Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Comic Stage Notes

The Book of Mormon is actually worth the hype. From the creators of South Park, this new Broadway musical guarantees to offend everyone. Mormonism joins the long list of religions ridiculed on South Park, but the Mormons themselves are portrayed sympathetically as big-hearted characters of faith. They are totally unprepared for the grizzly realities of a warlord-dominated village in Uganda. The troubles of Africa, from AIDS to dysentery and female circumcision, are the subject of catchy musical numbers.

Somehow The Book of Mormon manages to be both hilarious and culturally sensitive. The irreverent humor reminded me of Monty Python but American. My parents enjoyed it as much as my teenaged children. The whole audience was roaring with laughter throughout the entire production. Thank you, Marika, for telling me to get tickets before it opened as they are now very hard to get.

Our best pre-theater meal was at Sushi of Gari on 46th St. We strongly recommend the Omakase, chef's choice sushi tasting menu. What the small, narrow restaurant lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in extraordinary food served quickly. There are also cooked non-fish dishes for the less adventurous, but even my 16-year-old son loved this sushi. It was some of the best sushi we've had, even including Japan.

Another Broadway comedy well worth seeing is The Importance of Being Earnest. Set in late Victorian England, this is a timeless satire of the upper classes and social conventions. Brian Bedford both directs and plays the role of Lady Bracknell. Bedford did such an excellent job that my parents didn’t realize that he was a man. The acting overall was superb, especially David Furr as Jack/Earnest. The real star, however, was the playwright, Oscar Wilde. There were so many witty and memorable lines such as:
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”
“It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”
It was especially good for my daughter to observe a man playing a woman because she is playing the romantic male lead in a Shakespeare play. It’s quite a challenge for a 13-year-old girl to become an Italian man. In NYC we scanned the sidewalks for men to imitate.

Back in Maine, one of her classmates tutored my daughter and her stage twin on how to walk like a guy. Another trick was getting boy boots for my graceful dancer. She now clunks around in her Doc Martens. There were also lessons in stage fighting, slapstick and fencing. I was prepared for my daughter to grow into a woman but not to see her become a macho man. Parenting has so many surprises!

For you fans of satire, David Furr (Earnest/Jack) and Santino Fontana (Algeron) perform in character "Jersey Shore Gone Wilde" in the YouTube clip below. Warning: adult language, this is the actual transcript of "Jersey Shore" from Oscar Wilde's perspective.

Here's the link @Playbill to see parts 2-5 of Jersey Shore Gone Wilde.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Happy Holidays from NYC

The kids and I are in NYC for their April vacation. Henry had to stay back in Maine to teach, sadly. Everything is blooming in Central Park. I'm mostly offline and will post more next week. 
Happy Passover and Easter!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My biggest fear

. . . after hairy spiders, was deep water. My earliest memory of swim class was having my head pushed under water for “ring around the rosie.” At day camp, a few years later, all my friends were diving “dolphins” while I was still stuck in the shallow end with the “goldfish.”

By age 19, I had not lost my fear of deep water or my longing to swim with the dolphins. I braved swimming lessons at college and registered for a School for Field Studies course on Dolphin Biology and Behavior in the Gulf of Mexico. My job was photographing dorsal fins, developing the film and drawing up ID cards by hand. I spent many happy hours aboard a small Zodiac marveling at those playful and intelligent creatures. The one time I swam with my beloved dolphins, though, I got stung by an enormous jellyfish and passed out. Tiger sharks kept us out of the water other days. I got seasick, sun burnt and bitten by fire ants. One of our teachers worked as a caterer to make ends meet. Maybe marine biology wasn't the career for me.

Splash ahead two decades and several careers, and here I am painting seaside landscapes and writing novels in coastal Maine. Before sitting down to write, I often swim laps. The pool is a sensory deprivation tank. All I can think about is that day’s writing. The physical exertion gets my brain going and makes it easier to sit still for hours afterwards.

