Staff Picks: Beckett, Boxtrolls, Bard


This Week’s Reading


A still from Boxtrolls.

Reading a collection of letters from the beginning straight through to the end is one step up from reading the phone book. I know there are valuable bits throughout literary letters, but they’re so often scattered among details like how much so-and-so paid for a ham sandwich and how hard it is to find a good Danish translator. So I have not read all of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, but I have nevertheless spent a good deal of time with it. The years 1957 through 1965 find Beckett at the height of his fame. He writes very soberly but with affection and appreciation, no matter the subject. In response to Robert Pinget’s highly unfavorable reaction to Comment c’est, Beckett writes, “I am grateful to you for being so frank. That is friendship.” My favorite parts in the letters are the seemingly rare moments in which Beckett seems to loosen up, as when he writes to the radio producer and translator Barbara Bray, with whom he was close, “Bought six pairs of socks today in the Wednesday market. Very colourful. Not the socks. 5 francs a pair.” Or, in another letter to Bray, “Still drunk this morning after sudden hopeless useless midnight bucket of brandy and sitting in special ever since 37 pub and have yours to hand and in head grinding old poem in vain by Hölderlin influences entitles Dieppe circa 37 also … ” —Nicole Rudick

I was appalled to learn from The New Yorker today of a London pop-up restaurant called Death Row Dinners, which will, for fifty quid, “incarcerate” you at “one of London’s toughest high-security restaurants, where our prison chefs serve up a five-course feast of their culinary twists on some of death row’s most interesting and popular last dinners.” It’s not that I find the concept tasteless—it’s that I thought of it first, two years ago, in a satirical essay about food and death. I was all set to litigate, but then I kept reading that New Yorker piece: turns out Death Row Dinners was deemed so offensive that the organizers shut it down, apparently after they were subjected to “seriously threatening behavior.” Still, I don’t want to miss out on any future business opportunities, so I’ll just go ahead and toot my own horn here: I had two other great restaurant ideas in my essay. One was Admiral O’Heimlich’s, a surf and turf pub where community actors feign asphyxia and the waitstaff teaches you how to save choking victims. The other was Turks and Cake-os, a turkey and cake shoppe kept at tropical temperatures and lit exclusively by sunlamps. I’m willing to speak to investors about either, or both. —Dan Piepenbring

Do the imaginative side of yourself a favor and go see Laika’s latest handmade creationThe Boxtrolls, which opens tonight nationwide. The film, based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, is at times dark, at times heartwarming, and visually stunning all throughout—especially when you consider that a vast majority of the film, like its predecessors Coraline and ParaNorman, is painstakingly animated. (Full disclosure: my sister, Emelia, is one of the artists who designs and builds the puppets.) —Stephen A. Hiltner

As a Bard alumna, it would be unforgivably rude of me not to mention Alice Gregory’s magnificent profile on Leon Botstein, the president of the college, in this week’s New Yorker. In “Pictures from an Institution,” Gregory, a former Bardian herself, asks a question not unfamiliar to those who regard Leon as a beau ideal of intellectualism and progressive action: What is Bard without Botstein? He has, after all, “built [it] in his own polymath image,” and since he’s sixty-seven—having started as president in 1975, at age twenty-seven—the question of institutional identity is more pressing than ever. But Gregory doesn’t, can’t possibly, answer this. Instead, she shows us Botstein’s idiosyncratic mind. He is an educator; a father; an admirer of horology; a conductor; a raconteur; a man who used to be a boy who stuttered and was called Durachyok, or little fool; and the face not only of Bard but Bard’s Prison Initiative, a program that admits and awards college degrees to inmates. Gregory’s profile renders Botstein so well that we worry about Bard all the more acutely after reading it. —Caitlin Youngquist

Last week, I heard an engaging production of Beckett’s 1959 radio play Embers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The experience compelled me to revisit What Where (1983), the last of Beckett’s dramatic works, which he wrote first in French, and then translated himself into German and English. Typically read, in part, as a sharp critique of totalitarianism, the short play features four “characters”—Bam, Bem, Bim, and Bom—“as alike as possible,” who engage in a series of interrogations, led by Bam, that allude to torture off-stage but which ultimately produce no knowledge or truth of any kind. What Where is well situated among Beckett’s other late minimalist pieces, such as Quad, Nacht und Träume, and Breath, and within his oeuvre at large: like so much of Beckett, it chips away at language until only its smallest pieces remain. At the end of its fruitless interrogations, Bam’s disembodied voice says all that it, or any of us, can: “Time Passes. That is all. Make sense who may.” —Charles Shafaieh

Vine—yes, the app—is known mainly for its emerging pseudo celebrities and teenage Beiber wannabes, but I personally love it for the bizarre nonsense its six-second format allows. Some of the best Vine videos look like a cross between a Tim & Eric sketch and those compelling (if senseless) installation videos you see at certain galleries and museums. Birthday Salad’s collection of six-second loops is mesmerizing, a mix of old and obscurely sourced videos scored by leftovers from the Boohbah sound track. A bunny grooving in the moon? Tennis-playing airplane stewardess? Whatever this is? The genius behind the Birthday Salad account is no longer posting videos, by the look of it, but there are plenty of other moody masterpieces out there—enough to keep you entertained for days. —Justin Alvarez