1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.
1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.
3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.
I've read a lot of T. S. Eliot in my life, and I write about him rather often too. But I'd never seen the musical Cats, based on his whimsical late work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, until last week when Caryn took me and my stepdaughter to see a regional production in Northern Virginia.
The fact that I've avoided this extremely popular musical for so long is especially surprising since I also enjoy the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Evita and, a real old favorite of mine, Jesus Christ Superstar. I suppose I was put off by the proposition of watching grown men and women writhe pretentiously in cat costumes while calling each other Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger. The play was aggressively marketed as a lush visual marvel when it originally opened in the early 1980s. I disdained it as a sort of feline "Nutcracker Suite" -- precious, pretty and not for me. I suspect that many other T. S. Eliot aficionados out there have avoided the show for the same reason.
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.
Jay McInerney impresses me today. I didn't know if he had the cojones to give a trendy "serious novel" like Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed a bad review, but apparently he does. Maybe my concern that we'd have to spend this entire decade hearing about the genius of Joshua Ferris was misplaced; the novel has gotten mediocre reviews in Chicago and Washington DC as well. Sometimes the lit-crit establishment is better at spotting fakes than I expect.
Speaking of Joshua Ferris's new novel, this weekend's New York Times Book Review features a very good endpaper essay by Jennifer Schuessler about the meaning, history and brain science of boredom. I'm intrigued to learn that:
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of "to bore" dates to a 1768 letter by the Earl of Carlisle, mentioning his "Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen." "Bores," meaning boring things, arrived soon after, followed by human bores.
The spirit of William Safire lives on. But I wish the essay drilled deeper (thank you) into the multiple meanings of "bore", which now signifies a dull emptiness but must have originally been meant to connote not only the emptiness left behind by being "bored" but also the sharp and invasive act of "boring" itself. Can you bore without being sharp? Is it more boring to be bored, or to have been bored, to have been left an empty hole? Anyway, this essay is not boring.
Okay, but what are we going to do about this crushing meme -- so ridiculously prevalent among senior journalists and pessimistic creative folk these days -- about the rise of the Internet spelling the end of all other creative forms? Several months ago, Philip Roth declared that no more novels will be written in 25 years. Today's Book Review gives us this paragraph in Charles Isherwood review of Kenneth Turan's Free For All, an oral history of the career of Joseph Papp:
And in the years since Papp's death, it has become clear that he was not just a major cultural force in New York in the second half of the 20th century; he was probably the last cultural game-changer America will ever know to make his name exclusively in theater. Papp's may not be "the greatest theater story ever told," although the huckster in him would appreciate the hyperbole, but it may well prove to be the last great theater story ever told, at least in this country.
Why? Have they shut Broadway down? Nobody told me! Last I heard, you still couldn't get good seats to Billy Elliot. What on earth would give Christopher Isherwood the idea that popular interest in modern theatre is waning at all, or that somebody in this still-thriving field might not equal or surpass Joseph Papp's achievement in the eternities to come?
It's that meme. And here it is again in this weekend's Book Review, in Neil Genzlinger piece on David Thomson's The Moment of "Psycho":
Maybe alongside all the groundbreaking that Thomson attributes to “Psycho” there is room for a companion theory about the film: that it was the last movie about which a book like "The Moment of 'Psycho'" could be written.
Haven't their been any great, amazing, groundbreaking, thoroughly original movies since 1960? I can name about 100. Some psychologist really ought to come up with a theory as to why so many cultural commentators need to believe that their favorite art forms are in death throes, that the future cannot possibly be as good as the past. My guess: it's only a sign that these cultural commentators have run out of mojo, have allowed their own imaginations to wither away.
Some of my literary/blogger friends have taken to tweeting their literary links. Not me -- I'm holding out for the blog format, just like McSweeney's is holding out for newspapers. Here's another roundup involving great writers and other finds ...
1. Nature magazine goes way back.
2. Orhan Pamuk's real-life Museum of Innocence.
3. The many facets of Roberto Bolano.
4. The many quirks of William Golding, who originally wanted Simon the Christ symbol to actually witness the arrival of God in his great Lord of the Flies.
