The Park Avenue Armory via
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This week: Whitman, Wilson, and Sonic Wind.
Fiction: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark (Folio Society): I’ve long been a great admirer of the work done by the Folio Society, a niche British imprint that creates beautiful editions of (mostly) classic literature. Though the editions are a bit dear, bibliophiles recognize the value of a stunningly illustrated book (a personal favorite is the cover of the Society’s Lucky Jim, which features the characteristic honeycomb half-pints recognizable to any frequenter of British pubs), and Beryl Cook’s plates for Muriel Spark’s timeless novel certainly justify the price. The book, which takes place in 1930s Edinburgh (that most English of Scottish cities), concerns the eponymous Brodie, a domineering schoolteacher at a girls’ day school who imparts onto her provincial pupils a love of things foreign, including Italian fascism. With the school year set to begin anew, it’s high time to revisit this stylish meditation on the follies of youth. —BR
Nonfiction: Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth, by Craig Ryan (Liveright): Hardly anyone thinks twice today about stepping into a car or an airplane. Yet it was just a few short decades ago that travel by either method would put you at great physical risk. We can thank John Paul Stapp for this progress. The U.S. air force officer and doctor spent much of his life researching the effects of deceleration and acceleration, volunteering himself as the test subject for many of his experiments. He also studied (again, using himself as test subject) how fast a pilot could fly in a jet with no canopy and remain unharmed (he made it up to 570 miles per hour in his fastest run), and was one of the first to practice skydiving. One of his greatest contributions to humanity, however one that reveals a great deal about Stapp himself—is his discovery of Stapp’s law: "The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle." —RH
Poetry: Drum-Taps, by Walt Whitman, edited by Lawrence Kramer (New York Review of Books Poets): I had occasion the other day, as I often do, to stroll by the Park Avenue Armory (correctly the Seventh Regiment Armory), an imposing, hulking red brick Gothic revival edifice occupying the entire city block between 66th and 67th Streets and Park and Lexington Avenues. Now a performance space with a decidedly experimental bent, the Armory was once the administrative headquarters for the Union Army’s Seventh Regiment, colloquially known as the “silk stocking” regiment for its patrician members. The interior (with original designs by Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among others) still retains an air of martial gentility, with old wood and decorative panels, and one can still detect an air of hanging smoke in the stunning Board of Officers room. All this reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his 1865 collection of Civil War poetry, now 150 years old. The titular poem, which depicts Manhattan on the verge of war, is a study in naïveté, radiating enthusiasm for a just war without acknowledging the inevitable and horrific consequences. The poem concludes with these characteristic lines: “Often in peace and wealth you were pensive, or covertly frown’d amid all your children/ But now you smile with joy, exulting Old Mannahatta!” Let us be thankful that today’s Manhattan is pensive in its peace and that we may read the recently reissued edition of Drum-Taps without the “silent cannons—soon to cease [their] silence!” —BR
Theater: American Century Cycle, by August Wilson (Through August 26): There are just two days left to appreciate the American Century Cycle of the playwright August Wilson in its entirety, and in sequence, through a historic recording made two years ago in the Greene Space of WNYC. Available for free streaming through Wednesday, the superb recordings bring Wilson's Hill District of Pittsburgh to life, decade by decade, through resinous language and interconnected, mythological storytelling. The series features such award-winning works as Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Gem of the Ocean, all voiced by some of today's finest actors, several of whom, such as Phylicia Rashad and Anthony Chisholm, appeared in the original stage productions. —JP
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons: A new CD from Deutsche Grammophon brings us a live recording of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, which, along with the Eighth, represents the darkest and most harrowing of the composer's symphonic output. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra give a haunting performance on this disc, which also includes the brash passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Look for Jay Nordlinger's review of this album and others in our September issue. —ECS
From the archive: Whitman’s spell, by Thomas M. Disch: In this piece from October 2008, Thomas Disch surveys the acolytes of Walt Whitman, who praised the poet and burnished his lofty self-image.
From our latest issue: The heaven-taught ploughman, by Neilson MacKay: On a new edition of the collected works of Robert Burns.