7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 5: Read “Land that I Live”)

I know this submission is late, and, to be frank, I have no legitimate excuse. That said, here’s what’s next:

Land That I Live is a newly-born blog authored by a collective of fascinating people. From aspiring journalists to philosophers to teachers, they’re all conscientious thought-provokers who base their musings on a deep feeling of place. While many are well-traveled readers, they’re writing is a crisp and clear offering of visions that are – I believe – fundamentally American. From scarred landscapes to awe-inspiring structures, they have their fingers on the pulsing geography of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Having left America almost a year ago now, this blog gave me a taste of what I hope to head back to soon. London elides in its centralized frenzy the kind of rootedness that, almost paradoxically, America’s vast expanse inspires. When you live somewhere – or travel somewhere – in America you feel the distance you are stretching between yourself and where you were before. You see the markers of new watersheds, of new ecosystems. Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” narrates the birth of America’s most treasured natural sites, and interviews people who believe that, without visiting these places, you never truly get a sense of what it is to be American and connected to the land. While this is an interesting thesis, any exploration of America’s vastness explodes your sense of place.  When you get somewhere, you re-orient yourself and dig for the history that is always bubbling beneath the surface of its inhabitants. New locations, like familiar ones, demand new connections you. Land that I Live – while only maybe a dozen entries old – seems on the right track to capture that sentiment.

7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 4: Saw Lucien Freud at the NPG)

4. Saw Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery
This “Two Irishmen” is exactly what I imagine Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom to look like.

Maybe having this exhibition in a list with others is completely unfair, and by no merit of the venue itself. The National Portrait Gallery has allotted several unbelievably narrow halls for some of the largest and most impressive paintings any English artist has made. They have provided little to no information, and the curation follows a largely chronological path. None of these elements are necessarily terrible things – they just show little effort to embellish or interpret what’s hanging on the walls.

But, to be honest, Lucian Freud’s body of work doesn’t need anything but a wall to hang on…  from his earliest paintings right through his unfinished masterpieces, his stuff is uncannily good, and the kind of art that only discloses its real beauty in-person. His reduction of subjects to “Man” and “Woman” in the titles clashes so deeply with the uniqueness and emotion of each portrait, it’s almost impossible to avoid deeply existential readings. Is deep and perturbing emotion simply human? Or is the emotion not the point: rather, the vessel that contains emotion, in all its fleshiness, is what should take centre stage… after all it determines presence, subject, existence. But then you see the way Freud’s rendered a young girl’s acne – with unflinching honesty – and you wonder if, really, he was just looking at bodies and what they do, and loving their changing, porous nature.

The exhibition was packed, with a line out the door over an hour before the NPG opened. The densely crammed small rooms and narrow hallways didn’t always allow for one to truly step back and contemplate the immense and vertiginous power of Freud’s warped detail, but the occasional opening made itself available, and you could occasionally get lost in the gorgeous, rotten bodies in his art. Perhaps most disturbing and unique of all were his unfinished works, which became bubbled up and mis-shapen because he never had a chance to smooth out the paint and sculpt it back into the canvas. What at first looked like just a normal painting became a grotesque pointillist artwork, where the dots were warts of color. Freud’s art never needed improvement, but maybe these last weird fragments are the perfect final frontier.

7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 3: Drank “Vuur & Vlamm”)

3. Drank “Vuur & Vlamm”

Ever since I tasted it late last year, this beer has been on my mind, and we just got it back at the Euston Tap. One of the managers just took a trip to Holland to catch up with this Windmill-based brouwerij and has been blabbering about the amazing quality of their beer ever since (to my great enjoyment). They are famous for their Imperial Russian Stouts, but this brew – which translates to “Fire and Flames” – is a subtle and unbelievably drinkable IPA. It pours out of the keg with a gorgeous snowy-white head and a clear lemon body. It has a full-on flowery flavor to it that’s like a potpourri was blended with a lime and – quite surprisingly – came out to be a refreshing and crisp brew.

