Category Archives: The Writer’s Tower
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Impressions Before and After Ukrainian Best Selling Author Andrey Kurkov’s Speech at PEN World Voices Festival (Part I)
When I was in London and Oxford, UK in 2019, I stopped in a bookstore, my favorite haunt as a writer, and saw on a display table Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I was completely unfamiliar with his work. I don’t know why I picked up the book. But in a bookshop’s interesting, curious world of uncertainty and adventure, something aligned. Perhaps because I was close friends with a Ukrainian women years ago when I lived in upstate New York and ruefully allowed time and distance to separate us. In recent years with Putin’s invasion of Crimea, that association often comes to my remembrance, so I bought it, flew with it across the Pond and forgot about it swept up in NYC activities and my writing career, such as it is.
The same curious uncertainty happened to me when I picked up C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at the NYU bookstore when I was going for my Ph.D. Unfamiliar with the author, it was an association with his last name that prompted me to pick up the slim volume and read it, laughing aloud, then subsequently devouring everything else Lewis had written. (I will probably do the same with Kurkov after hearing him speak at the World Voices Festival). For me bookstore display tables are all about serendipity and whimsy picking up a book, briefly perusing its back cover, then taking it or putting it back.
Diverted from reviewing plays three or four nights a week when the pandemic shut down Broadway, I watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on my computer (I am not a TV watcher), then stumbled upon my forgotten copy of Death and the Penguin while looking for something else. I read it, and as with The Screwtape Letters, I found myself laughing out loud. Kurkov’s sensibility dovetailed with mine; his irony, inherent black humor and the existential plight of Viktor, the protagonist and penguin Misha his alter ego or avatar that Viktor takes in from the Kyiv Zoo evoked a mixture of emotions. In the novel the zoo gave away its animals to those who could afford to care for them.
Perhaps there is an alignment if we consider what was done with the zoo animals in the besieged northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, as officials attempt to evacuate large predators from the facility and are forced to put down others. Unfamiliar with what happened to facilities like zoos, right after the USSR collapsed, perhaps this was generally done, giving the animals homes. The US rejoiced at the USSR collapse; many did not; it was a catastrophe for those impacted. And what to do with the animals? The metaphor is incredible. Now, with Putin’s war, what to do with the animals in the zoo, especially the large predators? The Russians don’t even want the bodies of their dead soldiers. The Ukrainians are caring for them and for the big cats. There is something to be said for this truth. I’m not sure if it is ugly. It just is.
Though Death and the Penguin takes place in post Soviet Ukraine, in the 1990s, there is always the lurking darkness of the ethos of what “post-Soviet” means, the chaos, the vying for power between factions, criminals and thugs. My Ukrainian neighbor told me the moment the Iron Curtain was down he picked up his family and left. The Russian communists were hovering as were those schooled in thuggery from the KGB oppression units. Displaced, they were looking for a new way to employ their skills. Any moment they might pop up en masse in the future and pull their shenanigans. Turns out my friend was prescient; but he knows the history of Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.
A former member of PEN AMERICA whose membership lapsed, I still receive information. On Facebook I saw the advertisement for PEN America’s World Voices Festival at NYU, my old Ph.D. stomping grounds. The headline piqued my interest: Ukrainian Novelist Delivers Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at PEN World Voices Festival. The stars aligned; I had to attend.
I wanted to hear Kurkov’s comments about Putin’s genocide of Ukrainians and his war crimes. Who doesn’t admire President Zelensky’s heroism in defense of his country, and his standing up to Donald Trump’s blackmail (javelins for dirt on Hunter Biden)? These are events none of us in the US should ever forget. Nor can we forget the hideous impact of Putin’s interference in the 2016 election and installing his US puppet which deceased Representative John Lewis believed was a Putin/Republican/Cambridge Analytica conspiracy.
