Joel Grey prepares for The Cherry Orchard: ‘I’m about surprises’

4 days ago

The Broadway legend won over fans as the emcee in Cabaret and he gained more admirers when he came out at age 82 now he explains why theater is still sexy

Anton Chekhovs The Cherry Orchard ends with the aged servant Firs, a former serf, alone on the deserted stage. Lifes gone by like I never lived, he says.

In Stephen Karams new version, which opens at New Yorks Roundabout next month, the legendary actor Joel Grey plays Firs. That mournful sentiment is not one that Grey entirely shares. The Tony and Oscar-winning actor, now 84, has led an agreeably eventful life. For more than 70 years, he has lent his impudent grin and button-bright eyes to theater, television and film, offering an air of mischief and melancholy to the characters he plays. He titled his recent memoir, Master of Ceremonies, borrowing the name from his best-known role, the menacing, epicene emcee of Kander and Ebbs Cabaret, a part he recreated for the Bob Fosse movie version.

In his book, Grey discusses not only his professional life, but also his personal one, particularly his attraction to men, an orientation he concealed for several decades. On a recent morning, he spoke about returning to the stage in The Cherry Orchard, why hell never play Shakespeare and whether or not he still finds the theater a sexy place.

Wilkommen … Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret. Photograph: Allstar/Allied Artist

You havent performed a Chekhov play since you starred in Platonov 40 years ago. Had you wanted to go back?

Of course. What actor doesnt? Its just the most human and outrageous and extraordinary.

What do you think about the Stephen Karam version?

I didnt know how it was going to work when I read it, but its very powerful and interesting. I thought The Humans was a beautiful play. I liked his earlier play, Sons of the Prophet I thought that was a killer. I knew immediately this was a major playwright. I didnt know he was a baby. He looks like a baby. He talks and walks like a baby. Hes a very charming kid.

What can you tell me about Firs and about finding this character?

Its always about dreaming and the ideas that come to you in the night details and attitude and heartbreak. You wake up in the morning and you think, oh thats what hes about. Firs represents a kind of forgotten person that every period seems to have, someone whos decided to hold on to his beliefs and his instincts. Firs, hes a slave. And somewhere in that he has integrity and respect for himself and respect for his owners, because thats what he was born with.

Is that his tragedy? That he doesnt want freedom?

Well, he doesnt know it. Its what hes accustomed to and its connected with a sense of importance to someone.

Firs says that life has passed him by. You dont have similar regrets?

No! Have you read my book? I dont think thats part of what Im about. Im about possibilities and about surprises and the life force.

Do you wish youd done more classics or were you happy creating new works?

There was always this idea that I would work on Shakespeare and some of the other classics. But it never came to be. I was always busy. I dont say that in a boasting kind of way, but Peter Brook wanted me to be in the Mahabharata. But I had two children and a wife and it meant maybe a full year commitment at a dollar and a quarter a week, so it didnt seem so possible.

Is it really too late for Shakespeare? What about a Malvolio or a Jacques?

Nah. Im equally interested now in photography and I find it taking a lot of my focus. I like making things. Creating a character that wasnt there before, creating an image.

Youre a consummate character actor. Whats the pleasure in that?

I didnt have any choice. I dont look like Brad Pitt.

Do you still find the theater powerful? You write that your work on The Normal Heart helped you to become honest with yourself about your sexuality.

Yeah. I do believe that. Its always done it for me, in terms of being an audience member. Ive seen a play change a whole audience. When they came in there were things they didnt know and then suddenly they were owners of the secrets.

And do you still feel that the theater is a very sexy place?

Yes. It still is. Its unique in that respect. People are very vulnerable and approachable. Everybody is sort of dropping their reality and dreaming. Its part of the fun. The making believe and the having an affair, an affair of the mind. And then you go home to your wife and kids.

Your book describes how you came to terms with your sexuality. Now that youve made those revelations public, has it changed your acting?

I cant imagine that it didnt. The less encumbered by stuff you are the freer you are to tell the truth. Onstage and off.

Whats next?

Like every actor I think this is my last job. But I know differently.

At the close of the book you reveal that you havent yet found a partner, but are still looking. Any luck?

Not today. Not this morning. But Im not sad. Im fully occupied and interested.

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Steve Reich: the composer with his finger on the pulse

One week ago

Reich showed the world the hypnotic pleasures of repetition as his music took in religion, politics and New York city life and aged 80, hes still moving forward

For 30 years I walked around Manhattan with earplugs in my ears. Steve Reich, whose music seems to embody the pulsing energy of the metropolis, doesnt enjoy being there that much. Whenever I went out I had to kind of gird myself, you know, he says. I basically dont like New York.

If the city had feelings, it would find that particularly hard to take right now. It is in the midst of feting Reich, who has just turned 80. Hes composer in residence at Carnegie Hall, which is throwing a birthday concert for him on 1 November. His work is being performed at the Guggenheim, the Juilliard School and NYU. Hes even in the process of moving back to his roots from the leafy upstate suburb of Pound Ridge, where we meet, to the Lower East Side. I mean, I owe a great deal to New York, he says, and all my best friends are there and I am a New Yorker. But theres a part of me that doesnt like noise, doesnt like a million people, doesnt like concrete.

Fans may have misread City Life, a 1995 work that riffs on slamming taxi doors, horns and sirens, then. That was written in hostility, before we left. It was like, I cant stand these car alarms, so Im going to put them in the piece and do what I want to with them. I know how to take care of you. Im just going to devour you in my music and make something that I really want to hear.

In Pound Ridge birdsong is the only noise likely to disturb him. The Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house that Reich shares with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, sits on a beautiful wooded slope, and warm October sunlight fills the room in which we talk. It might be a wonderful place to compose, but its too isolated. Snow trapped him here one evening when he was supposed to be at a performance of his work in Manhattan. And Korots gallery is on the Lower East Side. So, despite his misgivings, hes returning to the city in which he made his name half a century ago.

In 1965 Steve Reich arrived back in New York after a spell at Mills College, California, where hed been studying composition. He had begun to experiment with tape loops, playing back snippets of human speech at different rates, letting them phase in and out of sync. Syllables sputter and stretch, zooming from one ear to the other, slowly reforming before deforming again. Its Gonna Rain samples a Pentecostal preacher in Union Square, San Francisco, declaiming the story of the Flood. Come Out, made once he was home again, uses the voice of one of the Harlem Six, black men beaten up by police, explaining how hed had to split the skin on a bruise and let the blood come out in order to prove hed been injured. Created to raise money to pay for the Sixs legal team, the piece was included in a Columbia records compilation of new music a couple of years later. It was singled out in reviews and Reich found himself and his phasing technique in the spotlight.