7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 2: Listened to Four Great Songs)

2. Listened to Four Great Songs

  • “Silent Song” by Daniel Rossen
During the long hiatus Grizzly Bear has taken since their excellent 2009 release Veckatimest the band members have kept busy, releasing several quality side-projects. This solo EP by Rossen – one of the lead singers – is no exception in terms of that level of quality, but it also packs the punch of an exciting message: we’re ready to make another album as  Grizzly Bear. Everything that’s good about “Silent Song” is what’s also good about Rossen’s main gig: spiraling harmonies, gorgeous arpeggios, shattering crescendos. Even though he’s on his own, this might be one of the best Grizzly Bear songs out there. Plus some slide guitar licks.
  •  “Gun Has No Trigger” by the Dirty Projectors
Yet another band we’ve been waiting to hear from for a while now, The Dirty Projectors have become more and more popular for their idiosyncrasies. This, the first release off of their upcoming album (out July 9th), demonstrates that they’re constantly re-inventing themselves to get better at what they do. The unpredictable vocal ticks are still there, but that new steely beat catapults this song into greatness.
  • “No Feelings” by the Handsome Furs
This song is actually kinda old by now, and, rather than signaling the return of a great band, it signals the end of a retired one. Handsome Furs used to be a side-project to the indie rock super-group Wolf Parade, but, with the disbandment of the latter, the former has come into its own. “No Feelings” is an affecting rush of a dance song (imagine Bruce Springsteen in astronaut gear, propelled by wailing guitars) and concludes their first album as a main project.
  • “The World” by Charles Bradley

Even though it was released in 2010, this song neatly  packages and emphasizes all that was good about motown. There’s passion, blazing horns, and hazy background vocals. Bradley’s record, overall, leaves a bit to be desired, but this song is a testament to his ascension to the throne of soul for this decade. Perfect to dig out of the vaults for the sun-kissed summer we’re slipping into.

7 Things I’ve Done Recently (Part 1: “The Hajj”)

Despite an amazingly busy couple of weeks, I’ve managed to continue grooming my image as a highly cultured and intriguing human. Here is how I’ve done it, and why you should do the same. Entries will be released every day over the next week.

 1. Went to “The Hajj” at the British Museum
A gorgeous, in-depth, and sometimes emotional exploration of the world’s greatest pilgrimage, this exhibit features amazing artworks, artifacts, and stories that flesh out both the current and historic relevance of the Hajj. The exhibition begins with a hallway that forces visitors into a circumambulation of the exhibition itself, replicating the orbiting motion of pilgrims around the Ka’aba. Immediately, the meditative and symbolic power of that motion – of trying to see something up close but forcing yourself to reverentially walk around it before actually coming into contact – gets you in the mood to discover more.

The exhibition certainly delivers on the information front: the BM did not worry too much about keeping its texts short. Often, the labels overwhelemed the exhibition itself, as if you were moving around in order to read the next part of a book instead of getting personal with some objects. It was a relief, towards the end, when you had the opportunity to be amazed by some emotive contemporary artwork, or see a time-lapse of the movement around the Ka’aba. At the same time, every word was worth reading: whether delivering statistics or telling the tale of non-muslims infiltrating Mecca to have a look, the Hajj is never a boring subject.

Most importantly, the exhibition revealed how narrow our recent perception of the Muslim Faith has been. The numbers of people – Muslim or not – touched by or participant in this pilgrimage are countless and diverse. The Hajj, for someone such as myself who can only stand out of it, represents the power of faith to bring people together, to creating genuine phenomena, and to make us all feel like a small part of a massive organism. Certainly a worthwhile visit for anyone who knows little or wants to know more about this ancient and stunning human phenomenon.


Go See The Hunger Games

At the Odeon movie theater in Camden last night, teenagers cheered as their new favorite franchise hit the screen. Before that, they were making jokes about how they were like Katniss in their battle for tickets. While I rolled my eyes and despised their nerdy and predictable attitude, I may have cracked one of those jokes and shouted out a wee huzzah as well.

