Friday, October 09, 2015

The best of fiction lately, and (hopefully) good to come

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
by Alexandra Kleeman

If you're like me you've also been hoping Miranda July and Amelia Gray would get together and collaborate on a remake of Single White Female (the very 90s thriller starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh). Except this version has Don DeLillo as script editor, turning it into the story of a woman, referred to only as A, having an existential crisis in a "Wally", an invasive species of chain megastore clearly designed by Ayn Rand. Wally shoppers are warned that "weakness thrives on help". A's roommate, "B", has gradually become more her than her, absorbing A's boyfriend (you guessed it) "C" in the process. After misplacing C altogether, A ventures to Wally to find a product--not unlike a crowbar--to make her feel more like herself and is directed to the veal. What follows is an experience with a cult, The Church of the Conjoined Eater, that is so surreal it's almost too real. Kleeman's nightmarish descriptions of commercials for cosmetics and Kandy Kakes, a truly nauseating sounding chemical confection, and awful reality television are marvelously, deliciously satisfying, and dare I say, Kafkaesque. Fans of White Noise and Threats, and critics of consumerism who also consume, will devour every weird bite of this and beg for more.

"He who sits next to me, may we eat as one." --mantra: The Church of the Conjoined Eater--

Fates and Furies
by Lauren Groff

So these three librarians walk into a bar...sorry, there's no punchline--that's just how book club starts. A few of us recently discussed Fates and Furies at Portrait House and unanimously declared Lauren Groff to be wise beyond her years; her prose seems to come from a much more mature pen.
Part one, Fates, concerns itself with the rich and charmed life of playwright Lotto Satterwhite. In part two, Furies, we learn of his wife Mathilde's story, revealing much more about Lotto. 
I admit to getting the audiobook of this one (which still somehow feels like cheating even though it's totally NOT) and while I think I missed some of Groff's inventive sentence structure in the text, I also feel I got more out of Lotto's plays included in the latter portion of the Fates. For those of us with the print version the plays felt cumbersome and unnecessary, but the audio performance of the included portions of plays flowed right along with the story.

Far more than a marriage novel, the premise is theatrical and the characters are larger than life in the same way. A not to miss performance!

Passing along the recommendation of fellow book-clubbers, (of the non-violent sort in case you were just now picturing a group of people clubbing books) I am now halfway through The Green Road by Anne Enright and utterly riveted by this Irish family saga--what some might say is the mother of all family sagas (ha ha)--following 30 years in the lives of Rosaleen Madigan and her four far-flung children. I try not to give halfway done recommendations too often but Ellen and Beth promise me that I will love it, and so will you.

Address any complaints to them.

Right now I have high hopes for:

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Watkins has channeled her experience of growing up in the Mojave Desert into a literary vision of a wrecked near-future California. I'm especially looking forward to her reportedly disquieting descriptions of the landscape of spooky dunes.

Check out her NPR interview here.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Longlisted for the 2015 Booker, this highly regarded debut tragic novel is currently taunting me from the coffee table, waiting for me to finish up with The Green Road.

Be warned: I'm told it's really tragic.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Noir with a twist, and war with a side of humor: not-to-miss new fiction from two Vietnamese American authors

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"...for who but a man with two minds could understand a man with no face?"

A top contender for my "Best of 2015" award, which if you are keeping track you know that list also includes The Tusk That Did The Damage and A Little Life, among othersThe Sympathizer is dark humor at its finest, and an expert portrayal of the duality in the life of a man "with two minds": that of Vietnamese, and American, that of a secret agent of the Viet Cong and officer in the South Vietnamese Army.

The novel is written as a jail cell confession by a double-agent returned to Vietnam after years in the United states, during which time he worked on a film about the Vietnam War by "The Auteur", a character that seems to be based on Oliver Stone. From Mr. Nguyen's interview on NPR: "I remember sitting and watching Platoon in a movie theater, and when the Vietnamese were shot, people would cheer. I was like, "Wait, that's weird, who am I supposed to identify with at this moment?" Nguyen adroitly weaves wry humor through his grim account of a war told from different sides.

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Dragonfish is a gritty noir thriller complete with a chain-smoking, flawed, corruptible detective chasing the ghost of the woman who left him through the Vietnamese underworld in Las Vegas.

Suzy, haunted by memories of her time spent in a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon, disappears from her life and tumultuous marriage to Robert, a hard drinking, hard-boiled detective.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Author talk @ RPL: Excerpt from Dr. Harry M. Ward's Children of the Streets of Richmond, 1865-1920

Dr. Harry M. Ward will be discussing his latest book, Children of the Streets of Richmond, 1865-1920, at the Main Library on Monday, September 14th at 6 pm. Call 804-646-7223 to RSVP! 

The following excerpt from chapter one comes from a reporter's 1896 description of his tour of Richmond's "neglected region". 

As I read the following text I wondered about the impression our visitors will take away from their experiences on the very same streets of Richmond during the upcoming UCI Championships, almost 120 years later-- Quite a different scene to be sure. 

(The reported "vile spot" teeming with "brazen women", "cheap drinks, cheap theatres, and cheap lodging" is approximately the area of the 17th Street Farmer's Market.)

Ya know...this lovely place. 

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

From Children of the Streets of Richmond, 1865–1920 ©
2015 Harry M. Ward by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC

Friday, September 04, 2015

Director's Cut: 5 films to inspire you from the Filmmakers Collaborative

Recently I spoke with James Couche of the Richmond Filmmakers Collaborative, who hold their monthly meetings at the Main Library and recently showcased their films here during the First Friday Filmfest. If you missed the Filmfest definitely keep an eye out for the next one. We laughed, we cried, we learned about indie film making and we watched some terrific short films created by local talent. James has shared with us this list of inspiring books and films for movie lovers and would be film makers:

If you want to see what you can do with few resources, watch El Mariachi, and be sure to listen to the commentary. The director basically funded it by selling his body to science.

