01 September
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Fiction Recommendations,Nonfiction Recommendations

What we read last summer…

“Reading” by Berthe Morisot

“Reading” by Berthe Morisot

Here’s a quote from the last chapter of Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage: “When Virginia stopped the car, the dog jumped out and sat on the cobblestones, waiting for a signal. Then, as we headed south, he loped easily alongside. The car was so low that his head was on a level with mine. He grinned as he ran and I noticed that he had high cheekbones, too.” Wonderful, right? The whole book is delightful and surprising in that way. Also honest. Also funny. Also sad. A portrait of the artist as a young man in New York in the late 1940s, and full of startling reflection about art, music, friendship, love, sex, and books, too, of course. Speaking of which, what else did I read this summer? Two more off the top of my head: Light Years by James Salter—beautiful and sad. And A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Hopeful, but sad. Say, why do we love sad stories? How is it they actually comfort us? Or do they? Feel free to weigh in about that, and about your own summer reading—in the meantime, I’ve polled MPW troops (troupers, that is)—herewith, more recommendations from Summer, 2013:

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “I’ve been rereading Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn. Love it!!!”

Tim Kirkman read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. A page turner and a heartkicker, he says, and he adds, “I also enjoyed
Dan Savage’s brilliant Savage American and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I laughed. I cried. After the last page, I wanted more.”

Johanna Blakley read Teju Cole’s Open City, which she describes as “an oddly compelling meditation on New York City by a brilliant immigrant who is even more lost and lonely than he thinks he is.”

Howard Ho says, “After a strong recommendation from Sandra Tsing Loh, I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and fell for her resonant prose and how she was able to place her crazy life in perspective. After getting through it, I loved it so much that rather than merely recommending it to a friend, I gave it away to pay forward the pleasure I had had.”

Kenny Turan “read one of the pleasantly oddest books I’ve come across in awhile, with a self-explanatory title: Blue Mauritius. The Search for the World’s Rarest Stamp.”

Dana Gioia recommends Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. “A couple of my best friends had recommended this book to me for years,” he writes, “but having pushed my way through Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, I hesitated to plunge into 700 more pages of Mann. Finally, I gave it a try, and the novel is irresistible—the chronicle of a rich merchant family in decline over three generations, full of romances, marriages, deaths, swindles, and bankruptcies. I hated putting it down each night to get some sleep. I now understand that Mann’s Nobel Prize was given specifically for this one novel.”

From Janet Fitch: I’m voting for Luminarium by Alex Shakar. I love a big book that just unfolds and unfolds until lose myself in it. Luminarium is one of those books. A mind-altering sparkle-shelled football helmet descends on an ex-dotcom golden boy whose twin brother (the true genius) lies in a NYC hospital in a coma… the plot is a rocket, but it’s not so much a straight ascent as it is a shimmering blast addressing familial relations, 9/11, post-employment America, consciousness, altered realities. I’d done a panel with Alex Shakar at the LA Times book fest a couple of years ago, bought his book but had not cracked it until now. Holy @#$ this guy can write. On the shelf, I’d put it between Gary Shteingardt’s Super True Sad Love Story and something by Vonnegut. Especially liked the parents, an elderly ex-dancer with a new calling as a Reiki practitioner, and an ex or sometimes actor now doing birthday party magic acts with his unemployed ex-millionaire son. Poignant in so many places, funny, insightful, appreciative of this weird and vulnerable condition of being human.

Michael Price responds: “This summer my favorite read was The Skies Belong To Us by Brendan I. Koerner. Incredible true story of the Hijack-happy 70s.”

Caley O’Dwyer writes, “Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives pretty well consumed my summer, and it was a dazzling, blissful, and haunting experience I can only hope to find again.

Syd says, “I stuck with what I know and love —Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen— bizarre, delightful, and totally outrageous. Spent a long time on Gone Girl and peering into the structure of story telling, quite informative and then, back to one of my favorites, R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton. Just a delightful reading experience.

