Archive for the 'Literary Potpourri' Category

19 February

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.


14 November

What we feel most…

Jack Gilbert

On the big bulletin board to the left of my desk:

Assorted postcards (most strikingly featured: a manatee, a hummingbird, a fishing spot on the Cape Cod Bay)
A list of 50 literary magazines that pay
Another of phone numbers for my office-mates
A luggage tag from American Airlines
A couple of yellowing cartoons from The New Yorker
An ancient photo of my niece and nephew
A Groupon for a month of unlimited classes from a local Yoga Studio
Several quotes, lifted from periodicals and programs, to comfort and inspire (Emerson, Thoreau, Helen Frankenthaler, Whitney Balliet, and Margo Jefferson)

And poems—
poems peeking out from behind poems—
poems I had to have in my sightlines because they got to the bottom of how I think and feel; because they expressed exactly-but-exactly what I hadn’t known I thought or felt, better than I’d ever be able to say it myself—

poems from Yeats, Ponsot, Ryan, Rector, Haas, Gerstler, and Laux, to name only a few—

poems about living, and poems about writing—

“Memoir” by Vijay Seshadri—
And “The New Song,” by W. S. Merwin—
and “The Problem of Sentences,” by Linda Gregg—

and here’s Czeslaw Milosz, the last stanza of “Ars Poetica”:

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
As poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
Under unbearable duress and only with the hope
That good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

And from Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy #9:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
Bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most, column tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing…

And today I’m adding a poem to the board (thanks to Dinty Moore, who posted it online this morning). I’m typing it out to feel the words in my fingers, pinning it smack in the middle of everything, to remind me how important it is to get it right, and how impossible, and how that’s the reason we keep trying, isn’t it?

Here, from Jack Gilbert, who died yesterday, who left us his poems, this one among them:


How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

06 May

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go…

Last week there was a piece in the Guardian: The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction, and boy, it got a rise out of readers, since it left out Dickens, Nabokov, and Woolf to name only a few—183 comments (protests) posted so far, and one, I happened to notice, is a link to another list, on the American Book Review site—100 best first lines from novels (now that’s more like it)—which happens to include three of my favorites: “Call me Ishmael” and “Happy families are all alike…” and “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” none of which made the Guardian actually, but all of which, plus the opening of Lolita, turn up in the ABR top 20, whew.

Not that I took exception when I read the Guardian’s list, not at all. I was delighted, in fact; pleased to be provoked to think about first lines, and how good ones abound; why, you could make a hundred lists of the ten best lines and never run out of material, right? Which got me curious and looking around the room where I’ve been working lately—my daughter’s—my papers and books strewn among hers for the next few weeks, until she comes home for the summer; good fun, consequently, to take a random sampling. Herewith, ten openings for your consideration, fiction and non:

On the bed:

1. “One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome, taken in 1852.” Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida.

From the bottom shelf to my left:

2. “Kath. Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.” The Photograph, by Penelope Lively.

3. “I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.” Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley.

4. “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro.” Chandler. Farewell, My Lovely (a brittle little Vintage paperback that must have belonged to my father-in-law).

From the bench on the opposite wall:

5. “The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast.” 1Q84. Haruki Murakami.

In the middle of the shelf over the desk, wedged between The Bell Jar and a French dictionary, #6: Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, which begins: “A Nurse held the door open for them.”

And further down that same shelf, #7. “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” Orwell. 1984.

From the shelf just above, # 8 (This one kills me): “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.” Baldwin. The Fire Next Time.

Back to the bed:

9. “The man was stubborn.” Calvin Trillin—Messages from My Father.

10. “Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it.” From Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, Jr.

And, in deference to Eliza (my daughter), let’s make it 11; because how to leave out J. K. Rowling, who, in this room, has almost a whole shelf all to herself. From her first, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

Ta da. But what does this selection tell us? For one thing, apart from the Harry Potter parade, we need a better system around here: I’ve been looking for the Lively for weeks, and also Eudora; and the rest of our Baldwins, fiction and nonfiction, are downstairs, I believe, so what’s this one doing up here?

But about these opening sentences: Tell me they aren’t mysterious and enticing—and I’m thinking it’s because every one of these books appears to start in the middle, as if to assume that the reader is in the know, which, of course, she isn’t; but she’s flattered all the same, to be trusted and invited; to have the author’s confidence, as if he or she were telling the story for her and her alone.

