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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Freak City

August 26, 2014 | by


Film still from Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando.

Would it be frivolous to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Emmys? I can’t be the only one who slept poorly and, when she did drop off, slid into nightmare. One assumes productivity suffered. Wages and jobs may even have been lost.

It’s not just the contrast to the state of the world and the country that rankles. This is the nature of the beast. Opening monologues based on racial tensions and international crises have never been calculated to keep network viewers glued to the screen. It's not merely the crumminess of the writing, which was stale and dull, full of hoary, tone-deaf jokes and bits that would have felt démodé on The Benny Hill Show. Or even the monotony of the awards themselves, which overwhelmingly favored a couple of programs; a rout is never very entertaining.

People looked creepy. I know we all realize this, but it bears repeating. We are as physically grotesque right now as at any time and place in human history. The face-lifts, the fillers, the wasted, sinewy limbs are now the rule, not the exception. We all know why; the fetishization of youth—and its spiritual implications—are recognized by everyone. And yet, our cultural tolerance for true unnaturalness is unbelievably high. This is horrifying, but it is also fascinating. And this has got to be a unique moment: within five years, plastic surgery techniques will have evolved. Makeup artists and chemists will have better adapted to the harshness of HD. In a decade, we’ll look back with shock at what we accepted as normal and desirable. Never before, and never again, will things be as bad. Relish it. Read More »

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A Week in Beirut

September 19, 2012 | by


I wake up early to make ice cream for an old friend who is visiting from Riyadh. I blow a fuse in the power converter getting the machine to turn fast enough, but I have a spare fuse and all is well. The visiting friend, Matt, flies in on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is now a member of SkyTeam, so you can use your miles on Delta or Air France. That night, Matt, my wife, and I stay up late drinking beer and wine and telling stories about the life we shared in Riyadh, where my daughter was born and where Matt still spends weekends DJing parties.


Matt and I follow the old coast road up to Byblos, where the ticket taker laughs when I say we met in Riyadh. He asks, “You are an American?” When I confirm, he says, “Ahlen Wa Sahlen,” which means “welcome.” Under a blazing September sun, Matt and I climb ten-thousand-year-old stairs, noting how few guardrails or official paths there are. Then I find a pomegranate tree growing from rocky soil, and we pause to admire the strange fruit hanging from gnarled branches. Hungry, we take a car to a fish restaurant that’s been open forty years. Lunch is grilled sea bass, which we eat on a table in the water, so that waves wash up our legs and sometimes splash on the fish, giving it a little more salt. Before we can leave, our waiter insists on my taking a shot. I ask for something brown, and he takes down a bottle of coffee-flavored Patrón.


I make sure Matt sees this killer little cassette shop, Deep Music, which is just down the block from my apartment. Then we have a final lunch at a nearby restaurant, where they bake their own bread and many, if not all, of the salad greens are local and organic. We each drink a spicy pale ale, brewed by a guy I see around town, and then we share a bowl of merguez sausages drowning in sour syrup, and a seafood frikeh made with an intensely, earth-green grain.

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A Week in Culture: Nico Muhly, Composer, Part 2

February 17, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Muhly’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Samantha West.


10:15 A.M. While I slept, iTunes seems to have downloaded the complete collected works of MNDR. I must have gone on a pre-ordering binge, because it also is trying to download the film of Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to “I go away,” from the MNDR track. I like electronic-based slowish tracks; I loved that Capslock track off the MIA album whose title I dare not reproduce here. I wish there were a more poetic way to describe the rhythmic passage of time than “tick tock.” I’m looking at this queue: yet more SVU and the new Top Chef are coming! I fly tonight back to New York so maybe I can sneak one of these in on the plane.

3:00 P.M. Good God! The BBC has a story about the “history” of chai in India. The segment begins with a twelve-second history of tea that elides over the idea of Empire so quickly it feels like a blow to the solar plexus. I reach a Kiplingesque encounter with a terra-cotta cup maker in Kolkata just as we reach the rental car return, so I don’t have a moment to jot down who was responsible for this. They should write opera libretti! I do wonder who is responsible for radio’s “generic ethnic background noise.” I’m convinced that if you slow down the audio and remove the host’s voice, you’ll hear the same group of five people chattering—be it a story about Inuit fishing quotas or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

9:00 P.M. A calm post-flight evening of take-out and listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I am preparing for Saturday night, which is when I will be seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s Nixon in China with a bunch of friends. I have the score perched next to my computer. I watch the first twelve minutes of an episode of Top Chef with Isaac Mizrahi saying outrageous things to the cheftestants and pass out.