Prince reread Saved by Edward Bond. He explains: “The play shocked authorities and audiences back in 1965—and Bond’s displays of violence and cruelty in working-class London are no less potent today.”

From Brighde: “I just read Someone by Alice McDermott—this is her latest novel. I loved it partially because I share the cultural landscape—I come from a huge Irish Catholic family—and there are descriptions that remind me of the well-said phrases that come out of the Irish American Nostalgia for Eire. For example: “…the eternal dampness of that bleak country’s bitter air. There’s a burned taste to the air at home….. A taste of wet ashes and doused fire. It can make you believe, she said, that you live in the permanent aftermath of some nearby sorrow. Somewhere in the vicinity, you’re always thinking, Someone’s house has recently burned to the ground.” As always, as ever with McDermott there is the sensuous fabric of the sentences as they accumulate, and there is also the revelation of character and the ongoing subtext of LOSS. And then as a chaser I read some shorts by Robert Walser, himself a jeweler of the phrase: “What they call former beauty is extraordinarily attractive to some people. Ruins are rather touching.”

And MG Lord’s response: “What a great summer this was for nonfiction! I can’t narrow just to one book. I loved Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (with marvelous details, such as the child slaves imprisoned on a cruise ship serving Tom Cruise at his birthday party).

“I also loved a small, exquisite memoir about growing up with a dad in the CIA.
The book is The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott C. Johnson.

“And this fall–because I have had the pleasure of reading galleys–there are two more great books on the way: In October, Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. It has new, jaw-droppingly grim material about Nazi women who actively participated in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front.

“And in November, something cheerier: Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by our own extraordinary Dana Goodyear.”

From extraordinary Dana: “I finally read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and was astonished by the display of journalistic patience and story sense. Rebecca Skloot followed the spark of an idea she had as a teenager through more than a decade of research to deliver an astonishing tale of a medical breakthrough that changed history, and made victims of the family that enabled it. The book restores Henrietta Lacks—a descendant of slaves whose cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge and used to develop the first “immortal” cell line—-to her rightful place, and explores the scandalous history of race and medicine in America.”

Gina Nahai read The Leaving of Things, by Jay Antani.

Trinie Dalton says: “My two recommendations are: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks and Sunstone by Octavio Paz. They’re in-progress reads and I’m not sure what to say about either yet except that I adore both.

Bernard Cooper’s choice is Phillip Lopate’s Portrait Inside My Head.

From Richard Rayner: “The book I’ve been reading over the summer: a new Penguin edition, introduced by Daniel Klein, of The Art of Happiness by Epicurus—I’m hoping to learn something, like… how-to!”

And Mark Richard recommends Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers:The Making of an American Legend. “The story behind the myth behind the legend of John Ford’s classic (and maybe best) film, not only does Frankel give us the ‘how it was made’ of the movie, but more importantly traces its narrative origins. In 1836 a nine-year-old white girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, was kidnapped by the Comanche from her homestead in Texas and made part of their tribe, bearing three sons to her warrior husband, one of whom would become the last great chief of the Comanche. About twenty-five years after her capture, she was ‘rescued’ by Texas rangers and returned to her white family from which she repeatedly tried to escape. A tragic story, retold and reshaped by white narrators to accommodate sexual anxieties, justify racial violence, and make palatable westward expansion at all costs. Ford tapped into the human core of the matter, at times shocking and reassuring, and Glenn Frankel tells us why. Couldn’t put it down.”

And that’s all for now, from us to you. Your turn…

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01 August
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Events Around Los Angeles,Stage and Screen Recommendations

These are a few of my favorite…

Bruce Norris’ play A PARALLELOGRAM, which is playing through August at the Taper, contains many of my favorite things: time travel, birds, and Mary Louise Burke.

Time travel: I’m a sucker for the idea that we can and do and will be able to surf the zones. Soon.

