02 July
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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

30 August
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The Books of Summer

Young Woman Reading—Gustav Courbert

Elvis Costello sings:

The sun struggles up another beautiful day
And I felt glad in my own suspicious way
Despite the contradiction and confusion
Felt tragic without reason
There’s malice and there’s magic in every season

Speaking of which, tell me it isn’t strange to be back to school, where oh where did the summer go? Still there are perks—and among them, it’s time for our bi-annual readers’ round-up, a list of recommendations from MPW faculty and staff—the best of what we read this summer—in the order in which they came in:

First up, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, “published about ten years ago,” says Gina Nahai, “it’s a great study of Voice. Four characters, all women, tell the story. They range in age from five to 40-something and each one is distinct and authentic and fascinating.”

Michael Price writes: “It’s been an all Robert Caro all the time summer for me; I listened to The Power Broker on audio and have plunged in to The Path To Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of LBJ.”

From Brighde Mullins: “I’ve been reading Mary Gaitskill. I recommend reading her novel Veronica in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others—they are both explorations of the potential of others’ suffering to serve (merely) as schadenfreude. These are different approaches to the same ethical dilemma. Gaitskill writes like an angel-who-has-seen-it-all, Sontag’s clarity and wit are sublime.”

Howard Ho says, “I seem to have had a Chinese-American themed summer. I read David Henry Hwang’s hilarious new play Chinglish, which is notable for its very theatrical use of supertitle translations of spoken Mandarin Chinese that gets lost in translation. And MPW faculty member M.G. Lord let me borrow her copy of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (by Yunte Huang). Nominated for a Pen USA Literary Award, the book traces the Charlie Chan legacy from its roots in the real-life Chang Apana, a Hawaiian cowboy turned police detective, to his later fictional incarnation by novelist Earl Derr Biggers to the string of movies that were popular from the 1920s to 1940s. It’s a very quick read and engagingly touches upon many of the interesting historical landmarks which make Charlie Chan an enduring figure in American culture.”

And from Syd Field: “I hadn’t read James Lee Burke for a while so when Creole Bell was released I decided to read it. Amazing! The soul of a poet with razor sharp characters amid the smell and taste of of New Orleans.”

Amy Gerstler writes to say that she read “a lovely, sad and lyrically political epistolary novel by John Berger called From A to X.”

Kenny Turan recommends “the new novel by Norway’s Karin Fossum, The Caller. For my money, she is the best stylist of all current Scandinavian mystery writers, and the most chilling.”

And Tim Kirkman offers up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Although he, too, casts a vote for Robert Caro: “I’m working on a screenplay about a few weeks during the Johnson administration, so The Passage of Power has been an invaluable resource. It’s also a highly entertaining, informative and mammoth book. I’m still reading it!”

From Johanna Blakley: “I’m just finishing up Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s an oddly menacing story (not unlike Bolaño’s brilliant 2066) about a rag-tag bunch of Mexican and South American poets who are searching for God knows what: meaning? friendship? political truth? hot sex? I can safely say I still don’t get it. But I can’t stop reading it.”

Gabrielle Pina writes that “Red River by Lalita Tademy is a haunting and heartbreaking family saga about love, honor, and a devastating event that took place in Louisiana during the pre-reconstruction period of our painful history.”

And Cort Brinkerhoff says “the thing I read this summer that still haunts me is Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a deceptively simple play about ghost stories and the specters that linger in all our lives.”

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “This will NOT be a news flash, but nor do I turn away from work that is great and literarily definitive of its moment. What I loved about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is that it is a big male adventure book that’s wonderfully Melvillian, with more than a nod to James Michener (his Hawaii being a secret pleasure of many of us). As at times the zeitgeist of female fiction tends toward an anorectic, plotless East Coast preciousness (and God bless The New Yorker), the book’s massive success is wonderful news for Girl Writers of the West (never mind that some of us are 50!).

M.G. Lord writes, “Last summer I became atypically excited about new fiction. Two remarkable galleys arrived in my mailbox: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. Kramer (who is better known for writing “Thirtysomething” and adapting Maupin’s Tales of the City as a miniseries) has written an extraordinarily beautiful novel about a very 21st Century Manhattan family. Each character tells his or her own story, culminating in a tender, climactic exchange between a teenage boy and his father’s male lover. The book made me think of Salinger (except that Kramer’s vision is less dark) and, although it could not be more different in form, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. To ensure that my momentary optimism was tempered with despair, I next read A.M. Homes’ novel, expecting to pick it up for a few hours one Friday morning but being so riveted that I could not put it down until Saturday night. The book may be her bleakest…and her best. Both novels will be published in November.”