Not everyone was happy, though. Infantile! Reich shouts, mimicking outrage. Infantile. A critic used that word.

Why? When Reich was a student, serialism, a genre that deliberately avoided harmony, melody and rhythm, was the only game in town. Luciano Berio, one of his teachers at Mills College, was a leading exponent, but its inventor was the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. It is difficult, highly intellectual music that makes sense as a stage in the development of the art, but has limited appeal. There have been periods in music called Mannerist, Reich explains. So at the end of Renaissance polyphony, it gets so convoluted, its brilliant but its always going to be off in a corner because its so recherche and so refined. And this always presages some move towards a drastic simplification, a back to basics. Like: hey lets just have a voice singing! Therell be a story, therell be people acting it out Opera!

And so it was in the middle of the 20th century. The skill particularly with Boulez and Stockhausen and the innovation is enormously admirable, enormously well done, and has its place in music history, no question about it. But, it attracted a minuscule audience. And if it werent for the fact that Stockhausen appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper, it wouldve been ever smaller.

I felt in my gut: I became a composer because I love Bach, because I love Stravinsky, because I love bebop, because I love John Coltrane. Now, I just cant I dont want to spend my life doing this.

Reich did go back to basics and uproar ensued. A 1973 performance of Four Organs, a hypnotically beautiful work in which harmonic chords are played again and again, shifting and overlapping, for 15 minutes, became famous for all the wrong reasons. According to Michael Tilson Thomas, now director of the San Francisco Symphony, there were at least three attempts to stop the performance by shouting it down. One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage wailing, Stop, stop, I confess.

With the exception of a few European composers still, as Reich puts it, working in the graveyard, serialism has now mostly disappeared. I think we won hands down, he says, referring to the generation of musicians who broke away with him: Terry Riley, Arvo Prt, Philip Glass. But it is a restoration not a revolution. Swallow it: restoration. Of what? Harmony, rhythm and melody.

Its because of this that the pop, EDM and contemporary classical worlds are as close as they now are, he argues. More and more of the young highly skilled conservatory graduates like to hang out with DJs. He mentions Nico Muhly and the Nationals Bryce Dessner, two of the composers who will feature in his Three Generations programme at Carnegie Hall in April 2017.

Reichs son, Ezra, is also a pop aficionado, and has helped him appreciate artists like Prince and Giorgio Moroder. At the time, he says: I didnt pay any attention to Donna Summer or any of that, I knew disco existed but I didnt listen to it at all. He laughs and says that his favourite Summer track wasnt the famous one (I Feel Love). It was and here he bursts into song She works hard for her money ba da da da da da DA! … I really liked that a lot.

Pulse, which will be performed for the first time at the Carnegie Hall concert (its European premiere is at the Barbican in London on 5 November) was partly inspired Daft Punks collaboration with Moroder. Anchoring the winds, strings and piano is an electric guitar, which pumps out a repetitive bassline in homage to the 70s synth genius.

Also on the bill at both concerts are his collaborations with Korot, Three Tales. These video pieces, with accompanying scores by Reich, were designed to mark the turn of the millennium. They dramatise symbolic moments in the history of the 20th century: the explosion of the Hindenburg, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini atoll and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. As such and like Come Out theyre rare examples of political engagement by Reich.

I am not an activist, never have been, he explains, playing down the resonance between Come Out and the Black Lives Matter movement. I mean I have beliefs and if offered the opportunity, I will help out. But, he says in the long run, subject matter doesnt mean crap. Let me give you an example. One of the greatest artists of the last millennium is Pablo Picasso. And one of Picassos greatest masterpieces is Guernica Its extremely topical, its extremely passionate, its extremely political. As a work of art, its a towering masterpiece. As an effective political tool, its an absolute waste of time. Pablo, get out of here, youre an idiot.

His point is that, after Guernica, bombing civilians became more common, not less. So people ask me, should composers write political music? I say theres one obligation composers have. And that is to write the very best music they possibly can. If politics helps musicians get fired up to make good work then its done its job, he reckons.

Religion too. Reich rediscovered Judaism in his 30s the baseball cap hes never seen without is actually his version of a yarmulke and it has inspired some of his best-known works, including Tehillim and the Daniel Variations. On the wall behind him is a bookshelf stacked with weighty Jewish tomes. Theyre basically all centred around Torah, he explains, the first five books of Moses in the Christian Bible and in the Hebrew scriptures as well. Theyre read every year in a cycle. You start at the beginning of Genesis, and were now approaching the end of that cycle as we speak.

Theres a very famous commentary in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which we are presently in its called Teshuvah, by Maimonides. Teshuvah means returning, returning in a very broad sense of the word, returning to who you are, to who you really are.

Some of Reichs contemporaries, including Glass, Riley and La Monte Young, were directly inspired by Buddhism, with its own narratives of rebirth. Is Jewish spirituality the key to his instrumental pieces, as abstract as they sometimes seem? There is, after all, repetition, cycling, returning, on every page. The answer to your question is: who knows. God knows, I dont. I wouldnt say, Oh no, what are you talking about? Youre talking about something real.

The cyclical is only interesting when its not a cycle but when its a spiral, he continues. If it goes around and around in a circle, youre really a rat in a trap, and just playing a loop is a bore. But if you return above that point, or in a different position, you have returned as a different person, you have returned as a different composer, and you have returned to a different musical accomplishment.

I think it was Charles Olson, a poet you may have heard of, who said: People dont change. They only stand more revealed. And that seems about right for this reluctant New Yorker, finally making his way home again.

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John Oliver: ‘David Cameron can’t attack a hotdog’

8 days ago

As the British anchor of Americas funniest current-affairs series, the TV satirist is uniquely placed to educate each nation about the other. Here he tackles the basics, from Brexit to, er, turducken

Two years after going it alone from The Daily Show, satirist John Oliver may not be Britains biggest export to America (thats James Corden, for now), but hes certainly its sharpest and funniest. This apparently entitles him to no special privileges from HBO, which broadcasts his current-affairs show Last Week Tonight. Im sitting in a windowless room with two gigantic pictures of [The Jinxs villain] Robert Durst on the wall, he explains on the phone from New York. As Im talking to you, his beady eyes are burrowing into my face. Perhaps Robert Durst will soon be in a windowless room with two pictures of me on the wall. But I cant stress this enough: I did not murder three people.

