****Beatlebone

John Lennon

painting by Ryan Oyer; photo: Melissa Bowman, creative commons license

By Kevin Barry – Last Friday, award-winning Irish novelist Kevin Barry was in Princeton to read from his novel Beatlebone. You may recall, as I did not, that John Lennon bought a small island off far Western Ireland and made two visits there. Beatlebone describes a fictional third visit in 1978, two years before he was murdered.

He’s being hounded by media and his own creative demons, and he just wants to get away to this unpeopled dot in the ocean, though heavily and loudly populated by gulls and terns, and slick with guano. He has a driver, Cornelius O’Grady, who began, Barry said, as a peripheral character, but as sometimes happens, became vitally important to the book. He’s John’s guide to the mysteries of Ireland, his goad, and his sounding board.

Much of the book is their dialog, which Barry delivered deliciously:

About my situation, Mr. O’Grady?

Yes?

I really don’t need a f— circus right now. The most important thing is no one knows I’m out here.

Cornelius fills his mug from a silver pot and runs his eyes about the room.

John, he says, half the newspapermen in Dublin are after piling onto the Westport train.

Oh for f—sake!

But we aren’t beat yet. The train’s an hour till it’s in. We’ll throw a shape lively.

The lack of punctuation requires a little extra reader attention, but it isn’t difficult to follow. What you have is a surreal picture of a 38-year-old man who’s known incredible highs and inevitable lows, seen-all, done-all, who just needs to get out from under the weight of himself for a while. He’s a creative genius tied up in his own knots. On the island, he hopes to find inspiration for his next great album, Beatlebone.

I asked Barry how he captured Lennon’s voice. He said it was a real job of work and it took him about a year. He listened to and transcribed an awful lot of You-Tube videos. Lennon “could go from light to dark, from playful to paranoia, all in one sentence.” And because readers of the book are likely to have some sense of Lennon’s manner of speaking, that voice had to be convincing. And, he said, “the difficulty of the project created part of the attraction.” That perverse Irish nature at work, bringing us gifts.

As Steve Earle said in a laudatory review in The New York Times, “Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention.”

Kevin Barry’s previous novels have all won awards, and Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for literature that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities for the novel form.” Although he lives in County Sligo, currently he’s teaching creative writing as the Burns Scholar at Boston College. His presentation was part of the fine series sponsored by Princeton University’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Thriller Writer Exposes U.S. Security Gaps

railway tanker carsReading up on how the nation’s security apparatus actually works would have spared the Trump Administration and several of its appointees some embarrassment in their first weeks in office. However, a failure of security imagination has a much darker and more dangerous side.

You may recall how, after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s CIA brought in Hollywood scriptwriters—professional speculators—to help them imagine terrorist scenarios. Using airplanes-as-bombs was not a new idea, not even an “unthinkable” one to thriller writers.

Right after 9/11 the momentum for developing anti-terrorism technologies was strong, some money was wasted, and some real improvements were achieved. (Here’s an excellent Atlantic article summarizing our post-9/11 security gains and gaps.) But that momentum has largely faded.

Along comes Matthew Quirk, author of the thrillers The 500, Cold Barrel Zero, and the recent Dead Man Switch, who thinks about our vulnerabilities a lot. He says, “We should spend our time and money addressing the obvious risks, not the hypothetical or concocted ones.” And he cites plenty of these risks. “I like to think my books are pretty tense, but they have nothing on reality,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post. “More than 15 years after 9/11, we have failed to take basic steps to address glaring threats that have already cost American lives.”

One example he cites are the risks from manufacturing, storing, and transporting deadly chemicals. The security of these facilities, he says, is simply “not adequately covered by the current mishmash of loophole-filled rules.” Rules facing potential rollback, it should be noted.

True security for our nation involves not just reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, of course, but also prevention and response preparation in the case of system breakdowns, emergence of new diseases, and, of course, severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other disruptions resulting from, oh, climate change.