Since April of 2020 as the pandemic raged, I have asserted in articles (on my The Fat and the Skinny blog) that Putin duped the US into making deals while he was dreaming of his new world order, a Stalinistic communistic empire (Russians have mentioned that communism is dead…yeah, well maybe not) with new gulag jails filled with journalists, protestors, freedom fighters, Alexei Navalny and others like him. Is Communism in Putin’s New Regime designs? Just because the word was “banned” in Russia doesn’t mean it ever left the mind of Putin who Kurkov suggests is so nostalgic for the “good old days” that state TV has even created a Nostalgia channel of old movies, etc. pleasantly reminiscing about the old USSR. Putin is not your kindhearted granddaddy; how Russians negotiate Alexei Navalny, the news blackout, millions of young Russians leaving, leads of Ukraine butchery is mindboggling.
As Kurkov said in his introduction Putin’s War and his truth lies are out of George Orwell. Of course, the puppet presidency of Trump, that no one in the nation was ready for except salivating billionaires, was the same hellish psyops war for the minds of the American people. As Putin does in Russia, Trump did to America. It was out of a surreal GRU playbook. Thankfully, Trump is gone, but Putin is screaming and kicking against the kicks of Biden’s presidency and sanctions. Putin’s attempt to conduct psyops through truth/lies reality to gather communist support for his new regime whether from French loser Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s winner Prime Minister Viktor Orban or other hyper right-wing governments is for truth watchers, a useless endeavor. Regardless of the lies told, the truth is about usurping then consolidating power.
At this point actions speak loudly; justifications are meaningless. Importantly, those who oppose Putin’s criminality and his criminal puppets like Belarus’ Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, the former Ukrainian puppet ousted in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, or orange puppet Donald Trump ousted by Democratic President Joe Biden are what matters. If Putin opposes the leader or individual, you can guarantee he/she/they are not backed by his criminal enterprise. Likewise, if individuals oppose Donald Trump’s attempt to run for President in the future, they are not supported by his criminality.
in keeping with my compulsion to understand and publicize Putin’s psyops and serial killer behaviors, I have reviewed plays about Russian journalists, like Putin assassinated writer, whistleblower and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. Also, I am enamored of those who have the courage to speak out like Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. I reviewed her in Burning Doors at La Mama (2017). I spoke to Alyokhina before her performance and praised her for her bravery. She looked at me like her courage was “nothing.” I interpreted her attitude to mean, if you are a human being, you stand for human rights against killers and oppressors. Her performance was riveting; she was amazing in 2017 and is even more amazing in 2022. She escaped from Russia, Friday May 13th, the same day that Andrey Kurkov delivered the lecture at NYU.
Alyokhina had been jailed in Russia six more times since last summer. They put her in for 15 days for truth lies, like Alexei Navalney’s made-up charges. The fabricated “crimes” get them off the streets and shut them up. That messages sneak out from prison is a testament to the fact that there are many who oppose Putin’s tactics, but can only stand against them surreptitiously.
Alyokhina realized the danger she was in when authorities announced that her house arrest would be converted to 21 days in a penal colony (gulag). She left disguised in a food delivery outfit to escape the “woman hunt,” and nearly didn’t make it out. She is 33 years old; she was 22 when Pussy Riot was formed as an anti-Putin protest band. She’s been at this for 11 years and will continue her activism from outside Russia, something devoutly to be appreciated by Putin who has blacked out all media, theater, anything that is a protest, as he vitiates the Russian constitution by dissolving it into tyranny and despotism.
Like Alyokhina, many journalists/activists (including an Independent news organization I covered, Rain) have been forced to flee Russia and continue their news activities from neighboring countries. Putin imposed a 15 year jail sentence for those speaking about the war in Ukraine which he lies about as a “special operation.” He doesn’t want to disturb the remaining passive Russian people into activism against the horror that has been snuffed out in Russian media about the butchery, shelling, bombing, razing of buildings, rapes, murders of innocent civilians: women, children, older men.
Thus, Putin is redefining his “truth” of his war crimes and atrocities. “Special operation” is a euphemism for Ukrainian extinction, cultural eradication, and cleansing. What does war mean for Putin that he truth lies about? Disintegrating Ukrainian’s freedom of choice. Dissolving their sovereignty. After all, they are Russians. So his acts are just examples of Russian brotherly love. Right is left, war is peace, hate is love in the “ministry” (it’s a religion of Putin worship) of Putin’s “newspeak” truth.
