I'm delighted to announce I'll be making two appearances in the City of the Big Shoulders next week. On Wed, June 3, I'll be part of Chicago's long-running Reading Under the Influence reading and trivia series at Sheffield's. Trivia theme for the night is TOOLS, and my questions will be related to solar power. If you know your Copernicus from your Galileo, you might just win a free drink at the bar. The festivities start at 7 p.m.
Then on Sat, June 6, I'll be reading from Love Songs of the Revolution at City Lit Books, an indie favorite located in Logan Square. The reading begins at a very civilized 5 p.m., which means you can get your dose of literary goodness and still have time for a night of wild abandon.
In between I'm planning to do an informal Book Bike Tour of indie bookstores in town. If you want to nominate a favorite store that I absolutely shouldn't miss, please let me know! I also hope to stop by Chicago's Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, and the Grand Duke Restaurant that serves Lithuanian food. After all, Chicago has one of the largest communities of Lithuanian descent in the world.
Here are the details on my readings in Chicago. If you can't make it there, please pass on this info to friends in the Windy City, and tell them to stop by and say hello.
Wed, June 3
Reading Under the Influence
3258 N. Sheffield Ave.
Sat, June 6
City Lit Books
2523 North Kedzie Boulevard
An old friend comes to town to read from her new book at a local bookstore, but you're too busy with life to make it to the reading. You feel terrible about it (I know you do because you sent me that kind email with such a heartfelt apology).
The good news is that there are many other things you can do to support your crazy writer friends, some of them from the comfort of home. I recommend the following five, in no particular order:
1) Write a review on Amazon. It doesn't have to be long, and it doesn't even have to be positive. Just be honest and be yourself. Say what you liked and didn't like. When it comes to online book reviews, silence is more deadly than a bad review. Bonus points if you also post the review on Goodreads.
2) Give a copy to a friend. Movies are advertised on billboards and TV, but people learn about books by word of mouth. If you liked the book, pass it on.
3) Get your book group to read it. Many authors are willing to join the book group discussions and answer questions either live or via Skype or FaceTime.
4) Throw a literary party. Bring together a group of friends and invite the author to read and talk about her book. Your friends will be impressed that you have an honest-to-goodness writer friend, and your author friend will be deeply grateful.
5) Ask your local library to buy the book. Your library's website probably has a form to submit a request. Or just ask your favorite librarian.
I've been a bit busy lately, traveling, reading, and somehow finding time to fit in a bit of writing too.
On February 6, I read at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones. The Stranger listed my reading at one of the top five things to do in town that day.
Then I traveled to Charlotte, NC, in between winter storms to read on February 22 at Park Road Books, another great indie bookstore. I baked cookies (we authors aren't above bribing potential readers!), sold all the books in stock and had a great conversation.
As we reminisced about 1989, someone reminded us of another major event I hadn't remembered when I wrote my Year in Review, 25 Years Later blog post: Hurricane Hugo. Hurricanes don't usually travel so far inland, and this one knocked out power, tossed Charlotte's famous trees around like they were matchsticks, and left almost 100,000 people homeless from Cape Verde to Lake Erie.
Coming up on Sunday, March 8, my work is getting the New Short Fiction treatment on stage at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood. Professional actors - they have IMDb entries and everything! - will be reading four of my short stories. Click here for more info and to buy tickets. We're calling the event, Democracy and Other Stories.
I'll also be appearing on a panel on Community Supported Arts: A New/Old Way to Think about the Relationship Between Writers and Readers at the Mennonite/s Writing VII: Movement, Transformation and Place writing conference in Fresno on Friday, March 13. Rhonda Langley, Julia Baker and I will talk about our independent projects seeking to connect readers and writers, in the busy postmodern era. Rhonda and Julia have a couple of great projects that you should definitely check out if you can't make it to the conference. I'll be talking about GuerrillaReads and an essay I wrote about applying food movement concepts to literature.
In the more distant future, I'll be traveling to Chicago in early June for appearances at the Reading Under the Influence series and City Lit Books. More details coming soon.
All the children born in 1989 turned a quarter century old this year. When they entered the world, the Soviet Union was coming apart at its seams. For most of their sentient lives, there has been no “Evil Empire.” The enemy of their youth turned on an axis that ran from Iran and Iraq to North Korea and lacked a unified ideological center.
1989 is the year the Berlin Wall fell. Many of us still remember televised images of men and women dancing in the streets waving champagne bottles, while others pounded at the graffiti-spattered cement with sledgehammers and pickaxes.
