Archive for November, 2008

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Fall for the Book Announces Poster Contest

November 19, 2008

The Fall for the Book Festival, based at George Mason University, has announced a poster contest — inviting artists to submit designs for a poster that will become a cornerstone of the festival’s annual marketing campaign. The deadline for submissions to the contest is February 1, 2009; the festival itself takes place September 21-26, 2009, at Mason and at select locations throughout Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland.

The winning entry for the contest will receive $300, and the winner will have his/her work displayed not only on Mason’s campuses but throughout the D.C. metro area.

For complete guidelines on the contest, visit www.fallforthebook.org

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An Interview With Nani Power

November 17, 2008

Nani Power‘s first novel, Crawling at Night, earned the kind of attention and honors that most debut novelists would surely envy: Named a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, it was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the British Orange Award, and has ultimately been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains, was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year as well as a finalist for The Virginia Library Award, and her third, The Sea of Tears, was praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fine yarn of the lost and lonely seeking intimacy and love.”

feedthehungryThis fall saw Power shifting genres with the publication of Feed the Hungry: A Memoir With Recipes, a book which begins with her childhood in Virginia and follows her adventures — culinary, familial, romantic and more — around the world: to Mexico, Peru, Rio, and Japan, with Power both broadening her cultural horizons and delving deeper into an understanding of herself. By book’s end, Power is urging readers toward journeys similar to her own, not only “tasting” the world out there but also savoring our own histories: “Start remembering what you ate as a child,” she writes, “ask people what they ate. Their stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely, sensual world we live in.”

In the Washington Post review of Feed the Hungry, critic Carolyn See wrote: “In Feed the Hungry, Power gives us the story of her family, along with the misunderstandings, the tragedies, the resentments that dogged them for as long as she can remember. The metaphor for all this restless longing is… food: what it means to all of us, how we present it to each other, what we especially crave and value, how it becomes the ultimate symbol for who we are and what we want to be, as well as what we want, or love, to eat.”

Power recently took the time to answer some questions about the new book and her writing in general.

After three novels, what prompted you to write a memoir?

I actually came about this book as an attempt to write about food. I’ve always loved cookbooks. They seem to have a storytelling quality when I read them — jottings of good times, tastes, cultures. Then, I started thinking about my favorite family recipes and how they intertwined through the tales of my family. As that materialized, I realized I also wanted to try and understand the reasonings and flaws of my family. As I wrote, I understood more of their fragility and the ephemerality of our lives — and food personifies this. A moment of a taste, a sensation, and then, gone. Recipes attempt to capture those moments.

The book avoids strict linearity — a straightforward “this happened and then this happened” narrative. Individual chapters don’t necessarily proceed chronologically (Chapter 7 is Peru 2003, for example, while Chapter 8 is New York 1990), and even within chapters you often flashforward and flashback, mixing together stories from different parts of your life. Can you comment on your use of these time shifts?

I guess you have really clued in to what really interests me stylistically in writing. And I suppose I shouldn’t say style because that implies a superficial mechanics, perhaps. What I strive to do — what interests me — is exactly the shifting and transformative nature of memory. Memory, at least as I can percieve it, because it is so subjective, appears to be the essence of fiction, an inaccurate and impressionistic blanket surrounding our minds. What makes one memory take precedence over another? And how they are woven in our daily consciousness, jumping to the surface with various markers — smell, déjà vu, sounds, and of course, back again, food. Eat something you ate as a child and the sensation is forcibly retrospective.

I find that what happens in real life distinctly breaks many of the “rules” of writing craft that we are taught, and I’d like to find a way to create a more of a sensual expression of this experience called life for the reader — merging time and place, shifting point-of-view, even bringing in major themes or characters late in the story. Playing with these ideas interests me a lot.

