This is a 25-minute blog post.
I set a timer for 20 minutes, then I have 5 minutes to wrap it up and make adjustments. Here goes.
In 2021, I've committed to reading a "door stopper" novel each month. My parameters are:
Anyway, in January, I read Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666. The novel is wild. It's divided into 5 books and they make up a kind of...whatever you'd call a five-paneled work of art (quin-tych?). I guess the books can be read on their own in any order, but I am fascinated by the one laid out by the publishers and Bolaño's family (he died right before completion).
At the end of the second book ("The Part about Amalfiatno"), we get this sublime passage about "door stoppers."
"There was something revelatory about the taste of his bookish young pharmacist...who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,...and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."
2666 is just under 900 pages. I read about 30 each day, save for one day, but it was easy enough to carve time to catch up. The experience was incredible. It covers so much terrain, sprawling and diverging and still manages to contain some kind of whole. This book is difficult in sooo many ways (it's often unrelentingly gruesome). I wrestled with it a lot and just when I was on the brink of calling it a day, something stunning would ping off the page, and I'd hunker down for more reading.
Recently, I'm keenly interested in that struggle. That moment when a work becomes frustrating, when I'm not getting it, bored, or confused, or whatever. How do I get out of that? Is it an issue with the book or me? In 2666, I'd always come to some kind of marvel at his genius. I'd come to a satisfying rationale for each annoyance or idiosyncrasy.
Now, there are books out there that just don't work for me. And I'm getting better at understanding if A) the read will be constant struggle and simply "not for me" Or (B) if the read will be something that's going to take an investment and a careful examination of paying attention to my reaction to the reading. This mindfulness is something George Saunders calls for in his latest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
I picked up that book a few weeks ago and read the introduction. It's brilliant. Saunders is one of my favorite writers and he teaches at the MFA Creative Writing Program at Syracuse. One of his classes is an exploration of 40 Russian short stories. His latest book is a condensed version of that class, choosing only 7 stories instead. Saunders is focusing on the short story and talking to me as a fellow writer, but also as a reader and general art reader (seeing a film, theater, taking in a painting, etc.).
I'm curious what Saunders would have to say about how the sprawling novels differs from the short story (beyond the obvious: length). So I'm sure Saunders would approach 2666 in a different way as a reader/writer. But I know that after reading only the first 6 pages of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I was thinking about how I was reading 2666: what delighted me, what didn't, and why. This made the experience that much more full and engaging. Perhaps I'll share more of that someday.
My timer just dinged, so I'm going to make sure there isn't anything totally embarrassing.
But here's to "the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."
I'm a third of the way through Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy and it's a totally different kind of "torrential" work. More on that later.
Ali Smith's Autumn is the first of four seasons novels. I understand they are independent novels, but I'm sure they will talk to each other in fascinating ways. Critics have considered it the first major post-Brexit novel. While it does cover some of that territory, it's much more than that. The dread about the results of "The Vote" can be directly applied to America. It's immediate and expansive. No wonder it's shortlisted for the Booker.
This is a book that has an extremely dense thread count. It's not linear. It read like a long prose poem. I don't know that I've read too many novels that are this "experimental." But Smith is being careful as much as she's being playful. Nothing feels capricious (except when it's inentional). The quotes I've copied below are fairly bleak, but I promise you, there is a pervasive "stop and smell the roses"/"rise above the muck" element that I adored. The autumn here is often hot and humid. Leaves are falling. Winter is coming, but there are wondrous bursts of color and life. Much like the autumn I'm experiencing right now.
The primary story involves the close friendship between Elisabeth, a young art professor and her old, dying neighbor Daniel. There are imagined conversations, dreams, flashbacks, and cringe-funny passport renewal scenes at the post office. We also get to see Elisabeth working on her dissertation on Britain's pop artist Pauline Boty.
I was able to finish this in a couple days. I've never read Smith, but I'm keen to try others.
The opening sentences:
"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old man washes up on the shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago."
(Elisabeth frequently reads to Daniel. One of the books is A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.)
And it continues with lines like these:
"Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people's hearts and minds."
"Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel's back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn't be enough. But it's old news now. Once it would have been a year's worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff."
"Anonymous people start to add tweet-sized comments about Daniel beneath Daniel. They are commenting on his ability to change things. The comments get more and more unpleasant. They start to make a sound like a hornet mass and Elisabeth notices what looks like liquid excrement is spreading very close to her bare feet. She tries not to step in any of it."
"The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks."
"He had a voice off old films where things happen to well-dressed warplane pilots in black and white."
A list of books read in 2017
(finished titles only--many, many more have been abandoned for a number of reasons)
Here's a list of books I read in 2016 (completed books/plays/etc. only)
I finished reading Anthony Marra's outstanding collection of stories (which are put together as a single work--it's nearly a novel): The Tsar of Love and Techno.
“His misery is among the few indulgences I allow myself.”
“Despite inheriting her grandmother’s beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich….If she were anyone else’s granddaughter, we wouldn’t think twice about her dancing like the victim of an inner ear disorder."