The Guide has set Oliver a task: to explain aspects of modern America to Britain, and vice versa. Its one he sets about with relish, but also with a caveat. Ive been here a decade so Im institutionalised. My bafflement index is much lower than it used to be. This all kind of makes sense to me now.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Photograph: Publicity Image

Its the kind of inexplicable success which only America seems able to produce. Our show doesnt have any remotely appealing ingredients and its popularity cannot be justified. People feel about my show the same way I feel about watching Kiss: why is this popular? It doesnt make any sense. Maybe that makes me the comedy Gene Simmons, but at least he has the dignity to disguise his natural appearance. I guess Brits would enjoy the self-deprecation. Most British people instinctively know they are not as good as people think they are. In America youre forced to confront that on a daily basis: someone will say something is really great, and you then have to explain why its not as great as they think it is. Weve got a poster for the show up in Times Square, in a sea of quotes for movies you know are total shit The greatest thing youll ever see; A luminescent performance from Johnny Knoxville, that kind of thing our poster says: Makes people dumb. I dont disagree with that.

Ted Cruz

US Senator Ted Cruz. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Now that is a very hard thing to explain. Born in Canada, yet every beat of his heart is that of a Texan. Why is he so popular when you consider the things that come out of his mouth? All I can do is reassure British people: dont worry, he is not going to be president. I wouldnt waste too much time worrying about what Ted Cruz is, where he came from or how this has happened. I dont think therell be much residual effect from his behaviour outside Texas state borders. He is not going to be the nominee. Iowa has a distinguished history of not picking the candidate who becomes the nominee. Thats why we do not have a President Mike Huckabee right now. Dont put too much emphasis on what the people of Iowa think.


A chicken, oblivious to the oncoming turduckening. Photograph: National Geographic Image Collec/Alamy

The backbone of American cuisine is that it is either absolutely disgusting or the most delicious thing youve ever eaten. Id heard about turducken and I was very curious: eating it felt like a high-end version of being in Im A Celebrity. Its a chicken stuffed inside a duck, stuffed inside a turkey, then baked or roasted. I wanted to hate it, but its actually really tasty: three nice bits of meat welded together. You can serve it with mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, but you dont remember what you had with a turducken. Its the preeminent force on the plate, and youve already demonstrated your dominance over the animal kingdom by making Russian nesting dolls out of three animals and eating them. You couldnt be further on top of the food chain than that. It evokes the same level of awe as youd have about America putting someone on the moon. Its not about why they did it, its the fact that they did it at all.

US elections

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Photograph: John Locher/AP

American elections are so spectacular and go on so long that almost every part of it is fascinating, especially to a British outsider. The personalities are just the start. Theyre almost in three-year campaign cycles now; its not going to take much for America to be in a permanent state of election. It costs you a billion dollars to lose that election, so youre going to have to spend a billion dollars to not become president of the United States. Personally, Id like to vote. Im experiencing taxation without representation, which they did not enjoy when we did it to them. Ive lived here for a decade, but Im not able to vote unless Im willing to commit voter fraud. I think its touch and go but its probably not worth it. Were on the record here, after all. But if I could get dual citizenship, Id be interested in that. It does feel like my home now.

Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption

An ad for Olivers bogus church: Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. Photograph: Publicity image

In the last series, we set up a church [to expose televangelists and the ease of avoiding tax through establishing a religious organisation]. It took a lot of legal advice and months of gathering correspondence with one pastor. In terms of the UK, Im not sure what the Inland Revenues position on churches is. The IRS is very much of the opinion that all churches, whatever their form, operate tax free. How would I make sense of what we achieved? We achieved nothing! We achieved $70,000 in single [donations], a four-foot wooden penis and five vials of human sperm. Although a lot of people would consider that a decent years work, I suppose. Its a pretty impressive room full of tat.

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the 2015 party conference. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Calling him the British Bernie Sanders would be very reductive, very simplistic and probably the best way to explain him to Americans, while being wildly inaccurate. If you try to explain the differences, then youre into the parliamentary system and youve lost them. For Americans, its all about the prime minister, whether or not he stuck a dick in a pigs mouth. Over here, people hoped that story was true. I did. Either way, it seems entirely plausible, which makes whether or not its true kind of irrelevant. When Cameron came over here, he ate a hotdog in a stupid manner and completely lost any level of authority he might have had. He held it like it was a china cup of tea. Thats not how you attack a hotdog. As for Corbyn and Sanders, I think well have to wait and see whether being principled actually gets you anywhere. I dont think you can doubt the tenacity of their beliefs. But can you translate that into power?

The Milk Tray Man

New Milk Tray Man Patrick McBride. Photograph: Cadbury/PA

Theyve made a fireman the new Milk Tray Man? I didnt know that. How would you explain him? I guess hes the connective tissue between James Bond and [Russ Abbot character] Basildon Bond. They understand James Bond in America: very handsome man doing brave things to save us all. Well, imagine that, except hes less attractive, has lower muscle mass and is just delivering mid-range chocolates to sleeping women in a way that definitely blurs the boundaries between stalking and breaking and entering. Theres a magnificent melancholy about him, this shadowy figure performing an act of unrequited love. And its not even that great an act of love. Are they from him or is it on behalf of someone else? No one knows. All you know is, that person isnt sending a very strong message, otherwise it would have been a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher. Although Ferrero Rocher wouldnt allow that anonymity because it would clearly be from an ambassador or, at the very least, someone with access to the embassy.


Steve Bells take on Brexit. Illustration: Steve Bell

Youve got to go back a long way to even start making sense of this. Initially, youre having to explain what Europe is, the fact that there are different countries in it, and that some of them are part of this union. At which point, youll have to go right back to the start again and explain it all in more detail. They have absolutely no working knowledge of what the EU actually is over here. The quickest way to explain it would be that British people feel aloof about everything including the continent of Europe. There is no interest whatsoever in the intricacies of European politics over here. I think its fascinating. We did a piece on the Scottish referendum but even there youre working with contained examples of things they understand. They understand Braveheart: the fact that an Australian man once painted his face blue, wore a skirt and screamed at an Englishman wearing a crown. They have a fundamental working knowledge of the tension in that relationship.

Pyjamas on the school run

An early start to the school run. Photograph: Alamy

The right to wear pyjamas on the school run, like those parents in Darlington? Youre just describing freedom to an American here. Just as they defend their right to bear arms, they [would] defend their right to wear pyjamas. Theyre not going to have some town council or school governor tell them they cant wear rabbit slippers to drop their kids off at school. Thats not what this country fought a revolution for. The very reason they kicked the British out was so that, one day, they could wear pyjamas on the school run, and in doing so feel the full force of freedom. Theyre not hearing the specifics, theyre just hearing: are you free or not? If youre not being allowed to wear pyjamas to drop your kids off, youre basically in a Stalinist gulag.

Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan at the opening of an envelope, yesterday. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

I dont know how you explain Piers Morgan back to Americans now. I dont think he ever intended for America to be his home, and theres a difference between criticising the place you have come to call home and the place you have come to live in for a bit. Ideally, on the Venn diagram between myself and Piers there would be no overlap whatsoever, on either a personal or professional level. If we could be two non-interlocking circles Id be fine with that. Any comparison with him makes me want to challenge you to a duel.

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver airs Monday 29 February, 10.10pm, Sky Atlantic

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The literary life of Michiko Kakutani: the book critic’s best conflicts and reviews

11 days ago

The New York Times writer is stepping down from her role, leaving behind a remarkable career characterized by razor-sharp reviews and intra-literary rows

Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times adored chief volume critic, announced she was stepping down from her post on Thursday after 38 years, marking the end of a career that inspired both appreciation and anxiety in the hearts of the writers whose books she reviewed.

Kakutani was Americas most powerful literary critic, a person who has, with the stroke of a pen, wielded immense influence over the careers of both budding and established novelists. Over the course of her tenure at the Times, Kakutani was remarkably guarded, making few appearances in public and allowing her reviews to speak for themselves. In honor of a critic so widely celebrated the scribe behind pieces that launched the careers of David Foster-Wallace, George Saunders and Zadie Smith and indignation quite a few others here are her best feuds and reviews, broken down.

The feuds

Kakutani v Franzen

Part of what so attracted readers to Kakutanis work was her constant objectivity, a quality that was on display in her ability to write admiringly of an author and then, if underwhelmed by a later release, roast them over a fire. Kakutani praised Jonathan Franzens novel The Corrections as a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990 s, but was less intrigued by his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, questioning why anyone said he wished to pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr Franzens mind. The novelist fired back in an interview with the Guardian, calling Kakutani tone-deaf and humorless. Then, two years later, at a discussion with James Wood at Harvard, he upped the bet by referring to the critic as the stupidest person in New York City.

Kakutani v Mailer

Kakutani reviewed Norman Mailers 2006 novel The Gospel According to the Sun, a first-person autobiographical retelling of the Bible from the perspective of Jesus himself. She called it a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical volume that reads like a combination of Godspell, Nikos Kazantzakis Last Temptation of Christ and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations; Mailer, never one to shy away from a writerly bicker, called Kakutani a one-woman kamikaze in an interview with Rolling Stone. He then indicated the Times merely retains Kakutani because shes a woman of Asian descent: She disdains white male writers, and Im her number-one favorite target, he said. But the Times editors cant fire her. Theyre frightened of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, shes a threefer, Asiatic, feminist, and ah, whats the third? Well, lets only call her a twofer. She is a token. And deep down, she probably knows it.

Susan Sontag. Photo: Lluis Gene/ AFP/ Getty Images

Kakutani v Sontag

After Kakutani panned Susan Sontags book Regarding the Pain of Others, the late Susan Sontag was less than pleased. Her criticism of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the phase, she told the Independent. It was a dumb, bad review as opposed to a smart-alecky, bad review. I expected better of her. As for the review in question, Kakutani called the book, an extended essay in which Sontag probes war different 20 th century visual representations of war, ambivalent, adding, Is it really a revelation that a picture can sometimes is worthy of a thousand terms?

Kakutani v Updike

Fifteen years ago, Kakutani wrote that in John Updikes Seek My Face, a roman clef fiction that drew inspiration from the lives of the artists Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, its impossible for the reader to find a single believable character. For good measure, she added that the book seemed to be written by a lazy, voyeuristic and reductive hand. Updike returned the favor, telling a reporter that hes largely unscathed by professional reviewers like Michiko Kakutani, who manages so many books that theres a secret hatred of all books that runs through, or a wish to dismiss.

Kakutani v Foster-Wallace

In her 1996 review of David Foster-Wallaces sprawling novel Infinite Jest, Kakutani sprinkled a bit of snark in an otherwise glowing review. While she wrote that the 1,096 -page epic cemented Foster-Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a novelist of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, she also quoted Henry James in calling Jest a loose, baggy monster, adding that it read like a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr Wallaces mind. In his 2012 biography of the late Foster-Wallace, DT Max wrote that the writer told a friend he conceals in his room for two days and screamed after reading yet another paragraph to be given to parallels between his first volume and Pynchons most popular novel. In public, though, Foster-Wallace seemed to lend little credence to Kakutanis criticisms: in an interview with Laura Miller, he said: If the length[ of Infinite Jest] seems gratuitous, as it did to a very charming Japanese dame from the New York Times, then it elicits ire.

The glowing reviews

On Jonathan Franzens 2010 novel Freedom

It took Jonathan Franzen nine years to follow up the literary sensation that was The Corrections. When the final product arrived, in the form of his expansive novel Freedom, Kakutani heaped praise upon the author for his expansive, post-modernist narrative of the Berglund family:

Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal exhorts. He demonstrates himself as hotshot at adolescent comedy( what happens to Joey after he accidentally swallows his bridal ring right before a vacation with his dream girl) as he is at grown-up misfortune( what happens to Walters assistant and new beloved when she defines off alone on a trip to West Virginia coal country ); as skilled at holding a mirror to the world his people inhabit day by dreary day as he is at limning their messy inner lives.

On Zadie Smiths 2005 novel On Beauty

Kakutani helped launched Zadie Smiths career after reviewing her debut novel White Teeth, but its her assessment of Smiths On Beauty that really sets in prose her greatest gifts as a critic 😛 TAGEND

On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships what EM Forster regarded as the real life, forever and ever. Like Forster, Ms Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between and in these pages, she utilizes that voice to enormous effect, dedicating us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.

Michiko Kakutani. Photo: New York Times

On Don Delillos 1997 fiction Underworld

There were few critics who had bad things to say about Underworld when it first came out in 1997, Kakutani included. In her review, she commended Delillo and also seamlessly observed a style to include the word effluvia.

With his astonishing new fiction, DeLillo has written that volume, or at least a close approximation of it. Underworld is an amazing performance, a fiction that encompasses some five decades of history, both the hard, bright world of public events and the more subterranean world of private emotions in which people are connected by a secret calculus of hope and loss. It is the story of one human, one family, but it is also the story of what happened to America in the second half of the 20 th century …

… The same might well be said of Mr DeLillo, who in this remarkable novel has taken the effluvia of modern life, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.

