Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
Millions readers in the Toronto area should check out the Lit City exhibit at the Market Gallery (second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, on now through the spring, free).As part of the ongoing festivities marking Toronto's 175th birthday, the Market Gallery, occupying a room that served as council chambers in the mid-late 1800s, marries the visual with the literary. The gallery divides up Toronto neighborhood by neighborhood, presenting paintings and other visual expressions of each particular neighborhood, and pairing the art with excerpts from literary texts.So, there's a painting of the Viaduct on Bloor Street, paired with an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which explored the world of the immigrant worker who broke his back building the viaduct in the early part of last century. A painting of Chinatown sits next to an excerpt from a Cory Doctorow story about the neighborhood. Margaret Atwood, Paul Quarrington and Dennis Lee are among the novelists and poets whose works are excerpted and placed in a neighborhood context.It's fascinating to see literary works take on an alternate existence. Stripped of storyline, stripped of principal characters and themes, the short excerpts here serve a different purpose, a new context. Like the paintings they're paired with, they provide eloquent commentary on the specific neighborhood.Overhearing my fellow gallery-goers, I discovered that none were extolling the quite evident artistic virtues of the paintings or texts. Instead, they were discussing the depicted neighborhoods themselves, inspired by the excerpts to draw on their own memories, creating there, on the spot, their own sense of community.
In a South Texas parlor room, 10 men eagerly hold shots of bourbon in their hands. The television isn’t on, there are no fantasy football reports in sight, and no fraternity pledges cower in the corner. Together they raise their glasses and down the whiskey in one go. “Alright,” one says, “who has something to say about Rich Dad, Poor Dad?” This is the Oil Barons Society, an exclusive, men-only book club in San Antonio. The discussion that follows is lively and cuts across political leanings. The leader of the discussion, Scott Gillette, is a management analyst who favors an entrepreneurial reading of the book, but three of the members are government employees who argue that the author profits from the desire for financial security without providing any effective tools to achieve it. Typical for most book clubs, the discussion eventually gets derailed as people speak longer than their allotted turn and quibble over small differences. But most of the members, or Barons as they’re called, leave enlightened and surprised by the discussion, and they’re ready to do it again. The Oil Baron Society was founded three years ago by Matthew Shaddock and Tanner Neidhart, a school teacher and a lawyer, respectively. “I found it weird that in today's society,” Shaddock explains, “an all-girls activity was okay, even seen as positive -- think of the Girls Night Out. I figured men should be just as free to do the same thing, celebrate manhood and be manly. I figured that a guys’ book club would be a good excuse to get together, drink some beers, and talk intelligently.” Neidhart came up with the name and they soon adopted a tongue-in-cheek correspondence with the language of Gilded Age Texas, smacking of top hats and monocles. “As usual, discussion was lively,” the November meeting minutes record. “Topics covered included the American military, our involvement in overseas conflicts, military culture, and the writer’s political slant. Baron Peterson’s absence due to military deployment in the Afghanistan theatre was duly noted and oft-mentioned." A random sampling of their titles by mostly male authors includes The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Driving the club is not just a celebration of masculinity but a search for it. According to John Peterson, the doctor currently posted in Afghanistan: The Oil Barons “is a big idea that struggles with something that any young man in his twenties and thirties deals with. What makes a man? What kind of man do I want to be?” San Antonio does offer intellectual stimulation and isn’t a cultural desert. The city boasts a world class art museum and celebrated cuisine, where it’s common to awake with a breakfast taco and nibble on Asian fusion for lunch. But men tend to congregate around sports and not books, and life after college anywhere can be devoid of intellectual discussion. “Seven of the 13 friends I contacted about the idea met and formed the Oil Barons Society at my house in January 2009,” Shaddock says. “The other six wrote back things like ‘book clubs are lame’ and ‘have fun reading the Oprah books.’” There is no stereotypical Baron. Their professions vary significantly: a real property title searcher, a home renovator, two prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, two Air Force doctors, a management consultant, two high school teachers, and an employment lawyer. They are overwhelmingly professionals but not all of them follow sports, and as brainy as their jobs may sound, several members didn’t read regularly before they joined the club. “Before I joined I didn't do a whole lot of reading,” jokes Ashley Penix. “In fact, hardly any at all. I like to say, ‘I don't always read books, but when I do, it’s