“Newspeak” is from George Orwell’s 1984. Its function is to “limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate ‘subversive’ concepts such as personal identity, self-expression and free will. Such concepts are criminalized as “thoughtcrime” since they contradict the prevailing Ingsoc orthodoxy. (English socialism-it should have been Ingcom for English communism).
When you stop someone’s freedom to choose, you are a tyrant; for that there is no justification, unless of course, individuals choose to intentionally or negligently kill you with their plague. Then that’s a consideration for National Security and at the least a charge of manslaughter or negligent homicide.
Interestingly, in his speech Kurkov discussed the curious nature of truth following Arthur Miller’s legacy in his writings standing against injustice and inhumanity to tell the “ugly” truth. With straight-faced irony Kurkov implied truth is without descriptors like ugly or pretty or inconvenient. Stripped away, it is and thus, must be recorded and chronicled. The descriptors are given by the one seeing it; the perspective of the one taking it in. Thus, one can be unemotional seeing or hearing about Russian soldiers’ rape, slicing off tongues, executing civilians, mass graves, burning of bodies, if one is Putin and those genocided are Ukrainians. That is Putin’s pretty truth, but it must be whitewashed, alchemized for the Russian populaces’ consumption, sweetening what is to make it easy to swallow.
I would add that since judgment comes from one’s upbringing and surrounding cultural influences (or brainwashing) in a culture where the ethic and law is “do no harm to others,” and “others” means any race, creed or color, then atrocities warrant censure. In Putin’s truth/lies, soldiers’ atrocities warrant rewards and medals.
Putin’s war and Kurkov’s being shelled the first few days until he left Kyiv, displaced him internally. Peter O’Toole, who was in London around the time of Germany’s bombings during WWII said something to the effect that there’s nothing like being bombed to set your priorities straight. The bombing and war dislocated Kurkov who said during the lecture:
“I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context, novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime. Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.”
“Ukrainians are determined to win,” he said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.”
The Russian people simply don’t have to think about it. Putin has whitewashed the truth, prevented recordings of it, news articles, commentary on Social Media, all of it. Russian state media doesn’t televise or podcast discussions or reports about the butchery and bombings of the dust of Mariupol again and again, as remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still defy Putin by staying alive and resisting in various basements and the steel plant.
Russians don’t know this. My Russian neighbor in NYC doesn’t know this or swallows Putin’s sugar: the Nazis are being overrun. Thus, Russians are not upset by the “ugly” truth. It doesn’t hurt them. Is that moral? Well, Putin is protecting himself from their fury and protecting them from unspeakable pain and torment. It’s a “good” thing, until they realize when their sons don’t come home, the greatest betrayal in history has happened to them as they have been consciously or unconsciously, wittingly or unwittingly swept up in Putin’s national criminality.
Kurkov’s lecture should have been packed. It wasn’t. However, in the audience were Ukrainians and Russians familiar with Kurkov’s novels, screenplays and his writings as an intellectual and journalist. Kurkov was enlightening. IN PART 2, I comment on his lecture and quote from it.
‘After Image’ Poetry Book by Mary Turley-McGrath
In her fourth collection of poetry After Image, Mary Turley-McGrath focuses on reflections about her natural surroundings as they stir the soul in inspiration, and provide peaceful meditations and kernels of wisdom to feed the spirit. Mary Turley-McGrath’s lyricism is lush. Her images crystallize feeling and leave one in evocative remembrance of places, perhaps never seen, but hazarded by her luminous figures, i.e. “avian sky etchings” (“Mumuration”) “…then beamed a chaos of dappled, flickering shadows on alders, beech and birch, like disco strobe lights” (“Diorama”).
These illusive images of sight and sound, fleeting fragments, sift and ping one’s thoughts. They are savory spice on the tongue, at once striking and delectable. Her work must be revisited for these gem moments, satisfying and complete, a textured whole unto themselves.