And how is that achieved? How has each author managed to enlist us in this way? With the Barthes, it’s the phrase, “I happened on,” which implies, doesn’t it, that he was doing something else at the time. That “Kath steps from the landing cupboard,” without introduction—well, obviously we’ve got catching up to do. In How Green was My Valley, something has compelled the narrator to pack all his things; but he’s going ‘from’ not ‘to’ which ups the ante considerably. With the Murakami, we’re actually in transit, on the road, music blaring. And how about Chandler: “It was one of those blocks”: So cavalier, right? —“it” with no antecedent?—as if to imply that we should know why he’s going on about that particular block in the first place. Now, Welty’s nurse—wherever, whoever they are, when she opens the door to let them in, we can’t help but be worried for them, right? Whereas Baldwin is honestly and totally overwrought, and we have to know why. And if Trillin’s state of mind feels, in comparison, resigned (amused), it too was arrived at before the book begins. Same thing with poor India, so ill at ease in the world from the outset—which doesn’t bode well.

As for #11: What does “thank you very much” tell us about the Dursleys? Why, they’ve got something to prove—an axe to grind, a grievance to air—and we’ve only just met them, too.

And, as I say, this was a random sampling; if I started all over again, I’m betting the outcome would be much the same. So why do so many authors choose to start their stories mid-stream? What’s the reason and the effect?

To seduce, right? At the very least, to immediately engage the reader, who, as noted, is not just eager to get up to speed, but delighted to be on such intimate terms with the author from the start. Moreover, the strategy requires specificity from the get-go—the writer is obliged from the very first moment to come up with just the right details of place, person, and thing, to insure our investment, to give us our coordinates, so that we can find our way forward and back. And that specificity makes for good prose, establishes authorial voice and control right off the bat.

Easier said than done? Sometimes, and sometimes not. When we’re lucky, our first lines simply arrive: They’re delivered to us when we’re walking or driving or watering the plants or washing the dishes, or in the middle of the night, or on line at the ATM machine, or during somebody else’s book-signing even. Other times, often in fact, we have to write our way to them, which is why, even when we think we’ve nailed a good beginning, it’s best not to get too attached—we might wind up shuffling things around, even cutting whole first paragraphs which turn out to have been throat-clearing, at least in my case.

The point is, in order to actually get to the beginning, you have to begin. Somewhere, anywhere—anything that gets you started is good—but a prompt is one thing, and a strong first sentence is something else. Therefore it isn’t good enough to get started, no. You have to keep going…

05 October

Ten Years Later

[Dana Goodyear teaches non-fiction in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she has worked since 1999. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and periodicals. Honey and Junk, her collection of poems, was published by W.W. Norton in 2005. A new collection is forthcoming from Norton. In 2010, she co-founded Figment, an online and mobile community for the readers and writers of young-adult fiction.]

I’ve had a wrinkly piece of yellow legal pad tacked to the bulletin board above my desk for a few weeks now: my notes from a conversation I had, courtesy of Granta and PEN West, at Vroman’s, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. On it, I have written down the titles of a few of my poems, which are covertly 9-11 poems, having been written in that troubled, rug-out-from-under-us year: anxious, jagged, one-sided poems, the poems of being twenty-five and apprehending for the first time how truly wrong things can go. I have also written down the titles of a few books I admire that deal with the aftermath of 9-11: Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation and Eliza Griswold’s Wideawake Field, Amy Waldman’s novel The Submission.

I will tell you, it felt weird to be in California on that day, though I am in California, in part, because of it. The other writers I was with—David Ulin, Adam Johnson, Steve Erickson—were all moved to write by 9-11. Ulin, who grew up in New York but left in 1991, described the city’s “new aura of susceptibility” as an opening that let him encounter his old home again. Johnson said he stopped writing a glib novel and, responding to the propaganda that he saw entering American life, started writing about North Korea. Erickson wrote a novel with a scene at the Towers. I was just starting my life as a writer when 9-11 happened, and I have a feeling that something of that calamitous atmosphere and its held breath will hover over whatever I write.

Scribbled all over the bottom of the page are notes of the interesting things the other people on the panel were saying, most of which I can’t make out any more. I can still read very clearly something Steve Erickson said, toward the end of our talk, which I liked, for its vaulting language and its little edge. “Fiction is a collaboration between imagination and experience,” he said. “You’re constantly fine-tuning that conspiracy.”

