guest review: Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando (2019), from Pops

From Pops, from Bellingham’s Sylvia Center (formerly the iDiOM).

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and directed by WWU professor Rich Brown, with five players on a spare stage. Woolf and the story are still mostly inscrutable to me, but the players and staging are wonderful, with multiple vignettes easily adequate to carry the story and action. This production is creatively played with humor and energy as the narrative speeds through centuries, while centered on Orlando personally.

It is a very physical interpretation with much movement, often choreographed like dance; passage of time is depicted by the actors furtively running in circles or helter-skelter in the small stage area. They may use each other for props like tables and chairs; small props emerge on cue from pockets or capes. Some minor wardrobe changes occur in the flow of staging. Ship voyages are inventively evoked by actors’ bodies locked together and swaying with the waves.

Karlee Foster as the androgynous Orlando is perfect, physically as well as in body language and expression. She is ruffled, wild and spirited, but also ruminates over social conventions; all of which is belied by a tranquil and well-groomed promotional studio photo. The 3-man chorus is excellent, and not mere backdrop; they serve as continuous narrators but each also plays at least one woman’s part. The fifth player is an exotic Sasha, Orlando’s lifelong icon of youthful love. Her ‘Romanian’ accent is nearly overdone and perplexing, but her irresistible effect on Orlando is intently, comically obvious.

Suiting the tale, Orlando passionately kisses each of many characters (and all players) at least once – or more! Other, intimate couplings are openly implied with inventive, chaste staging devices, like backlit silhouettes or covering capes. And, always fun, there is a Shakespearean play-within-a-play – of Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar! (the murder of Cassius) It was delightful, lively entertainment; kudos to the venue, the company and the small arts community that continues to display actors of such craft and energy.

What fun this sounds like! I remain unsure of Woolf, and remember Orlando as daunting (I believe from the 1992 film) (then again, I was 10 in 1992, what do you expect). But this stage performance sounds delightful. Maybe that’s just my feeling about (well-produced) theatre in general. I am jealous; I’m not seeing more theatre these days…

Thanks, Pops!

guest review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean, from Pops

Recommended for me from my father, with this nice write-up.

If you know a librarian, or you appreciate libraries, or you love books, this is a book for you; that’s what the title is telling us. There are thousands of books touching on this subject; Susan Orlean provides a compelling and approachable addition with this one.

In 31 short or long chapters, Orlean ranges widely with library history and librarian profiles; library trivia and book burning history; eccentric characters and stories stranger than fiction; and more, thus satisfying many interests without attempting to be an ‘all about…’ tome.

While this approach may still occasionally have the interest of a particular reader momentarily flagging, it would be only brief. The narrative thread woven throughout describes the Los Angeles Public Library; the disastrous Central Library fire of 1986; the mystery of its cause; and the many colorful, intertwining characters.

Along the way, we learn of libraries’ triumph over the ‘tech revolution’; the magical mix of personalities that make librarians and staff special, and the fire’s traumatic impact on them; the amazing and broadening social role of libraries, globally; historical library anecdotes spanning three centuries; L.A. Central Library architecture and rebuilding; book restoration; Fahrenheit 451 (and its author); the disturbing flaws in arson investigation; how AIDS touches this narrative; and more.

We get glimpses of the influential 1960s and 1970s through a library filter. And in brief interludes spend a ‘day in the life’ of the Children’s section, or the Music section, or the ‘InfoNow department.’ We peer into the possible future of libraries, and are reassured.

Yet this is also an openly personal story of a seasoned journalist seeking answers to mysteries – both public and private – while allowing her inner-researcher’s curiosity to wander down various rabbit trails that appear unexpectedly. This book, as with many, in part wrote itself. A veteran author, resolved to never again invest her life in creating a book, is compelled to write.

Her first-person voice is often present in describing interviews or other source material, but never distracts. While lending her journalist’s keen eye to details, she attempts little objective critique; she is a library booster.

We learn of her personal commitment to the subject in only a few brief episodes, doled out modestly, where endearing prose explains her devotion to the book’s purpose. Her library passion is rooted in early life experience nurtured by her mother; this becomes a touchstone rediscovered late in life, passed on to her son and brought to fruition in these pages. The book’s final two pages are lovely conclusion, returning to this personal story.


Postscript: an essay about a book about books, and about books from libraries, would be remiss without mentioning the physical book. This first-edition library binding is a bright orange, without jacket; the front and back cover text is imprinted into the nicely textured cover material. The orange leaps out boldly on the bookshelf. The front is bold text in bright shiny yellow, like polished gold against the orange. The back includes the usual blurbs (notably Erik Larson, among others) in white and yellow text.

Inside, both sides of the front endpaper display the summary typically appearing on a book jacket, here with a traditional-looking design.