5. PopMatters interviews Nicholson Baker.
6. Gregory Maguire, whose Wicked novel is much better than the Broadway musical created from it, joins in on an open publishing experiment.
7. Holocaust victim Horst Rosenthal had the idea for Maus before Art Spiegelman.
8. Jessa Crispin tells it like it is.
9. I had no idea that Stanley Kubrick got "Daisy" from a real singing computer.
10. In my opinion Nick Cave sang the best "Stagger Lee".
11. Bill Ectric presents an excerpt from Tamper.
12. Probably inspired by Clarence Clemens's enjoyable and funny new book Big Man, Bruce Springsteen may write an autobiography. All the newspapers are blubbering about the size of his advance, but why shouldn't he get $10 million? He's that good, and I would love to read this book.
Arlene Malinowski is a Chicago-based playwright, actor and teacher. She grew up in New Jersey and has spent many years in Los Angeles. She has written and performed several solo plays, which draw on her unique experience growing up in a family where both parents were deaf. Her solo work has earned her an LA Garland award and several other nominations and picks. As an actor, she has appeared in numerous theatre productions around the country. She also teaches solo writing and performing. I caught up with her at the Cafe Selmarie in Chicago's Lincoln Square, where she gave me some insights into writing and performing in solo plays, as well as what it was like to grow up in a deaf family.
Michael: The first thing I wanted to ask about was: I see that you have two solo plays, What Does the Sun Sound Like
Arlene: and Aiming for Sainthood.
Michael: ... and Aiming for Sainthood.
Arlene: Those are the two full-lengths, and I have a few one-acts.
Michael: All right, so let's talk about What Does the Sun Sound Like first. Is that your oldest play?
Arlene: That's my oldest full-length. There are the one-acts which came before that. But all my work is autobiographical solo work, and it is autobiographical solo -- let me think of the right word -- it's social autobiography, which means telling one's story in the context of a cultural group.
Arlene: That's what it is. And so I say "I'm an actor and a performer".
Michael: And you write the play completely yourself ...
Arlene: I live the play first! Then I write the play, and then I perform it.
Michael: So you're it: you're the writer, the actor ...
Arlene: I'm everything.
Michael: What about the sets and the staging, do you have someone ...
Arlene: You know what, it depends on what kind of a venue I have. If I am doing a full length run in a theatre, then I have sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers. A lot of my work -- once I have a couple of full runs -- I travel the country with it, and I do it at colleges and universities and theatres for one or two or three nights or a week. So when I travel like that, it's much more bare-bones. The good thing about solo is you can do a blank stage. You can be in a black box, and it's my job as the playwright to develop this whole world that people don't see, but that they make this quantum leap in their head. I play all the characters ...
Michael: Oh, so it's not just you -- it's multiple characters ...
Arlene: Yes: they're multi-character plays. I have a narrator, who narrates the play, and then I write scenes, and I have an internal narrator and an external narrator. And the external narrator is the narrator who is omnipresent, and that narrator knows the past, the present and the future -- that narrator knows everything that's happened. And then there is a narrator that is within the scene, who only knows what's happening in the scene. So, "when I was twelve years old, I went to a catholic school, and little did I know that this would happen" -- that would be the external narrator. The internal would be -- "so I'm walking to my mother's house, and it's really dark ..." -- so the internal narrator is speaking from within the scene with no knowledge of what's going to happen.
Michael: And the action is happening to that narrator.
Michael: This title is very interesting -- What Does the Sun Sound Like. What is this play about, and what does the sun sound like?