Birds: Who doesn’t love a beautiful bird? The British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem the “Windhover” said it best: “My heart, in hiding/Stirred for a bird/The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Mary Louise Burke: is an old timey and deeply delightful NY stage actress. As a stage presence she has both gravity and grace.

The play is getting “mixed” reviews, which is what prompted me to write this, to let our MPW community know that the play is worth seeing.  I almost missed the gorgeous/subtle production of Nina Raines’ TRIBES – I saw the penultimate performance—  so I couldn’t get the word out and many people missed it.

But this one? Don’t miss this one. Even if it sort of annoys you (as it did my two companions) or if it completely delights you (as it did me)—it contains not only Time Travel, Birds, and Mary Louise Burke—it contains IDEAS about fate, Karma, agency, mental illness, relationships, love, and what language is good for—almost anything it turns out.  And it reminded me of this subtly profound Ashbery poem:

At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Click here for info on tickets.

P.S.:

Here are M.G. Lord’s thoughts on the play, as posted on her FB page:

I loved Bruce Norris' A PARALLELOGRAM at the Taper. It might be about a woman losing her mind. But I prefer to see it as about a woman realizing the shortcomings of the human race and how much better life might be after an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of humanity. Of course, I am not an entirely reliable source: I cheer for the Cylons in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

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02 July
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The Writing Life,Writing Poetry

Past Lives

PastLives1Amy Gerstler & Alexis Smith recently spoke about the art of collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City.   This installation is part of a larger exhibition, one that focuses on Portraiture.  They re-mounted part of their show “Past Lives” which is a psychically charged stage set that creates the effect of a mythical classroom. There are more than a dozen children’s chairs, all of them beaten up by generations of children.  The text on the wall summons up the commingling of past and future—there are horoscopes and hints to the Fates of all of these children. A blackboard tilts in one corner of the room, full of cryptic writing in strong slanted penmanship.

Of their collaboration, Alexis Smith said that she and Amy summon up or create a third person – and this person is the real artist behind the work. “We make-up a third person, who is not a collage artist or a poet,” Alexis said.

That idea of a persona who is a sculptor, and who comes into being because these two are collaborating, is such a fanciful idea.  It’s also a perfect way to think about the combined forces that these two artists generate in making this Magic Schoolroom.

ALEXIS SMITH’s work has the kind of wit that undermines the status quo. Her collages always seem to use language, and to summon up great writers.  Indeed “When I met Alex she was only working with dead writers—Whitman, Raymond Chandler, Borges, Longfellow, Kerouac,”  Amy said.  Amy said that she wanted to hang out with Alexis, but the only way that could happen was if she worked with her on a project.

“She worked all the time, and I realized that I wouldn’t get to hang out with her unless I collaborated with her,” Amy said, revealing the foundation that I suspect is at the heart of every true collaboration—affinity.  Part of that affinity probably has to do with Alexis’ immersion in writers.  “Over time, the images beat out the words,” Alexis said.   Later she said “I want to see what I can do without the words.”

A thousand startling juxtapositions animate her pieces.  It’s an eccentric (a word that Alexis Smith used) body of work, an insistent one from what I’ve seen, and it makes demands on a viewer.  You have to put a kind of mental pressure on the images and language for them to release their often funny, always critically sharp, punchlines.  The pay off is often that feeling of consolation that someone else sees the inherent absurdity in certain manifestations of culture and capitol and the types of manipulations that we are all prone too, since we are so often in a prone position as consumers.

The audience included the MPW class on Ekphrasis that I taught….and once again the word Ekphrasis came up for discussion.  It is a pretentious-sounding word, but it is an accurate one, one that means “description” in Greek. And, after all, as Wallace Stevens noted “accuracy of observation is the equivalent of thinking.”  Amy noted that Alexis’ process is a sort of “reverse ekphrasis.”  This brilliant observation drew no response from the audience but bafflement, but I know what Amy meant.