The endpaper flyleaf has the usual author photo and brief bio; but the endpaper itself is special: an image of an old yellowed library lending-card sleeve, with a lending card that becomes personal dedication, connected to her personal story. The card shows four handwritten entries, for: Ray Bradbury, Orlean’s mother, Orlean herself, and her son. The image is so lifelike that a reader instinctively reaches to pull the card. I have tested this on others old enough to know; one cannot resist.

The volume is attractive to the eye and hand, with a pleasant heft. It’s a nice book; check it out from your local library!

That yellowed library card is a design feature in several places these days; lovely!

Thanks for sharing.

guest review: Bellingham Theatre Guild presents Silent Sky (2019), from Pops

From Pops, and from the Bellingham Theatre Guild, which I miss.

In its 90th year, the Guild does a great job with Silent Sky, a 2015 play by Lauren Gunderson in San Francisco, “an Arts meets Activism writer… currently recognized as America’s most produced living playwright”; she has written many about unappreciated women in history.

It was very well done here by a cast of five; great dialogue well-played, and engaging characters to tell this story of Henrietta Leavitt, who worked as a menial-labor type ‘computer’ for a famous astronomer before making the groundbreaking discovery of ‘Leavitt’s Law’ (circa 1910) that provided “a way to accurately measure distances on an inter-galactic scale” and ultimately allowed Hubble to describe an expanding universe.

It’s hard to tell if they are getting better and better, or we are just appreciating them more. It seems to me that good play-selection is a key thing.

Play selection is a huge deal, I’m sure. You also just seem to have very fine actors (and presumably directors and other behind-the-scenes decision makers), though. My failed attempt at enjoying community theatre in Asheville recently showed me what well-meaning but just poor acting can do for a play: not much good. As Egan said at that event, Bellingham attracts artists, right? Count yourself lucky! I would have enjoyed this one, I think.

writers in video (audio)

A few links for you today that came from my parents.

My mother sent this recording of a Bellingham local Whatcom Reads program, in which Timothy Egan discusses his book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (and, in Q&A, a few more – remember Mom reviewed The Worst Hard Time for us). I really enjoyed listening to this one (thanks Mom for the tip that the visual part was not entirely necessary), and I am reminded that I need to try some Egan one day – he sounds in the vein of Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, who were among the first writers I recognized as creative nonfiction and as something I loved. While I really enjoyed it, I also took exception a few times to some of Egan’s comments: his chauvinism about geography, for example, and his statement that “Indians all have creation narratives,” as if to imply that his/our own culture doesn’t have creation narratives. (I guess it’s only a creation narrative if somebody else believes it, and what *I* believe is just truth?) (Also, any time you say “all the [ethnic group] do such-and-such” you’re probably on thin ice.) These quibbles were not fatal for my appreciation, and if anything indicate that I was engaging. One of these days I will read some Egan…

And, my father sent this episode of Oregon State University’s About Words, featuring Ben Goldfarb about his book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Pops appreciates beavers; we have a mutual friend (and friend to Goldfarb, apparently) named Rob Rich who is a beaver fan and advocate, and writer; and I have been seeing a lot of beavers these last few weeks on my travels. But this short video (very short, after an hour-plus with Tim Egan) is less about the beavers and more about the imperative to write, among other things.

So, a little extra to add to your listening cue! [That’s a tip: although YouTube videos, I did not watch but only listened to both clips, which was fine (visuals were just background). I signed up for a free 30-day trial of YouTube Premium, which allowed me to download these videos for offline viewing/listening.]

Thanks, Mom and Pops!

Scott Russell Sanders in recent Orion, Brian Doyle, and considering death

A synchronicity: my father sent me a recently published essay by Scott Russell Sanders that coincides with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately.

The essay occurred in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion, which you can purchase here, but cannot read without purchasing – sorry. It’s called “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” and it is about the dire cancer diagnosis of Sanders’s son, Jesse, who is 40 and has young children. In it, Sanders tries to navigate grief, and the intersection of his religious upbringing with his devotion to science, his love for this world and his sadness & anger at Jesse’s coming end.

It’s an essay I appreciate in many ways: for its language, its attention to detail, its careful plotting of divergent beliefs and feelings, and its place within Sanders’s body of work. I enjoyed his listing of “great pioneers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson, as well as accomplished contemporaries such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, John Elder, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pattiann Rogers, and David James Duncan” – what a list! – with whom he has some things in common. I really do recommend it.

But, separately, what is interesting about this as synchronicity is my recent reading of Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which you can read here. It was assigned by Matt Ferrence* for his seminar, and when Matt and I got a chance to talk more later, he told me it’s an excerpt (?) or vastly shortened version (?) of Doyle’s book The Wet Engine, which I have not read but of course want to. It’s about the heart – the hummingbird heart, and Doyle’s own. The book makes it clear, though, that this interest in the heart was inspired by his very young son’s need for open heart surgery.

His son survived, and is now an adult, and Doyle has since died (in 2017). When my father sent me the Sanders essay, he said it “presents us, like Doyle does, with a thoughtful writer wrestling with faith in real time in public.” Pops means Doyle wrestling with his own mortality, as he did while dying very quickly of brain cancer. But fresh off “Joyous Voladoras,” I thought of the even closer parallel, of worrying for one’s child.