for the Oil Barons Society. Stay knowledgeable, my friends.’” The Barons have few rules other than opening the evening with a shot of whiskey, which helps enliven the discussion. This absence of strictures explains why their most strained period happened when they sought to define who, exactly, they were by drawing up a Constitution. Last year, they rented a house in the hill country outside San Antonio and began to hash out the text, but the debate became so heated that three Barons stormed out and drove back to the city. “We found out later that this was much like the actual signing of the Constitution,” one Baron explained. “Sure it was dumb to get upset over, but I think all of us carry a true ownership in the prosperity of the Barons.” Several of the members already have young children or are expecting children in the near future, making this “the biggest challenge,” according to Alan Petner, as people find it more difficult to accommodate the meetings. The Oil Barons may be a manly take on the Girls Night Out, but the search for companionship will naturally be replaced by the duties of fatherhood. Another challenge is that the membership is composed of various backgrounds, but the group has struggled to lure other ethnicities. Shaddock teaches history in a local high school with a mostly Latino student body and coaches its soccer team. “It’s not completely lost on our members,” he says. “We’ve definitely talked about it frequently in the past, whining that we’re all WASPs or white Catholics. But we are diverse in many ways. We have top one-percenters, Barons whose parents were blue collar, and Barons from outside of Texas.” The one Latino Baron left the club because of personal commitments. Recently, the Oil Barons Society has evolved into something more than a book club, now having incorporated activities that complement the readings. “We read Friday Night Lights and went to a high school football game,” explains Scott Gillette, “and we read The Gun by C.J. Chivers and went to the gun range.” These are not necessarily exotic activities in Texas, but not every Baron likes to shoot guns or watch football games. The Barons have started inviting the featured authors to attend meetings or to join by phone, so far without success. They are also considering dues payments so that they can rent a special Baron Cave, and have any number of other creative ideas, as may be expected from 20- and 30-somethings with ambition. For now, the culmination of the regular Baron meetings is the annual Baron Ball, held in the former castle of a cattle king that was recently refurbished. The Barons proudly display the year’s book list under their official crest, serve up brisket and chili, and play multiple rounds of beer pong -- partners and friends included -- and it’s hard not to feel that something different is happening in Texas. “When I joined it was just a ‘book club’ and sounded like fun and general camaraderie,” says Ashley Penix. “It then turned into something more special, and took on a life of its own. It's nice being part of something that is unique.” Photo credit: Mathew Shaddock. Oil Barons Society crest designed by Evan Long.
When I first began living in Toronto, I used to book off the week of the Film Festival. In those days it seemed much less schmoozy, more communal and low-key. Going from cinema to cinema, seeing multiple films each day, chatting with fellow movie buffs while waiting in lines. It was a treat.But I stopped doing that a few years ago. I still love film, but I've come to accept that the festival is a glossier version of the one I used to know. There are still many wonderfully rough edges to be found, unknowns to discover, but the noise surrounding it all has become deafening. Too much to make a solid week out of it.And then there's the Fringe Festival. This is what I had been missing. Plays and monologues from stage companies worldwide. 150 different plays, each presented at least half-a-dozen times over 12 days in small venues - many of them in and around the leafy University of Toronto. At C$10 a performance, and with half the seats for each show available at the door, the Toronto Fringe is a festival for the people.So this year I booked Fringe week off, and saw 11 plays. With each venue playing host to several different rotating plays each day, stages are often bare or spare, sets kept to a minimum, forcing extra creativity in lighting and staging to create a mood.The high point for me was a 45-minute adaptation of Moliere's comic love tale, The Sicilian. There was also a great version of Lysistrata, Aristophanes' tale of women in wartime Ancient Greece banding together to withhold sexual favors from their men as a protest to the war. Still set in Ancient Greece, the 4-woman, bare-stage production from England has been updated and twisted with Cockney accents and modern and extremely bawdy British humor.The same troupe also put on an all-women version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, with octave-dropping performances of fake-mustached Jack and Algie. And there was also a fine, if conventionally-staged, version of George Bernard Shaw's love-triangle Candida. Among the monologues, transplanted Brit and Fringe-favorite Chris Gibbs presented his latest comic monologue full of his delightful tangents.As many of these productions go from one Fringe Festival to another, you might be able to catch them somewhere down the circuit - at a Fringe Festival near you.
