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Taking Flight With “The Goldfinch”

Topics like Dick Cheney’s Iraq-related effrontery and the kerfuffle about Supreme Court decisions come and go, but Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published last November, has proven to be a durable fixture of dinner party conversations. The debate has been pretty clear-cut. On one side are those who think the nearly 800-page novel is way too long and undeserving of the Pulitzer Prize, let alone multimillion-dollar earnings. Then there are those of us who put the work in league with some of the more celebrated literary triumphs. Teenage Theo Decker lugging his anger and sadness through the streets of Manhattan is, obviously, a kindred spirit to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Theo’s also a 21st-century Oliver Twist. He’s accompanied by a modern-day Fagin (his alcoholic, gambling-addicted father) and an Artful Dodger (Boris Pavlikovsky, the hard-drinking, druggy Ukrainian boy who befriends Theo in a desolate Las Vegas subdivision). It’s not just this literary resonance that keep us turning all those pages, and it’s not just finely etched characters, elaborate plot turns and Tartt’s luxuriant prose. Quite simply, The Goldfinch is such a pleasure to read because it’s essentially about goodness—as befits a novel in which the ultimate message is art’s ability to raise us above the “ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.” Making your way through the hefty volume puts you in the company of some genuinely good souls—among them Theo’s art- and book-loving mom, who “cast a charmed theatrical light,” and Hobie, the benign furniture restorer who runs his hands along “dark, glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys as if they were pets.” The most luminous presence in the novel is the namesake bird, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. The painting is hanging safely in the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands these days, having endured none of the fictional perils to which Tartt subjects the small canvas in The Goldfinch. As Theo writes, “It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them.” Fabritius died in an explosion in Delft the same year he completed the painting, and his image of a pretty goldfinch chained to its perch is his legacy, burnished for modern readers by Tartt. In her hands, the little bird is the tranquil centerpiece of a maelstrom of friendship, love, protection, beauty, loss and a whole lot of other weighty matters that will keep you reeling long after you turn the last of page of this extraordinary novel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia SHOP_The-Goldfinch

by Stephen Brewer

Jul 22, 2014

I’ll Have What She’s Having

Nothing brings a movie to a climax like a good, well, climax. For the 25th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally..., we bring you four fake orgasms—a multiple, if you will—in film, television and fine dining. Best friends Harry and Sally share in all the vagaries and fakeries of life. In this scene filmed at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City, Sally (Meg Ryan) delivers the fake female orgasm heard ’round the world. Despite Ryan’s initial timidity, she totally, uh, nails it. The now-famous punch line—“I’ll have what she’s having”—was provided by director Rob Reiner’s mom. As Meg Ryan would have a deli full of eavesdroppers believe, food can be just as satisfying as sex. In this episode of Seinfeld, George finds his sexual rival in a savory risotto. In Woody Allen’s vision of the future in the film Sleeper, orgasms are rapidly achieved by stepping into a large electromechanical cylinder called the “Orgasmatron.” Clearly, technology will one day preclude the need to fake. But not until 2173. New York–based performance-art group Improv Everywhere recreated the climax scene from When Harry Met Sally... with a 20-woman chorus. Wait for the punch line…then, you know, maybe grab a sandwich. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_When-Harry-Met-Sally