On Toni Morrisons 1984 novel Beloved

If the goal of a positive book review is to give the reader incentive to buy the book themselves, Kakutani was uniquely adept at taking a true work of art Toni Morrisons Beloved, for instance and writing a review almost a trenchant and skillful as the novels about which she opined 😛 TAGEND

At the heart of Toni Morrisons extraordinary new fiction, Beloved, there stands a horrifying event an event so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp hour before and after into a single, unwavering line of fate. It will destroy one familys dream of safety and liberty; it will haunt an entire community for generations, and, as related by Ms Morrison, it will resound in readers intellects long after they have finished this book.

On Juniot Diazs 2012 short story collection This is How You Lose Her

Kakutani was, like most, an admirer of Junot Diazs 2007 novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but her review of his collection of narratives, This is How You Lose Her, provided smart insights into the ways his natural gifts for characterization translated to a smaller, less novelistic scale 😛 TAGEND

The strongest narratives are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that stimulated Brief Wondrous Life so memorable and that capture Yuniors efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider. Mr Daz evocatively describes Yuniors affection for Santo Domingo: how he loves the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway, loves the redhead female on her route to meet the daughter she hasnt seen in 11 years, holding gifts on her lap like the bones of a saint. He is equally adept at eliciting the exotic world of New Jersey that Yunior and his handsome brother, Rafa, are introduced to as children, when their father moves the family to America: the startling sight of snow and snowmen, television as an English language teacher, trips to the Pathmark.

The negative reviews

On Bill Clintons 2004 memoir My Life

Kakutanis review of the former chairpeople 2004 memoir remains a crash-course in the art of the literary takedown and a living testament to the critics often-searing honesty.

The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull the sound of one man prattling away , not for the reader, but for himself and some remote recording angel of history.

In many styles, the book is a mirror of Mr Clintons presidency: lack of discipline leading to expended opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.

On Haruki Murakamis 1984 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Kakutani was quite consistently a Murakami skeptic, writing lukewarm its consideration of his other volumes like After the Quake and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. But she was most unenthused by Wind-Up Bird Chronicle 😛 TAGEND

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

For most of us, art is supposed to do something more than simply mirror the confusions of the world. Worse, Wind-Up Bird often seems so messy that its refusal of close feels less like an artistic selection than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter( or computer) one last time.

On Henry Kissingers 2011 history of Chinese politics, On China : Kakutani reared her critical head on nonfiction books as incisively as she did toward fiction. Her review of Henry Kissingers On China, a collecting of the former secretary of states contemplations on a country with which he was well-versed, displays Kakutanis knack for cutting through politician-speak 😛 TAGEND

Lurking beneath Mr. Kissingers musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, Diplomacy, is another sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixons national security consultant and secretary of state. It is a volume that promotes Mr. Kissingers own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Maos ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of recently released American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.

On Jonathan Littels 2009 novel The Kindly Ones :

Jonathan Littels The Kindly Ones, a work of historical fiction that looked at World War II through the eyes of an SS officer, was understandbly divisive when first translated form French to English in 2009. Kakutani reserved for the book some of her harshest criticisms 😛 TAGEND

The fictions gushing fans, however, seem to have misstep perversity for daring, pretension for aspiration, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise knew of Greek mythology as the Eumenides is an overstuffed suitcase of a volume, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrators incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

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Early Man review – back-of-the-net triumph from Aardman

18 days ago

Nick Parks hilarious family animation pitches the stone age against the bronze age in a prehistoric football fantasy

Early Man review – back-of-the-net triumph from Aardman

Early Man review – back-of-the-net triumph from Aardman

Nick Park’s hilarious family animation pitches the stone age against the bronze age in a prehistoric football fantasy

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Gary Shteyngart: ‘As a Queens boy, Trump was very impressive’

19 days ago

As a Russian immigrant to the US, the author grew up looking up to Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump now, he hopes his satire about a hedge-fund manager stops people from becoming bankers

In June 2016, Gary Shteyngart got on a bus. It was a cross-country Greyhound of a kind romanticised by those who don’t have to use them, and that he would describe in Lake Success, his fourth novel, as emanating from a depot in central Manhattan that “smelled like someone had eaten a fish sandwich”. The 46-year-old’s notion was to travel for a few months through the country he had entered in 1979 with his parents, from the Soviet Union, and elements of which he was failing to recognise. “At that point,” he says, “Trump was already a candidate and I didn’t think he would win when I got on the bus.”

Like many New Yorkers, Shteyngart grew up with Trump and had seen him through several iterations. “As a Queens boy, Trump was very impressive,” he says. “You could see his mansion, which back then seemed gigantic. And he was trying to do what we were all trying to do, which was to get the hell out of Queens and into Manhattan. But for Manhattan people he was a joke. And when I later became a Manhattan person, he also became a joke. In a weird way, I made the transition and he didn’t, and the whole country has to pay for that.”

These days, Shteyngart is a Manhattan person to such a degreethat he has found it necessary to move part time out of Manhattan, to his second home in upstate New York. We sit in a park around the corner from his city apartment, and across the street from his old school, the insanely competitive Stuyvesant high school (which has since moved to new buildings in Lower Manhattan), an environment of bone-deep familiarity to Shteyngart that became less appealing to him during the writing of Lake Success. The novel describes, in a slow, hilarious arc, the developing nervous breakdown of Barry Cohen, a hedge-fund manager who walks out on his wife and autistic child to take an odyssey on the Greyhound, just as Trump’s campaign is transforming America.

Odyssey on the Greyhound … Shteyngart took a months-long trip for his fourth novel, Lake Success. Photograph: Alamy

More broadly, it is about what the world of finance and the people in it – characterised by Shteyngart as having “a very small interior life; the families are by the wayside, divorce is rampant, they have many wives, they have a gazillion kids they don’t really keep in touch with”, and this is before one gets to the tax fraud and racism – have done to the world in general and New York in particular. “Writing this book and seeing how the sausage is made has meant cities like New York and London become less attractive,” he says.

It also made wealth acquisition, an unvanquishable ambition in Shteyngart as a child, much less desirable. By the standards of most writers, of course, he does very well. (Shteyngart bought his Gramercy Park apartment eight years ago for $1.1m, the kind of publicly listed information people in Manhattan obsessively Google the second they leave someone’s flat after a dinner party and that Shteyngart puts to good satirical use in Lake Success). Most of his books, including his recent memoir Little Failure, have been bestsellers and although he looks emphatically like a man who just spent six months on a Greyhound bus, he pals around with chumssuch as Ben Stiller and is the kind of canny self-promoter who clearly understands the value of a sales pitch.