One morning in the Bowdoin College pool, I discovered a class for adults. The Bowdoin swim coach was offering free lessons to the campus community. There were two triathlon athletes who wanted to improve their swim times and a woman who had nearly drowned at age 12. The coach’s comment to me: “At least you’re getting a good work out swimming that inefficiently.”

Sagahadoc Bay by Sarah Laurence

Do you get breathless while swimming the crawl/freestyle?

Like me, you’re probably holding onto your air and not exhaling properly. Every time you take a breath, you’re exhaling as well as inhaling. You end up with a backlog of old air, and the carbon dioxide builds up in your lungs. To break this bad habit, my coach has me exhale all my air above water and then sit at the bottom of the pool. While swimming, I focus on exhaling the entire time my head is in the water. When I take a breath, I try to inhale only.

More freestyle tips:

1. Don’t break your line. To inhale, rotate and barely lift your head. One eye remains under water.

2. Don’t swim flat on the water. Rotate your entire body from side to side with every stroke. Lead the pivot with your hips. There will be less drag.

3. Don’t rotate your arms around your shoulders like a windmill.  Shorten your arm stroke. Your hands should come no lower than your waist. Pull forward from your core like in rock climbing. 80% of the power comes from the arms, not from the legs, in freestyle.

4. Kick from your abs and glutes, not your quads. Flutter your legs quickly but with little motion under water.

I may not be a dolphin, but I’m finally able to enjoy swimming. The experience reminded me of what it’s like being a teenager: facing fears, jumping in and struggling to master a new skill. As adults, we too often get stuck treading water.

Disclosure: these tips are what I drew from my lessons and are not the Bowdoin swim coach's exact words. Both watercolors are by me. The top one is of the Giant Stairway rock formation on Bailey Island, painted after a hurricane.

Blog Watch:  Congratulations to Troutbirder for a story published in Minnesota BirdingTravels with Persephone is posting from South America on vacation. YA Highway had some good revision tips, including changing the font.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hotel Iris & The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

In memory of the many lives lost to the Tohoku Earthquake, I’m reviewing two novels by Yoko Ogawa, a prize-winning author from Japan. Paired, these books show her breadth as a writer. Each one is under 200 pages and has the multi-layered depth and lyricism of poetry.

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003, trans. 2009) is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read both inside and out. On the cover, cherry blossoms blow across a deep blue sky where mathematical symbols float like clouds. The philosophical premise features a retired professor of mathematics who retains only 80 minutes of short-term memory along with his past. Every day, his housekeeper and her young son must start over fresh with him, and yet their relationship deepens over time, as does their appreciation for the elegance of mathematics.
About the professor: “He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”
Hotel Iris (1996, trans. 2010) is as dark and sinister as The Housekeeper and the Professor is light and uplifting. Once again we have a friendship between a younger woman and an elderly, well-educated man, but the narratives diverge over character. The older man in Hotel Iris, called only the translator, is a sexual predator who seduces a lonely and naive teenaged girl from a seaside village. The well-developed characters, disturbing imagery and lack of judgment reminded me of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The reader feels as trapped as the victim by her charismatic antagonist.
From Hotel Iris: “The discarded foil from an ice cream cone that yesterday glittered festively by the side of the road overnight would become no more than a piece of trash.”
What makes Ogawa’s novels different from contemporary Western fiction is the degree to which the protagonist accepts fate without question and simply tries to make the best of it. In Japanese fiction, there is typically an appreciation of simple beauty, a respect for family, a sense of duty and nostalgia for the past. The story moves at a more languid pace, engaging all the senses and challenging the mind to understand the subtle nuances. Ogawa’s books are not page-turners, but you will savor every page. Not a word is out of place. Yoko Ogawa is also one of my Japanese sister-in-law’s favorite authors.

Donate to Red Cross Disaster Relief in Japan

Disclosure: I read Stephen Snyder’s translations and bought both books at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine without compensation. I’ve given several copies of The Housekeeper and the Professor as gifts.

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@Barrie Summy