Both Amy Gerstler and Alexis Smith are profoundly inspiring and startling thinkers. To see the collusion/collision of their sensibilities, you need to see it in person.  And to linger—and to read the wall text which will reveal to you the whimsical darkness and levity that Amy Gerstler is so good at capturing:

Has no morals. Suffers from migraines. Refuses to bathe.

Talks all night. Broke new ground. Lost 50 pounds. Hates her

Name. Humiliates his children. Can’t sit still. Published

Eighteen novels. Can’t eat seafood. Lies to everyone. Gets lost

often.  Finds motherhood fulfilling. Succumbed to smallpox. Sees the

future.

 –wall text from “Past Lives”

PastLives2

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15 March
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MPW News,The Writing Life

MPW Goes to AWP Boston

 IMG_0085

Last week MPW trekked through snow and ice for 2013 AWP Boston in Back Bay. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference can be a daunting experience with hundreds of panels on every conceivable topic and with over 10,000 attendees from across the country. Fortunately, the MPW contingent braved these wee temperatures and massive hoards with wide-eyed grace and good humor.

Dinah IMG_0224For one, Dinah Lenney (right) led a passionate panel on “Why Genre Matters” with panelists Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, and Scott Nadelson. Do labels like nonfiction and fiction help or inhibit the writer? The arguments for genre’s persuasions were equally as brilliant as those for its perils. While some in the audience clearly had a horse in the race (at one point an “Amen” was uttered), everyone agreed that it was the vital and intelligent discussion about why genre matters that truly mattered.

We asked MPW students to describe their experience at AWP Boston. Here’s what they wrote:

Caron Tate IMG_0194

All I have to say about the AWP experience is: Everybody in the program you HAVE TO go. Find a way. Whatever you want to do with your writing, there are lectures,workshops, and presentations on it, and the discussions, hanging out, and crazy fun with your classmates is the best EVER!\

 

Trisha Chambers (right)IMG_0193

Had an amazing time with MPW classmates @ AWP! Here are my favorite quotes.
Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous.” Benjamin Percy on writing about werewolves and non-werewolves: “All my characters are hairy on the inside.” Cheryl Strayed: “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.”

 

 Sharon Sim-KrauseIMG_0366

I received a delightful snow confetti welcome the moment I strolled out of the Logan airport. I was transported from familiar LA to refreshing Boston, eagerly taking in jolts of inspiration from writers and muses, and basking in the soothing company of fellow MPWers.   My most memorable quote and reminder on why we write came from Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous. To be my best self is to write.” Thank you MPW and AWP for this invaluable opportunity!

Lauren NelsonLauren IMG_0190

AWP is the most useful, enjoyable, and grounding experience I’ve had this year. My favorite panel was “How to get your first university teaching job,” and it was great hearing Don DeLillo speak.

 

Kelsey NolanIMG_0329 (center)

Knowing that there were over six hundred booths at the AWP book fair was, quite honestly intimidating. How could I ever know what to go see, or who to talk to? Walking in was, all at once, overwhelming and compelling. The buzz made me feel welcome–like I was supposed to be there. I wanted to meet everyone there, submit to every literary journal, and buy every book. I could have spent an entire day in there and still not exhausted it. The whole conference felt that way, really, it was incredible.

Susannah LuthiIMG_0183

Highlights were meeting one of the writers we published in SCR (Erika Wurth). She presented on a panel on Native American writing and came by our booth. Thrilled she sent us her work. Dinner with the MPW crew. Hearing about Connu (my start up) second hand. Figuring out the framing/ending of my novel thanks to Don DeLillo’s panel. Watching Matt in action 87 percent of the time. Connecting with the friends from Skidmore and seeing progress they’ve made–one lit journal, Unstuck, in its second year, a novel done, a few stories published, and a new women’s lit journal started. They are incredible. Ron Carlson’s flash lit panel. Seeing Anne Carson.