The number and variety of these threats is huge, but for most Americans the most visible national security effort boils down to seizing manicure scissors from grandma during an airport screening. However, even the TSA faces significant cuts in the proposed Trump budget, with the “savings” diverted to building the wall at our southern border. The wall will neither improve security nor prevent illegal immigration. It’s a costly symbolic gesture that diverts attention and resources from real security risks.

A Failure of Imagination about Climate Change

India, dawn, village

photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

Will future generations look back on the people of the 21st century and think we were deranged? According to revered Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, that may be the only way future generations can explain humanity’s feeble collective action in the face of climate change, global warming, and the violence of their likely consequences: drought, fire, famine, extreme storms, rising sea levels, extinction.

In a recent Princeton lecture, Ghosh said climate change is not just a problem of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, it is also a crisis of culture and thus of the imagination. His new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, makes the case that literary novelists, with a few exceptions, are failing to recognize and address the coming cataclysm, the most profound challenge of our day, in their work. Thinking about such a future is left to the margins of the literary world—science fiction, fantasy, and other genre fiction. Here’s an example. Even the Venice-based novels of Donna Leon have picked up the cause, in a subgenre dubbed “eco-detective” fiction.

Fundamental to the carbon economy—in fact, so fundamental we don’t even notice it—is that it is a manifestation of power. Not electrical power, the “might makes right” kind. Ironically, while some U.S. military leaders are more candid than our politicians with regard to the security risks posed by climate change, the military is a huge energy consumer. While the generals and admirals may talk about the risks of climate change, they contribute mightily to it, as, he says, the U.S. military consumes more energy than Bangladesh, a country of some 157 million people. Changes in the international power dynamic may be some of the most disruptive and far-reaching.

By framing climate change questions as economic ones, he says, we mask the reality that they are an exercise of power. Economic frameworks emphasize personal choices and desires, just as discussions of climate justice boil down to “how much are you willing to sacrifice?”As long as people in developing nations want to live as Americans (especially) do, a desire fueled by consumerist media, their leaders can’t and won’t suggest these sacrifices come from them. “Why should we cut back? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s ours.” Yet the changes needed go beyond recalibrating the desires of individual citizens of any nation.

Ghosh says only Pope Francis is willing to talk about breaking this cycle of desire and the impact it has on the poor. This should be a matter of significant interest, if Ghosh is correct that “People living at the margins of society will be the first to experience the future.” It’s one very different from that depicted by our politicians and literary leaders.

His was a dense lecture with many innovative and compelling arguments. Only a reading of the book can give you an adequate understanding of his vital points!

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.

*****Seveneves

Perseids, meteor shower, night

(photo: David Kingham, creative commons license)

By Neal Stephenson – All my book-reviewing predelictions are about to be revealed, when I say this is exactly a kind of book I like best! Even readers who ordinarily don’t gravitate to their book store’s science fiction section because of a severe allergy to tired genre tropes—aliens, ray-guns, and domineering robots—cardboard characters, and future visions that strain believability might like this one. It’s science, all right, but it’s all about human beings and their behavior when really put to the test. Why that is, in Stephenson’s own words.

The novel’s premise is that something (we never know what, and it doesn’t matter) penetrates the moon “like a bullet through an apple” and causes it to explode mostly into seven large and innumerable smaller pieces. Watching the fragments of the moon clank about in space becomes an interesting phenomenon until astronomer and science popularizer Dubois Harris—clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—stops wondering about the cause of the breakup and starts worrying about its effects. Scientists around the globe quickly agree with his conclusions: the moon’s fragments—bolides—will keep banging into each other making smaller and smaller pieces whose numbers will rise exponentially.

Eventually (in about two years), enough shattered fragments will begin entering the Earth’s atmosphere to create a cloud of debris that will spread out and, as Harris explains to U.S. President Julia Flaherty, “we are going to witness an event that I am calling the White Sky.” A day or two later would begin the next phase, “the Hard Rain,” as a rapidly increasing number of fragments enter the Earth’s atmosphere and their fiery trails “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil.” How long will the Hard Rain last? Harris estimates “Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.”

