Sister Wendy Beckett

”If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free” – Sister Wendy Beckett, contemplative nun/writer/art historian.

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Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s novel reads like something almost outside of time – not so much dog-eared or yellowed but as if written in stone. So it comes as a surprise to realise the story is set in 1957, as revealed by its narrator, Congregationalist pastor the Reverend Jon Ames, a native of the small, fictional Iowa town from which the novel takes its title. Gilead is Ames’ account of his life and those of his father and grandfather (also pastors) for the benefit of his seven-year-old son, to be passed to him after the elderly Ames succumbs to a heart condition.

Ames makes frequent reference to Gilead’s status as a centre for abolitionist agitation – the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. (Congregational churches, independent in governance and spirit, were to the fore in many American social reform movements). But otherwise, Gilead gives the impression of being away from where the real action takes place.  Not that lack of action perturbs Jon Ames, whose enthusiasm for a life lived ordinary nonetheless embraces the rich extraordinariness of the landscape around him:

“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”

The rich lyricism of Robinson’s language is like scripture and Gilead’s narrative seems deliberately separate from time, with an almost eternal quality, firm in its belief in the goodness of human nature uncorrupted by any temporal slips into violence or corruption (sin). There is nothing secular about Robinson or her writing – she is a deeply Christian writer. Yet this is not the Christianity of closed minds or harsh judgment of the other. It is meditative, gentle and humble. In her essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide,” which appears in When I was a Child I Read Books (2012), Robinson asserts her own liberal Christianity and argues for a reinterpretation in particular of Calvinism to remember Calvin’s own assertion that Paul’s message ‘not to be weary in well-doing’ should be embraced as Christian imperative.  Jon Ames is frequently hard on himself throughout Gilead’s narrative but no reader of this book meets a selfish narrator.

Gilead is also a writer’s book. Ames’ vocation and his thoughts about it mirror that of a writer – something that is difficult to fulfil yet cannot be ignored.

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Ted Hughes


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“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” ― Letters of Ted Hughes

“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”


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Do I think with my head and lead with my heart, or do I think with my heart and lead with my head?

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The New York Review of Books

008The current issue of The New York Review of Books is its 50th anniversary issue.  Without wanting to sound pompous (and failing spectacularly) reading the NYRB is like dipping into a specific moment in the past – fin de siècle Vienna, that period of ideas and debate that spanned the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.  The NYRB is, for me, an unashamedly Enlightenment publication.  It takes a rather pragmatic (in a philosophical sense) approach to its topics, questioning without being cynical.   Glib is a word that could never be associated with the Review.  And its topics are diverse.  Much of what I know about subjects ranging from art to science comes from having subscribed to the Review since the middle of the last decade and from following up on what I have read between its pages.  Consecutive articles in the 50th anniversary issue discuss, in order: the economic implications of automatization and now digitisation; the rise of creative writing as a taught subject in U.S. universities; police/state repression in China; and a Balthus exhibition.  In terms of contributors, The Review’s scope is wide.  The anniversary issue contains contributions from four Nobel laureates and an essay on Proust by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Beyer.

Typically, an essay in the Review will use a book or exhibition, movie or television series (granted movie and TV series discussions are rare) – as a framing device for a broader discussion of the general topic.  So, for instance, the current issue includes author Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.  Not only does Mendelsohn consider the move from the written page to the TV screen and how that has impacted on the telling of the Game of Thrones story, but he also suggests that what ostensibly seems like ‘a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler’ instead creates ‘alternatives to the narratives of male growth’ in its development into a ‘remarkable feminist epic.’

The Review was founded by Robert E. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, who co-edited it until her death in 2006, at which point Silvers assumed the mantle of sole editor.  It has a belief not so much in humanity per se – its long interest in the obliteration of both everyday and intellectual life in Europe during World War II suggests a questioning of how humane humans can be as a species – but in people (as individuals or in communities) to rise above the fray in search of betterment.  Granted, its letters pages sometimes threaten to reach below the fray – I’m only half kidding.  The Washington Post called the letters page ‘the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing.’  The letters can be vigorous (to put it lightly) but are generally well-considered and well researched – it’s not unusual for a letter/reply to include footnotes.

New York Review Books, the journal’s publishing house, publishes books under the New York Review Books Classics, New York Review Books Collections, The New York Review Children’s Collection and NYRB Lit.  The Classics imprint has released translations of works previously unavailable in English. NYRB Lit is an imprint for e-book only contemporary titles, both fiction and non-fiction.  The intention is to focus on titles deemed too risky or expensive for traditional publishers but which have become publishable thanks to the economics of e-books .

It is difficult to capture the essence of the Review in a single contributor and maybe perhaps unfair, given that it is the dedication of Silvers and the late Epstein that has ensured its longevity.  But I think it’s no coincidence that the anniversary issue contains an excerpt from Tony Judt’s essay “Edge People,” originally published in the March 25, 2010, issue.  Judt, who died in August 2010, was a brilliant historian and essayist, whose easy writing style hid a robust form of analysis and an extraordinary intellectual range.  His Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is hard to match as a general history of modern Europe.  In “Edge People,” Judt considered his own identity as an English-born ‘non-Jewish Jew’ teaching in New York but who felt most at home at the ‘edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another – where cosmopolitanism is  not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.’