One of the book’s richest and most persistent themes is about how various cultures meet and mesh or clash: different worldviews from generation to generation, different nationalities or ethnicities meeting and greeting, even that scene where you compare your house to your childhood friend Nono’s, with its “refrigerator crammed with soft drinks and Cheez Whiz.” Is this a theme you explicitly set out to explore, or a pattern that emerged in the writing?

Oh, this is something that fascinates me endlessly — the merging and intertwining of ancient cultures and American modernity. I love the suburbs actually — strange, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and the suburbs were frowned upon as artificial and plastic. And yes they are, in a delightful way. To me, the suburbs reappropriates life and repackages it in a rough yet poetic sense. Restaurants that are theme parks of various cultures. Small ethnic food stalls amidst strip malls with mainstream Dollar shops and grocers. Immigrants in Costco buying burlap bags of Basmati rice and giant frozen boxes of pigs in a blanket. It is in the suburbs that we see the meshing and evolution of new cultural terroir. 

To a great degree, your experiences make you who you are. Is it your experiences that give you the best knowledge and perspective (of self, of world)? Or your writing about those experiences that offers the greater wisdom?

Writing offers a sense of completion. One can explore the family as a separate whole, and thus gain a compassionate new view of the workings. A writer must view a character in all their dimensions, and as you do this to your own family — I mean take the time to remove the reputation, the biases — and see the person as a human, you gain an immense sense of understanding. I think everyone should write a memoir in their life, even if it is never shown to anyone. The main word to remember in memoir, that I tell my students, is “witness.” To tell the truth as you knew it. Whether you wish to share it with the world is your choice. The benefit in the end is very personal.

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Bond Reborn As Bourne?

November 16, 2008

14quantumxlarge1That’s the big question that seems to be running through all the recent (and largely negative) reviews of Quantum of Solace these days. Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post began her review with the statement “It took two men to kill James Bond: Austin Powers and Jason Bourne” (and she makes a good case for that thesis), and Peter Travers over at Rolling Stone said: “Bond seems to have come down with a serious case of Jason Bourne penis envy, leaping across rooftops from Bolivia to Haiti like a jug-eared Matt Damon.” Making a comparison between the first Daniel Craig Bond movie and the latest, Pajiba critic Ted Boynton notes that “where the foot chase scene opening Casino Royale offered bold, steady tracking shots showing mesmerizing stunt work and flinch-worthy hand-to-hand combat, Quantum too often trots out the nauseating Quake-o-Vision style of The Bourne Supremacy.” 

True, it’s hard to miss all the similarities to the Bourne movies, from the protagonists’ driving passions in each case to those rooftop scenes to that frenetic editing. (Revenge is a great plotline, no matter what, but that editing was really way over-the-top, not just derivative of the Bourne movies, but Bourne done bad.) But while the new Bond film may have been influenced by the skillful artistry and tremendous success of the Bourne trilogy, I don’t think that you can simply conflate the two characters or these movies. The Bourne trilogy may have provided the impetus to revitalize the Bond franchise, but that’s a good thing (and I say that as a longtime fan of the full series) and it’s certainly provoked the filmmakers to examine Bond a little more closely as a character — a real plus for these films, and something that the new film’s harshest critics seem to miss. Has Bond become “little more than a deranged, if well-dressed, serial killer,” as Hornaday claims? Or is Pajiba right in discussing “Bond-as-blunt-instrument,” elaborating that “Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed”?

While Pajiba may provide the more nuanced (and ultimately more politically persuasive) position, I do think that there is some attempt at exploring psychological motivation here — again slightly influenced by Bourne but exciting and illuminating in its own right. While we know how revenge motivates Bourne through parts of the trilogy, we as viewers are not sure here exactly what’s driving Bond: Is it revenge for what happened to Vesper at the close of Casino Royale? Is he pushed ahead by allegiance to the Crown, looking after the best interests of the British Government even after that government seems to have turned his back on him? And in a related subplot with Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright), what are the ultimate responsibilities when ideas of personal integrity and morality conflict with political and institutional policy? 