El Mariachi (1992) is Robert Rodriguez's first full-length film.
"He didn't come looking for trouble, but trouble came looking for him."

Rodriguez did raise $3000 of the film's total budget of $7000 by testing a cholestorol lowering drug for a pharmaceutical company. No official word on how his HDL is doing. He did however get a lot of writing done while serving as a test subject.

To see the realities of film making, and the dedication required for the craft James suggests American Movie.

American Movie (1999) is a documentary by Chris Smith about Mark Borchardt, an aspiring filmmaker struggling to find the money to finish a horror film he started years before.

To run away screaming from film making James recommends Hearts of Darkness.

Hearts of Darkness (1991) is a documentary about the nightmarish experience of making Francis Ford Coppola's celebrated 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.
For something uplifting, James recommends Primer, the critically-acclaimed sci-fi thriller made for just $6,000.

Primer (2004) is about four engineers who build a time machine in their spare time.

For an example of success, James says to check out Following, Christopher Nolan's first film. (You may remember Christopher Nolan from such little known films as The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, and The Prestige.)

Made for 6,000 pounds, the indie thriller Following was shot on the weekends to accommodate the cast and crew's full time jobs.

For a riveting read about working with difficult directors James recommends you check out The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero, a tell-all by one of the stars of The Room", the "greatest bad movie ever made".

(Then go watch The Room. It's spectacularly awful and you won't regret it.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Drift in Church Hill

If William Byrd II was reminded of Richmond upon Thames when he faced the James River, thus lending Richmond, Virginia it’s name, what if he had turned around to face Church Hill and tried—through sheer whim and curiosity—to see England there as well? A couple weeks ago, in ninety degree heat and feeling somewhat restless, I attempted to do just that. I looked out at the James as Byrd had done, and then…turned around.

The inspiration for this—and for the little journey I took through Church Hill afterwards—came from the French writer Guy Debord. Debord helped develop a practice called the “dérive,” or drift. The idea is to make your way quickly through an urban area connecting places that aren't usually connected. Often the paths we make through cities are dictated by things other than us. We follow the tourist areas, the shops, the signs with arrows. Debord called for “total insubordination to habitual influences,” either by drifting along the atmospherics you pick up or by playing certain games. I wanted to play a game.

“A friend recently told me that he had wandered through the Harz region of Germany while blindly following the directions of a map of London,” wrote Debord, offering an example of a beginner’s dérive. With new and arbitrary directions Debord's friend could shake his mind up, could see and feel things people didn't normally see or feel. Taking the cue from Debord’s friend I turned around from that beautiful view of the James with my own set of directions through London, knowing where they would have taken me if I were in fact in London, but having no idea where they would take me in Richmond.

Google “London” and the people in Mountain View, California will take you to Charing Cross, a roundabout joining Strand, Whitehall, and Cockspur streets. Considering that Charing Cross is the “center” of London and I too was standing at a roundabout (where 29th Street meets Libby Terrace), I decided to start my London directions there at the statue of Charles I. This meant that standing at Libby Hill and looking northeast, I wasn’t looking at any brick 19th century homes at all, but at the center of London.

The next thing I needed was a place to go in London, preferably somewhere not too far from Charing Cross since I didn’t want to walk a ways in the heat. I also needed a route to take me there, preferably one with lots of twists and turns, assuring that my walk through Church Hill would not be one I had ever taken before. I decided in advance my destination would be Geo. F. Trumper, a men’s barber shop in Mayfair, having seen it once in a documentary and happening to need a haircut, if only imaginary. I dragged the little blue line up and down my Google Map and gave myself a curly route.

Route planned, I could set the map aside. What I most needed were the directions: take a left, walk 43 feet; take a right, walk 0.2 miles. I listed all these in my phone and pulled up an app that would track my distance and location. Admittedly, carrying along a smartphone does not suggest insubordination to habitual influences, but this is drifting for beginners, and the 21st century.

The directions took me up 28th Street, across an alley to 29th. I passed the house where Edgar Allan Poe said goodbye to Sarah Royster. I went down a staircase to Farm Fresh and the Bottom. I had walked along some of these streets before, but always with an objective that took my mind out of the walk at hand—go to the store, to the coffee shop, walk in the shade. But since all I had to do now was blindly follow directions, and get a haircut near Hyde Park, I could relax, walk slower. The place I was in was important, not the place I needed to be. I didn’t even know where that was.

In the end I found Trumper the barbershop in a parking lot off Dock Street. I made fast work of the walk home, just generally staying out of the sun. And once home, seated at my desk, another and equally important walk could take place, this time not with streets but with documents. Looking over the locations I had recorded on my phone, I could draw out my Richmond route and compare it to the London map. It became a way of challenging my concept of London. Maps tend to make places seem bigger than they actually are, and by looking over where I had been, I could ask the map to tell me the truth: that a walk from Charing Cross to Trumper’s is no more than a lazy jaunt down the Hill.

Also at home, I could compare the places I had been to the places in London that had inspired my even being there. I took a turn at 28th Street solely because of a turn at Piccadilly Circus, and because of that, for a moment, the two spaces were transposed. They became one space. A hydrant was a newsstand, a garage a double decker bus.

Another dérive could take place now, also with documents, but this one cultural. I had already passed by, playfully and almost blindly, Guy Debord, Charles I, and Edgar Allan Poe. But now there were other things suddenly linked that had to be explored: the history of London barber shops, the development of the Richmond canal. Naturally this drift took me to the library.