And yet, of course, compared with the likes of Cohen, a man obsessing over his priceless collection of watches and worrying about his billions of assets under management, the life of any writer is pathetic. “When I started hanging out with hedge fund guys I was like, oh my God, I’m really not rich! And then I started thinking, ‘All right, I’m not rich!’ And then I started thinking, ‘There’s really nothing it gives you.’ It’d be nice to have a private plane for a little while, but not really. You’d have to think all the time about maintaining it.”

And then there’s the question of meaning. At its heart, like much of Shteyngart’s work, Lake Success is the story of what it means to be happy. In the novel, Cohen has the idea of buying a Rolex for every impoverished child in the land and constantly flogs the story of his dead mother as an alibi for everything he’s done since, neither of which does anything to fix him.

“You hear people stand up and say, ‘I came from nothing, my mother was blah blah blah, and now I’m worth billions.’ And it’s almost like a part of them knows that what they’re doing is of absolutely no help to society, in fact hurts society by creating this kind of inequality, and the only way they can ameliorate their own self-hatred is by saying, ‘Well I came from nothing, I worked my ass off and now I’m trying to help!’”

Don’t they derive some self-validation from being loathed?

“No,” says Shteyngart. “I think at heart they still want to be loved, very badly.”

Shteyngart and his wife, Esther, have a four-year-old son and before moving upstate, they lookedat schools in Manhattan. “We were looking at one – a very liberal school – and the kids were supposed to draw what they did on their summer vacation, and it was all ‘We took our Porsche to our yacht, Miss Bell.’ It’s not normal. And this is a huge part of Lake Success.”

The funny thing is that as an adolescent, Shteyngart wanted to go into finance. It was the 1980s and he and his friends in their immigrant neighbourhood in Queens desperately wanted to make money. They were nerdy kids, too, who after getting into the most competitive high school in the city thought the way to win – to buy their way out of gaucheness and social failure – was to go into banking.

Shteyngart had the advantage of being forced to give up this dream early because he simply wasn’t good enough at maths. For a while, however, the ambition was fierce. “I remember seeing the movie Wall Street, thinking, ‘Well, the key here is not to get caught.’ And because I was a Russian immigrant and couldn’t speak English and kids made fun of me, I thought the only way out of this is to be stupendously rich. So when I got to Stuyvesant I thought, ‘Yes, this is going to be great, I’m going to go to Harvard.’ And then there were 3,000 other kids there who were all smarter than me in terms of maths and science, and I was like: ‘Oh, crap.’”

Inspiration? … Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library

Instead, he went to Oberlin College, a university in Ohio renowned in the US for being eye-rollingly right-on, and suddenly his Russian heritage had social capital. “You can’t just be a white straight male there; it’s pathetic. So all of a sudden I realised, ‘Holy crap, I’m an immigrant!’ So I started speaking with an accent, making borscht, which is actually Ukrainian but whatever, majored in Soviet politics and my minor was creative writing, but all I wrote about was Russia and I thought, ‘Kerching, I’m in!’ But writing Little Failure was a way to get rid of all the Russian material, because after that there’s nothing left.”

Lake Success is the first book of Shteyngart’s that doesn’t feature a Russian protagonist. (“He’s Jewish, so baby steps here. But he’s an American dude.”) His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was published in 2002 and follows around young Vladimir Girshkin, a 25-year-old Russian immigrant to New York; it announced Shteyngart as an expert tightrope walker on the line between exuberant send-up and ludicrously overblown satire.

Four years later, he published his breakthrough novel Absurdistan, which featured Misha Vainberg, the morbidly obese hero and son of the “1,238th richest man in Russia”, who attends an Oberlin-like institution called Accidental College. “As a writer you can’t just keep writing about your own world, because who cares,” he says. “So the last book, Super Sad True Love Story, was about tech, in a way, and the previous book was about oil politics and this is about finance.”

Super Sad True Love Story, published in 2010, was set in a dystopian future in which everyone goes around with their net worth spelled out, and much of which, Shteyngart is amused to note, came true – not least the availability of information about the value of his apartment. (“One thing I learned from the hedge fund world is that you gotta use an LLC,” he says drily, referring to a limited liability company). By contrast, Lake Success was a novel written in real time, a journalistic project transformed into fiction while he was still on the bus, and the trajectory of which changed while he was writing it.

At one point, Cohen finds himself in a bar in Atlanta, casually mocking Trump to a bunch of aggressive men in cargo shorts, all of whom predict “that Hillary is going to lose Ohio and Pennsylvania. And I remember that exact conversation. Them getting angry with me and walking out. But they were right and I was wrong! How the hell did they know that in July 2016?”

The answer is, at some level, that they knew the country better than Shteyngart. “I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’ Then you have someone like Obama win, and that whole narrative gets turned upside down.”

There is a gender dimension to the story, too. “My first thought was that I wanted to write about a woman who’s a hedge-fund manager – there are a few. But it’s such a male world, the women are stuck in investor relations. And when I did meet a few women in hedge funds, they were all normal; their decisions were sober. They didn’t take on ridiculous risk and then blow up.”

One of the questions of the novel is to what extent you should feel bad for Cohen, one that Shteyngart says “every reader has to answer” – although he anticipates that “a lot of people are not going to be happy that it’s a hedge-fund guy”. The greater question, perhaps, is why as a novelist he has picked a hero with such severe limitations. Isn’t it pure snobbery to dismiss an entire group of people as having no interior life, compared with the rich mental tapestry of the novelist?

“No, I don’t think so. I see what’s before me and I compare it to the people that I know. On my journey by Greyhound, I found that the people who are really happy are upper middle-class people in places like El Paso, Texas, who had jobs that connected with the community in some way, so professors at the University of Texas, most of whose kids are first generation [immigrants], and where they make a real difference – it shows! And these people don’t live poorly; they have huge houses. Not by the standards of the hedge-fund people, but they actually have a meaningful connection with the world around them. It’s not snobbery. I want them to be happy. They’re stealing all our taxes and even that doesn’t make them happy! It’s like a zero sum game and we’re all losing.”

Shteyngart has a tiny hope that Lake Success may do some good in the world by falling into the hands of an impressionable teen, or someone currently unhappy in banking.

“My dream is that some dude comes up to me and says: ‘I worked in finance and after reading Lake Success I decided to become a teacher.’ Or: ‘I left Canary Wharf and now I’m a social worker. In Wales.’” In the meantime, he says, “the biggest compliment I’ve had is from people who’ve said you made me feel something for a hedge-fund guy.” There is, perhaps, no greater test of one’s skill as a writer.

