Monday, July 24, 2017

NYC Day 37: In Which I Rest and Immerse Myself in the Wide Sargasso Sea

The elderly Jean Rhys (at left) at her home in Cheriton Fitzpaine, Devon
With the temperature across New York City heading for the 90 degree mark, the humidity levels not far behind, and city authorities issuing heat warnings and opening local cooling centers, I decided the smart thing to do would be to stay in. Even the promise of chilly air-conditioning at Brookfield Place could not entice me to descend into what would have been a stifling subway system for the 40 minute ride downtown.

There was nothing for it but to crank up the portable air-con unit in the apartment, and engage in some writing, reading, and account balancing. And since I have been making good use of my commuting time over the past few weeks reading several of the books I have purchased thus far, I thought I might add some comments about one of those titles in today's post.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys tells the story of the 'mad woman in the attic' who is apparently an unseen figure in Charlotte Bronte's, Jane Eyre (a book I have not read), and what a sad and melancholy -- but beautifully written tale it is.

The dust jacket notes: Set in the Caribbean, it's heroine is Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Rochester. Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.
[Jean] Rhys was born in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, an island in the British West Indies. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, nee Lockhart, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scots ancestry. ("Creole" was broadly used in those times to refer to any person born on the island, whether they were of European or African descent or both.) [Source: Wikipedia]
In the introduction, written by Francis Wyndham we learn:
For many years, Jean Rhys has been haunted by the figure of the first Mrs. Rochester  - the mad wife in Jane Eyre. The present novel ... is her story. Not, of course, literally so: it is in no sense a pastiche of Charlotte Bronte and exists in its own right, quite independent of Jane Eyre. But the Bronte book provided the initial inspiration for an imaginative feat almost uncanny in its vivid intensity. From her personal knowledge of the West Indies, and her reading of their history, Miss Rhys knew about the mad Creole heiresses in the early nineteenth century, whose dowries were only an additional burden to them: products of an inbred, decadent, expatriate society, resented by the recently freed slaves whose superstitions they shared, they languished uneasily in the oppressive beauty of their tropical surroundings, ripe for exploitation. It is one of these that [Jean Rhys] has chosen for her...heroine.
Among other things, the book is quite open about the resentment and racism that 'the recently freed slaves' (mentioned by Francis Wyndham in her introduction), express towards the expat British. Terms like 'white cockroach,', 'white nigger' and other epithets are hurled by the local children at their white counterparts, and the understandable resentment that many former slaves feel towards their former owners and overseers, bubble along beneath the surface of all their post-colonial relationships.

From time to time these resentments boil over, leading to one of the key incidents early in the book when the family home is attacked by a mob of angry villagers. This incident results in the death of a minor, but important character in terms of the arc of the book, and without giving more of the story away, let me just say it's all downhill from there. However, the writing is so evocative of time and place, so infused with detailed descriptions of landscape and the natural beauty of the island settings, that it was impossible to turn away and not look at the horror that was slowly smothering Antoinette and the increasingly poisonous relationship with her new husband, Rochester.

It is a relationship that begins to sour soon after their wedding, even as they settle in to their honeymoon in a remote location along with several servants and other staff. Antoinette's newly minted British-born husband has no understanding of the norms, mores, and culture of the islanders he has landed amongst, and even less interest in learning about or understanding them, thus setting the scene for conflict and misunderstanding that spirals increasingly out of control.

I was reading the book on the subway a couple of days ago, and as I closed the book and began putting it away in my bag, I heard a female voice say, "Sir, I love that book!"

When I looked up at the young woman who had spoken, I agreed that the book was a great read, and replied to the effect that although I had not yet finished it, this was a book that I would want to read again. She agreed and said that she had read it three times herself, and that it was one of her favorite books. I added that this was a book that had been on my 'radar' for many years, and that I was only now getting to read it, and that I was very happy that I had finally gotten around to doing so.

It was a brief conversation if only because I was about to get out at the next subway station, but I could see that other commuters were showing interest in what we were saying. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to hold the book up so they could see what we were talking about. If something like this were to happen again with another book (unlikely), I will make sure I do just that.

This book is definitely a 'keeper'. The writing borders on the poetic much of the time, and despite the overall mood of dread I had as I progressed through the story, I knew this would be a book I will keep and read again at some future date. I even thought I might read Jane Eyre, but Rhys's book may have spoiled any pleasure I may derive from doing that. If you have read Jane Eyre and wondered about the mysterious woman in the attic, this is definitely the book for you. I recommend it highly.