I won’t argue that Quantum of Solace delves very deeply into these questions — a much better moral thriller along those lines is something like Michael Clayton from last year — but the film does keep those questions up in the air almost as often as Bond himself is up in the air, jumping those rooftops or hanging from scaffolding or piloting that burning plane. (And to that end, it’s worth noting, of course, that the film also succeeds as a nearly nonstop thrill ride.)

Some of the movie’s final scenes (spoiler alert) begin to examine more completely Bond’s motivations and the potential for his emotions to color his decisions or to impact his sense of duty. Of particular interest is a nearly dialogue-free scene between Bond and the equally vengeance-minded Camille (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) huddled together as a hotel incinerates around them — importantly, the second building that has burned down around Camille. And a final series of scenes at the end extend that idea, with Bond tracking down Vesper’s boyfriend and then debriefing M (Judi Dench) in snowy Russia with a forced sense of detachment, a pair of encounters whose resolutions provide a sense of closure without being too pat or predictable. And with questions about Quantum still up in the air at the end of this installment, there’s promise (surprise surprise!) of more layers of this storyline opening up in the next Bond. Mark your calendars now for Bond 23 in 2010?  

— Art Taylor

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Jaki Shelton Green Named Piedmont Laureate

November 15, 2008

jaki-shelton-greenThe first Piedmont Laureate of North Carolina was officially named today — Saturday, November 15 — at the N.C. Writers’ Network’s annual Fall Conference. Poet Jaki Shelton Green will serve a one-year term, designed to “to promote awareness and heighten appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region” of North Carolina. Green, author of several collections of poetry, including most recently 2005’s Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems (published by Carolina Wren Press), has already earned two of the state’s highest honors in literature: the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2003,  in recognition of “the countless lives she touches by word and deed,” and the Sam Ragan Award in 2007 for “outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina.”

In celebration of this honor and her new position, here is a brief taste of her work: the poem “things break down” from her 1996 collection Conjure Blues. The poem was reprinted in the extraordinary anthology Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, edited by Sally Buckner, who also served on the committee which selected Green for the laureate position.

things break down

things break down in different ways

like love

it’s been ten years since

i’ve been thin

things break down in different ways

like the absence of his smile

things break down in different ways

like the meadows of the skin

apples spoil

meat rots

aspirin takes care of toothache but

things break down in different ways

like the last time he praised my art

stood in my mirror

things break down in different ways

like sunday morning blues

getting sung out at the altar

i said things break down

in different ways

like my clock stopping 

one morning at 3 a.m.

he crashed his car into the river

things break down

        his toothbrush is still

beside the mirror

 

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“Moving Midway” A Moving Experience

November 14, 2008

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The DC premiere (November 13) of Godfrey Cheshire’s documentary Moving Midway was a real joy — not only the first screening in the nation’s capital but also the first screening anywhere since the election of Barack Obama, an event which can’t help but impact the experience of viewing the film.

Moving Midway, as mentioned in an earlier post, explores the history of a plantation home that had belonged to Cheshire’s relatives since before the Civil War (on land that had belonged to the family since before the American Revolution) and the decision by the home’s current occupant to relocate the house to avoid encroaching urban sprawl. In the process of documenting this story, Cheshire also discovers an African-American branch of the family, who have different ties to and attitudes about the house and its history.

I won’t attempt a full review here; there are plenty of laudatory ones out there already, in The L.A. Times, The Chicago Sun-TimesThe New York Times and The New Yorker, among many other publications. But I do want to offer a few highlights that stood out to me, both from the film itself and from the post-screening discussion with Cheshire and with Robert Hinton, associate producer and professor of Africana Studies at New York University:

I was particularly impressed, for example, with the way that Cheshire, drawing on his background as a film critic, incorporated commentary about depictions of plantation life and of Southern life in general in films ranging from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind to Roots, with snippets of other films ranging from Disney’s Song of the South to those Bette Davis classics Jezebel and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. (And I was equally impressed with the fact that Cheshire said his film critic self was never second-guessing his filmmaker self at any stage of the creative process.)