Arlene: The title of the play came from a conversation I had with my father. I grew up in a deaf family -- sign language is my first language -- and all of my material up until this point has been about cross-cultural intersections: between hearing and deaf, between men and between women, between classes, um, upper-class and lower-class. Because I grew up in a deaf house, I was my parents' ears. I listened for them. I was about twelve -- and it's a very natural kind of seamless dance that I had with my parents, and that most children of deaf parents have. There's a whole group of us, there's a whole history. There's a group called CODA, Children of Deaf Adults, it's going to be twenty-five years old. It was started by a woman who was writing a dissertation in deaf studies. She was a child of deaf parents, and so she started talking to other kids of deaf parents, and found that everybody had remarkably the same story -- with these huge threads that wove themselves through the tapestry of their lives. So growing up in a family like that, there were times that I was the parent, and there were times that they were the parent. In situations where a waiter would come by, I would need to speak for them.
Michael: and you were like twelve ...
Arlene: Oh no, I was seven ...
Arlene: I was five! And it starts very simple, "tell me when the toast pops, because I'm going to be in the other room. When the washing machine turns off, tell me. When the baby cries, come and get me." So that's how it starts. So "what does the sun sound like" -- I'm twelve. And during my twelfth year I was a real handful. Growing up, I was always treated like an adult, so I thought I was an adult. ( Laughs). So at twelve -- plus being an adolescent girl, plus being in a very strict household -- there were few times of peace in my home. And I remember that my father -- we shared breakfast together -- and I'll just quote a little bit from the play:
"it was another dreary, overcast day in a series of dreary, overcast days that marked that dreary, overcast summer ... of trouble." And it was fight, fight, fight, fight -- and then for the first time [in a long time] the sun breaks free from the clouds and the kitchen just floods with this light. And I remember my mother and my father and I just kind of looked out the window because it was just so long since we had seen the sun, and my father turned, and he said "what does the sun sound like?" And I'm like -- "the sun has no sound". And my father thinks, and I still see his expression, and he says "the sun hits the sidewalk. I read that. It has a sound -- you can't fool me." So I said, "Dad, that's not true. It's an idiom." And then the whole thing is how do you explain an idiom?
So then my father says "You can see the sun, but you can't hear the sun."
"You can see the rain, but you can hear the rain, but but but but ..."
"You can see the snow but you can't hear the snow. It's" and I use his deaf voice (very guttural) "Qui-et!"
"And you can't see the wind, but you can hear it."
And then my father looks at me and he says, "You know, sometimes it's hard for me to understand."
And it was like my heart just opened. So years later I go back, and I tell my father about this play, and he said "I don't remember that. That never happened!"
Arlene: And I'm like "Yes it did!" And it was this remarkable turning point. Like for the first time I really understood what it was like to be deaf. Up until that point it resonated with me on a whole different level. So that's where the title comes from.
Michael: What about the next solo play, Aiming for Sainthood. Does this kind of take your family life further ...
Arlene: It's the second in a trilogy. The first play, this is my blurb: "totally true tales of a hearing daughter who grows up in a deaf family and culture." Aiming for Sainthood is "when her deaf mother gets cancer, her middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: "where is God?", and "who moved my Springsteen poster?"
Arlene: My plays are different than other disability-oriented work, because I refuse to treat ... (pauses). How about this: I have a very funny view of life. Things are funny to me. So, even horrible things are funny to me. So there's a lot of funny in my life, especially around the deafness. So, my parents' life is not precious, do you know what I mean? It's not that precious kind of writing. But the stories, the stories, the stories! My husband is meeting my parents for the first time. We had just been dating, but I knew he was the one. I was really careful about who I was going to introduce them to. So we're meeting my parents in a restaurant, and all of a sudden it hits me -- oh my God, I need to teach him some signs so it will be nice for my parents! So, I'm like: "I know you love me, and I love you, but the time has come. I need to teach you sign language before you meet my parents in the next few minutes!" And he's like: "Okay, just calm down, everything's all right". So I teach him to say "very good, thank you." And the sign is (makes the signs) "very" from the center out, "good", your palm facing heaven, "thank you", from your chin. He meets my parents, and my father says (in a guttural deaf voice) "How ... are ... you." And he signs it. And Dan - he looks at me, he looks at my parents. And he signs "fucking is good, thank you." (laughs). Instead of this (sign for very good), he does this (sign for fucking). The stories go on and on. Like my mother, who orders a penis colana, because that's what it looks like on people's lips. "No, it's a pina colada." "That's what I said, penis colana." So the stories go on and on. Cross-cultural intersections ...