President Obama visited Poland in 2014 in an echo of a Bush Senior’s presidential visit to then-Soviet Warsaw 25 years earlier. Yet, it was one of many countries he could have chosen: 1989 was host to many lesser-known yet no-less-historic moments. On August 23, 1989, some two million people held hands across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a massive pro-independence demonstration they called the Baltic Way. Lithuania went on to be the first satellite state to formally declare independence from the Soviet Union.
The first nation to declare independence from America’s archenemy of the day, and most Americans couldn’t tell Lithuania from Lichtenstein, or Lesotho, for that matter. That was as true in 1989 as it is today.
Authoritarianism seemed to be under attack from all sides in 1989. Some of those struggles dominated headlines for days, while others barely rated a paragraph on the page six world briefs. A coup in Paraguay overthrew the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. More than a million Chinese students took to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand freedom and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi was put her under house arrest by the Burmese military junta in 1989. Her political party won the next year’s election, but the generals declined to hand over power. Though Suu Kyi was eventually freed and elected to parliament, but military still holds the reins of power in a country we now call Myanmar.
The Evil Empire was already beginning to turn on its axis in 1989. Thomas Friedman won the National Book Award for nonfiction that year for From Beirut to Jerusalem, a book that is as resonant today as it was then. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses climbed the New York Times bestseller list and became a cause célèbre when octogenarian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini would die only a few months later.
Yesterday America formally ended its “combat mission” in Afghanistan, thirteen years after we first arrived. In 1989 it was Soviet tanks and Red Army troops that were marching out of Afghanistan after their own nine years of failed war. Back then the Soviets were fighting against the mujahedeen. The same mujahedeen that we armed back then, who went on to join merge with Taliban.
In fact, 1989 is the year a militant group was founded in the region that called itself “The Base,” or Al Qaeda in Arabic. At least one of its members is known to have attended a meeting in Oklahoma City in December that year.
Even as America’s official enemy abroad was in transition in 1989, here in the US young people ages 16 to 24 were participating in the labor market at their highest rate in history: nearly 76 percent of them either had a job or were looking for work. In 2014 the labor participation rate for that age group is almost the lowest in history, at only 60.5 percent.
About 13 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line back then. Today, it’s closing in on 15 percent. Median household income right now buys $4,417 less than what could back in 1989. A gallon of gas cost about $0.90 at the pump in 1989, which would be $1.71 in today’s money. The national average hit a high of $3.76 a gallon this past June, but after falling dramatically for weeks is around $2.30 right now.
Despite it all we were happy then, and we’re happy again today. In 1989, Bobby McFerrin’s upbeat ditty "Don't Worry Be Happy" took the Grammy for Song of the Year. Twenty-five years later, people around the world made fan videos for another “Happy” song by Pharrell Williams.
But were we all so happy? Also on the charts that year was a very different expression of the 1989 zeitgeist: N.W.A.’s groundbreaking gansta rap album, Straight Outta Compton. Twenty-five years later, Hollywood is ready to make the movie, starring... Paul Giamatti?
Just as N.W.A. was making waves across the radio dial, a little girl whose mother would call her Amethyst was conceived in Australia. She would grow up to be Iggy Azalea and have a number one rap hit on the Billboard charts in 2014.
A company called Time, Inc. merged with Warner Communications in 1989 to create the largest media company in the world at that time, becoming perhaps the most hated 25 years later. This year, Time Warner spun off the 91 year old eponymous magazine that started it all, leaving it to twist in the stock market winds.
History is a hall of mirrors where the precedent of one event is the antecedent of another. It’s easy to get lost in a maze of dates and references that cross-reference each other. A quick search online will give you list after list of events by year, but which dots should we connect? The Big Data evangelists might say they can build an algorithm to find the answer. But will their answer give us meaning?
When the organizers of the Baltic Way selected August 23 as the date for their 370-mile human chain in 1989, that wasn’t a random choice. They were reaching back fifty years to mark the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact where Stalin and Hitler quietly divided up Eastern Europe between themselves.
You’ve may never heard of the Baltic Way or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, though both of them changed the world. As 2014 comes to a close, take a moment to remember what happened in 1989, the events you lived through and the ones you never knew. They tell us as much about the world we live in today as the one we will live in for the next 25 years.
I recently had a chance to spend three days (plus an evening) in the beautiful city of Lisbon. Cobblestone streets, wide open plazas and the gentle churning of the Teju River, all accompanied by the zhhh-zhhh sound of spoken Portuguese. Once I'd learned how to properly order uma bica e um pastel de nata, my most basic needs were met.