I adored the scene where Cheshire discussed how this wasn’t the first time he had helped move part of a plantation, showing a shot of himself as a child holding up a mantelpiece, and then worked through a series of stories that led back to a startling revelation about where that mantelpiece came from — itself a testament to how the legacy of the Old South literally persists into the New. 

The cinematography by Jay Spain was enthralling — particularly in those heartbreaking shots of the trees being cut down (shots that work on you long before anyone on-screen even begins to react) and in those scenes where Midway first began to move. Those images of workers darting around wheels or standing underneath the house or sweating in tight close-ups tell a story all their own. 

It was interesting to hear Cheshire’s post-show comment about how storytelling not only helps people to remember but also to forget.

And it was also interesting in that discussion to hear the difference in Cheshire’s and Hinton’s reaction to the election and to what it means in terms of the nation’s growth and development. Cheshire referenced the title of the film, reiterating that we as a country are moving but are only midway where we might ultimately be. Hinton, while celebrating an event that he said he had never expected to see in his lifetime, noted that he was nonethless a product of the Sixties (in the process invoking memories of King and Malcolm X and the Kennedys) and said he was still waiting for the “shot” and wouldn’t entirely believe that Obama will be President until Inauguration Day. 

On a much lighter note, and on personal level — as someone who lived in Raleigh for many years and worked with Godfrey for several of those — it was a real treat to see people and places I know so well up on the big screen, from a former (and favorite) Southern lit professor, Lucinda Mackethan, to Godfrey’s mother (a delight both on-screen and off), to Big Ed Watkins, lording over the downtown Raleigh restaurant that bears his name.

Moving Midway still has a number of upcoming screenings planned: Alaska, Oregon, Ohio and back to Virginia between Christmas and New Year’s. Additionally, the DVD is scheduled for February release — a must-watch for anyone interested in Southern history or the changing nature of race relations.

Other recommended upcoming events:

  • Poets A.B. Spellman and Gardner McFall headlining a celebration of Poet Lore as the nation’s oldest continuously operating poetry journal begins its 120th year — Sunday, November 16, 2-4 p.m., at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD.
  • Cheryl’s Gone Reading & Performance Series, with George Mason University alum Anna Habib reading from her memoir A Block from Bliss Street, along with D.C. poet Cathy Eisenhower, haiku poet Roberta Beary, and musician Andy Rothwell — Thursday, November 20, at 8 p.m. (sharp!) at Big Bear Cafe, 1st and R Streets NW, Washington, DC.
  • And more poets at the Writer’s Center: Mason alumn Brian Broduer and Mason professor Eric Pankey — Sunday, November 23, at 2 p.m.

— Art Taylor

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Since It’s Football Season….

November 13, 2008

harvardbeatsyaleAn article in the latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine talks about the “infamous Harvard game of ’68” and about the new documentary film Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 by filmmaker Kevin Rafferty, director of The Atomic Cafe (and also, of course, a Harvard alum, class of 1970).

The article, by Charles McGrath, Yale ’68 and later editor of both the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, recounts how Yale’s football team that year came into the Game (capital G when it’s against Harvard) “nationally ranked and riding a 16-game winning streak” and had a commanding lead for much of the contest. With only 42 seconds left, in fact, Yale was leading Harvard 29-13, but then in those last 42 seconds….

McGrath’s article revisits that Game and its heart-breaking ending — to half the crowd at least — and offers a revealing look at the film, which features vintage footage as well as recent interviews with the players, including Tommy Lee Jones, who helped lead Harvard to that last-minute comeback. McGrath also offers a quick portrait of the filmmaker behind the movie. Though Rafferty was a Harvard student himself, both his father and his grandfather had played for Yale, and the article quotes him looking back on his own memories of that day:

“My father watched from the other side… and afterward I said to him, ‘Dad, how did you like the game?’ This was a guy who had been at Guam and Iwo Jima. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Worst day of my life.'”

