Manhattan Adventures

WAITING OUT IRMA

We led a schizophrenic existence the past few days enjoying lovely sunny fall days in Manhattan while mentally anxious about Hurricane Irma’s path and the fate of our Florida home. We were some of the fortunate ones; by the time Irma reached us, she had lessened in intensity and the wind direction sent any potential storm surge away from our house. We did not suffer any damage, just a few downed trees and branches around our property, while many in our area are without power.  While we waited, we walked, ate, went to museums, and spent time with our granddaughters.

EAST SIDE VIBE

The Upper East Side is a new neighborhood for us as we’ve always stayed in midtown or the West Village in the past. We love the West Village, its irregular streets, its funkiness, its cutting edge restaurants, and its overall small burg feeling. But, there is life for us in the UES too. The streets, while straight and grid-like, are bustling with people and places to shop, and a European aspect to some blocks. The dining is mostly more traditional, Old World German or French bistro-style, with in between a Chinese or Vietnamese eatery. Lots of bakeries too. Where Italian food seems to predominate in the Village, here it’s French. Although we did discover Nicola’s, a family-friendly popular restaurant serving delicious Italian food.

MUSEUMS

Met Breuer

We are a short walking distance from Museum Mile on 5th Avenue and have visited two museums already. We had long ago been in the Met Breuer building when it was the home of the Whitney Museum, but not since then. Flora Bar, their coffee and pastry outpost, offers a wide selection of coffees and teas, but also a tasty slice of greens pie and an awesome sticky bun that has sugar on top, but is not too sweet. It’s a pleasant spot to while away the time.

We were less impressed with the one exhibit on display. A retrospective of furniture, ceramics, jewelry, and textiles by the designer Ettore Sottsass, it was challenging for those who had never heard of him. With label text written in high museumese, it was not nearly as accessible to a general audience as it could have been.

We bought a Met membership since that gives us entry to the big Met on 5th Avenue and The Cloisters as well as here; if, however, we had bought admission tickets for just this museum, we would have been disappointed that there wasn’t more to see.

Neue Galerie

My friend Patricia has been singing the praises of Neue Galerie for several years, both for their collection and for the luscious Viennese pastry at their Café Sabarsky. We went and were very impressed on both counts. Feeling relieved after Irma left us intact, we indulged in a celebratory lunch starting with champagne and ending with a shared slice of apple strudel. The Chief Penguin went the traditional route with bratwurst, German potatoes, and cole slaw while I had what might be called, the “ladies special.” It was a mound of delicate fresh crabmeat salad covered by a silky ripe half an avocado with a few micro greens and cherry tomatoes around it. Just perfect!

Concentrating on Austrian and German art from about 1880 to 1940, the museum’s permanent collection includes lots of Klimts and Schieles as well as works by other artists of the period. An especially beautiful work is Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” which Gallerie founder Ronald Lauder purchased in 2006. This study in gold was the subject of the excellent feature film, Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren.

“Woman in Gold” from Neue Galerie

We also appreciated seeing the first ever museum exhibit of works by Richard Gerstl, an Austrian painter known for his revealing portraits, both of himself and his musician friends. His early suicide, after an affair with Arnold Schonberg’s wife, resulted in his work being sent to a warehouse for many years.

Note:  All other photos by JWFarrington.

Tidy Tidbits: Screens & Pages

LIGHT FARE

With hurricane Irma on our minds and the strange anticipation of not knowing what its track will be—will we just get rain or will we be wiped out—it’s time for some diversion.  Here are two recommended films, one fun, the other sobering, and two books, both easy on the brain.

BIG SCREEN

Dunkirk

Watching this film is an emotionally battering experience.  It’s excellent, but challenging.  Told mostly from the perspective of an individual unnamed soldier, it lacks a traditional narrative arc.  Instead, the film focuses on three fields of battle, the beach or mole where 300,000 British troops are hemmed in and trapped, the air following three fighter pilots, and the sea with endless scenes of watery graves, fires, and a desperate struggle to survive.  There is one story line that epitomizes what made Dunkirk especially memorable and that is the father and son, ordinary citizens, who were among the volunteers who took their personal boats and bravely rescued soldiers from the sea.