24 September

Best of the summer…

Violet Mullins

If you’re like me, you’ve got them everywhere, scribbled at the bottom of your grocery list, on the backs of deposit slips and drycleaner receipts, strewn across your desk, in your glove-box, on your bedside table, stuffed into drawers, tacked to the wall, tucked under the pencil jar, and even where they belong!–in that notebook you keep in your backpack for just this reason, just in case somebody mentions a movie, a show, a song, a symphony, a book–a must-see, must-hear, must-read, might-even-change-your-life title you’re planning to get to one of these days…

Herewith, I offer you one of those lists, but conveniently all in one place: Our very own MPW faculty Best of the Summer recommended seeing, hearing, viewing, reading–a survey for you to enjoy at your leisure, and in the order in which they came in, starting with Janet Fitch, who writes:

Best of my summer was reading a truly gorgeous novel, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli, a retelling of Genesis from Adam and Eve’s point of view. Also a book from the Forties, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, philosopher and colleague of Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in the late 1890s, was famous for his informal gatherings at Harvard in the thirties. It’s a look at the kind of intellectual life we can only dream about now, where even the neighbors and the doctor’s wife and the daughter in law had educated interesting things to say over dinner, back when people really embraced the life of the mind. We should be more dissatisfied with our contemporary mediocracy. We forget how engaged people were in the lntellectual life, once upon a time. So inspiring. I also discovered the poetry of Jeffrey McDaniel, Ilya Kaminsky, and Patricia Smith, quite a thrill. Looking forward to the exhibitions of Los Angeles art at the Getty this fall. And enjoying the new Los Angeles Review of Books–one new essay every weekday. Great way to start the day.

Madelyn Cain says:
Some books from this summer come quickly to mind: Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, a remarkable, honest look at aging by a very gifted 90 year old writer and Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron about growing up with her talented but troubled father, Bill Styron of Sophie’s Choice fame. These books are especially comforting/enlightening for writers.

On television, the Dick Cavett interview with Mel Brooks was laugh out loud funny. Hopefully you can find it somewhere.

And a reminder that your local library is one of the greatest gifts available that is FREE to all of us. (It’s also a great place to recycle books you’ve read and don’t wish to keep in your personal library.) The Young Reader Classics section is a great place to peruse when nothing strikes your fancy. It a reminder of all the great books out there – many of which I have not still availed myself!

And Amy Gerstler admits: Obsessed, embarrassingly, with the TV Show Justified. The female characters are often disappointing, but the hero is an incredibly charismatic and compelling character. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God slayed me. I listened to Ruby Dee reading it, and found it an incredible book not just about race but about relations between men and women, love, individuality, resilience, the beauties of colloquial speech, stubbornness and vitality, womanhood, etc. New poetry books by Tracy K. Smith, Henri Cole, Noelle Kocot, Anna Moschovakis, Peter Gizzi, Dean Young, Michael Dickman, and Aracelis Girmay are inspiring. Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty is super smart and well written and researched and yet accessible, in the cultural and aesthetic criticism zone.

From Kenny Turan: I took advantage of two weeks spent in Montana to read Stephen Ambrose’s magisterial and compelling Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis & Clark’s astonishing trip across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific. It was great fun to read about the trip while actually in territory the expedition crossed. A little more daunting was reading about ferocious bear attacks while hearing from friends about more recent bear encounters of their own.

Bernard Cooper reports: The Clock by video British artist Christian Marclay was recently purchased by The Los Angeles County Museum of art. Twenty-four hours long, the piece is a montage of all kinds of films–Hollywood blockbusters, foreign classics, public service films–that feature a clock or sundial or or wrist watch, thereby keeping track, minute-by-minute, of the actual time during which the video is played. The museum will occasionally screen the video over a twenty-four hour period, leaving the gallery open to the public. What’s hard to convey is how poetic and surprising the editing is, switching from color to black and white, changing characters and moods and narratives. A man is hung at high noon in a technicolor Western, and the next minute an English schoolboy is playing hopscotch while a clock tower in the distance shows 12:01. Lovely collisions of meaning while time tics away.

And Prince Gomolvilas announces: My favorite film of the summer (still in limited release) was Attack the Block, a spirited sci-fi/horror/comedy flick about an alien invasion smack dab in the middle of a London housing project.