“You need a soul the devil wants before you begin bargaining with him.”
“It takes nothing less than the whole might of the state to erase a person, but only the error of one individual--if that is what memory is now called--to preserve her.”
"Behind the ticket counter stood a man as skinny as a soaked poodle. He sported a shirt of swatch-sized plaid and a blond ponytail that, unless destined for a chemotherapy patient, should have been immediately chopped off, buried in an unmarked grave, and never spoken of again. Hipsterdom's a tightrope strung across the canyon of douche-baggery. He clung by a finger."
“Galina had been as vivid as stained glass, but we hadn’t imagined that Kolya might have been the sunlight saturating her.”
“Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him. He was forever leaning, slanting, sidling, his existence italicized down to his crooked hat. In another country, he might have grown up to be an investment banker, but here he grew up to be a murderer, the worst kind of murderer, the kind who murdered one of us. “
“The pause was long enough to peel a plum.”
“Turning ‘I would’ to ‘I did’ is the grammar of growing up.”
"If occupations were assigned by disposition, he'd be the supreme leader of a volcanic island republic devoid of natural resources."
"One man gazing at the waters patted his potbelly tenderly. Maybe he'd spent the last fifty years wondering if it could be deployed as a flotation device, and now, finally, would find the answer. There's nothing quite like the sight of two dozen half-naked octogenarians. We enter the stage of life as dolls and exit as gargoyles."
The following paragraph encapsulates the book perfectly, I think. I don't know how it works out of context, but the beauty among the chaos is a major deal:
“Kolya entered the chorus with an orchestra of punch-drunk madmen living in him, belting the tune to the velvet yellow, to the misting lake, to the carcinogens no song could dislodge from his capillaries, and in this amphitheater of decimated industry, on this stage of ice and steel, he taught the granddaughter of a prima ballerina to dance. “
We're back on the road, baby!
Our first stop for this winter leg is the Sunset Theater in Asheboro, NC. We toured here last year.
It has The Table: a charming farm-to-table, fast casual restaurant. I had the best French toast of my life at this very place a year ago. For lunch, I opted with the avocado BLT and the delicious coffee. The next day, they were out of the French toast, but the sausage/pepper/onion omelette with potatoes on the side was tasty tasty tasty.
We had performances of Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest. It was kind of tricky getting used to the swing of things. I imagine the cobwebs will be gone soon. But I felt pretty good about our time at the Sunset.
I must give a shout-out to the North Carolina Zoo. It's largely open-air for all the animals. They have a lot of space to roam. The sun was shining and the animals were active. A keeper tossed a bunch of carrots and sweet potatoes to a 12,000-pound African elephant (named Ardie or something like that). Year-old lions gnawed on meaty bones. Lemurs licked each other (all over the place). A youngster chimpanzee wrestled with an elder. A rhino growled at another. I had a blast. If you're ever near Asheboro, check out the zoo and eat at The Table.
Lynchburg, VA – Academy Center of the Arts
We played Julius Caesar to a giant warehouse/black box space in downtown Lynchburg. There were three stadium seating banks on three sides of the playing space. It was giant! I saw that the room had the capacity for 700+ people, and most of the seats were filled. We're used to squeezing the shows in some tighter spots, but this allowed us to expand, which made for some LONG crosses on the stage.
I also enjoyed the short (but cold) walks to the White Hart Cafe. Get the breakfast bagel sandwich. Trust me on this. I expect to take a lot more long walks when the weather permits. I'm trying to read (or listen) to at least 8 of the 17 Tournament of Books shortlist. Currently, I'm listening to The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I'm reading The Whites by Harry Brandt (aka Richard Price). I'm turning over some ideas about to creatively highlight my reading experience here. I'll keep you posted. So far, I've already read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Here's everything I read in 2015. I abandoned a lot of books (and tried to keep track of those as well). The bolded titles are ones I especially enjoyed. I think I'll aim for at least 45 next year. We'll see...
(October 11 – 17)
We spent the week in Vermont and New York City—again, an embarrassment of riches.
St. Michael's College has easily the top five dining halls on the tour. I had choice anxiety. Do I want the burrito, the chicken tikka masala, the salad bar, the sweet potato/black bean soup, the pizza, the paninis, the stir fry?
After our performance of HENRY V, the English Department hosted a dinner with faculty, students, and the president of the college. They love to wine and dine us. I'm so grateful for the chance to sit down and chat with the professors and students. We don't often get to interact at length with the folks on the road in this way.
Burlington, Vermont is awesome. I hopped on a bus to travel downtown. Returned to a favorite spot from last year: The Skinny Pancake, which is a creperie with great coffee and tasty beer on tap. I sat down and started reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. (It's brilliant.) I wandered around Winooski, and paid way too much for a cheeseburger, but it was near-life-changing and that makes it priceless, right? Later that evening, I returned with some tour mates for local beer and the “acoustic soul” styling of Josh Panda. He plays at the Skinny Pancake every Wednesday night. A grand cap to the day off.