by Mediander Staff

Jul 21, 2014

“Atomic”: Excavating the Heart of the Matter

Atomic, the new musical by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), does what theater does best. Rather than try to illuminate the scientific complexities or trace the bumpy historical narrative of its world-changing subject, this high-octane show excavates the conflicted inner workings of its characters’ hearts and minds. Those characters are the famous real-life scientists who developed the atomic bomb—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller. It’s their shifting feelings, intellectual integrities, moral justifications and personal torments that form the show’s flammable psychological terrain. The musical thoroughly contextualizes the making and dropping of the bomb amid the U.S.’s prevailing political and military viewpoints during World War II. But with its intentionally anachronistic elements, the show prevents us from relegating nuclear concerns to history. Played against a futuristic matrix of bright-silver cubes and lit rock concert–style with fast-moving spotlights, the musical is fueled by an invigorating rock-meets-Broadway score. (In fact, it often sounds a lot like Jesus Christ Superstar.) Atomic’s hard-hitting production demands that we think about nuclear weaponry in contemporary frameworks. With the exception of weak-voiced Sara Gettelfinger, who plays Szilárd’s wife, the cast gives raw, piercing interpretation to songs that strip bare their characters’ emotional turmoil. As Oppenheimer, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, suave Euan Morton launches the evening with an intimidating rendition of a charged rock song, claiming the story we’re about to hear is the “most seminal tale of our species, a warning sign for every other animal to heed.” Jeremy Kushnier, as Szilárd, raises the rafters expressing his enthusiasm to “build a chain reaction that will light up the world.” The Italian immigrant Fermi, entertainingly portrayed by Jonathan Hammond, sings his love for America in a snappy mambo song-and-dance routine. But the show’s musical highlight is the haunting “Stars and Stripes Will Rise,” an anti-Japanese tirade electrifyingly sung by Randy Harrison, who plays the U.S. Army flyboy who will ultimately pilot the Enola Gay. Despite the foreshadowing prologue set in Japan, we are caught off guard when Atomic delivers a surprise attack in its climactic moments. After two hours wrestling with ideas about nuclear energy from the safe distance of moral argument, we are suddenly thrust onto the front lines. Yes, the show actually attempts to depict the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima! My hat’s off to Atomic’s entire production team, helmed by Damien Gray, for having the pluck and ingenuity to conjure a heart-stopping theatrical representation of this historic occurrence. Presented through a keen combination of stage-combat choreography, assaultive lighting, sensitive sound design, carefully crafted dialogue and dramatic timing, this incredible scene offers a profound demonstration of the explosive power of the theater. Atomic plays Off-Broadway through August 16. Photo courtesy of Carol Rosegg CONNECTS_Manhattan-Project

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Jul 18, 2014

All People Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others

Last month the Supreme Court of the United States decided Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in favor of the corporation. Specifically, the Court ruled that if closely held, for-profit corporations, “sincerely” hold religious beliefs that proscribe the use of contraceptives, they are not required to pay for such medical precautions for their employees, who may or may not share their employer’s religion. To put that in perspective, “closely held, for-profit corporations,” according to The Washington Post, constitutes more than 90 percent of U.S. companies. Consequently, this ruling significantly undermines one of the most important and cost-saving aspects of the Affordable Care Act, the contraception mandate. As part of its decision, the Court allowed corporations like Hobby Lobby to opt out of the contraception mandate by completing a standard insurance form. But to make matters more confusing, SCOTUS subsequently voted to grant Wheaton College of Illinois an exemption from documenting its moral objection in this way. Wheaton’s lawyers argued that doing so would make the college a link in a chain that allows their employees access to contraception. Now, instead of filling out the form initially required to opt out, Wheaton can simply send the government a letter declaring its objection. So a corporation unable to practice its religion because it has to fill out paperwork is “substantially burdened,” but a woman who works full-time for minimum wage and chooses not to have a baby isn’t? The Court’s male majority seems more concerned with the religious freedoms of corporate “people” than the human rights of people who happen to be women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “the ability to delay and space childbearing is crucial to women’s societal and economic advancement.” The report goes on to explain that “women’s ability to obtain and effectively use contraceptives has a positive impact on their education and workforce participation, as well as on subsequent outcomes related to income, family stability, mental health and happiness, and the well-being of their children.” Considering that Hobby Lobby and its two fellow litigants are happy to pay for vasectomies, is their “moral objection” really about preventing unintended pregnancies or about women’s autonomy? Birth control is a necessity at one time or another for the majority of the roughly 62 million U.S. women in their childbearing years. To quote Guttmacher again: “The typical U.S. woman wants only two children. To achieve this goal, she must use contraceptives for roughly three decades.” And this reality, as the Affordable Care Act rightly acknowledges, must be protected, because whether a woman is 15 or 44, married or not, has zero children or five, everyone benefits from her having access to safe, affordable birth control—which, by the way, many women use for health issues unrelated to preventing pregnancy. But if corporations don’t have to pay for contraceptives, why couldn’t they also object to blood transfusions, mental health medications and vaccinations, as some religions do? The majority opinion in Hobby Lobby points out that the Court intends it to apply only to contraception (in other words, only to female health issues), but doesn’t offer any real reasoning as to why that should be the case. Other corporations are already lining up to take advantage of the new ways to deny, or at least complicate, health care coverage, and SCOTUS’s recent decisions leave the doors wide open to interpretations on reasonable exemptions. Individuals may not have as much power as our corporate brethren, but those of us who morally object to the Supreme Court’s recent decisions are not completely without recourse. Harry Reid and other senators and congresspeople are already working on a bill that would ensure that all people get the health care coverage they need, regardless of their boss’s religion. What can the rest of us do to make sure our beliefs and values are reflected in our nation’s laws? Pay attention—and vote. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_Our-Bodies-Ourselves

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 17, 2014