Lake Success is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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The VR Metaverse of Ready Player One Is Just Beyond Our Grasp

19 days ago

Virtual reality, as it’s been promised to us by science fiction, is a singular realm of infinite possibility. Star Trek’s Holodeck, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Virtual World, Snow Crash’s Metaverse: Each is the all-powerful experience generator of its world, able to accommodate a character’s any desire. Novelist Ernest Cline sharpened this vision in his 2011 debut, Ready Player One, which hits theaters in March courtesy of Steven Spielberg. While the story is set in the strife-torn meatspace of 2045, most of its action unfolds in a vast network of artificial worlds called the OASIS. And in the tradition of reality playing catch-up to sci-fi, the OASIS has become the endgame for real-world VR developers, many of whom are actively trying to replicate its promise. Are they making progress? Absolutely. Are they doing it right? Absolutely not.

The OASIS is saddled with a terrible acronym—hopefully Spielberg never lets one of his characters say “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”—but it offers something attractive: breadth. Some of the environments contained in the OASIS are created by users, others by government agencies; they range from educational to recreational (reconstructions of ’80s fantasy novels are popular), nonprofit to commercial.

Today’s real-life multiuser VR experiences, by contrast, are less OASIS and more ­PUDDLE (Provisionally Usable Demonstration of Dazz­ling Lucid Environments). Some of the constraints are aesthetic: In AltspaceVR, users are limited to a narrow range of expressionless human and robot avatars, while the goofy up-with-people charm of Against Gravity’s Rec Room hinges on you not caring that avatars lack noses. Other constraints are experiential: Facebook’s Spaces lets you hang out only with people you’re already Friends with. Startups with OASIS-size ambitions are hampered by still other issues, whether that’s a noob-unfriendly world-building system (Sansar) or a dark-side-of-Reddit vibe that invites trollery (VRchat).

The problem, though, isn’t such metaphorical boundaries—it’s literal ones. None of these PUDDLEs touch. You can’t hop from Rec Room to VRchat; you’re stuck where you started. That’s why it’s hard to feel truly immersed. To reach Cline’s 2045, developers need to start laying the foundation now for an infrastructure that links each of these worlds. If that sounds idealistic, or even dangerous, it’s not. Think of the days before the internet, when various institutions ran their own walled-off networks. Only when computer scientists came together to standardize protocols did the idea of a single network become possible. Now imagine applying that notion to VR—a metaverse in which users can flit between domains without losing their identity or their bearings as they travel.

The OASIS works because it feels like it has no owners, no urgent needs. It’s a utility, a toolkit available for artisans and corporations alike. If we want to realize this potential ourselves—universal freedom and possibility—let’s start thinking about VR the way Cline does: not as a first-to-market commodity, but as an internet all its own.

Peter Rubin (@provenself) is the author of the upcoming book Future Presence.

This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.

All photo references by Getty Images

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‘Everyone we know is white’: John Legend sings to Downton Abbey theme

20 days ago

Singer concludes Americas love affair with the British show by adding lyrics to the instrumental theme on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Listen here

John Legend leant his vocal prowess and a dose of satire to the Downton Abbey theme song by adding lyrics to the shows famous instrumental opener.

Clad in a tuxedo, Legend appeared on Monday nights episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live to perform his rendition of the song on the heels of Downton Abbeys series finale, which aired Sunday night on PBS. The British period drama ran for six seasons, drawing millions of fans around the globe. Nearly 10 million viewers watched the final season premiere in January.

Legend spared no one in the song, poking fun at individual characters and noting the shows very white cast.

Everyone we know is very white, the song began. We dont have one black friend.

After pointing out that everyone in the show has so many hats to wear, Legend took aim at the Crawley family matriarch, famously portrayed by Maggie Smith.

Grandmamma is always such a witch, Legend sang. She needs to get laid.

He then melodiously stated facts about other characters like Mr Bates (a murderer but hes a real nice guy) and Thomas Barrow (We have a footman who is gay. Hes always carrying a tray). Legend couldnt sing about Downton Abbey without shedding light on favorite British period drama pastimes: drinking tea, taking naps, eating scones and gossiping.

Lets all ride horses and talk smack, he sang.

The song peaked and ended as Legend talked smack on Edith, the second Crawley daughter.

Edith is such a loser, why wont she just die? Why? Why? the Oscar-winner warbled.

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Microphone Cut After Mormon Girl Reveals She’s Gay At Church

23 days ago

Salt Lake City( AP) — A video of a young Mormon girl expose to her congregation that she is lesbian and still loved by God — before her microphone is to turn by local church leaders — is sparking a new round of discussions about how the religion handles LGBT issues.

Savannah, 13, am speaking on May 7 in Eagle Mountain, Utah, about her faith that she is the child of heavenly mothers who didn’t make any mistakes when she was created. Her comments came during a once-a-month portion of Mormon Sunday services where members are encouraged to share impressions and beliefs.

“They did not mess up when they “ve been given” freckles or when they stimulated me to be homosexual, ” she said, wearing a white shirt and red affiliation. “God loves me only this way.”

Her mother, Heather Kester, said Friday that her daughter was passionate about coming out in church to be a voice and instance for other LGBT children who struggle for acceptance within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She asked that Savannah’s full name be withheld to protect her privacy.

The Mormon religion is one of many conservative faith groups upholding theological opposition to same-sex relationships amid widespread social acceptance and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing lesbian wedding. At the same day, the Mormon church is trying to foster an empathetic posture toward LGBT people.

The video, which Kester says was taken by a friend of Savannah who came to support her, has generated buzz after it was circulated online this month and featured in a Mormon LGBT podcast.

While some consider Savannah a hero, other Mormons are upset that it was videotaped and is being circulated by church critics to try and paint the church in an unflattering light.

Judd Law, the lay bishop who results the congregation south of Salt Lake City, said in a statement distributed by church headquarters that Savannah is a “brave young girl” and that the congregation is constructing sure she and their own families feel loved.

But he called problematic the unauthorized recording and the “disruptive demonstration” by a group of non-Mormon adults who were there.

Law said they exploited the events to politicize worship services and infringe church propriety. “We do not politic in our chapels, and exploiting this recording for political intents is inconsistent with the nature of our worship services, ” he said.

Law didn’t address or explain the decision by two of his counselors to cut the microphone. Law wasn’t at the service that day.

Savannah read from written notes from the pulpit. Kester said she is not Mormon, but her husband is and Savannah has been raised in the religion.

“I do not choose to be this way and this is not a fad, ” Savannah told the congregation on May 7. “I cannot make someone else lesbian . … I believe that God wants us to treat each other with kindness, even if people are different, especially if they are different.”

