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.
Jonathan Richman, along with his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, took the stage, strummed his acoustic guitar and began to sing. Nothing. The mikes weren't working. Where other performers, and indeed lesser legends, might have turned diva, Jonathan simply announced - loudly, to make up for the microphone - that he and the techies would confer for a few minutes, sort out the problem, then the show would go on. Nothing to get uptight about. It was all very casual and friendly.True to his word, he returned to the stage a few minutes later and tried again. Still nothing. And where the diva might have stormed off, Jonathan simply walked to the side, and with clear, unmiked guitar and his best project-to-the-back-of-the-room voice, he began to sing.The audience in the sweltering hall seemed to make the extra effort to keep quiet, almost leaning in so as not to miss anything, and Jonathan responded by singing loud and clear. It was the best "show-must-go-on" moment I've ever experienced. Ten minutes later, the mikes began working. For me, the magic of those few unamplified moments set the tone for a glorious evening.This was the second time I'd seen Jonathan Richman over the past decade, and each time it's like a visit from an old friend, albeit one who plays killer Spanish guitar and seems to have an extraordinary facility with languages. Worldliness aside, his are the most personal of shows, full of joy, optimism, wonder and romance. But also songs of caution, imploring us in his own way not to get too caught up in technology.Early Modern Lovers songs like "Pablo Picasso" take on a new life in this setting, and sit comfortably amid later fare like "In Che Mondo Viviamo". One minute he's swiveling and gyrating through "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar", the next he's singing songs about cell phones and the demise of human interaction.The truest of troubadours, Jonathan Richman goes from town to town sharing his latest musical offerings, his latest stories, letting us into his world for a couple of hours while he serenades us in the most intimate of settings.
The 1998 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Only five competitors remain on stage, including me. I approach the microphone and listen for my assigned word: “nascence.” I fumble it. It’s a clear-cut defeat, but it’s also an escape, a leap into freedom, a birth. I am born, so that I can be reborn.
I had the opportunity today, along with a small group of fellow grad students, to meet NPR reporter Anne Garrels. Garrels has become famous over the last couple of years for being one of the 16 American journalists to remain in Baghdad during the war. Her sometimes harrowing reports from the Palestine Hotel seared her voice into the memories of many Americans. She's been back to Baghdad since that initial period, and she'll be going back again soon. She exudes an interesting mix of enthusiasm and fatalism about reporting in such a precarious situation -- there was much mention of kidnappings and beheadings. She is quite pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, and she seemed genuinely astonished by the way she has seen the Americans handle the reconstruction. The logistics of reporting in that part of the world were perhaps the most fascinating part of the conversation. There is seemingly endless second- guessing about at what point it becomes too dangerous for reporters to be there, and in the meantime much of the time and budget seems to be taken up by solving security issues. There was, in the room, an almost palpable sense of concern for Garrels' well-being. Certainly she is more than capable of handling the situation, but even so, after meeting her in person, we began to worry about her impending return to Iraq. After her time was up in the classroom we all sort of followed her out of the building -- she had kept up the conversation even though it was time for her to go -- and outside where she smoked a cigarette and we huddled around her, telling her about ourselves. When she was done, she wished us all good luck, and we all wished her good luck back, and we meant it.Side notes: Garrels mentioned that Anthony Shadid, the Washington Post reporter who won the Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage, is working on a book. She said that his deep understanding of the situation over there should make the book very good. She also mentioned the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which she is a director. The website keeps track of journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, underscoring what is at stake for journalists who put themselves in dangerous situations. Finally, I should mention her book, which, after meeting Garrels, I would really like to read. Have a look: Naked in Baghdad
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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