boston_leaf.jpgBack in Cambridge after a pleasant stay in Boston that even left time for a (very) brief trip to New York. Though family business and socializing was the main objective and thus had first priority, I did manage to eat some culture. What follows are some random musings on holiday reading, viewing and consumption.

– Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977). Compared to other work by him that I’ve read, I was particularly struck by its mixture of outrage and sobering resignation at the self-destructiveness of drug use. Its characterization of it as ‘ontological death’, erasure of being, is harrowing, and the devices Dick uses – ‘scramble suits’ that at one and the same time make their wearers anybody and nobody, the sadly topical description of ubiquitous monitoring devices and the vain and twisted hope of the protagonist Bob Arctor that they can tell us truths about ourselves that we are no longer able to see through our eyes, as well as the popular neuroscience that is so recurrent in Dick’s work – are all poignant metaphors for the dissolution of self that is at the heart of the novel. Also, Dick’s descriptions of quotidian paranoia as a state of mind where there is no way out are chilling in an often humorously unassuming way.

“Donatello to Giambologna” at the MFA. Nicely and pedagogically curated show of renaissance sculpture from the museum’s own collections. The star of the show is, almost by default, the Donatello they own (the only one outside of Europe), the Madonna of the Clouds. A relief of the Virgin and Child with Angels, it nails the way a child steadies himself against his mothers breast with both hands while looking at something in the distance, head slightly tilted and a rather miffed look on his face. A supremely captured, observed depiction of child behaviour, given poignancy by the tender but also rather sad, foreboding look on the mother’s face, in profile towards the top, shielding the child. The discovery of the show, however, was an elegant glazed terracotta statue of John the Baptist, attributed to the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Batista Rustici, which had languished in the attic reserves of the museum and has now been restored. Other highlights included a number of reliefs form the Della Robbia workshop, an delightful action figure-sized, freely arrangable 13-set terracotta piece of Christ and the disciples at the table of the Last Supper, and an astonishing coloured, one-piece wooden relief reproducing Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi’s Massacre of the Innocents print in 3D, combined with a Flight into Egypt taken from a Schongauer print. Good shit.

– Kouno Fumiyo’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (2003, American edition 2007 Last Gasp). Picked up this manga at Million Year Picnic in Cambridge (Mass.). Have been wanting to read it for a while as I’d heard good things about it, and it doesn’t disappoint. A story of people coping with the Hiroshima bombing years and decades after the fact, it is a delicately woven narrative whose complexity and general understatement makes the story of its protagonists’ inner life so much more powerful. And who’d have thought that turning panels delineating horizonal movement on their end, making them vertical slivers instead of expansive arrangements, would be such an effective storytelling tool? A much more involving read than the other manga I read, the first volume of Takemiya Keiko’s space epic To Terra (1977-80, American edition 2007 Vertical), a thoroughly muddled parade of interchangeable characters and piling on of epic events and general fireworks. Beautifully and highly imaginatively drawn and arranged – think Jim Starlin at his cosmic 70s zenith, channeled through Tezuka Osamu’s dynamic and clear cartoon aesthetic – but something of a drag to read. Great for the gawk reflex though.

“Journeys: Mapping the Earth and Mind in Chinese Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curators of Chinese art at the Met periodically put on these special showings of stuff from the collections, and this one is a doozy. Most of the stuff here is from the 12th through the 16th centuries, and some of it is just breathtaking. Especially a couple of 14th-century scrolls of ink painting depicting landscapes with blocky stylized rocks and spindly but forceful trees, of many different sorts, obviously stylizations of genuine botanic observation, were fascinating. Of course, Chinese painting is remarkable for its use of negative space – it’s kind of the first thing one notices – and these panoramas had plenty of that, but what I found particularly arresting about these specific works was the expressive, ‘gothic’ quality of them – their delicate, yet ragged, sinewy linework and the diaphanous quality of especially the foliage. I kept imagining how Dürer would have marvelled at them, had he been able to see them.

– Food! If you’re in Cambridge (Mass.), hungry, and have some money to spend, I can heartily recommend a couple of places I was taken to: Oleana of Hampshire St. serves Mediterranean fusion of a high order. The intelligent filtering of the spices of the region through an American sensibility is the strategy of chef Ana Sortun and it’s a hit. Especially their starters are delicious. I ordered börek, always a good measure of the quality of a Turkish-inflected kitchen, and it was great: subtle and substantial at the same time, as it’s supposed to be. The pastry cook is also great so don’t miss their desserts. The Craigie Street Bistro near Harvard Square offered some of the best French food I’ve had in a long time. A dish of three types of pork : one tender and crispy on the surface, one a light emersion of flavour under a thin batter and one a sweet blood pudding – did it for me, though the people I went with had an asparagus starter with morels, thinly sliced sausage and a slow-cooked egg on top which was obviously a showstopper. Go there. Oh, and also get ‘chocolate pudding’ ice cream from Toscanini’s : it the chocolate ice cream to end most of those.

– Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). To recover from the sleep-deprivation of early-ass arrival here in the Old country, we rented this thing, which, appropriately for us, transmutes the Hong Kong of Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs (2002) to Boston. It is ironic that Scorsese should finally be awarded the Best Director and Best Movie Oscars for this piece of inconsequential fluff. Well-executed and much less muddled than its Hong Kong predecessor, it’s perfectly entertaining, but has absolutely nothing to tell us about anything. Most of its characters are simple stereotypes, something which is particularly notable in Jack Nicholson’s character: he hams it up well, but has very little to work with. He’s basically your run-of-the-mill crime boss and that’s it. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio handle their parts perfectly well (though the latter’s Boston accent is a little forced), but all they got to do is go through the motions of a plot seen a million times before. Decidedly underwhelming, but probably what Scorsese – one of the most overrated directors of American cinema – is really best at: I’d actually much rather see this than his borified stabs a high-minded historical drama that were snubbed by the Academy these last years, so maybe that Oscar was a good call after all.

Great trip. Great to be back. Hopefully I’ll soon find the proper working groove instead of procrastinating this way…