While I haven’t seen the film yet, I’m looking forward to catching it when and if it comes close to D.C. Having been born in 1968 myself, I’ll admit to having gotten caught up in all of the recent media attention on that pivotal year — from Time magazine’s commemorative issue these 40 years later to the various books on ’68 to Brett Morgan’s great documentary/animated feature film Chicago 10, which uses the Democratic convention in Chicago to open up a view of an entire era. As McGrath points out in his evocative and illuminating article, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 also explores some of the pivotal events of that year beyond the confines of a single football game and offers gestures toward the unifying power of sports in tough times:

Several of the players also talk [in the film] about what it was like to be a young person back in 1968, when there was so much going on besides football: the first stirrings of the feminist movement and sexual revolution, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, which hung threateningly over all of us, dividing faculty and students, friends and classmates and even teammates. Pat Conway, who played defense for Harvard, was a newly returned Vietnam vet on a squad where many of the players were outspoken opponents of the war. Football brought them together, he says, and Del Marting ’69, the great Yale end, recalls that it did the same thing for the Yale community as a whole. “The team’s success had a role in keeping the campus focused on something else,” he says. “Everyone went out to the Bowl on Saturday.” 

For those people who do still pay any attention to Ivy League football, this year’s Yale-Harvard Game takes place Saturday, November 22, and D.C. Yalies have been encouraged to meet at McFadden’s Saloon, 2400 Pennsylvania Ave. NW for a watch party. 

In other film news: I’m headed out tonight (Thursday, November 13) to see Godfrey Cheshire’s recent documentary, Moving Midway, at the Avalon Theatre in D.C., and encourage others to come out as well. Cheshire himself will be on hand to talk about the film — which documents the moving of his family’s plantation home and his discovery, in the process, of an African American branch of his family — and he’ll be joined by Robert Hinton, one of the film’s associate producers and professor of Africana Studies at New York University. I’ll report on that tomorrow.

— Art Taylor

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News Briefs

November 11, 2008

File this one under “Someday My Blog Will Have a Staff”:

32 Poems is looking for 1-2 extra sets of hands to help us grow.

The 32 Poems intern could help with any of the items below that looks interesting:

  • planning readings (best if you live in large metro area);
  • creating concept for new renewal postcards (graphic designer would do the actual design work);
  • sending out renewal postcards;
  • creating concept for new subscription postcards (graphic designer would do the actual design work);
  • building or updating website;
  • contributing to blog with interesting posts;
  • photographing or taking video of 32 poems events;
  • reading poems sent in via online system;
  • manning 32 Poems table at AWP for a few hours each day;
  • inventing interactive ways to engage with people at AWP conference;
  • using web 2.0 tools to create community.

If you are already familiar with 32 Poems, you are welcome to suggest an area we need to work on and to explain how your skills would help with that. 

Please send a cover letter explaining your experience in 1-2 of the areas above to deborah@32poems.com. Please do not send a resume or any attachments at this time. If you know how to make video, you are welcome to make a video explaining your experience. In that case, just send me the link.

Please also put “32 Poems intern” in the subject line, so I can filter the emails to a special folder.

And file this under “I Missed Alan at Politics & Prose, But Now That He’s Reading On Campus…”:

The George Mason University Bookstore is hosting a Faculty Author Event on the lower level of the bookstore on November 18 from 5:30 p.m – 8:30 p.m. The featured faculty authors that evening will be Russell Roberts (author of The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity) and Alan Cheuse (author of To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming). Each author will speak and sign books with special time for Q&A.

Russ is scheduled to speak at 5:30 p.m., then Alan is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. The Mason Bookstore will have titles by each of these authors available for purchase. Light refreshments will be available from 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m. All are welcome to attend at any point during the event. Contact Jennifer Nance, 703-993-2665 with any questions.

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