Dana Goodyear says, “I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s first book of poems, Interior with Sudden Joy, as a young editorial assistant, living in New York and wanting to write. It was a performance—arresting, stylish, witchy, and stone-cold frank—I couldn’t look away from. Twelve years later, she still has my attention. This summer I wrote to her publisher and asked for an advance copy of Our Andromeda, her third collection, which comes out in the fall. The poems are longer, more narrative, and tack closer to life, but the voice is the same: glinting, dark, tender, unafraid.”

And from Prince Gomolvilas: “Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a devastating portrait of a family forced to confront secrets and lies that most everyone—except for the memoir-writing daughter—wants to sweep under the rug. And David Henry Hwang’s refreshingly funny Chinglish addresses the very contemporary issues of business and transnationalism while wrapping them in classic themes like East vs. West, the perils of language, and the myriad ways in which we all (mis)communicate. What’s more, both plays will be having their Southern California premieres during the 2012-2013 theatre season—Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum and Chinglish at South Coast Repertory.”

(Hwang and Caro taking the lead…)

Judith Freeman writes: “I read, for the first time this summer, Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West—simply one of the best adventure stories ever told. And who knew that Lewis & Clark even had a dog with them, the remarkable Seaman, a Newfoundland, who made the entire trip, and was to Lewis such an important companion.”

And Bernard Cooper says, “I was under the false impression that Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was as charming as the movie starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t realize it was bleak and devastating, too; Spark foretells the deaths of each of Miss Brodie’s students just as the novel begins, so that the shadow of mortality hangs over every classroom scene and innocent blunder, deepening the story in stunning and unpredictable ways.”

Janet Fitch notes that she reviews everything she likes on Good Reads. “The book that really made it for me over the summer was Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences. Gorky was an keen observer with prodigious recall,” she writes, and then quotes from her review: “Gorky remembers so much that it seems he has looked at the world with eight or more eyes, evenly spaced around his head,” said the critic Viktor Shklovsky. He was largely self-taught, a proletarian writer who read enormously and remembered everything he read. His great, subtle and complex understanding of human beings, is reflected in his essays in this book, especially the ones on Tolstoy and on Chekhov–the best ever written on those two men, as men–and illustrates how their writing was in perfect keeping with their natures. His description of Tolstoy is a thing of beauty, his understanding of the heroic conflicts within the man, the techtonic plates of his inner contradictions that resulted in such great literature… and his portrait of Chekhov makes us love him as Gorky loved him. A treasure.”

She also recommends Brendan Constantine’s new book of poetry. Again, from Good Reads: “Poetry is the art of grabbing a fleeting moment of human truth and pinning it to the page in a perfect phrase, alive, iridescence intact. To compress broad experience into a crystalline memento, to pull the curtain aside on reality taking a shower–just a moment’s glimpse of its beauty and sorrow and perfection. Poem after poem, Brendan Constantine does just that in Calamity Joe.”

From Mark Richard: “Across Atlantic Ice (Authors, Stanford and Bradley)—a fascinating book using archeological studies, DNA testing, and paleoclimatic research suggesting some hardy ancient Solutrean peoples (from what is now Spain-France) came to the Americas 20,000 years ago in large ocean-going canoes under leather sails, possibly the forefathers of Clovis man. And after reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s (yes! yes! a former student!) excellent essay in the New York Times Book Review in June, I re-read Absalom! Absalom! (Faulkner) a book that simultaneously affirms and explodes everything I tell my students in our fiction workshop.”

As for me: I read Penelope Lively’s Passing On, in which she reveals the extraordinary inner lives of apparently ordinary people—examines the choices we make, the ones we don’t, and the courage it takes to live with them either way. And I could not put down Alice Mattison’s When We Argued All Night, an account of a friendship that lasts some 70 years, vivid, and true, and deep, and joyful, and sad. Like life, huh.