The poet has organized her poetry collection bringing together disparate, yet familiar thematic and human elements in ‘Tesserae,’ ‘Annaghmakerrig’ and ‘Winter Poems.’ In the first section there are poems of loss supplanted by what is found, and history’s movement estranging one from his or her life, until revelation comes. Mary Turley-McGrath also references war and dislocation, of the desecration of the familiar into a dissolved identity that refugees struggle to overcome. And she contemplates works of art and ancient architecture as they land in powerful images she crafts beautifully. I particularly enjoyed “The Cordoba Scrolls.”
In the ‘Annaghmakerrig’ section the poet encapsulates the feeling evoked by the amazing Tyrone-Gutherie Centre, its shimmering lake, the shy wildlife, the lush environs, captivating in all seasons. It was there Mary Turley-McGrath stayed during a residency awarded to her as the winner of the Trócaire/Poetry Ireland Competition in 2014. And it was there, pursuing my own journalistic writing, that I connected with Mary and we exchanged information and discussed our work.
Because I am familiar with the lovely environs, this section particularly resonated. Her poems brought the visions of the Big House and cottages set against the 500 acre wooded estate and alerted me to the varieties of birds that I did not see when I was there, because I focused on other activities. Her specificity and well drawn figures of speech align me with new eyes as I read this section. I see the gorgeousness of the gardens and grounds, the many varieties of trees, the effects of the light on the lake, the shadows and darkness. Above all, with each of her poems I retain the comfort and peace that encourages artistic inspiration, enlightenment and wisdom.
I particularly loved “A Heron” enlarged to philosophical ruminations about the Bennu bird of Egyptian myth. Yet, all of the poems are profound in their meaning. In wisps and fragments they remind me of the Tyrone Gutherie Center, Annaghmakerrig in that time I visited. Every time I pick up After Image, I revisit beauty in my mind’s eye, in the rereading of this glorious section.
‘Winter Poems’ is a collection of impressions of darker feelings, bleaker tones, absence, loss and evacuation caused by war’s devastation. Some of these poems, as in the other sections, reference art. ‘In Black and White’ is a nod to the photographic work of Josef Sudek, who captured Prague and its environs after the two wars. And ‘Evening’ is a fitting close in remembrance of the inequity of those casualties of war thrown into conflicts and the darkness, displaced from their homes as the poet references a new age Aeneas.
After Image is a quiet read that comforts with its beauty and airy, yet profound quality. Nevertheless, its undertones remind us there is so much work to do to soothe those terrorized by present upheavals. Amidst the loveliness of the natural landscape, humans have made their impact. It must be for the good. We cannot afford anything else.
‘Leyna Gabriele,’ Sonnet in ‘Light Shifts’
Upon the release of my second book (the first, a novel released a year ago-Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers) I decided to post selected sonnets from the In Memoriam section. The individuals I wrote sonnets about impacted my life. Whether I knew them or not, I felt a deep kinship to their work. In some instances, like Anthony Bourdain, I was able to connect in brief interviews at Tribeca Film Festival where he was promoting two films. (see my YouTube Channel). For Light Shifts, go to https://caroleditostibooks.com/
The most personal of connections in this section of Light Shifts was with my cousin Leyna Gabriele. Leyna was my mother’s niece; they adored each other and my mother gave her the non-judgmental love she needed. She was devastated when my mother left the family in Fairmont, West Virginia, got married and moved to the New York City area. However, when Leyna pursued her opera career in New York City, she practically lived at our house on various weekends.
Leyna Gabriele died at 95 years old, thankfully, before the pandemic in 2019. Considering that our family would not have been able to be together to say goodbye to her, she selected the right time to leave us. Leyna was amazing to family, friends, work colleagues and all who made her acquaintance. And she was a Diva.
