Emily St. John Mandel

1. I am charmed and seduced by her most recent novel, Station Eleven. It is hypnotic.

2. She is a cute little person. At least I think she’s little; there is no scale in her bio picture, but she appears to be petite as well as cute.

3. She has five different people available for contact on her website (for representation; speaking; and publicity in the US, Canada and the UK). They are named Kelsey, Katherine, Kate, Kate, and Kate. Surely she had to have done that on purpose??

4. The title line for her short bio piece on the same website is: “St. John’s my middle name. The books go under M.” She has a sense of humor and c’mon, librarians and booksellers.


Dear Emily St. John Mandel,

I have a dear friend named Liz, and she is who recommended that I read your latest book. Liz is still batting 1000 with her recommendations to me, which is unprecedented and very impressive; nowadays her recommendations often move straight to the top of my very long list. She recommended I listen to the audiobook of Station Eleven, and so I am.

I am entranced by this world you’ve created, which is so closely related to but also so far apart from our own. I love the world within the world, of Station Eleven; I love that we meet the artist behind that world just a step behind entering it ourselves. I really appreciated the detail of the doctor calling from the emergency room near the beginning of the book. Dahlia is outstanding, and her speech got me thinking just as it did Clark. I was fascinated by Jeevan’s story at the start and, at nearly halfway through, I am anxious to know: will we go back to check in on him and find out his fate? When I checked in with Liz, I found that both she and her partner Steph had the same reaction: they wanted to hear more about Jeevan.

I haven’t even finished your book yet, but I know it has to end. And Liz says she doesn’t feel that this should be the end of the world you’ve imagined; she wants you to write more. Because I trust Liz, and because I love the first almost-half of this novel and know I will feel the same way, I want to say: please keep going. I know you have three earlier novels for me to go back and discover, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks, and all my best,

Julia

“How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&” by Elissa Bassist & Cheryl Strayed

I have not read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But I did take seriously the recommendation of this piece that I found at creativenonfiction.org, and yes, I own this mug.

9

It would take me almost as many words to summarize and praise this article as are included in the article, so I shall exercise restraint and say: go read this now; it is excellent. Thank you, Cheryl & E-Bass.

movie: Jackie Brown

jackie brown
You know I’m a Tarantino fan, but I stumbled on this one, friends.

Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who’s been busted smuggling cash over international borders for Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell. The cops don’t want her in prison: they want her to inform on him. Ordell bails her out with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who feels decades more dated than the rest of the film), so he can kill her; but she thwarts him. Jackie plays the cops (chiefly an ATF agent played by Michael Keaton) against Ordell against Cherry, who falls for her; adding to the star-studded staff is Ordell’s old friend fresh out of jail, played by Robert De Niro, one of his kept women played by Bridget Fonda, and a brief role by Chris Tucker.

In Tarantino fashion, the plot is many-twisted: Jackie tells everybody a different story of herself and her plans, so watch closely for where she’s really headed and who’s really holding the bag. The script is heavy on clever monologues that are not strictly realistic but are great fun to listen to nonetheless. (These are the great strengths of Pulp Fiction, I think.) I hadn’t known that this movie was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch), but it makes sense now.

On the other hand, where I think the extensive use of the n-word in Django Unchained was fairly well justified and pointed, it grated here. There were many references to race that felt gratuitous rather than purposeful. I felt uncomfortable. I know this movie is supposed to reference a tradition of “blaxploitation” movies that I missed out on: maybe I’m just lacking the reference point to appreciate Tarantino’s edginess. But that’s my reaction: it was a little too unjustifiably race-conscious for me.

I did like the vintage feel to the movie. Anthony Lee Collins or somebody else with the relevant expertise will have to help me out here: I know there’s something about the cinematography, maybe the type of film used (?), that makes Jackie Brown feel older than it is. I can’t put my finger on it but Robert Forster’s character felt out of another time, even within the context of the film. And then there’s the text used in certain sections, like in the Kill Bill movies, that felt like it referenced something older, too.

So, a mixed review. I liked the plot twists, and the acting was excellent, and Tarantino’s monologues continue to crack me up. But the n-word got to me this time around.


Rating: 5 shopping bags.

Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

coffee helps me read and write

Realizing the obvious: as a creative person, I have good days and bad ones. When I get discouraged, I get very discouraged, and feel unable to do the writing & editing I know I need to do; I want to give it all up. As my friend Liz says, though, some days we just need to lie fallow (and give ourselves permission to do so).

I don’t want to dwell on that negative side today, though: I want to talk about the other days, the hyperproductive ones, when I can write 3 book reviews, do an author interview, schedule 4 blog posts and finish an essay I’d been working on. That happens sometimes, too! And you know what those productive days have in common? Coffee.

Shelf Awareness shared with me the other day an article called 12 Literary Coffee Mugs All Book Nerds Need in Their Lives. I am tickled by the concept, naturally. Go ahead, click the link, and see the bookish, readerly coffee mugs on offer there. I have made my own collection, though, and naturally think mine are a better set of choices: readerly and writerly as well.