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Blue Valentine

The imminent release of writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines prompted a re-watch this week of his previous feature, Blue Valentine.  Released in 2010, Blue Valentine charts the relationship between Cindy and Dean, using a cross-cut device to focus on the beginning and seeming end of the relationship.  I say seeming end because the movie’s plot is ambiguous, not least in its refusal to identify fully the reason or reasons why the relationship is failing.   It just is, which is how many relationships in real life fail, is it not?  They just do.  Nonetheless, Cindy’s exhaustion and the extent to which she is exasperated with Dean is obvious.  Furthermore, the couple’s sniping at each other is indicative of a fundamental breakdown in communication.  There is an integrity about both of these characters, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to salvage their relationship.

In a Q&A on the DVD release, Cianfrance references his background in documentary and how it taught him to listen.  And the movie does feel like eavesdropping on the conversation between the two protagonists.  Cianfrance’s documentary experience is also reflected in the hyper-real cinematography and the spontaneous feel of the performances from Williams and Gosling, the result undoubtedly of the actors’ improvisation of dialogue.  For his part, Cianfrance was fortunate to be working with Williams and Gosling, two of Hollywood’s most extraordinary talents.  The scenes of their first date are beautifully rendered, as the two characters awkwardly find their way into getting to know each other.  The movie’s feel is strengthened by Cianfrance’s own approach to its production.  The part of the movie depicting the development of Cindy and Dean’s relationship was shot using Super 16mm, giving it a natural, lived-in and intimate look.  The blue tint of the scenes depicting the relationship as it falls apart washes the vitality out of the camera work, almost as if it has been bleached, and reflects the distressed nature of the marriage.

Blue Valentine became caught up in a ratings controversy when the MPAA rated it NC-17, the category that replaced an X rating in 1989.  The rating was in respect of a cunnilingus scene, prompting Gosling to accuse the ratings association of sexism and misogyny on the grounds that a scene involving oral sex performed on a male would never have received similar censure.  Although the rating was changed to R following an appeal lodged by The Weinstein Company, distributors of the movie, the controversy did highlight the seeming discomfort with depictions of female sexuality in mainstream popular culture.  The NC-17 rating is less about stopping children under 17 from being admitted to movie theatres to watch certain movies than it is about censoring movie content itself.   In the case of Blue Valentine, the retention of the NC-17 rating would have effectively stigmatized the movie for its depiction of oral sex.   At the time, Gosling was quoted as saying:

‘You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It’s misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.’

 The link below is to a recording of Cianfrance, Williams and Gosling on PBS’ Charlie Rose.  It is well worth watching for the discussion of how Blue Valentine evolved and how different it was in its making compared to other movies.

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Back Story, David Mitchell

This is not going to be one of those critical reviews.  Firstly, I like this book.  It’s funny.  Secondly, I like David Mitchell.  He’s funny.

The title of the book refers not only to Mitchell’s reminiscences on growing up, attending Cambridge University and forging a comedy career, but also to the chronic back problems he’s suffered over the years and how he’s solved those problems by taking up walking.  Queue the opportunity to take a walk through west London, from Mitchell’s bachelor pad in Kilburn to the BBC Television Centre at White City.  Mitchell uses what he sees on the walk to frame his “back story” from childhood to maturity and career success with such programs as Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, both with his long-time comedy partner Robert Webb.  As a reader familiar with Mitchell might expect, there’s no small amount of humorous self-depreciation.

Back Story is terrific at debunking the glamour of television production.  The unreal, or surreal, if you prefer, is what appears on television screens.  The real is endless rounds of production meetings, long shoots, long waits between shoots, even longer waits between commissions and re-commissions.  Mitchell captures the uncertainty that surrounds it all.  What he is also good at is conveying the reality of a career in television, or, dare I say it, life as a celebrity – that for the overwhelming majority, it is not instant X-Factor-type fame but a long, hard slog that doesn’t feel at all inevitable.

The narrative beneath the narrative in this book is Mitchell’s love life, or rather lack of it.  References are made every number of pages to a date or a short-lived relationship or an occasional, guilty one-night stand (Mitchell seems particularly apologetic about them).  Then, in the final chapter, the book takes an unexpected turn when the author describes how he fell in love.  With remarkable candour ( I really can’t emphasise enough how honest he is), Mitchell opens up about how he fell for the columnist Victoria Coren.  Heartbreakingly for him, she didn’t feel the same way and a burgeoning relationship petered out after a few dates.  But rather than move on, Mitchell waited.  He waited three years, during which time she was with someone else.  In the normal course of these things, the spurned lover would eventually cop on and go find someone else.  But Mitchell waited, and waited and then..  Well, then Coren came back.  What?  Yes, she came back and the book ends with the couple engaged (they married in a ceremony last month).

The impression that Mitchell gives, as noted earlier, is that of a nerdy, awkward loner (that his character in Peep Show, Mark Corrigan is desperately unhappy and needy likely adds to Mitchell’s own image).  But the real Mitchell is, I think, a rather purposeful and certainly confident person in that “I’m going to make it in television” sort of way, which, of course, he has.  He crafted a public persona of this rather sad singleton, he says, because he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he’d fallen in love and that it was unrequited.  But anyone who waits three years for another person has to have a certain inner-confidence, don’t they, a conviction that everything will turn out all right?  You’d go mad otherwise! I’m not saying Mitchell is deceiving people, but crafting a public persona is something a person in the public eye might well do, because it allows the private self to remain exactly that – private, separate.  It’s a defence mechanism, and a useful one at that.

The book ends with Mitchell quoting the oft-heard saying “If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” before admitting that for the first time in a long time, he’s standing still.  Well, as I once heard someone say, there’s nothing wrong with treading water, as long as it’s purposeful treading.  And Mitchell’s is certainly purposeful.


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