A lyric coloratura soprano who lived and worked in New York City, in 1954, she married Vito Pisa of Chez Vito, a Manhattan supper club (circa 1950s-1960s). At Chez Vito she and other professional opera singers performed opera and pop numbers, accompanied by violinists. In between songs she and Vito were host and hostess to Metropolitan Opera stars and celebrities of the theater world, politics, Hollywood and even notables of the scientific community (Werner von Braun).
Leyna’s voice was perfect for the role of Baby Doe in the Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera based on the real-life romance between silver magnate Horace Tabor and Elizabeth McCourt, known as Baby Doe. John Latouche wrote the libretto. Leyna helped Douglas Moore while he was composing the music at Columbia University. Her exceptional voice was capable of reaching the silvery notes that the role of Baby Doe required.
Dolores Wilson and Leyna alternated in the role of Baby Doe which she starred in the second night and subsequent performances after the opera opened in Central City Colorado in 1956. She was a fan-club idol for the DoeHeads (website: http://www.babydoe.org/). They are opera lovers who appreciate that The Ballad of Baby Doe is an American opera, written in English and conceived by an American librettist and American composer.
The DoeHeads frequently get together when The Ballad of Baby Doe is performed. They hope to see The Ballad of Baby Doe eventually presented at The Met. Leyna met with the DoeHeads one last time. Cousin Jim Gabriel accompanied her and together they watched the performance of The Ballad of Baby Doe and afterward, Leyna was lauded for being the first to work with Douglas Moore on the songs.
My poetry book Light Shifts is dedicated to Leyna. In the In Memoriam section, I included a brief account of my experience with Leyna growing up. She was there for my brother’s and my birth. I was by her side the day before she passed.
All beauty, glamor, striking majesty,
You shined on paths you walked through light and dark,
And people noted, turned to look and see
Who was this presence bold, brave, vibrant, stark.
Most gracious, kind and loving with your kin
And friends alike who visited from afar,
But your competitive spirit’s ambition to win
Was gracefully tempered not to be a star.
Though star you were when we beheld your face,
As youngsters, Gabe and I admired you.
We felt your impact on our lives. Your Grace
Bestowed with laughter and Light, what’s real and true.
Oh Leyna. I pray God’s loving arms will keep,
You safe, secure in New Life. Rest in Peace.
Banned, ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegleman, a Travesty That Ridicules Itself
I taught a Holocaust unit years ago when I was teaching High School English. Maus I and Maus II were among the books I gave my classes who were at various skill levels, from Advanced Placement to Inclusion. We discussed the background elements of WWII and Nazi Germany. And in some classes we compared those events to what was happening during the rendition of “terrorists” who ended up at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush Jr. Cheney administration. We discussed censorship, rights and freedoms under the constitution and how Nazi Germany was guilty of human rights violations and crimes against humanity. We also discussed how the United States was guilty of human rights violations at various points in its history under both political parties.
The themes represented in Maus I and Maus II are universal and timeless. The story is historical and authentic in its evocative drawings and spiritual infusion of truth, as hard as that might be to recognize and acknowledge. It is because it is horrific to understand and difficult to acknowledge that Spiegelman’s graphic rendering of his father’s and mother’s experiences is in the cannon of great works of artistic and literary merit.
That those who have seen “fit” to ban it from their curriculum is puzzling. For it is these very individuals who would declare themselves patriots and free thinkers which Maus, in all of its graphic text and subtext uplifts and supports in the context of WWII Nazi Germany and Nazi oppression of religious freedom and human rights.
The only “human right” enjoyed in German occupied Europe was to support Hitler’s vision of Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. If you didn’t and publicly declared that you didn’t, you lost your human right to live and have your being in Germany or your occupied nation (France, The Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Belgium, Russian occupied territories, etc.). Publicly supporting or saving the enemies of Hitler (resisters, Jews, communists, Poles, Russians, handicapped, Romani, gays, etc.,) would land you in Auschwitz or another camp where you went to the gas chambers. Or to save money and food, you might be shot where you stood as many thousands were.
Austrian citizen Franz Jägerstätter, a devout spiritual Christian believed in the first two commandments (Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength; Love your neighbor as yourself). He was a conscientious objector and believed that killing another human being was not worthy of Christianity. He believed that one should lay down one’s life as Christ did, not take a life to keep Hitler usurping power over others.