The fact of the matter is, The Hunger Games is one of the best (if not the best) teenage fiction series to have come out in the last decade. While it sports none of the outlandish fantasy of Harry Potter or the gothic charm (for those of us who can tollerate it) of Twilight, this series beats both of them in intelligence and quality of writing. It’s complex, it’s political, it’s thrilling, it’s romantic. You don’t get distracted by parts written so poorly you want to grab a red pen. And, to explain the origins of my respect for the series, I should say that I read the first book to my 7th graders during homeroom in my last year of teaching. Some of my students that almost never picked up a book independently were avidly reading along, and asking to read the talking parts of their favorite characters. The series works on a human level, and the fact that it was also cinematic and thrilling was merely a bonus. So it’s easy to see why I was pumped about getting tickets for the opening night, but apprehensive that this was the end of the series’ most important element: thoughtful consideration of politics, media, and independence.

The movie didn’t disappoint at all. Considering how bad some of the Harry Potter flicks were, the script held up, the acting was good (with the major exception of Woody Harrelson’s hair), and it was all tongue-in-cheek enough to let you tollerate the sometimes overbearing romance. In fact, that would be my one criticism: take out 10 minutes of the sappy love-triangle, and spend some time developing the other tributes or beefing up the action scenes. They have a great cast here, so they should give the rest of them some time… except for maybe Gale, whose reaction shots to the kissing scenes are both amusing and a bit too revealing of his acting skills.

That said, Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss Everdeen: she brings out all the roughness and fury of the character despite looking like a Hollywood beauty even when she has dirt on her face. Remarkably, Amanda Stenberg plays Rue – Katniss’ short-lived ally – very effectively given how little screen-time she has . You actually get emotionally attached to her in the few minutes you get to know her (it helps that she’s as adorable as they get). The show-stopper, though, was probably Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. He sports the orange tan well, and manages to conjure sympathetic feelings for a character that is – at least in this installment – all about surface appearance.

The highlight of the film, however, was what it managed to do that the book couldn’t possibly reach for. The deep trauma of what was happening often came to the surface in a manner that the books never really stop to reflect upon. TV screens occasionally flicker with revealing media bits: ads as well as clips from previous Hunger Games. In fact, I wish there had been more of that media-frenzy: the possibilities here are endless, and they generate a complex and real universe through one of the story’s major themes. While I wanted more, I still have to admit that the Capitol looked amazing, as did all the make-up and costumes. Much of the time, I found myself just trying to absorb as much of it as possible: the wide-screen shots generously reveal the amount of care and detail that went into creating this alternate universe. It was exciting to see, too, that the director was unafraid to make some odd decisions: shaky Bourne Identity-style camerawork (but toned down a bit so as not to make you nauseous) and some unconventional framing.

All things considered, the film makes up for its weak points (some script gaffs, some dwelling on romance, some bad jokes) by being interesting and well-constructed in so many other ways. If you’re not thrilled by one part, you’ll be exhilarated by another. It’s a great story, and it’s a relief to see it come to life in an honest and palatable manner. Now we just have to wait for the next one… and maybe do some re-reading while we’re at it.

The Ides of March

Before it was a Ryan Gosling/George Clooney movie (and a good one at that), the Ides of March was a day where history and legend met. It may be due to my mother’s own passion for celebrating this epic moment in time, but I’ve always regarded the ides with some trepidation, as if the death of Rome’s first dictator were a sign – still today – that we’re all vulnerable when the 15th of March comes around. It’s hard not to relate to Caesar: a man so forceful and determined that is overcome by simple fate, by superstition, by a ticking clock (an analogy Shakespeare himself anachronistically included in his tragedy), or, perhaps, just by others more determined than he. It’s easy to escape our own mortality on a day-to-day basis, but here we have one day a year when we remember a mortal man, of a part of history, that came to a brutal end over two milennia ago. Sure, we remember the death of other great men (Jesus, for one), but Caesar was no saint (at least not to us): just a great man who fell, and then had a salad named after him.

What’s not to love about the story? Conspiracy, soothsayers, passion, politics, bloody murder. It took so many men, narrative threads, histories, and thoughts to kill Caesar. The story each of us knows is a little different, a little more or less based in historical fact. But we all punctuate it with the foreboding ides, and the “et tu Brute?” that will forever signify deep betrayal. Like that time your friend stole a french fry when you weren’t looking.

Below, the famous excerpt from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the death of Caesar as protrayed by the HBO series, Rome.




Ha! who calls?


Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!


Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.


Beware the ides of March.


What man is that?


A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.


Set him before me; let me see his face.


Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.


What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.


Beware the ides of March.


He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.