The Big Sick

The title of this film was almost enough to put me off seeing it, but it got such rave reviews, we did go.  It’s a very good film.  Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian, who happens to be Pakistani, meets and falls in love with an American woman.  Meanwhile his mother keeps inviting potential Muslim wife candidates to drop by at family dinners.  When Emily ends up in the hospital, Kumail must interact with her skeptical parents. I don’t care for stand-up comedy and found the first fifteen minutes of the film not to my liking, but then got into it.  It’s funny, believable, and complex all at the same time.

 

ON THE PAGE

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

This is a fast-paced coming of age story set in Manhattan at the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women.  Darby arrives there in 1952 from small town Ohio while in 1916 Rose lives there in a refurbished condo with her successful and rich boyfriend.  Darby is a Katie Gibbs “girl”, but through a strange twist of events ends up never marrying and is still living there. A journalist, Rose has had career issues.  When boyfriend Griff decamps back to his ex-wife and kids, she is stuck and becomes obsessed with the mystery surrounding Darby McLaughlin.  The period detail is great, the story fanciful with attributes of a fairy tale, but overall, it’s great escapism! (Reviewed by JW Farrington)

 Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Thanks to my friend Bonnie who reads a different Anne Tyler novel every summer, I purchased this new one.  It’s a contemporary re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew and is humorous and fun.  The writing sparkles and you can’t help but be caught up in this eccentric family and its detailed rules for living.  Scientist father Louis Battista routinely forgets his lunch and expects it to be delivered to his lab, younger sister Bunny is light on brains, but attracted to Edward, her supposed Spanish tutor, while prickly, blunt-spoken Kate makes a week’s supply of meat mash for their nightly dinners.  When her father cooks up the idea that Kate should marry his foreign lab colleague, Pyotr, so he can stay in the U.S., their joint campaign tests her mettle.   This book is one in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of his plays retold by noted novelists of today.  (Reviewed by JW Farrington)

Cover photo:  Sunrise over the bay ©JWFarrington (some rights reserved).

Tidy Tidbits: End of Summer Reading

It’s almost Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer.  If you are off for holiday over the weekend or just home with some free hours, here are a couple of lighter books plus an engaging biography of a neglected writer who deserves more attention.

What have you been reading this summer?  I’d love to know!

BON BON FOR THE BEACH

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

I have been noticing Williams’ novels on bookstore shelves, but this is the first one I’ve read. It’s a historical novel and a romance, but that doesn’t completely describe it. It also has a frothy element as its two main characters, Annabelle and Pepper, are rich and beautiful women who could have any man they wanted. The stories of these two alternate with most of the novel focusing on Annabelle in 1930’s France and Germany and her involvement with two men, Stefan, a German resister, and Johann, a high-ranking Nazi general. Annabelle and Pepper meet in 1966 in Florida when a pregnant Pepper sells Annabelle her 1936 Mercedes roadster and Annabelle takes her under her wing, sort of. It’s a delightful romp in the high life, mostly, and perfect escapism. (Review by JW Farrington)

SPIES IN PAKISTAN

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius

I occasionally read Mr. Ignatius’ columns in the Washington Post and decided to read this spy novel on the recommendation of my good friend Margaret.  I didn’t find it as fast-paced as many reviews indicated, but I was fascinated by the tradecraft of spies—surveillance detection routes, for example—and the disguises, duplicity, and double-dealing required by operators on both sides.  I became more engrossed the deeper into his version of Pakistan I got.  (Review by JW Farrington)

 

FORGOTTEN FENIMORE   

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux

As a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, Constance Fenimore Woolson gained entrée to select company and, initially, received more attention for her work than she might have otherwise.  Later praised as the finest woman writer of her time, Woolson wrote a wide range of short stories and several novels.  She traveled widely and often lived for several months in different climes, everywhere from Florida and Florence to England and Egypt.  She became acquainted with Henry James, and although both were somewhat solitary souls dedicated to their writing, they enjoyed a close friendship.   At one point they even lived in the same building in Florence one floor apart.

Woolson’s work, however, didn’t fall neatly into one movement or another; she wasn’t strictly a regionalist nor was she a student of social mores.  She came between Sara Orne Jewett and Edith Wharton in time and hence, after much success, but uncategorizable, she was mostly forgotten after her early death.  The fact that her death was most likely by her own doing didn’t help.  I knew about Woolson from my reading of James’ biographies and was pleased to learn more about this vibrant, independent woman.  (Review by JW Farrington)

Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson

Readers owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Boyd Rioux for her engaging literary biography of Woolson and for resurrecting a representative sample of her short stories.  Having read the biography with its detailed discussion of Woolson’s work, it is a treat to discover her.  I have now read a few of the stories here and so far liked the most the title story, “Miss Grief,”  about a successful young male writer and a middle-aged poor woman writer who wants to be published.  It has both some humor as well as pathos.