From Judith Freeman: It’s been a summer of jazz & noir for me—listening to Charlie Parker (the early Dial Recordings) and Billie Holliday, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, all part of research for a new book I’m writing on jazz and noir. I discovered Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 thriller, In A Lonely Place, and watched the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart. I reread Nathanael West’s novel, Day of the Locust (1939)—still one of L.A.’s great novels—and read Jay Martin’s biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. One of my favorite reads of the summer was David Kastin’s biography of the woman known as “The Jazz Baroness,” Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, called Nica’s Dream, just out from W. W. Norton, the story of the English heiress who was wild about jazz and befriended jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s, moved to New York, and became their patron. What strikes me about this music, and these books, is the deep passionate engagement, both among those who made the music, and those who loved it: as Charlie Parker said, If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

And Julie Hebert writes: A non-fiction book I read this summer moved me tremendously– The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a biography of cancer from its very first mention in ancient manuscripts until now. Rather shocking information, profound insights… and in the end unexpected hopefulness about this most human condition. If you can bear not to turn away from the subject, the rewards of this book are great.

Also, at a garage sale, I picked up a collection of short stories that has floored me. Something that has never happened to me before… after reading the opening story by Michael Chabon, I closed the book… and all I wanted to do was read it again. Instantly. I wanted the experience of reading it again for the first time. Not possible, of course, but– a perfectly written story. I admired Chabon before, but at that moment I fell to my knees in front of him. Metaphorically. What actually happened was I tried to get my husband to read it, he wasn’t interested… until he suggested he read it aloud to me while I was in the bath. Well, alright, that worked out. “Along the Frontage Road.”  From Best American Short Stories, 2002, collected by Sue Miller, edited by Katrina Kenison.

From Howard Ho: I’ve returned time and time again to the documentaries of Adam Curtis. Produced for the BBC, his pieces usually take a relatively modern subject (e.g. the war on terror, public relations, corporate raiders) and finds the intellectual and political underpinnings which produced them. The New York Times describes his work as the “task of unearthing a secret history of the 20th century.” Airing earlier this year, his most recent piece is called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part look into the 21st century’s big idea, namely the computer network and how it unintentionally informs our lives. He populates this sprawling and often irreverent narrative with Ayn Rand, Dian Fossey, Monica Lewinsky, Buckminster Fuller, and Sigmund Freud among others. Bringing rather stark ideas to life, Curtis consistently entertains and engages with playful editing, inspired musical scoring, and his own voice as narrator. His films are not so much polemics as they are the collected insights of a curious mind.

Dana Goodyear’s contribution: I read Room, by Emma Donoghue, in one long, tense sitting. It’s a book predicated on a terrible crime—a Jaycee Dugard-like abduction and imprisonment—that becomes a meditation on parenthood, the imagination, and how fiction remakes the world.

And a highlight from Rita Williams: Watching an interview with Tony Hopkins. When his agent gave him the silence of the lambs, he’d given up on Hollywood and gone back to London.

He has a ritual to keep himself sharp. He learns a poem a week. And when he’s working on a part, he reads it aloud 250 times. Because “its all there in the text. You just have to find it. You don’t need anything else.”

An assortment of things from Tim Kirkman, who says: Vera Farmiga’s directing debut, Higher Ground, was the most satisfying and inspiring film I’ve seen in years. The story of an evangelical Christian living in upstate New York in the early 1970s, Higher Ground tackles the tricky subject of religious faith with a fresh eye. There’s not a false or judgmental note behind or in front of the camera.

Richard Nelson’s play Sweet and Sad is a nearly two-hour narrative played out in real time on stage at the Public Theater in New York (it closes in two weeks, so run don’t walk to see it). Set on September 11, 2011, Sweet and Sad reunites siblings with their uncle and a sister’s lover in Rhinebeck, New York, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. It’s a voyeuristic, painful, moving and, at times, hilarious story about many things: the ever-shifting roles we take on (or are assigned) by our families; how we each choose to grieve; how we remember and what we choose to remember; and the greater family of humanity and the necessity of connection. This was part two in a four-part series of plays by Nelson that will include the same characters in each. Maryann Plunkett’s performance is forever burned into my memory.

Betrayal by Harold Pinter, is more dazzling to me now than ever. The nonlinear structure that once seemed so simple now feels startlingly complex. Pinter’s ability to say so much with so little inspires me to sit down in front of my laptop and work.

Calvin Trillin’s piece in The New Yorker about the freedom riders of the Civil Rights Movement has stayed with me all summer. I want my nieces and nephews to read it, then go see The Help, then come home and watch Spike Lee’s documentary called Four Little Girls and send them all home with Nina Simone CDs.