More information
Wikipedia entry for Jean Rhys... 
Wikipedia entry for Wide Sargasso Sea...

*Wide Sargasso Sea becomes book number 28 in my self-imposed 52-Book-Year Challenge, in which I aim to read an average of one book per week throughout the year.

Any questions, comments or suggestions? How about complaints or compliments? Let me know via the comments box below.

Jean Rhys at her cottage in Devon. 

Museum Memberships $19.15 ($25.15)
AT&T SIM card $16.25 ($25.38)
MTA Pass $30.25 ($39.92)
Accommodation $152.00 ($200.00)
Total Ongoing: US$217.65 (AU$290.45)

Sunday, 16 July | Expenses $41.75 ($53.40)
Monday 17, July | Expenses $53.10 ($66.95)
Tuesday 18, July | Expenses $85.53 ($111.05)
Wednesday 19, July | Expenses $16.85 ($21.15)
Thursday 20, July | Expenses $86.50 ($114.95)
Friday 21, July | Expenses $23.00 ($29.05)
Saturday 22, July | Expenses $0.0
TOTAL: US$306.73 | AU$396.55

Total Expenses Week 5: US$524.38 (AU$687.00
*Figures in brackets are Australian dollar amounts

Sunday, July 23, 2017

NYC Day 36: In Which I Go In Search of Frank Lloyd Wright

Click on images to view full sized
Yesterday I decided it was time I took a long, detailed look at the major Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Wright was one of the most influential American architects of the last century.
Frank Lloyd Wright (born Frank Lincoln Wright, June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer, and educator, who designed more than 1,000 structures, 532 of which were completed. Wright believed in designing structures that were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture. This philosophy was best exemplified by the Fallingwater house (1935), which has been called "the best all-time work of American architecture". [Source: Wikipedia...]

I have had an interest in architecture for many years, and the more I travel the more I like to seek out great examples of the profession. Having said that, I have little interest in the smooth modern glass and steel buildings that are dominating the New York City skyline more and more as this century progresses. My favorite buildings, whether cloud busting skyscrapers or four and five storey walk-ups, tend to be survivors from the past two centuries. They invariably have features and facades that stop you in your tracks, and force you to pause and examine, and marvel at the skills of the masons, engineers, steel workers, and other tradespeople who laboured to construct these beautiful buildings. So it was with much interest that I devoted a couple of hours to Frank Lloyd Wright.

The exhibition presents hundreds of drawings, models, film, letters, documents and other memorabilia from the vast FLW archives that are now in the possession and care of the museum. And when I write vast, I mean vast:
Unpacking the Archive refers to the monumental task of moving across the country 55,000 drawings, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, 125,000 photographs, and 2,700 manuscripts, as well as models, films, and building fragments. It also refers to the work of interpretation and the close examination of projects that in some cases have received little attention. [Source: Info panel at the exhibition]
Above: A longitudinal section in ink and pencil for the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and below a detailed image for the peaked roof seen in the image above.

As you might imagine, with so much material to select from, to say the current exhibition barely scratches the surface of Wright's massive archive is to state the bleeding obvious. The curators probably had no choice other than to present some of the better known works from among a collection that may stretch back to the beginning of Wright's architectural career. A period of some 70 years.

I was particularly interested in his initial concept for one of his most famous buildings, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue. Early sketches show a building similar in design to the building as it stands today, but instead of rising to the equivalent of a six storey building, the early drawings show one that might rise as high as nine or ten storeys.

Above and Below: Early design concepts for the Guggenheim Museum.

Always one to think big, in 1956 Wright presented a concept drawing that was eight feet high! Executed in colored pencils and gold ink on tracing paper, Wright was proposing to build the Illinois, a 'mile-high' skyscraper on the lakefront at Chicago. His initial concept may not have been much more than a clever marketing exercise by Wright for his architectural practice, but it go plenty of attention when he unveiled his drawings and ideas back in 1956/'57.

Above: This image does not do the concept of a mile-high building any justice whatsoever. Try to imagine the picture being eight feet high, 

Above: other design ideas for Wright's mile-high Illinois building.
I very much appreciated the chance to examine the many drawings and renderings (such as the 'mile-high' building), at the exhibition. Modern architects use state of the art software to design their buildings which also allows them to spit out drawings and renderings with a few clicks of a mouse button. What gets lost in that process are the beautifully hand drawn designs one sees in Unpacking the Archive. While many of these drawings were almost certainly made by Wright's assistants, they stand as beautiful works of art in the own right.