Her microphone was muted after about two minutes — shortly after she said she’s not a “horrible sinner” and that she someday hopes to have a partner, get married and have a family. She turned around to listen to something a human in a suit told her and then was strolled down from the pulpit.

Kester said her daughter came and exclaimed in her lap. She told her she was beautiful and that God loved her, Kester said.

“I was devastated for her, ” said Kester, adding. “I was angry at how that was handled.”

After the Utah-based Mormon church received backlash in 2008 for helping result the fight for California’s Proposition 8 constitutional outlaw on homosexual matrimony, religious leaders expended several years carefully developing a more empathetic LGBT tone. That was interrupted in 2015 when the church adopted new rules banning children lives with gay parents from being christened until age 18.

In October, church leaders updated a website created in 2012 to let members know that that attraction to people of the same sexuality is not a sin or a measure of their faithfulness and may never go away. But the church reminded members that having gay sexuality transgresses fundamental doctrinal beliefs that will not change.

Scott Gordon, chairman of FairMormon, a volunteer organization that supports the church, wrote a blog defending the church against a rash of criticism over the incident.

Gordon said it would have been OK for Savannah to come out as homosexual during witnes, but that she crossed the line when she mischaracterized church teaches by saying God would want her to have a partner and get married.

“While you can believe almost anything you want to believe, you can’t preach it from the pulpit, ” Gordon said.

Britt Jones, a bisexual Mormon who runs a podcast called “I like to look for Rainbows” that featured Savannah’s story, said the leaders should have allowed Savannah to finish.

“Queer issues don’t get talked about in the church enough, ” said Jones, who is married to a woman and has children. “It was really brave and truly admirable, particularly for somebody that young, that she not only wanted to talk about it herself but has become a voice for others suffering in silence.”

The Chosen Wars review: examine of American Jews uncovers familiar schisms

24 days ago

Steven Weisman determines contention and dispute at every stage of Jewish American history including modern-day politics

On election day 2016, Hillary Clinton won more than 70% of the Jewish election. But that number tells only part of a narrative. In some predominately Orthodox Jewish precincts, Donald Trump’s numbers were straight out of the rust belt or the deep south.

As in the rest of the electorate, religious commitment and educational attainment shaped how Jews voted. In the overwhelmingly religion Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Trump took 68% of the vote. In New Jersey’s Lakewood Township, he won with a 50 -point margin. By contrast, the island of Manhattan was a sea of Democratic blue.

The political cleavages that mark the broader American scenery existing between America’s Jews. Just as Jews were to be found on both sides of slavery, secession and the civil war, they are again combatants in a political skirmish. Think of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader.

Welcome to The Chosen Wars, a narrative of the Jewish journey in the different regions of the American scenery. Steven Weisman, who covered politics and economics at the New York Times for a one-quarter of a century, marshals an impressive array of facts to argue that the competing tugs of separatism and assimilation have been present ever since Jews landed in the New world in the 17 th century, that even among the devout the broader culture affected religious practice, and that Jewish communal participation has ebbed and flowed with time.

As Weisman frames things,” Jewish belief in the Jewish people’s own unique identity … has been so strong that it remains a foundation of Jewish life in the United States .” He also acknowledges that identity” has always been and is very likely be one of contention and dispute “. Things are alloyed.

The book chronicles how the constitution’s establishment clause led to the laity’s domination within the synagogue. Most notably for Weisman, a schism within a Charleston shul triggered a landmark lawsuit and decision. Unlike Europe, the civil authorities would not pick sides even when asked. Ultimately, a South Carolina appellate court ruled in 1846 that the judiciary must avoid” questions of theological dogma, depending on speculative religion, or ecclesiastical rites “.

In other words, they would let the Jews duke it out among themselves.

At hours they actually did. Weisman describes an actual riot that have broken out on Rosh Hashanah 1850 in Albany, New York, over the nature of the Messiah. The police were called and the congregation scattered, but not before the synagogue chairwoman taunted the rabbi, Isaac Wise, saying:” I have $100,000 more than you .” Yet it was Wise’s rejection of a personal and national Messiah that shaped Reform Judaism. It represented a break from 2,000 years of tradition.

The book also examines how Darwin and criticism impacted attitudes toward the Bible, divine authorship taking a make. Emil Hirsch, a Reform Rabbi and professor at the University of Chicago, declared:” Modern scholarship has spoken, and its voice cannot be hushed .”

To put things in context, even those more traditionally minded were forced to respond or adjust to science.

On the one hand, within the Hasidic movement the dominant mantra remains:” If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without anxiety of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to subsistence it .”

On the other, within Orthodoxy’s more modern circles there was a retreat from taking the creation narrative and Genesis’s timeline literally. A “day” came to be read as eons, and the Divine Hand could be found guiding the Descent of Man.

Said differently, distinctions are now being drawn between the ” historical credibility of biblical narrative “ and its ” theological truths “.

Donald Trump receives a gift at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters

Weisman dedicates Orthodoxy its due as a force to be reckoned with. From Long Island’s Five Towns to the Upper East Side, and in the Young Israel of New Rochelle and Scarsdale, the denomination is no longer acting like a poor relation.

The Chosen Wars occasionally loses sight of relevant skirmishes within American Protestantism. Weisman does a deep diving on the battle waged from the pulpit on bondage and secession but constructs no reference to its antecedents. In a sense, 19 th-century Jews arrived late to that party.

In 1700 Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts businessman and magistrate, penned The Selling of Joseph, which served as a theological rebuttal to the contention that blacks were inferior in the eyes of God, and that their plight as slaves was preordained as the purported descendants of Ham and Canaan, Noah’s cursed son and grandson.

Sewall, a magistrate during the Salem witchcraft trials, contended that” Joseph was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren, than they were to him: and they had no more Authority to Sell him, than they had to Slay him “. Against that backdrop, the” Curse of Ham“, invoked in a New York synagogue in the run-up to the civil war, sounds like a recapitulation of an earlier argument posited by slavery-sympathetic southern clergy.

Weisman is optimistic about the future of American Jewry. But if the Puritan ultimately succumbed to the temptations of the figuratively precluding forest, there is no reason to presume Jews will be much different. After all, Jewish immigration to America was about fleeing from the Old World and living the American Dream , not founding a City on a Hill.

Looking at America’s religion scenery, “nones” are now the single most important subgroup among millennials. Among America’s Jews, the narrative is not much different. Three in 10 reject denominational identity. Outside the Orthodox community, the Jewish birthrate is below “the member states national” median. American Jewry will probably endure, but its demographics stand to be different: from the looks of things, more religious but less educated, affluent and influential.

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