I found the nature imagery too rhapsodic for my taste in her Great Lakes story, “St. Clair Flats,” but I thought the premise of “A Florentine Experiment” with its twists and turns was intriguing and with its emphasis on dialogue definitely reflective of Henry James.  Both the biography and the story collection were published in 2016.  (Review by JW Farrington)

 

Maine Musing: Music & Books

MUSIC MEMORIES

The Chief Penguin and I went to a lovely organ concert recently. The occasion was the dedication of a new digital organ at All Saints by-the-Sea with a recital by noted local organist Sean Fleming. While listening to the swell of sound (quite marvelous really when you realize there are no pipes!), I reflected on my years in church choir, our various choir directors and organists, and what it was like to sit in the choir loft high above the congregation.

My childhood church was founded in 1811 and its first building was white frame and erected in 1817. When the congregation grew too large, the original building was moved up the street (it’s still standing and is today home to a food pantry) and a new stone Gothic edifice was built in 1869. This imposing building had a huge sanctuary with a long center aisle, balcony seating along the sides, and a choir loft and massive pipe organ in the back. It was where my family worshipped and where the Chief Penguin and I were married. Unfortunately, in 1973, the steeple fell and destroyed much of the building. Rather than trying to repair this expensive-to-heat church, the congregation built a new modern church across town.

I sang in one choir or another from first grade through high school. The church leadership valued good music and, thanks in part to that organ, was able to attract talent greater than our small town probably warranted. Frank Pethel, organist and choir director (officially titled Minister of Music), was the most memorable choir director I’ve ever known. Warm and engaging and extremely talented, he was great at coaxing eager young choristers to produce tuneful results.

Choir rehearsal was after school on Thursdays at 4:00 pm. My friend Linda and I would walk from our elementary school to the church. It seemed like a very long walk. Probably not as long as I thought and we certainly dawdled a bit on the way. In any case, smart man that he was, Frank, with his ever ready smile, would meet us on the lawn in front of the church and lead us in a fast and lively game like “Steal the Bacon.” After 15 or 20 minutes of this, we had used up enough excess energy to be ready to go inside, sit and sing.

In church, I always enjoyed watching Frank’s feet fly on the organ petals as he rose and gyrated from his seat and his hands reached and pulled out and pushed in one stop after another. His teaching made me a better singer and gave me an appreciation for sacred music. He also had a sense of humor; to make it easier for us kids to remember how to pronounce, “in excelsis…,” he said think of it as “eggshell Sis.”

Other choir directors followed Frank who was lured back home to the south and a larger church in North Carolina.  Mr. K. was an adequate choir director, but with a very serious demeanor and seemingly no sense of humor, not a favorite.

Dave Caddis was a German professor at the community college and also parttime at the church. Tall and rangy with a head of thick brown hair, he always moved briskly and was somewhat irreverent.  I was a teenager during his tenure and he seemed hip and kept our attention. I can never hear Schubert’s  “Heilig, heilig, heilig” without singing it to myself and remembering Mr. Caddis introducing it to us.

My choir days pretty much ended when I went off to college, but I’m fond of hymns and very much enjoy hearing and singing them.

MAINE LIFE

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

For this novel, Shreve has taken as her jumping off point a disastrous fire on the coast of Maine in 1947 that destroyed several towns. The opening chapters are a mood piece chronicling the daily life of Grace, a wife with two young children and a difficult husband, in the weeks leading up to event. All the mundane chores of running a house on a limited income, feeding a family, and minding the children, interspersed with bright chatter with next door neighbor and close friend Rosie. When the fire hits, Grace retreats with her children to the beach and they survive; her husband’s fate is unknown.

As usual, Shreve’s characters are believable and her story pulls the reader in. I read this book quickly and it engaged my emotions, but I found the ending fanciful. Perhaps Shreve thought her readers needed a happy ending to offset the devastation of the fire. (Review by JW Farrington)

Note:  All photos ©JWFarrington (some rights reserved).