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a nod to the librarian stereotype

a little humor - and truth

a little humor – and truth

a Sugar reference

a Sugar reference

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

often, but falsely, attributed to Hemingway: never mind, it sounds like him

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

a gift from my parents, from the Library of Congress

What about you, dear readers? Coffee or tea? In what mug? Does it matter?

class: Foundations of Creative Nonfiction – B

I took a class from Creative Nonfiction this spring, for 10 weeks from January through March. Foundations of Creative Nonfiction is taught in two sections, A and B, and the difference is in the readings assigned, so that neither is a prereq; rather, it’s basically an opportunity to expand into 20 weeks by taking both, and get more reading-and-discussing out of it. Also, presumably, different instructors. My instructor for this section was Meghan O’Gieblyn.

Let’s see, how to begin? Like many online classes, this one involved reading 3-5 short pieces per week and commenting on them in discussion forums. Meghan posted her written lectures (3-5 pages) for each week, as well as two examples of the writing form in question, and often a few more optional readings. My classmates and I were to post a comment on the week’s readings, and reply to one another’s comments as well. Then there were writing assignments: short, optional ones, and three longer (3,500 word) pieces. These, too, the instructor as well as my classmates responded to.

Now, I got my master’s degree almost entirely through this very format. The difference here is that my classmates and I are here even more by choice: we paid for this class, and it gets us nowhere in terms of a degree or class credit; it’s purely for personal enrichment. (If any of my classmates got a pay raise or a new job out of this, I didn’t hear of it.) If anything, one might expect the discussion to be slightly elevated over my (rather disappointing) graduate school experience. And… I guess it was, a little, but the drawbacks were the same. For one thing, I think online discussions are unavoidably more stilted than live, in-person ones. There’s little chance to speak off the cuff in an online forum; there’s a chance for editing and deleting. Some classmates cited technical difficulties interrupting their comments, too. It’s always rewarding to hear from other human beings about anything you’re reading, writing, or otherwise interesting, so that benefit was present. But I remain unsold on the digital format: if real people are available, in person, in real life, I think they will always be preferable.

I did get a lot out of this class, of course. I got a lot of readings and lectures (all of which I’ve saved for future reference). I got feedback on several short and the three long writing pieces I did. I gained only a little help with the concept of getting my work properly published; but that still feels awfully remote anyway. And to be fair, if it felt closer, the opportunity was present to ask those questions.

Instructor Meghan was excellent: responsive, kind, and full of specific, detailed criticism and advice. Overall, the class may not have been utterly world-changing, but it was worth the time, although I think an in-person class would be better. And if you consider CNF for an online class like this, I’d highly recommend Meghan.

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents A View From the Bridge (a Young Vic production)

I recently reviewed A View From the Bridge in preparation for this performance, which like Treasure Island was performed onstage in London, recorded, and then screened at the Lincoln Theatre where I saw Romeo and Juliet (whew).

view bridge

It was outstanding, a truly special experience. The screening opened with a short video incorporating interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes folks involved: the director, set designer, and art director, if memory serves; and scenery video of London (where the theatre is) and Amsterdam (where the director lives). My father, who was my date for this show, commented that it made him miss both cities. We learned a little about the theatre, the director, and the concept for this show: to find a way to surprise the audience even with a play that audiences are expected to know fairly well. I shall avoid spoiling both the play and this production, and only say: they surprised me.

This production was mind-blowingly good, and expertly suited to Miller’s original work. They did deviate from his set design tips: there were no furnishings, just a stark white vinyl floor and wall with a floating glass bench wrapped around the three remaining sides. Costumes were nondescript, neutral or earth tones, and there were few costume changes: Katie changed her shirt when she stood up to Eddie and grew up; and the immigrants changed upon their arrival. This ultra-minimalist lack of color, furniture and set decor left just the actors to carry the story, which they did. The acting was unspeakably good. And the cinematography did it justice: I don’t even recall noting cinematic choices in Treasure Island, which mostly held back and provided panoramic views of the stage – a fine choice, since the stage set in that case was so impressive; but here we relied heavily on close-ups, and the framing really caught my eye. Many shots were close-up of actors’ faces, or scenes involving a few people, say, waist-up; these scenes were then framed by the borders of the white stage set, or framed around one or two props (the chair Marco holds aloft, for example). The whole thing was artistically very fine.

Miller’s humor shone through, but most notably the tension, sexual and violent. There was a percussive gong employed in a few scenes, a slow-paced, low, metronome-like sound that ramped up the tension beautifully, like the tick… tock… of a clock in a silent, anxious room. Somebody in the pre-show video (sorry, I can’t recall who) made an excellent analogy about the play itself: he said that it was like we are watching two cars approach each other at high speed, knowing what is going to happen and then… boom. That is a great description of Miller’s work. It is the story of an inescapable tragedy that we all see coming but are powerless to halt. (This is emphasized further by Mr. Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as chorus, and his foreknowledge and sense of foreboding throughout.)

All in all, in my reading and my watching of this play, I’m deeply impressed: with Miller’s original*, and with this production. If you have a way to access National Theatre Live, don’t miss it. This is some of the finest theatre I’ve ever seen.


Rating: 10 pillowcases.

*I slightly misspeak: as it turns out, Miller’s original was a one-act play. The two-act version that we know best today was actual a reworking, according to Wikipedia.

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