Grief, obviously, is one of those universal topics. Sanders acknowledges, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers, for we all have more than enough griefs to bear, both public and private.” Even grief for a child is common enough. But for artists such as Sanders or Doyle, there is still something to offer. Sanders continues, “I tell of Jesse’s cancer because it has made clear to me the persistence of those questions, intuitions, fears, and longings that inspired my early devotion to church-going and Bible-reading. I still puzzle over the sources of suffering; I still experience wonder and terror and awe; I still yearn for a sense of meaning; I still seek to understand the all-encompassing wholeness to which I belong.” And onward. This is why we read, and this is why we write.

Among the lines that I marked in Sanders’s essay:

My calling of Jesse’s name is timed to the rhythm of my footsteps, my breath, my heartbeat. A mother’s heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Once outside the womb, we respond to that rhythm in the beating of drums, in the bass notes of music, in the iambic pentameter of poetry.

The heartbeat, again, took me back to Doyle and the hummingbird heart, which comes to be everyone’s heart. The unique and the universal.

Do go read Doyle – it will take only minutes, and you’ll feel so much. And consider that issue of Orion, which I imagine contains other gems than this one. Consider too the full-length Doyle book, which I’ve added to my to-do list (Dog help me). Thanks for following me on this winding path today and always.



*Matt Ferrence was a guest faculty member at this most recent residency at my MFA program, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We really hit it off and had several good conversations; I’m glad to know him and although I haven’t read it yet, I’m confident that I can recommend his book Appalachia North, forthcoming on February 1! (There will be a review here, eventually.)

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

guest review: The 53rd Parallel by Carl Nordgren, from Pops

Pops is back with a review of a book from a series that, I confess, I’d largely forgotten about. Thanks for the reminder!

Once again I must thank you belatedly for a book recommendation.

You gave me Worlds Between from your advanced reader stash some years ago. Ah, the circuitous route we take to the books we actually read, out of the millions out there. When I had researched the series (why not start at the beginning?) I found there was just the one, earlier; so I waited. But oops, it’s not in the library. I finally got around to requesting an ILL copy, which arrived a couple weeks ago from a suburban Denver library.

As much as your review describes the benefits found in that first book, The 53rd Parallel is far better in all respects. It is longer (300 pages) but still dense with character and story, like the first. With it, his first novel, Nordgren applied a more leisurely pace that much more fully develops the wide cast of characters (some dropped in the second). Even Hemingway is introduced, as an icon, an aspiration, the ultimate guest for the fish camp if they could make a go of it. (John Wayne is their first, failed attempt at celebrity marketing, in book one.)

Also more fully developed are the ‘parallels’ between Irish and Ojibway history and culture (which share the 53rd parallel of latitude). Shared history: mainly in continued persecution by the English; culture: mainly in their appreciation of dreams and the ambiguous power of myths. The latter, with the challenge of honoring equally both ‘reality’ and myth, is capably and gracefully done. I was absolutely enraptured by book one, constantly amazed at the power of simple telling of a magical story. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by the rush to conclusion in book two. (I say ‘conclusion’ – but he claims to be working on book three, still yet to be announced.)

The brief first chapter introduces the Ojibway icon This Man, in the 1700s; his ghost is an important presence throughout, but is neglected in the second book. Early narrative is set amidst 1930’s Ireland, with poverty and social dysfunction born of English oppression, generations-old. Brian’s dark past is a torture to read; he is a frustrated hothead and severe child abuser, and is never as fully redeemed for me as the author’s attempt suggests. We observe as each of his three children cope and mature (or not), each in their own way. Maureen is a hugely powerful character (meant both literally and figuratively); for me she, not Brian, carries the narrative thread connecting all pieces. [Spoiler follows; highlight white text to read] I was betrayed and stunned when she is killed in book two; how could Nordgren do that to her?!! The dark world of the IRA, with its own conflicted and tortured history, is introduced early on and lends appropriate complexity, useful context for events in book two.

We also come to know three generations of Ojibway people and history, and understand how significant it is when Brian is adopted as son of Joe Loon, immediately blessing the fish camp with seven generations of family (all of whom are ‘present’). One of Brian’s Ojibway nephews is abused at Indian School, and later sacrifices his life to ensure the camp’s success. Simon, another nephew, is tasked by Joe Loon to learn the white man’s ways to provide intelligence for the tribe; seeing ‘our’ world through his eyes is poignant. I was so impressed with Nordgren’s thoughtful treatment of the Ojibway people and story, reflecting the author’s own immersive experience in their culture. Those passages alone made these books a worthwhile indulgence; Maureen’s story added to the bounty.

So good cross-cultural work–although I always wonder, how well can we judge, if we’re not from the culture being featured?

I am glad for this reminder. Thanks for bringing it back full-circle. I’ll expect you back again for book three, if and when!

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