There was rain, and plenty of it. Living with drought teaches you to love precipitation in all its forms. I destroyed a pair of leather boots walking through history in the rain, and discovered my umbrella has holes in it. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Before the trip I got hold of a copy of The Lives of Things (Objecto Quase), a collection of short stories by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who took the Nobel for Literature in 1998. The first story in the collection tells his imagined history of the actual deck chair whose collapse led to the unexpected death of right-wing dictator António Salazar in 1968. The Centaur is his brilliant and breathtaking story where its horse and human halves are at war with each other, physically, emotionally and erotically. How, for example, can a horse lie down to sleep in a way that will also be comfortable for a man? A political parable, to be sure, but also a heartbreaking story.
I stopped in at Livraria Bertrand, located aptly on Rua Garrett, as any book lover must. After all, it claims to be the oldest bookstore in the Western world. There I picked up a copy of two books by Portugal's wonderfully oddball poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Disquiet Lisbon and a bilingual edition of O Que O Turista Deve Ver/What the Tourist Should See. Like Saramago, Pessoa is one of Portugal's great literary treasures. In addition to his own poetry, he's particularly known for creating a host of alter egos who wrote poetry, were published in leading journals of their day, and even reviewed each others' work. Any chance it's coincidence his last name is also the Portuguese word for person?
A day later, I'm walking under the giant cedar in the middle of the Jardim do Príncipe Real when I spot a VW camper van by the side of the road with matching shelves, quite obviously selling books. I go for a closer look and discover Tell A Story, a small mobile bookstore in a refitted VW camper van that has recently branched out into publishing English language translations of Portuguese writers.
Turns out I've already bought two of their books. Disquiet Lisbon is their truncated edition in English of Pessoa's larger work, The Book of Disquiet. I'd also bought their edition of Jesus Christ Drank Beer by Afonso Cruz, a prize-winning novel I can't seem to find anywhere on the English interwebs. The guy I chat with at the Tell A Story van says literature and bookstores are doing fairly well in Portugal, and he suggests a trip to the bookstore at LX Factory, the former textile manufacturing facility-turned-hipster art center.
It's a loooong walk down there, and along the way I'm stopped by French tourists in need of directions. Never mind the fact I was fairly lost at that point. But I eventually find my way to the expansive, book-filled Ler Devagar. The bookstore's name translates as "read slowly." Which of course I think we all should do.
There's so much more to literary Lisbon: watching tourists take photos of themselves arm in arm with the statue of Pessoa; the antiquarian bookstore with dozens of political posters from the anti-colonial movements in Angola and Mozambique. I'll just end here with a quote from Pessoa's disquietude, and a few more photos.
"The part of my life not wasted in thinking up confused interpretations of nothing at all, has been spent making prose poems out of the incommunicable feelings I use to make the unknown universe my own."
I don't often have an excuse to wear my jersey for the Greek national football team, but today as I headed to the LA Central Library downtown for a marathon public reading of Homer's great epic poem, The Odyssey, I was definitely in the tank for Team Ελλάδα.
This fantastic event was just one in a series of Odyssey-related activities around LA this October organized by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The Odyssey Project has included lectures, shadow puppet shows, readings by living poets and a modern Greek-style vase by Peter Shire that's traveling the County. It was jointly sponsored by the library, the Library Foundation and an organization called Readers of Homer. They organize these giant participatory readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey all across the country.
Turns out, they're onto something. More than 200 people signed up to participate in LA. The reading ran from 10 a.m. until 5:30 (or so) p.m., with people coming and going throughout the day to read their assigned segment, or just sit in the audience and listen. The room was ringed with white curtains and the lights turned down low. Images of old maps, roiling seas and ships were projected onto the walls, changing from time to time to match the story. A low, droning, haunting music played in the background. The text appeared in superscript above the readers' heads.
I was reader #80. Backstage in the green room I ran into David Kipen of Libros Schmibros, who launched The Big Read when he was at the National Endowment for the Arts. He was reader #77, and we giddily whispered to each other about how exciting this event was. While reading his section, he briefly donned a glittery gorgon hat. Reader #79 read her lines in Spanish, and played a recording of a song as part of her segment. Reader #81 read her first few lines in ancient Greek. That's the kind of enthusiasm I'm talking about.
As I rehearsed my own lines and listened to others reading theirs, it was the emotions that really struck me. In the brief 33 lines I read on stage, Odysseus was, by turns, bombastic, sarcastic, arrogant and brave. I've read The Odyssey at least twice before, but never really felt the story or the character of Odysseus quite so clearly.