After Vermont, we headed to the Bronx to set up the space for a performance of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Manhattan College. Then we traveled to Yonkers to check into the hotel. After that, a few of us went to Harlem for a reunion with some friends. The next day, I slept as much as I could (it's been go-go-go lately). That night was a fun performance of EARNEST. The front row was full of friends from grad school and beyond. We managed to cram into a crowded Bronx bar afterward to catch up. I was exhausted, but it was worth it.
October 4 – 10
Canton, New York
Beautiful country. Beautiful campus (St. Lawrence University). This is one of the longest stays on tour. We did a dozen workshops (I had three myself) and five performances across the week. It was busy, but there was a nice amount of downtime. And we could walk to The Bagelry!
Susie, Josh, Cordell, and I went on a hike along some river on our day off. The weather was cool and overcast, but it allowed all of the autumn colors to pop. The sun poked through the trees toward the end of hike. It was a tough one (not that I go on a lot). But there were a lot of steep hills and stairs. The pictures give a pretty good glimpse. I'm so glad I elected to get out of the hotel room for this one.
On Saturday, I attempted to be as restful as possible. We had a double-header: JULIUS CAESAR at 7:30 and then EARNEST at Midnight. We probably had 90 minutes in between shows. Whenever we do CAESAR, it wipes me out. The only extended break I have is during the oration speeches. And even then, I'm putting on my armor for the second half. There's the tent scene, the birthday speech, the fight, and then the death. It's kinetic, passionate stuff. I love it, but it takes a lot out of me. So the thought of doing EARNEST right after that (and that late at night) was daunting. I should say, this midnight show is a tradition for the ASC and St. Lawrence University. I'm probably mistaken, but I think it started as a Halloween tradition. Anyway, we did both. We made it out alive. Things were admittedly punchy and loopy toward the end of EARNEST. The wonderful folks at St. Lawrence (shout-out to Sarah Barber) provided the troupe with plenty of snacks and drinks.
This week I enjoyed reading the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's “autobiographical novel” My Struggle. He has six volumes in total of them, each around 400+ pages (not all are in English yet). Some folks are calling him Norway's answer to Proust.
Just finished reading Antony Sher's Year of the King--an actor's diary tracing his process of becoming Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I can't believe I hadn't read this before. I had stumbled across Sher's essays on playing Macbeth and Leontes in the Players of Shakespeare series. That is one of my favorite acting resources. The British acting greats share their respective processes and thoughts on playing a variety of Shakespeare characters. It's as if you've been given a chance to have a drink with them at your favorite bar.
Anyway, I finally dove in, bought Sher's book, and devoured it. I learned Sher regularly writes about his process (whether it's for a book or not). The offer for this one wasn't made until halfway through the process. Rehearsing at the RSC in the early eighties is ridiculously luxurious (they had like eight weeks to put up RIII). The squabbles, frustration, and insecurities run rampant. It's comforting to know how much Sher danced a fine line of terror and joy throughout.
Year of the King begins with the tiniest seed that he would maybe play Richard III in an upcoming season. The idea begins to overtake him and the dream state of creating a role begins (even before he accepts the part). A mountain in South Africa reminds him of Richard's deformity. An opera chorus sends him to Richard's coronation. A serial killer in the news gives insight to personality traits and actions.
This is one of my favorite times in the process. A professor of mine called it the incubation period. This is the time when the imagination and subconscious swirl around. Possibilities are endless. You read the play. You might try on a few of the lines. You might stumble across a painting or piece of music that reminds you of the character. The key is that there isn't any formal work being done. I don't say: “Oh, I've got three hours free, I'm going to daydream about playing the Dauphin.” The work and the role aren't at the forefront of the mind, but wisps are present.
I love it.
And now, I'm transitioning into the next phase. I don't know what you'd call it, but it's more active. It's that step between the incubation and memorization. This involves hearty effort in learning the play inside and out. Doing research. I've scanned all my lines of verse. I've completed paraphrasing for The Life of King Henry the Fifth and Julius Caesar. The thinking is heading toward setting down ideas completely. They will likely change, but it's more about committing to the idle brainstorm that was happening previously.
I hope to share more details about the scanning and paraphrase process later on.
It's been a while since I've felt so energized about working on a new set of plays. Part of it comes with comfort. I've been with the ASC for two full years. I get to work with four other actors whom I've shared a lot of time with on stage (a blessing). I'm going on tour again. I'll be with some of the same directors. There's an ease and trust that comes along with this familiarity. And, of course, I cannot wait to meet the new folks and tap into their energy. It's ideal.
The other thing: I'm playing some big roles, particularly Cassius and Jack (in The Importance of Being Earnest). These are dream parts. I feel an affinity for them. I also feel a big responsibility to them, but, right now, I'm pleased to say I'm not intimidated by that.
News, updates, quotes, and other miscellany.
Books Read 2020
Books Read 2019
Books Read 2018
Books Read 2017
Books Read 2016
Books Read 2015
Movies Watched 2020
Movies Watched 2019
Movies Watched 2018
Movies Watched 2017
Movies Watched 2016
Movies Watched 2015