Michael: So it's not -- sad -- but it's like: here were are, we're deaf, okay ...
Arlene: And here's the culture ...
Michael: And here's the culture, and this is funny. Yeah.
Arlene: These are some of the things that we've been through.
Michael: So it's a trilogy, though. Have you finished the third, uh ...
Arlene: I haven't started the third. The third comes later. I think in the next two or three years. The third one is going to be a look at disability and the [American] culture. While the story is about my parents, the story is really about me. And, I think I look at the culture now -- and you know, we are fast becoming disabled culture people - you know, baby boomers are all getting old -- and to really explore how the culture deals with disability. As we get old, my parents, when they get to that next level. That will be part of it. And then there is me, and I had some disabilities that are not spoken about, because I went crazy for a little while, and how families are much more willing to discuss, you know, hysterectomies [than that]. And I talk about as "losing my kibbles and bits."
Arlene: So it's going to me an interesting look at how disability runs us and how we run disability. So that's my next play -- I don't know what it's called and I don't know when I'll start it.
Michael: How long are these plays? One hour?
Arlene: One thirty.
Michael: An hour and a half?
Arlene:. One twenty-five is what I like to keep them to, because at one thirty people start looking at their watch. And the one-acts are probably thirty minutes.
Michael: So you have some other things that you wrote that are short, one-act, again -- solo ...
Arlene: One is called Kicking the Habit. I grew up in a Catholic school, and that story is about a mean nun, a Catholic school girl and her timid mother, who saves the day. And I was getting bullied by a nun, and my mother, she went in and read the nun the riot act. For the first time, and she was very timid of authority ...
Michael: Plus she was deaf ...
Arlene: And of course [she was going up against] the Catholic Church.
Michael: Those nuns are tough ...
Arlene: You know, the nuns were great. They taught me how to read, but Sister Mary Concepta, Sister Mary Concepta, you know, I have a little blurb about her: "Sister Mary Concepta is a hundred and ten years old and has been dying of cancer for decades but everyone says she's going to live forever, because she's so mean not even God wants her."
Arlene: And I swear ... you know, I went on one of those internet sites where you find your classmates, and they have chat rooms. I went back to St. Brendan's in Patterson, New Jersey, and the chat rooms were full of: "do you remember Sister Mary Concepta?"
[ ... ]
Arlene: My personal mission statement is ... there's this solo Artist named Claudia ... I can't remember her full name ... but she said, "Everybody has a story that will stop your heart." And so I take that as the major premise of my mission statement and I changed it to "everyone has a story that will stop your heart, but we've stopped telling them because people have stopped listening." And so, my goal is to help people find their voice and find the voice of their story, and help them always -- always -- listen to the story. So I look at this solo autobiographical thing, you know, spoken word salons, it's all about people sharing their stories. I think that we've gotten really insular -- and I know what it's like to be in a place where people don't hear you -- literally!
Arlene: Where people do not hear you. And you know, we know Oprah and we know "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", we know all those people intimately, but you know, I know very little about my neighbors. "The Second Story" (a performance venue) also is a place where people work a lot. So what happens is, you tell a story, and then you come off stage, and someone says "Oh, my God! Sister Mary Concepta! I so had a nun!" So I then get an opportunity to listen to your story, and it connects us: story by story by story. It connects us to who we are. And connects us to each other. Part of the reason this is so important to me: in the deaf community storytelling is a revered art form. And the story is not a punch line -- the story is in the telling! Because deaf people use their faces and their bodies and sign language. So the story is in the telling, and I grew up around amazing storytellers. At deaf club -- there is such a thing as deaf club -- my parents belonged to the North Jersey Silent Club -- people would talk, and there would always be one or two storytellers that when they started telling a story, everybody would crowd around, and watch. And they would tell the story, they would take on the characteristics of the person, and they would know how to build the story, and know how to tell a story-within-a-story. And that's what I always come back to.
Michael: Thank you.