That's what public engagement in the arts is all about, and we literary people know how to do it right.
Photos by Melissa Wall
What happens when a group of diverse women writers take on gun culture in America? You get The LA Word: Exploded Guns.
The LA Word is making our second appearance at this year's LitCrawl NoHo, October 22 at 9 pm. I'll be reading with four other terrific writers you should be reading. Our work this year will include memoir, fiction and conceptual poetry, all on the theme of guns.
That's right: we're putting the "verse" in "controversy."
But don't just come for us. This year's LitCrawl NoHo promises to be even bigger and better than last year's fantastic debut. More than 170 Los Angeles-area writers will be reading at 30 events across North Hollywood. The readings take place in coffee houses, bars, restaurants, art galleries, comic book store, a sex shop and more. The LA County Library's bookmobile will be on hand, as will the LA Public Library's Library Store on Wheels. The LA Word will be reading in the lobby of the Laemmle NoHo 7 movie theatre (map) at 9 pm.
LitCrawl readings begin at 7 pm and run in three rounds. I'll be reading with The LA Word in round three, beginning at 9 pm. After our reading is done, head over to a party at the Federal Bar, where GuerrillaReads (another literary project of mine) will screen video readings of many more LA authors. All LitCrawl events are free. Come hang out with LA's best and most provocative writers.
Get all the details and meet my fellow LA Word writers here.
Learn more about the LitCrawl NoHo here.
Just before the big launch party for Love Songs of the Revolution, I was interviewed by Chris Burnett on the show Indymedia On Air on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. It was a sweet to be back in the studio where I used to be one of the hosts.
If you didn't get a chance to listen in live, here's a recording of the interview, which runs about 12 minutes total. We talked about the book, my publisher (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography) and current trends in the book publishing industry, and we give a shoutout or two to awesome indie bookstore Skylight Books. I also read an excerpt from the beginning of the book.
In tall, furry black hats and long white dresses, with yelps, chirps, whistles and a pounding drumbeat, Ukraine's punk-folk musical sensation DakhaBrakha showed LA last night that we haven't seen everything yet. Here and there, audience members waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags. When someone shouted "Slava Ukrayini!" after one song, the woman in front of us responded with "Heroyam slava!"
"Glory to Ukraine!" she turned to translate for us. "Glory to the heroes!" It's a call-and-response dating back to the early 20th century Ukrainian War of Independence that has taken on new relevance. Our neighbor in the seats handed out flyers for a fundraiser coming up at a Ukrainian church in LA, then spent the set alternating between shooting video on her phone and waving her small flag, and sometimes doing both simultaneously.
We gave DakhaBrakha a well-deserved standing ovation even before they'd finished their last song. There was an encore, then the next. We would have brought them back for another if local regulations didn't force Grand Performances to shut down promptly by 10 p.m.
Here's a video of the group in an earlier performance of their knockout opening song, "Tatar":
DakhaBrakha is Iryna Kovalenko, Marko Halanevych, Nina Garenetska and Olena Tsibulska. The story is that the group was founded by an underground theatre troupe. The three women and one man bring a mix of backgrounds in folk and classical music plus professional theatre training. They utilize a variety of musical traditions and instruments from Eastern Europe and beyond, including accordion and garmoshka, tabla and darbuka, piano, cello and big bass drums.
In their long white dresses (and those hats!), their cello and drums painted with traditional Ukrainian folk motifs, DakhaBrakha has combined theatricality and musicality in a way that sometimes sits at the edge of kitsch, but never crosses the line. One song used birdcalls and other forest sounds. Another began with an eerie wolf's howl. Yet it all is authentic and integral to the performance. You'll sometimes catch a knowing wink or nod from one of the musicians, letting you in on the joke. Only, it's not a joke at all. It's just damn good music.
A small Ukrainian flag fluttered at the edge of the stage all night. After the last song, Halanevych softly said something in Ukrainian into the mic, then said in English: "Victory or death." Kovalenko and Tsibulska pulled out a larger flag and stood center stage while Halanevych and Garenetska each held up hand lettered signs. One read "Stop Putin" and the other read "No War." The moment felt as melancholy and yet hopeful as their music.
After performing together for ten years, DakhaBrakha is "suddenly" taking the world music scene by storm. Here, just watch the video for their song "Vesna" and you'll see why:
Looking for your next book to read? I can recommend all these great indie press books.