The only hope for human survival is to gear up the International Space Station (“Izzy”) to receive many more residents and, somehow, survive long-term, growing plants for food and oxygen, and mining asteroids and even the remaining chunks of the moon for materials. But there’s no way Izzy can take on several billion or even several hundred thousand souls, and a difficult selection process will be required. International politics must be set aside and every creative mind and resource focused on the survival of a few. With Doomsday approaching, technological development must move light-years faster than previously believed possible—or safe. Yet the meat of the book is the mechanics of the human psyche when subjected to such an extreme scenario. Inevitably, some readers will find the balance between mind and emotion not to their taste, and this may not be their kind of book.

There’s a lot of science and engineering here, but it’s wrapped in such an exciting adventure tale, and presented so clearly and plausibly, that I never lost interest for a moment. The 860 [!] pages fly by, faster than you can say Bolide Fragmentation Rate. In fact, there was so much there that a few loose ends escaped me—like, what happened to the mission to Mars? I don’t believe it had more than a passing reference. What happened to the rings Earth was supposed to acquire after the Hard Rain? These are hardly worth a quibble, though, amid all this amazing content.

As Jason Sheehan said in his review of Seveneves for NPR, “The experience of reading a modern Stephenson novel is like going out drinking with 20 or 30 of the smartest people on earth.”

*****Against a Darkening Sky

great horned owl

Wilona’s spirit-guide (photo: SearchNet Media, Creative Commons license)

By Lauren B. Davis – I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I knew it was coming (Lauren is my writing teacher), because it’s such a departure from her novels with contemporary settings. Davis is a distinguished Canadian author, and I wanted to see how she’d conjure and portray events of 1300 years ago. Now I know. Masterfully.

626 A.D. is a restless time in the medieval Anglian kingdom of Northumbria (now northern England and southeast Scotland). The traditional polytheistic world of augury and healers is about to be displaced by the sweep of Christianity, and the king is constantly threatened by a more powerful rival from the Midlands. These large currents also wash over the small village of Ad Gelfin, where the novel is set.

In the middle of this maelstrom are the traditional spell women, the seithkona—Touilt and her apprentice Wilona—powerful, vulnerable. They use medicinal herbs and tinctures, pray to the pagan gods, and are the closest to healers the community has. The beliefs they espouse are part and parcel of every aspect of daily life and involve the animals and spirits inherent to their place.

When Christianity comes to their small village in great pomp, with it straggles a young monk, Egan. His faith is strong, but in many ways he’s a misfit, most particularly because he sees good in the seithkona, while others simply want to destroy them. Whether the two young people, Egan and Wilona, can find their life paths in increasingly harsh circumstances is the plot of the book, whereas its many meanings—about the persistence of faith, about the quest for dignity and belonging—are universal.

Davis’s enormous accomplishment is in creating a world for Wilona, Touilt, Egan, and a compelling array of secondary characters that is consistent, believable, and true. She’s described the several shelves of reading she did in order to learn enough about that period to write about it authentically, and the care of her research had paid off for her readers. Wilona is especially compelling as a translator and defender of the pagan belief system, grounded in nature and the world around them. Confronting Christianity, which depends on extrinsic religious authority, changes the game utterly. It’s top-down versus bottom-up wisdom.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler says Davis “brilliantly achieves the ideal for a dark, historical fantasy: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme.” Those are its remarkable literary qualities; but from the reader’s perspective, it’s also a fascinating immersive adventure!