Above and detail below: Marin County Civic Center and Fairgrounds, San Rafael, California (1957). 

There is much to enjoy at Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, even if you only have a passing interest in architecture. Children will enjoy looking at the models, while adults will gain a greater appreciation for Frank Lloyd Wright, and hopefully for all architects who design the homes and buildings we almost certainly could not live without in the 21st century.

Now through until October 1, 2017
Tickets: Adults $25; Seniors $18; Students $14 (under 16, free)
Exhibition free with museum entry
11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan
Open seven days a week.
MoMA Online... 

More Information
Frank Lloyd Wright at Wikipedia...

Friday 21, July | Expenses $23.00 ($29.05)

Any questions, comments or suggestions? How about complaints or compliments? Let me know via the comments box below.

Above: Detail of building model for St. Mark's Tower, New York.
Below: unidentified building model. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

NYC Day 35: In Which I Go In Search of Woody Guthrie

Click on images to view full sized.
Utilizing the writings, words, songs and music of America's greatest folk troubadour, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, or 'Woody' as he was universally known, David M. Lutken and his three fellow actor/musicians bring to the stage the joy, pathos, politics, and tragedy of Guthrie's short and dramatic life. More than three dozen songs are included in the production, some in full and some using just a verse or two to place a scene or episode from Woody's life in context.

In a little over two hours we learn about Woody's childhood, his first steps as a budding musician, the confinement of his mother to a mental institution, and to his 'hobo' years jumping freight trains or hitchhiking around the country singing, writing, and painting, scraping by as best he could.


The show was devised by David M. Lutken who channels the ghost of Woody Guthrie throughout the show. A fine singer, talented musician, and blessed with an easy going manner that suits the character he so ably portrays, Mr. Lutken knows his man and his songs 'inside out, upside down, and round and round', as Woody Guthrie might have said himself. The other cast members are Helen Jean Russell (an original member of the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe shows), David Finch, and Darcie Deaville.

All the actors are talented musicians and multi-instrumentalists in their own right, and between them provide all the instrumentation during the show. Among the array of instruments used were several guitars, mandolins, violins, and harmonicas, I also counted an upright bass, Autoharp, dulcimer, Jews harp, spoons, penny whistle, and a banjo. The word talented barely does these four amazing actors and musicians justice.


Born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie died in October 1967, following a long battle with Huntington's Disease. But before he died he performed with many of the great folk and blues luminaries of the late 1930s and 1940s including Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Cisco Huston, and the great Huddie Ledbetter, better known as 'Leadbelly'.

Since his death, dozens of contemporary musicians continue to cite Guthrie as an influence and inspiration in their own writing and careers. One of the earliest and most famous of Guthrie's acolytes was Bob Dylan, whose Song To Woody, appeared on his first album. Other contemporary performers who have paid or continue to pay tribute to Guthrie include Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, and of course Billy Bragg who, with the group Wilco, has recorded two albums of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs on the albums Mermaid Avenue (1998), and Mermaid Avenue II (2000). In 2012 Bragg released the Mermaid Avenue Complete Sessions, a box set which included the above two albums plus a third album of previously unreleased material, and the documentary Man In The Sand, which follows major steps in Woody Guthrie's life.

Mermaid Avenue, where Woody Guthrie had a home while living in New York City, is located in Coney Island. Unfortunately the home no longer exists, but I'd like to think that Woody's spirit still likes to stroll along the famous boardwalk, and warm his toes in the sand.

Woody Sez was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, and has since been presented hundreds of times in more than 60 countries. The production at the Irish Repertory Theatre has now been extended twice from its original end date -- first to August 20 and again recently to September 10 -- which is surely a clear recognition that even after ten years, Woody Guthrie's story, words, and songs have much to offer us fifty years after his untimely death.

Running concurrently with the production of Woody Sez at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a display consisting of a dozen or so large panels outlining key periods in Woody Guthrie's life. Images of some of these panels are used to illustrate this post.

Now through September 10, 2017
Irish Repertory Theatre
132, West 22nd Street, Manhattan.
Tickets: $50 - $70 (Shows run Wednesday - Sunday with some matinee performances.)

More Information
Woody Guthrie...
The Guthrie Center...
Arlo Guthrie...
Billy Bragg...
Huntington's Disease...

Thursday 20, July | Expenses $86.50 ($114.95)

Any questions, comments or suggestions? How about complaints or compliments? Let me know via the comments box below.

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