My inner dramatist will have a debut outing at Sweet: Actors Reading Writers, Thurs. 12/2 at 7:30 pm, Three of Cups (First Ave at 5th Street, NYC). Actor Tonya Edmonds will perform an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Sebastian & Frederick. Other featured writers: Ed Park, Amanda Filipacchi, Jonathan Dixon, Maya Pindyck.
On Saturday, the night the lights came on, I turned mine off, rode the elevator to the ground floor of my building in Chelsea, and walked into the dark of the West Village. I had stayed in my apartment through Sandy and her aftermath, so for five days, downtown Manhattan’s standard storm week inconveniences were mine: no power, heat, or water. I counted myself lucky. My building didn’t flood. No children, old people, or dogs depended on my care. I had blankets, candles, flashlight; a bathtub full of water to keep the toilet working fine; money for cabs and food; and legs that didn’t mind the daily stairwell roundtrips to and from my 15th floor place. Having just finished a work project that consumed the previous weekends, I gave myself time off. I woke at dawn, ate supper when the sun set, and slept straight through the nights. My rest gorged on dark and quiet as if sleep were celebration, free from horns and big rigs, sirens, sidewalk screams and glare -- the gang that, most evenings, steals into my room and snaps my dreams in pieces. (From my windows, as far as I could see, the only Chelsea buildings where bulbs burned were Google headquarters and one floodlit chapel at the General Theological Seminary.) In daylight, I walked right up the middle of deserted streets, stopped to read plaques posted on historic buildings, my eyes slowly scanning back and forth from texts to bricks. I learned names of things -- corbels, lintels, eyebrow lintels -- that I had always, apparently, been too busy to see. Each day when I ventured uptown to shower at a gym, I saw life rush on as usual, and each day that experience raised an unsettling question in my mind. Which part of town was actually in the blackout? Electricity felt almost like a drug, every one of us a junkie. Jumpy people hurried in and out of brilliantly lit stores, buying things as if it were a birthright. All of us, it seemed, walked four feet off the ground, eyes focused on infinity, in the single-occupancy tunnels of perception that New Yorkers learn to build around ourselves, because we have to, so we can get where we want to go. I was as relieved as anyone when power was restored, but to my surprise, my bedside lamp triggered an immediate craving to go back down into the blackout zone, to see what powerless Manhattan looked like while it was still there to be seen. Near the top of the Village, on Greenwich Avenue, I walked southeast, drawn by a generator’s grinding buzz. A bar had set up a movie projector; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown played on the broad side of the white semi-trailer parked across the street. Then I veered southwest into the warren of townhouse brownstones, where for whole blocks, every building looked empty, but what light there was, was warm. Here and there, two or three were gathered in front rooms of parlor floors, drinking wine, smoking, smiling. Further west, a tiny handful of restaurants stood open. Lit by candles, tables glowed with the soft surprise of Easter eggs. I tried taking pictures with my iPhone: black rectangle after black rectangle, specked with firefly flecks of light. Eventually, getting cold, I tacked back north. Cops directed traffic at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, a makeshift gateway between have and have-not. At the edges of the crosswalk, red flares hissed on low tripods at foot level. Pausing there, I overheard a skinny young guy in sideways baseball cap and drop-crotch jeans talk on his cell phone -- “I don’t know where to go” -- and as I picked up my pace to pass him, a fat, limping woman, leaning on a stainless steel cane, stopped me to ask, “Where is Fourth Street?” She wore glasses, a purple flowered dress, and no coat. Even in the half-dark I could see she had bad teeth. I pointed back to where I’d come from and started to explain, when the young guy put his phone away and interrupted us. “I’m headed that way,” he told the woman. “I can show you.” Walking up Eighth Avenue, I turned for a moment to watch the skinny man take the fat lady where she needed to go. Then, with horn-blaring cars racing by, I built a tunnel around myself to get me home, and I wondered if this bright light on everything around me really always was so harsh. Photo courtesy of the author.