Thus, the Nazis and his frightened townspeople who came to hate Jägerstätter declared him an enemy of the Third Reich. He was sentenced to death and executed for his refusal to fight for Hitler’s ultimate cause. That cause was to subject all nations who did not follow Hitler’s religious beliefs, a combination of paganism and occultism that adhered to the idea of a Master Race.
Indeed, Hitlerism and Nazism was and is a repudiation of the Old and New Testaments and the foundation of three global religions. To think otherwise is a distortion of the occult basis of the Nazi’s beliefs. Nazis were never Christians; that was a blind. If they were, they never would have taken the monstrous stance to act against God’s chosen people and human rights. They never would have committed crimes against humanity.
On a thematic level Spiegelman’s Maus contains the authentic testimonies of how the eradication of human rights as a systematic organizing principle destroys the destroyers and elevates those they attempt to destroy. In the name of power we see annihilation and suffering; the criminal losers cannot win with ideas whose basis is lies, for there are always witnesses who will survive to tell the truth.
The wisdom expressed as Spiegelman conveys with skill and emotional power “how his father bleeds history” is as old as humanity and worthy of reviewing at any age, the younger the better. Such wisdom saves lives and encourages hope. Banning wisdom and hope is an impossibility. Light always leaks into dark rooms. The tighter the doors are locked, the more folks struggle to open them. Banning these great works is a travesty that ridicules itself.
Nevertheless, I agree with Art Spiegelman that this is a “red alert” and more will follow. In this tide of times, that this country founded with the intention and hope of amending freedoms generationally to include every race, creed, color, gender should ban such a work in the 21`st century is not only a travesty, it is a tragedy.
The Faulkner Society’s BIG READ Events at Words and Music, NOLA
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of my most favorite cities on earth, New Orleans, Louisiana. The occasion was cover the 2014 Words and Music, a Literary Feast which is sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and organized by the Society’s Co-Founder, Rosemary James. The Faulkner Society is a nationally recognized non-profit arts organization. As such it is a literary and educational institution. It receives grant donations, membership contributions, and contributions to their fundraisers all of which are fully tax deductible.
As I sat in on Master Classes and Workshops, networked with Editors and Publishers and Presenters, I noted in the catalog for Words and Music many events listed as a “BIG READ EVENT.” I knew that The Faulkner Society created and supported outreach programs for high school and college students and literacy projects for at-risk teenagers. As I networked with individuals at the Words and Music “literary feast,” I became apprised about how BIG READ projects funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were integrated seamlessly in Words and Music. I further learned how The Faulkner Society embraces the BIG READ in its mission and integrates BIG READ projects in its endeavors.
The National Endowment for the ARTS (NEA) identified the tremendous need in our modern technological culture that reading in part had fallen by the wayside. Indeed, Gore Vidal had mentioned in numerous interviews before he died in 2012 that “Americans don’t read.” The BIG READ is a program created by NEA to bring back reading to the center of American culture. This program provides competitive grants to support innovative reading programs in designated communities.
As a former English teacher and professor I saw students struggle through reading literature. I worked tirelessly for 33 years attempting to improve students’ reading and appreciation of literature from 9-12, from Special Ed students to college level English and Advanced Placement Literature students. I taught in a district on Long Island where over half of the students were on reduced or free lunch. They often did not grow up in a reading household as I did; their parents often worked two jobs to put food on the table, if there were two parents. Sometimes parents or single parents did not encourage reading because their own reading skills were limited and it was painful to read. This situation happens nationally in many districts and certainly in New Orleans. So I was doubly thrilled to learn that wonderful literacy programs are alive and well. I felt a complete synchronicity as a former educator and professor and current writer and journalist when I discovered that a mission for The Faulkner Society’s was literacy and that they had exciting BIG READ projects encouraging literacy and appreciation of literature.