Matt AckelsIMG_0220

AWP provided all the twist and turns of a good novel. I met quite a few characters, some wacky, some endearing, and most memorable. I learned things about my life in the broader context of our world, about my place in the greater literary community. Through the countless panels, I gleaned insights into writing and the craft. Of course, there were moments of daunting plot twists (running out of journals too soon), intimidating landscape (the thousand member book fair), and unwitting heroism (free cupcakes from Howard). Ultimately, this experience sharpened me as a writer, thinker, and, most directly, as a citizen of the wider literary community.

And here are those cupcakes!IMG_0353

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19 February
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Literary Potpourri

Patti Smith in Los Angeles

In his book “A Bright and Guilty Place” Richard Rayner writes that “cities have characters, pathologies that can make or destroy or infect you….”   This phrase came to mind when I went to hear Patti Smith speak and sing at USC.  I associate her with certain places and times— New York City, the Chelsea Hotel, the punk scene….but then, too, with Detroit, where she raised her children.

Josh Kun asked Patti Smith what place Los Angeles occupied in her imagination.   She said that she first saw it through the eyes of her mother, who loved Hollywood. She also mentioned the influence of hard-boiled Los Angeles writers—from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler onward. She mentioned that she loves the nicotine-gum chewing detective from “The Killing” so much that Sarah Linden is the screensaver on her computer.  When I told my friend Dawn Prestich, who is an Executive Producer on “The Killing,” she was thrilled—she texted me that “Patti Smith is now our screen-saver!”

Los Angeles figures as a place in the imagination through a blend and a whirr of associations.  Geography, immigration, inheritance and new technologies were the perfect mulch-bed for Hollywood. There is also Noir—that distinctly Los Angeles sub-genre.   Rayner describes noir as “on the one hand, a narrow film genre, born in Hollywood in the late 1930s when a European visual style, the twisted perspectives and stark chiaroscuros of German Expressionism, met an American literary idiom.”  He goes on to say that it is also a “counter-tradition, the dark lens through which history came to be viewed, a disillusion that shadows even the best of times…”

Patti Smith went on to talk about her love of the materiality of books: “the feel, the tissue, the paper, the frontispice”—I am reminded of a short essay that she wrote for the New York about shop-lifting a book from a New Jersey supermarket.

She also talked about what Josh Kun called her references, but what I understood to mean her influences:  “I mix freely,” she said.  “I take what I like from different worlds and try to make my own world. I look to work that makes me want to work—work that agitates me.”

She said that as an artist she feels “sort of dogged…I can’t relax. I always want to photograph– I always want to translate–” I always travel with a small notebook, and as she spoke I was trying to keep up with her, trying to write down the sense and gist of her phrases. We weren’t allowed to record or photograph that night, so this is written from those notes and those impressions—of course I did see many people in the audience covertly taking photos or recording on their little easily hidden devices.

Patti Smith spoke about loss and love—and how emotions and experiences get transformed into art.  She spoke of losing her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and her mother and her dog—“they’re all gone.  I’ve lost them all.  But as I lost people I thought I can still talk to them. Because they’re still here—a host of happy, scolding spirits.”

As she played “Because the Night” she invited the audience to join in.  She said that she’d always hated it when she was at a concert and the singer cajoled the audience. “Now I’m doing it,” she said.  She also said how she still felt the love and tenderness and lust she’d felt for her husband when she sang “Because the Night.”

After she sang, after she spoke, after the event ended I was walking my dog Violet across campus.  We crossed paths with Patti Smith.  When I introduced Violet to Patti Smith, she kissed Violet on the head and said “Beautiful name.”  Yes.  Then she asked me “Do you want a pick?”  YES, I did, and she handed me a guitar pick. Here it is, and here is Violet:

“I don’t like meeting my heroes,” MG Lord said to me when I told her this story. I didn’t really meet her, I said, Violet met her. I just happened to be there when it happened.

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