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Downtown Brooklyn was awash in tents and stages on Sunday, with publishers, authors, and bookish types swarming the plaza like ants feasting at a picnic. Colson Whitehead walked down the sidewalk pseudo incognito with shades on, while Wallace Shawn stood by to sign copies of his new book, Essays. Thomas Sayers Ellis sat at a table talking up Tuesday; An Art Project, a handsome journal featuring poetry and photographs printed on postcards. Later on, Laura Albert jumped up to greet Mary Gaitskill before her conversation with Jonathan Lethem. The Paris Review was selling original copies of its Spring 1958 issue, the one with George Plimpton’s interview of Ernest Hemingway, and that also features the first Philip Roth story they published. “Can you believe his name isn’t even on the cover?” remarked the man tending the table. I couldn’t believe the cover price (only one dollar). As time passes, prices change and so does technology, and along with it, publishing. At The Brooklyn Book Festival, digital publishing, the internet, and attenuated attention spans weighed heavily on the minds of many panelists. Maud Newton moderated a panel called Literature in a Digital Age, which took these topics on directly. The conversation began with New York Times book critic Dwight Garner stating his fear of “the fragmenting of the attention span.” Granta’s editor John Freeman agreed, and voiced a strong preference for reading books printed on paper. Freeman finds the difference between paper and screen as stark as the one between “having sex with a person and having sex with a piece of technology,” but added that if you don’t have one you sometimes have to resort to using the other. Freeman also remarked on how the constant influx of news updates is ill-suited to the world of literature, where writers need to focus on what they are writing, not what is timely or relevant. While the conversation centered on fears of how digital publishing will alter reading habits and preferences, the general Luddism transformed to optimism by the conversation’s end. There was excitement about the increased availability of books. Web sites such as The Second Pass and Open Letters Monthly, was well as Newton’s own blog, were praised for their commitment to longer, more thoughtful considerations of literature. Newton said that she rejects the label "book blogger." Garner seemed to concur when he stated that Newton stands out for her wit and intelligence, and that he thinks of her more as a columnist, only more intimate. It was heartening to hear praise for literary sites that offer quality content and intelligent analysis of literature. Much later in the afternoon, Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem picked up the digital thread (or threat, as it often seems) in a lively discussion, where each seemed to riff off of the other. Despite this panel falling at the end of a day packed with constant chatter about books, their time seemed to run out too soon. Gaitskill spoke about how with digital technology, children develop a sophisticated understanding of images and sound, but their reading has become stunted because they must slow down to process words. Gaitskill claimed that even the way she processes information has changed, and that she can’t imagine how digital literacy will affect the minds of the children who grow up with it. Lethem added that predictions are often extreme, and that literature will adapt in ways we can’t yet foresee. He spoke of living in the Bay Area in the 1980s, when there was a general consensus that the coming technology would destroy language. And yet, this is what gave way to a culture where everyone communicates via emails “like 19th-century London where the mail came four times a day.” Since literature and narrative will persevere, it’s good that their discussion touched on greater topics, such as the function of literature. Lethem and Gaitskill began their conversation by responding to Walter Benn Michaels’ Bookforum essay, “Going Boom,” where he claims, “The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel,” and urges novelists to tackle greater social issues in their fiction. Lethem found fault with the expectation that art must have a productive value, and asked, “What should fiction do other than come to life?” He urged writers to seek out the irresponsible, to “make things peculiar” and to create literature “defiantly outside the structures of use.” To which Gaitskill responded by singing the lyrics to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and cited the song as proof that society often embraces the preposterous, albeit a far different type of preposterous than what Lethem had in mind. She then directed us to Nabokov’s consideration of Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat,” in which Nabokov praises the story for its illumination of the “futile humility and futile domination,” the madness of life. When I went home I turned to the essay in Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. It begins, “Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader’s notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational.” This is precisely what Lethem and Gaitskill were getting at, literature cannot be limited by calling for a certain use, nor can you provide a recipe for generating great literature. Or as Paula Fox said earlier in the day, all fiction is derived from life, but “one can make as bizarre a replica as one chooses.” A multitude of ideas and opinions about literature, its creation, its current state, and its future were bandied about over the course of the day; in fact the volume of panels and publishers’ stands and attendants was almost overwhelming. With a cornucopia of compelling panels occurring simultaneously, decisions about what to see may have been made haphazardly. But regardless of the anxieties about the future, the festival made the case for literature living on in the borough of Brooklyn.
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