I finally watched (and greatly admire) the gritty realism of The Wire, and though I remain perhaps the all-time biggest fan of The West Wing, until further notice my heart belongs to Friday Night Lights, which finally ended its five-season run. As a southerner, it’s refreshing to watch a series that can boast character authenticity that matches the (perfect) accents. Much has been written about FNL, but I’ve rarely been moved by television the way that this series moves me (four words: Tyra, you surprise me!) “Clear eyes, full hearts.” Indeed.

And riches from Mark Richard: Here goes, for books – When All the World is Old - new poems by John Rybicki. I read a galley this summer when asked for a blurb. Rybicki’s wife, also a poet, succumbed to cancer after 15 years of fighting, and this book is a celebration of her life, their life. What the heck, here’s the blurb – “If you have ever loved, read this holy book. If you have ever grieved, read this holy book. As an angel traveling between the here-now and the hereafter, John Rybicki is blessed with the sacred knowledge of how immediate we must be against the avalanche of time. As a man, he is blessed with having loved so much and known so much love, and with having found the language to marvel at his terrible good fortune.” Then there’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, suggested to me by the excellent members of our MPW summer writing workshop. The book reminded me at times of a 2011 Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings, was on one of my sons’ summer reading lists, I thought I knew it, I didn’t, or don’t remember. Got choked up several times; father and son watching the miraculous dance of the whooping cranes from the sawgrass and its intoxicating aftermath; the unexpected happenings with the Forrester neighbors after the father is struck by a giant rattlesnake, and of course, the story of Jody and of Flag. An amazing book misclassified as a children’s book, won the Pulitzer in 1938. For films, took the boys to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the doc about the 35,000 year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France. Torchlight sets the images of the prehistoric beasts in motion, the first cinema. Old movies revisited – The Wild Bunch, the director’s (Sam Peckinpah) cut. Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, (and a great Ernest Borgnine!), an 80-day shoot in Mexico after which Peckinpah had a nervous breakdown. A real Western bromance preceding Butch and Brokeback bookended with amazing gunbattles including 300 extras from the real Mexican army, watch the documentary at the end. Then there’s Peir Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a “cine-verite” documentary of the life of Christ set in Calabria, Italy, with Jesus as an Italian peasant. Remarkable. For music, there’s the latest Bootsy Collins- Funk Capital of the World, fresh and off the chain, that Bootsy, the original Funkateer (started out as bass player for James Brown). Still listening to Just Roll Tape, the wonderful, raw, and 40+ years late release of then 23-year-old Stephen Stills’ demo tape cut after a session with Judy Collins with whom he was in love (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), great to listen to just an artist and his guitar working out his works-in-progress, songs that would span decades of later albums, and we see it was Stills the genius of CS&N early on. Other stuff I’ve forgotten or haven’t finished, including T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, the 800-page definitive history of Texas, (the memorable weeping Caddo Indians who crossed the Gulf of Mexico in canoes from present day Venezuela, a fierce mound-building culture briefly flourishing in the Mississippi River Valley, even the Comaches were terrified of these cannibals who carried captured children strung on their backs as road food)…

Cort Brinkerhoff reflects:

Some plays I read over the summer that are still on my mind:

The Aliens by Annie Baker
A surprisingly insightful and touching look at the lives of three young men who frequent a coffee house in Vermont. I think Annie is my new favorite writer. Her work is intimate and penetrating. I will instantly remember this play every time someone says the word ladder — also check out Circle Mirror Transformation.

The Metal Children by Adam Rapp
A mediocre novelist travels to Iowa to defend a book he wrote a dozen years ago about teenage pregnancy and abortion. The novel was banned by the school board and some of the local girls are stepping up to defend the novel with questionable tactics. Rapp is an astute writer with something to say.

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph
A young boy and a young girl keep having chance meetings in hospitals and sick rooms and develop an odd relationship that runs the course of three decades. This is a unique play that doesn’t completely pay off in the end, but Joseph is an inventive writer — also see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

Church by Young Jean Lee
A Christian sermon, the likes of which you’ve never heard before. This is meta-theatre and performance art smashed together in to one entertaining ride. While this was engaging on the page, I really yearned to see it live.