Read more about Lauren and her work.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”

Given this movie’s underlying premise, I should say up-front that I have a love-not-love relationship with it. Yes, the acting is terrific. Given a script with substance, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton (truly amazing), and Emma Stone all received Oscar nods. I’m also big fan of Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s wife in one of her trademark low-key performances, of the kind she perfected in The Wire. The story itself, however, of a middle-aged man’s struggle to find himself amidst the debris of his messy family affairs and dwindling career is, for me, less interesting. (Trailer here)

In telling it, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pays homage to magical realism of the South American kind (an armful of calla lilies appears on a monument somewhere to Gabriel García Márquez at every showing of this movie). What appears to be happening on the screen—Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position or, yes, flying—can be accepted on either a literal or a metaphorical basis, or both, depending on the viewer’s taste and tolerance.

In the story, Keaton is a Hollywood has-been (a former superhero called Birdman) tackling Broadway for the first time, directing and starring in a production of the Raymond Carver short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love.” The play is in rehearsal, and whether it will be successful is a toss-up. It looks unlikely. Meanwhile, Birdman himself keeps appearing like a nudgy pal, alternately flattering and browbeating Keaton and trying to lure him back into the gloriously popular action movies of his youth.

The Carver story recounts an alcohol-soaked evening when two couples try to sort out what love is, a question that has baffled sober people from time immemorial. Because of his own extreme vision of love, the ex-husband of one of the characters shot himself but “bungled it,” says the play. Later, he died. This might be a clue to the movie’s unwinding or not, because the extent to which the play-in-production is supposed to illuminate the movie is deliberately ambiguous. (I didn’t understand the subtitle, either, as it seemed to me that the characters were all too knowing.)

Numerous possible explanations (waking dreams, fevered thoughts, daydreams) could explain some of the action—especially the Michael Keaton character’s flying—which if you’re not overly hung up on trying to explain it rationally is thrilling. This is a movie that you have to decide to “just go with it” or face frustration. But the acting—and the bird costume!—is worth the price of admission. Liked the drumming. Rotten tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 84%.

Map Out Your Holiday Gifts

map, Paris

(photo: author)

OK, Santas’ helpers, if someone on your list loves New York, loves maps, loves travel, or just loves to get down with the details, that person might enjoy this wildly popular book of personal maps: Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, by Becky Cooper, illustrated by Bonnie Briant, with an introduction by Adam Gopnik. Pointing to this book as a bellwether, The Guardian says hand-drawn maps are in. So much so, their creators even have their own association. “All maps tell stories,” Cooper says, and proves it with the creative contributions in this very book.

Alternatively, The Guardian story says Wellingtons Travel spent three years creating a map of modern London full of hand-drawn charm, using the 1800s style that shows individual trees and buildings. The photograph accompanying this article is similar to the Wellingtons approach, but it’s a portion of a map of Paris from a favorite poster of mine that’s so realistic, I’m sure I can pick out that little hotel I stayed at near L’Etoile.

Many people have participated in Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan project, contributing their own unique memory portraits, like the map of “My Lost Gloves.” (That one is available as a print from Uncommon Goods, which has an array of intriguing map gift ideas, including the “Single Malts of Scotland” or “Great Wines of France” tasting maps—bases for a couple of good tours, there.) Contribute to the collective mental map of the city by downloading a blank map of Manhattan on which to show the places where you took your own favorite bites out of the Big Apple. Download another and stick it in your love’s Christmas stocking.

Keep Your Edge – 33 ways

notebook, list, diary

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

These lists of how to stay creative keep coming around, and they’re always worth a glance. Staying fresh in our own world is important, no matter what world that is. “Make lists, carry a notebook everywhere, write your ideas down”—those suggestions are all of a piece, and I do that. Of course, later the urgent items I scribbled don’t always make sense.

“Go somewhere new, listen to new music, watch foreign films”—those suggestions are different ways of saying “Break out of your routine.” I could do that by following suggestion #31—“Clean your workspace,” which, if I did would probably turn up some of those mystery notes. #29, “Stop trying to be someone else’s perfect,” reminds me of the Steve Jobs admonition pasted above my computer: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Don’t quite know what to think of “be otherworldly.” That’s the kind of obscure directive I might write myself. For this weekend, just “Do more of what makes you happy!” (#25).