The Last of Her Kind

By Sigrid Nunez. Published in 2005.

The idealistic radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s has always bewildered me. I remember watching The Weather Underground, a documentary about the Weathermen, a violent organization of that era that sought to provoke revolution against the United States government, and feeling overwhelmed by the surge of conflicting emotions it inspired. As much as I abhor the violence of 1960s extremists and sneer at their misguided strategies and pity their naïveté and disdain many of their goals (I don’t support revolution, so back off, Gonzalez), I envy their conviction that real change is possible and that they had the power to effect it. I can’t comprehend that kind of idealism because I myself have never known it.

But I’m not the only one who was born disillusioned; one could say the same of many if not most of my generation. That’s certainly the implication of the title of Sigrid Nunez’s book, The Last of Her Kind, about a young woman who comes of age during the ’60s and ’70s. The novel’s protagonist and narrator is not, however, the heirless paragon, Ann Drayton, but her erstwhile friend, Georgette George. We see Ann through Georgette’s eyes, and we, too, chafe at Ann’s self-righteousness yet respond nonetheless to her principled certainty and charisma. She might be sanctimonious, but she holds herself to the same standards she does everyone else, and that relentlessness makes her far more intriguing than your average holier-than-thou hippie.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

In theaters.

Against my better judgment, I’m rather fond of Will Ferrell and his absurdist humor. His unwinking deadpan delights me, and I can’t help but appreciate how unreservedly he throws himself into his roles — no shame, no apparent self-consciousness, total commitment to whatever silliness or stupidity he’s perpetrating on his amiable audience. And much of it is silliness and stupidity, of course. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is no exception.

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri. Published in 2004.

Names have fascinated me for more than a decade. When I was a teenager, I started collecting baby name books, a hobby I kept secret because people could easily get the wrong idea about a fifteen-year-old girl with a small stash of books for expectant mothers. How could I explain that my obsession wasn’t with babies but with what people name them and why and what that means?

I love studying names because thinking about names means thinking about cultural background, class, race, gender, and family history. Thinking about names means thinking about individual identity, collective identity, and the negotiation between the two. That’s precisely why Jhumpa Lahiri can use the name Gogol Ganguli, the name of the principal character in her novel, The Namesake, as a vehicle to address all of those issues. She doesn’t need to stretch; the issues are inherent in the name itself.

La Traviata

The Metropolitan Opera at Central Park on Tuesday, August 22.

Sean wasn’t feeling well, so I went to the park alone. By myself, I only needed space to spread a single towel, so I shamelessly snaked my way to a small patch of unoccupied grass relatively close to the stage on the north end of the Great Lawn. Even from there, I could barely see the performers, but it didn’t matter. I spent most of La Traviata with my eyes closed, blissfully soaking in the music together with the cool night air.

The Metropolitan Opera’s parks concerts are unstaged, so they give one the opportunity to focus solely on the music. Verdi holds up to the scrutiny effortlessly. The vocal lines are interesting, not always moving in the direction I expect, and the orchestration is beautiful. The opening Preludio — with quiet yet ardent whispers from the violins — captured my attention immediately by not demanding it.

The Illusionist

In theaters.

There comes a point in The Illusionist when you can easily guess (if you’ve seen enough movies) that from that point onward, nothing will truly be as it is presented — until, of course, the climax, when the movie helpfully reminds you of the turning point and pulls back the curtain to show you what was really happened.

Despite the utter predictability of the “surprise” ending, however, The Illusionist still manages to entertain. Sepia-toned and gently paced, the movie has a charming, fairy tale quality about it. Tales of young star-crossed lovers often do.

His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman. Trilogy includes The Golden Compass published in 1995, The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is supposedly for “young adults,” teenagers, but the three books are so compelling, so powerful and thought-provoking and heartfelt, that they certainly should not be limited to a single age bracket. With beautifully drawn characters and a taut, suspenseful plot, the fantasy series makes for an electric, enjoyable read, and yet ultimately, the books are profoundly serious. As the story unfolds, Pullman’s true audacity becomes apparent: He has written a strange kind of sequel to Paradise Lost — unabashedly heretical but undeniably hopeful. By no means should teenagers have a monopoly on these books.

Faith Healer

Closed August 13 after a limited run at the Booth Theater on Broadway.

The image of a barren landscape marked by a single blasted tree — the first thing we see in this production of Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer — lets us know immediately that whatever the play is about, it’s not faith, at least not a living faith. I confess I’m not entirely sure what it is about, though. Friel’s writing touches on the contradictions of hope, how its presence can sometimes be more painful than its absence, and the indignities of chance, the sense that we have little control over the courses of our lives. But I had some difficulty knitting it all together in my mind.

Faith Healer is riveting, certainly, and thoughtful and lyrical, but I wondered what to make of it in the end. As an acting showcase, it’s mesmerizing. Friel’s conversational yet writerly monologues gave Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid bountiful material to create rich, memorable characters, and the play surely would lend itself to repeat viewings or, even better, careful reading. Yet I suspect that even after all of that, it would reveal itself to be a brilliant quartet of monologues, nothing less but little more.


In theaters.

“What if your conscience conflicts with your faith?” The agony in the Hindu woman’s voice as she poses that question to her guru is heartbreaking, and for anyone who takes his or her faith seriously enough to wrestle with it, her pain is immediately recognizable. Water might be about people in very specific circumstances — Hindu widows exiled to a crumbling home in 1930s India — but the question at its heart is universal. Writer-director Deepa Mehta’s film is lyrical and beautifully shot, but the universality of its theme and the quiet profundity of Mehta’s examination of it make Water much more than a pretty picture postcard. Unsettling and powerful, Water lingers in the mind long after the screen goes dark.

Fun with music videos

“Not Ready to Make Nice,” Dixie Chicks; “Here It Goes Again,” OK Go; and “Deja Vu,” Beyoncé.

Even in New York, not much goes on in August. The big performing arts organizations are between seasons, the film studios put out their worst movies, and it’s too damn hot to venture outside anyway. So I’ve decided to indulge in one of my true guilty pleasures: music videos. Happily ensconced in my air-conditioned Astoria apartment (provided that Con Ed doesn’t decide to cut the power again), I’m writing about a few of the gesamptkunstwerk* miniatures that have captured my interest lately.