I became familiar with BIG READ during Words and Music and I must say I am impressed. Every day during Words and Music, there were a number of BIG READ events. Each of them was integrated into highlighting and revisiting the themes and experiences of the characters in the 2014 BIG READ focus book, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. Some of the events were on site at the Hotel Monteleone in the Queen Anne Ballroom. One example was the session that featured successful screenwriters and novelists, Carleton Eastlake and Loraine Despres. The workshop was on Creating Compelling Characters for Books, TV, and Film. Participants in the workshop were to have read Mengestu’s book. Eastlake’s and Despres’ discussion centered around how Mengestu created memorable characters and distinguished them through specific details, for example, their will to power, their conflicts with others, their backgrounds, their desires and goals.
Some BIG READ events occurred off site of Hotel Monteleone. One was held at Loyola University, Dana Hall. This was a BIG READ and PAN AMERICAN connections event. The title of the session was Immigration: It’s Human Toll and Its Inspiration for the Arts and Cultural Enrichment. The event was free and open to the public. This session was a joint venture with Loyola’s Center for Latin American Studies and Caribbean Studies directed by Uriel Quesada, Ph.D. The session featured Luis Alberto Urrea, Mexican-born American poet and bestselling author of the non-fiction book The Devil’s Highway and other works. The former Louisiana Poet Laureat Darrell Bourque open and closed the program with poems related to the migration of Acadians from Nova Scotia to Louisiana and how that migration greatly impacted Louisiana and enriched the culture.
Words and Music 2014 included many other BIG READ events which can be seen online at The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society website. There you will be able to browse through the Faulkner Society, note its mission and endeavors and gain an understanding of how innovation should be at the heart of literacy. It is vital that we who adore the written word and find reading an easy facility encourage this skill especially for those at-risk, young and old and not just those who are uneducated, but those who have an education and who do not read longer works but read short bursts online.
We live in an age that requires we read extensively and widely if we are to keep our vision of a democratic society viable and manifest in our political system. As part of this reading we need to be able to read critically and hone our critical thinking skills to differentiate the unsupported blather and straw man arguments from those works that are well supported with rational argument and facts. Worthy literature and non fiction are what inspire us to live and get through to the next day. It is paramount that BIG READ continue and that organizations like The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society continue to make magic for others.
If you are interested in reading more about the annual endeavors of The Faulkner Society in New Orleans, then check out their website linked in the first part of this sentence. Or contact Faulkhouse@aol.com to ask questions and learn more.
My Bite of the Apple Part I (Redacting Steve Jobs)
Excited to buy my first iPhone? I guess. but it wasn’t an outer body experience as buying Apple products has been for some. Maybe that’s because I’m a techie fail, a black hole when it comes to understanding mother boards and code and building cloud infrastructure and sequencing networks. I can figure things out if directions are given to me? But that’s it. I am one step above tech illiterate doggie doo with a single digit IQ. So if you are an uptown geek, then you will probably stop reading right about now.
After I got the iPhone, was I ebullient, addicted, umbilical corded? Nah. Actually, since I had a Motorola as well, can you believe my iPhone became my secondary phone to use in case I needed to reference something online? I preferred my old MO, my laptop, my Motorola for calls, the iPhone for referencing. I didn’t like the touch screen so much and since I type at the speed of light, slowing to one finger “tough” could never approach any viable functioning beyond snail pace to input type. That made me pissy. So, I hobbled along in the comfort of the tech semi-dark ages. But I was acutely aware of the awe this gadget produced in others whenever I pulled it out to reference something. Swoons, gasps, exclamations of approval filled the air as if this thing gave me character and substance and not the other way round. Frankly, I thought it amusing at the time and felt somewhat flattered that I was almost “in.” (I had never been “in” in HS. In college as a hippie, yes…but HS has its own sting and that poison was difficult to expurgate.)