And what about you? What did you read last summer, tell us, please do…

24 September
2Comments

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. www.lareviewofbooks.org

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…http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2107900953

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 (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060593674-1), Major Jackson’s Holding Company (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780393070804-1), recent MPW visitor D.A. Powell’s Chronic (http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9781555975166-5). And shortly I’ll be reading Jane Hirshfield’s just-released new collection, Come, Thief (http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780307595423-1), 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 (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060931414-40), which seems different and better to me every time I read it. I’m currently reading Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060854089-1). Another nonfiction work I enjoyed was Making Babies (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/aug/01/booksonhealth.features), by Irish writer Anne Enright, who visits the ALOUD series at Central Library next month.

I also wrote a post on my own blog (http://nancohen.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/learning-from-masterchef/) 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.

16 March
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What’s cooking at MPW in March

Here’s a look at what’s happening at MPW in March 2011! All events are free and open to the public.

Road Trip – Get Me Outta Here!

Friday, March 25th @ 7:30 PM

Join us for the latest MPW Student/Faculty Reading series with MPW faculty member Amy Gerstler!

The theme is “Road Trip – Get Me Outta Here!”

Student Readers:

Erin La Rosa
Sarah Lowe
Justin McFarr
Breene Murphy
Russell Nakamura

Faculty Reader:

Amy Gerstler is a writer of poetry, nonfiction and journalism. Her book Dearest Creature (Penguin 2009) was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, and was short listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Her previous twelve books include Ghost Girl, Medicine, Crown of Weeds, which won a California Book Award, Nerve Storm, and Bitter Angel, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s she contributed monthly reviews to Artforum magazine. She does a variety of kinds of journalism, including art criticism and book reviews, and has written for the Village Voice, Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, Art and Antiques, and other publications. She is a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington College, Vermont and teaches in the MPW program at USC and in the Fine Arts Graduate Program at Art Center College of Design. She has taught writing and/or art at the California Institute of the Arts, Cal Tech, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Utah, Pitzer College, and elsewhere.

RSVP on Facebook

How to Leap from MPW to Barnes & Noble and Beyond?

Wednesday, March 30th @ 6:00 PM

The Master of Professional Writing program is pleased to announce the distinguished panel of literary agents and editors who will ponder the question “How does a writer leap from MPW to Barnes and Noble and beyond?”

University Club – Pub
645 West Exposition Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90089

RSVP at mpw@dornsife-blogs.usc.edu or on Facebook.

The panelists include:

Angela Rinaldi is a literary agent to bestselling authors and president of The Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, founded in 1994. She was previously the Executive Editor at NAL and Bantam Books, Senior Editor at Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster) and started the book publishing program for The Los Angeles Times. She has been a member of AAR and board member for PEN.

Susan Finesman is a literary agent specializing in books to film. She began her career with Tri-Star Pictures in 1986, scouting books, plays and non-fiction. Five years later, she moved on to Savoy Pictures, followed by a long and award-winning stint at HBO, where highlights included an Emmy for Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.

Helen Breitwieser is a literary agent and owner of Cornerstone Literary in Los Angeles. Her agency represents a wide range of bestselling authors with an emphasis on women’s fiction, children’s books, romance and suspense/mystery. She is a member of the AAR, the Author’s Guild, Poets & Writers, RWA and PEN. Before founding Cornerstone Literary in 1998, she was a literary agent at the William Morris Agency.

Jennifer Pooley is a former Senior Editor with William Morrow and Harper Perennial where she spent 12 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2010 to pursue her passion for book-to-film adaptation. Jen has represented an eclectic cast of bestselling authors, is an annual faculty member of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, and gives lectures throughout the year at national writers’ conferences.

Mary Roach & Lauren Whitney

Also on Wednesday, March 30th @ 7:00 PM

Mary Roach is the author of PACKING FOR MARS: THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID, which she will discuss with M. G. Lord’s class on travel-writing. She is also the author of STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS, SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE, and BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX.  She lives in Oakland, Ca. Mary will be accompanied by Lauren Whitney, her agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, who will discuss the process of transforming a book into a film.

Leavey Library Auditorium
651 West 35th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90089

RSVP at mpw@dornsife-blogs.usc.edu

$8 parking available at USC’s Parking Structure X (Gate #3)

For directions and parking information:
http://www.usc.edu/about/visit/upc/driving_directions/admission_center.html

For a USC campus map:
http://www.usc.edu/assets/maps/upc_map.pdf

For more information about USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program:http://www.usc.edu/mpw