconic outlines of landmark skyscrapers (which it does, breathtakingly), but also the jumble of smaller buildings — row houses and factories and brick and concrete and glass-fronted apartment buildings that have accumulated their New York identity on top of each other over the course of these layered centuries.  The engagement with outdoor space is not just a smart move for this ideally located new space, with its prime views and Highline connection.  It’s also deeply connected to the museum’s work, so that the views don’t just feel fancy but resonant.

The Whitney’s identity is uniquely linked to its stumbling, hodgepodge collection of modern American art, which started with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s acquisitions and grew into an examination of an American artistic identity that is as layered and disparate and cumulative as the New York skyline outside it.

And because this new location’s inaugural exhibit, America is Hard to See (which is as much a mission statement as showcase) reflects on themes of American landscape, these exterior views particularly resonate.  Stepping from the eighth floor’s 1930s depictions of gritty and grand skylines, the views out the stairwell windows feel like an extension of the work itself, an echoing across time and space, a moving between representation and living reality, a reaching forward from the past and out into our own lives.  Art won’t stay still in this new Whitney.  It’s dynamic, weaving in and out of galleries and the day-to-day of the contemporary city.  We cannot engage with it just in the circumscribed confine of the history of art; we take it with us, we carry it outside.

This fluidity is echoed in the exterior staircases which let you move from floor to floor, gallery to gallery, between movement and epoch, from the outside as well as through the interior elevators and staircase.

Architect Renzo Piano even created ways for light to infiltrate the space.  The top floor is lit in part through a ceiling-wide slant of sunlight.

And on the fifth floor, at the end of the gallery, a long couch-lined galley faces a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.  It is a peaceful spot, filled with people and soft murmurs.  Beyond: the sweep of river, the silent progress of water taxis and ships, the distant uplift of the Statue of Liberty.  This is a museum that asks us to take our impressions and reflections and look out.



Whitney

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

        

I first came to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the day after I arrived in New York, on a drizzly Saturday morning.  The garden was full of wisteria and rows of lush blossoming lilacs and the tail ends of cherry trees and tulips.  When I went back again this Tuesday, it as all bluebells and peonies and huge shocks of azaleas.  Rhododendrons that had just budded on my first visit erupted a week and a half later.

It’s like visiting a museum where the exhibit is constantly changing.

Newspaper

The other day I took a writing break and walked to a nearby cafe, where someone had happily left behind two sections of newspaper.  I do the overwhelming majority of my newspaper reading online — which is just fine.  I can barely keep up with the New Yorkers that invariably accumulate; nevermind stacks of newsprint.

And yet.

It is so nice once in a while to read a real, actual newspaper.

I read Jim Yardley’s article on southern Italian Olive Trees, which was by turns sad and lyrical.  He begins: “Across the stony heel of Italy, a peninsula ringed by the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, olive trees have existed for centuries, shaping the landscape and producing some of the nation’s finest olive oils.”

And continues: “The spittlebugs will start flying this month and have served as a primary vector of the outbreak, chewing on the leaves of infected trees and then carrying the bacterium to other, healthy trees, like an unseen wildfire.”

I want to admire Yardley’s evocation here: stony heel; the fortuitous word spittlebug, the language of which is so apt for the threading disease these insects will spread.

And the profoundly human dread that Yardley finds among the olive growers:

“‘We are scared to go to work in the fields in the mornings,’ said Pantaleo Piccinno, a major olive producer…  ‘You leave in the afternoon, and everything looks normal.  Then you return in the morning, and you see the first symptoms,’ he continued.”

Ah, how true is this impulse, this hands-over-eyes avoidance I know so well.

This is one of those articles where the beauty of the writing underlines the human and environmental heartbreak it depicts.  How interconnected a world we are, how laced with loss.