Was it this faux flattery that percolated my appetite to lust for another bite of the forbidden fruit? I thought about buying an iPad. Did I need it? Do I need another piece of jewelry (Most of it is in the safe deposit box.)? I thought, well, I could compose my news articles easily without dragging my laptop around. Granted my laptop was small, and it worked well…everything there that I needed. I admit it. The super hype about the iPads was irresistible and the reveal had my heart and head feening. And at times there were visceral urges that I just had (I mean short of waiting in line for three days. I’m not insane.) to have one of those fabulous, incredible, virtual portals that professionals would be sashaying around with them like progeny. But when I was up close and personal with an iPad my friend (a line waiter) had, I thought, but I love my laptop. Why do I need two cameras? Taking pictures with an iPad is so pretentious, like you want everyone to know it’s an iPad you are taking a picture with. Big deal. (I know, I know. I can hear the geeks moaning about my fecal cephalic lack of appreciation for the iPad’s prodigious design and flawless tech perfection.)
But once you have that first bite, you become hooked. Like a confused obeser who doesn’t know she’s full (I used to be obese; I can say that word.) I had to indulge and buy another Apple product. Maybe I’d even join the holy crowd and worship at the shrine of awesomeness, becoming an owner of Apple, you know, get a few shares? The company’s earnings were spectacular, market share flying high like a dirigible with iPhones and iPads selling so rapidly the company couldn’t keep up production. Global sales…mega, mega. I like, thousands of others, regretted not buying the company when it nearly went belly up and Jobs came back in glory to take it over again after the board kissed his feet and became his willing slaves. I wouldn’t buy a lot of stock, just enough (100 shares) for it to be a symbol that I endorsed everything Steve Jobs stood for as an enlightened, Renaissanced, man of goodness, a shining glory.
So I went to Apple and I looked at the iPad. But I balked at the point of purchase. I had a headache. Over the next few days, I looked at other tablets and smaller laptops. I discussed the iPad with as many geeks as I could. I hesitated. Like a hunger pang that abates, my lust fled. Not sure why. Maybe because I would have to pay for a lot of stuff I needed, buying from the iTunes store, cha ching? I was sick of doing that on the iPhone. The interface with Mozilla that was paramount, I would have to tweak. And I had issues with my iPhone which was slowing. And two cameras? What for two cameras? I had enough cameras I wasn’t using: 35 mm beauties and digitals (top of the line when they first came out).
So instead, I went for another Apple product, their top of the line wireless router that I could stream with from Montauk (I live in NYC). My uncontrollable appetite did rear her fat head, you see? But this bite left me with a bitter taste: it was unappetizing and I got indigestion. The router was really pricey and weird to put together. And I had a hell of a time configuring it to my PC. Annoyed at my tech incompetence and blaming my bad gut, I returned it and bought a well reputed router that a one-year-old could set up. And I left the rising market share of Apple stock for the birds of the air to pluck. But since my phone contract was up, I purchased the next generation iPhone, knowing I would use it minimally, relying on another phone. My appetite for this next bite, though not particularly nourishing or filling was vital to my ego, cultural sensibilities and ethos. I indulged my lust.
And then Steve Jobs died. I wrote an article for Technorati and saw the TV programs about his genius, reheard his Stanford speech for the hundredth time and admired the man who was like a mastermining god, the new savior who walked on tech waters. Again and again it was repeated, his ambition, his “drive for perfection” and his “we’ll never see his like again,” and his business acumen and ruthlessness, all wonderful praise for an icon that geeks wept over, no exaggeration. (There were folks unrelated to his family who sobbed over his loss.) It was only a day later after I muted all the static that it came to me. The geeks who owed their changed lives to Jobs? The change was all theirs and had little to do with the man or the gadgets and in fact, they might have become someone greater if not someone else despite him not because of his Apple. But irrevocably, they had tied their own identities with Jobs; they were him and he was them. And they rued the days ahead because how would they be able to function without him to market the wonder and the magic of their addiction and keep their lives meaningful?
And then after Jobs was in the ground a few months, the dam broke and the waters roiled. What had been dredged up in secret and silted and drained away with each reveal of the next generation iPad and iPhone product could be stemmed no longer. Enter Foxconn. And slowly by revelation of a different kind, we began to understand the identity of the king serpent who delivered the Apple to us to eat.