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A Week in Culture: Nico Muhly, Composer

February 16, 2011 | by

Photograph by Samantha West.


10:45 A.M. Reykjavík, Iceland. I wake up later than I want, and desperately read, again, the last twenty pages of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. By this point, the plot has turned into a fun cross-Benelux car chase. I myself have just come from a slightly awkward but ultimately fun week in Benelux, where I was resident at a chamber music festival, and every time I go to the Netherlands I reread this book. I make special digital note, this time, of some good descriptions: “minatory Flemish motets.”

3:30 P.M. Oh my God, there is an Ali Farka Touré album I don’t own: Red & Green. I’m buying it right now. I am going to also take this opportunity to rebuy the Toumani Diabaté album Djelika. I am, as always, fascinated by the weird intervalic overlap between Morricone scores and Malian music. I’m making a note to go know more about this. It is also noted that Mio, the brother of Valgeir, both of whom I am making a ton of records with this week in Iceland, has pants very similar in cut to those featured on the cover of Red & Green.


5:45 A.M. I wake up in a panic—an anxiety dream about an e-mail argument, which is prescient given the early-morning realities of my inbox. To calm myself, I buy music online manically. The new Iron and Wine cover is neurosis-provoking neon, but I buy it anyway. While listening on headphones, I fall back asleep and iTunes continues and mysteriously plays Paula Deen’s “Thanksgiving Special,” in which she makes oyster dressing. I actually like her accent, although the way she pronounces the word for (as in, “I’ll let this fry up here for a minute”) strikes me as uncharacteristically Vietnamese.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer, Part 2

February 3, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Ciabattari’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


11:00 A.M. Go out to a café to read a first novel I’m reviewing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Talk about Southern Gothic. I’m finding the language fresh and original. Describing a deserted house in the swamp: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

6:30 P.M. The panelists for tonight’s National Book Critics Circle discussion I’m moderating, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” are all sitting in the office of Noreen Tomassi, the executive director of the Center for Fiction. I love this place. Floors of books, collections dating back to the nineteenth century.

Once the audience has gathered, we head downstairs to the second floor, where we have a discussion of the ways in which four publications are headed into the new decade.

Jennifer MacDonald, who is involved with revamping The New York Times Book Review, breaks news: in February Paper Cuts is merging into the ArtsBeat blog, and they have hired a new children’s book editor, Pamela Paul.

Robert Messenger, who launched the Wall Street Journal’s stand-alone print book section this fall, says he’s not reinventing a book-review section, he’s preserving an old form, and Rupert Murdoch wants him to edit for the reader, not for advertisers.

Craig Teicher talks about Publishers Weekly’s revival under a new owner, the poetry coverage, and the news blog he’s started.

Barbara Hoffert talks about writing the weekly prepub alert for Library Journal, and mentions the new opportunities for small presses and work in translation to be reviewed.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer

February 2, 2011 | by

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


8:42 A.M. I sit on the couch, drinking cold leftover coffee, reading through the printout of the novel I’m working on. The week’s first cultural artifact is the most elusive: a work of fiction in progress, still finding its shape. I’m working on the last quarter of the book, which is mostly rough draft. I’ve been weaving together three narrative threads, set in different time periods, from the 1830s, when two families work together on the underground railroad in small-town Illinois, to 2004.

To see how other writers handle structure with multiple points of view and chapters that slide around in time, I’ve been rereading Heidi Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It’s clear by page twenty that young Rachel’s Danish mother jumped off a roof with her three young children, and that only Rachel survived. Durrow keeps building suspense. In the first chapter, Rachel has gone to live with her black grandmother. She is the “new girl” in school: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these facts into the new girl.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Quicksand, an autobiographical first novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It’s mentioned in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s collagelike book of essays, Harlem Is Nowhere. I pull out the galley and double check. Yes, Rhodes-Pitt writes that Helga Crane, the narrator in Larsen’s novel, is both black and Danish, as is Larsen, the author. Rachel in the Durrow novel seems to be a cultural descendant of Helga, who has a fractured sense of self but finds temporary contentment in “Harlem, teeming black Harlem.”

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