Natalie Inouye says: I’m a couple years behind but the 2009 movie, Un Prophète, blew me away. It was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes andis streaming on Netflix. I saw it many months ago and am still thinkingabout it. I won’t be able to do it justice, so here’s a trailer…

And did you know that there are scientists who study happiness? If I asked you on a scale of 1 – 10 how happy you are, I bet you’d be able to give me an answer pretty quick. And no one would be able to argue with your answer. It turns out that America is not among the happiest of places, but it’s also not at the bottom of the list. What makes one nation’s people happier than another? Or what makes one person happier than another person? In his book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner, a veteran correspondent for NPR, traveled the world in search of the happiest places. Weiner visits a few of them, including Thailand, Iceland, Bhutan, and Switzerland, and interviews many people in each place, always asking them how happy they are on a scale of 1 – 10. I loved getting a glimpse into different perspectives on, and paths to,
happiness, as well as learning about what people have in common when it comes to making us happy. A clue: One of the main requirements for happiness is not having a lot of money, but instead trusting the people in our lives, including our neighbors.

Nan Cohen offers: This was my ninth summer as Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, in preparation for which I read or reread collections by conference faculty: USC professor David St. John’s The Face: A Novella in Verse (, Major Jackson’s Holding Company (, recent MPW visitor D.A. Powell’s Chronic ( And shortly I’ll be reading Jane Hirshfield’s just-released new collection, Come, Thief (, which includes, of course, poems we heard at her Napa reading.

Summer brings more time for reading novels, and among others I revisited an old favorite, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (, which seems different and better to me every time I read it. I’m currently reading Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road ( Another nonfiction work I enjoyed was Making Babies (, by Irish writer Anne Enright, who visits the ALOUD series at Central Library next month.

I also wrote a post on my own blog ( about my family’s attachment to the summer TV show MasterChef. I loved following its “home cooks” as they moved from being accomplished amateurs to committed practitioners. I’ve seen that process as a writer and as a teacher of writers, but I’ve never seen it unfold in the kitchen!

And from MG Lord: Last summer I discovered the poignant side of Futurama.  Yes, Futurama, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s brilliantly comic imagining of the thirtieth century, which also has a heart.

To tell this story I must include a spoiler. The episode titled “Jurrasic Bark” left me in tears.  It deals with the dog that Philip J. Fry, the series’ central character, adopted in the 20th century, before he was transported into the future.  Fry loves his dog, and tries to use futuristic technology to resuscitate him.  But when Fry learns that his beloved canine had lived for years after his disappearance, Fry decides not to.  Then we–the audience–see how the dog, in fact, survived: not loyal to another owner, but year in, year out–watching seasons change, growing old–waiting for Fry’s return.   I went through a box of Kleenex.

And to avoid spoilers, I will simply say that the “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Leela’s Homeworld,” and “Teenage Mutant Leela Hurdles”are equally moving, as is “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch,” a genius meditation on growing up and accepting responsibility.

I realized that no matter how 2-D animated characters may initially seem, great writing can transform them into 3-D, without allthe muss and idiocy of those special glasses.

Brighde Mullins’ “favorites” include: Matthew Zapruder’s book of poems Come On All You Ghosts in which he writes about global warming and his favorite word (pocket) and reminds me that poetry is where it’s at in terms of the inner/outer life and the necessity of articulation.

Anne Enright’s novels and short stories: What Are You Like, Taking Pictures, The Gathering, and her latest, The Forgotten Waltz. Reading her is like reading a fairy tale that has the bone structure of psychological realism. Her characters include ghosts, prostitutes, adulterers, strange children. Her odd lyricism blows my mind.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in which she re-assesses her former stance on how images of horror can inure us. She is brave, brave, brave, and one holy hell of a writer.

Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a young adult post apocalyptic epic that I read in two days, and it’s 800 pp. long.

Plays: War Horse at Lincoln Center– the sheer amount of spectacle was disturbing in an impressive way. Reminded me of a saying “down to the puritan marrow of my bones there is something in all this richness that I hate.” My favorite theatre piece was John Fleck’s low-budget high-energy solo about his obsession with Judy Garland, Mad Woman, that played in a tiny theatre in Los Feliz.

What he said, what she said, what she said, what he said–on top of which, I recommend Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on stage and on the page; and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, in which she, too (like Stoppard, I mean), is consumed with time, and memory, and imagination; also Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which holds up beautifully as a meditation about marriage and friendship. And, at the movies, I loved Beginners–a gem of a film, and a perfect slice of memoir (fictional or not)–which features Christopher Plummer at his very best.

Last thought–if you haven’t yet found your way to the Hollywood Bowl, haven’t seen Gustavo Dudamel in action, treat yourself soon, please do… And that’s all for now. Whew.