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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Diane Chonette (Art Director): In the brief window of time between putting Oliver to bed and tucking myself in, there is room for a bit of mindless entertainment. If we are between seasons on the current favorites, our go-to Netflix choices oscillate between anime, old sci-fi, and old British travel shows. In the last month, we’ve been heavy on Doctor Who, which covers nearly all those categories. We are in the David Tennant years now and have most definitely fallen for his quirky charm and boyish good looks. Most recently we saw one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes yet, featuring a little of The Doctor and a lot of Carey Mulligan (as Sally Sparrow). The episode, titled Blink, was smart, scary and full of the time travel puzzles that keep you awake at night. Decidedly different from the corny plots and ridiculous effects that make Doctor Who so fun to watch, this one had me truly engaged. Come to find out it was an anomaly of the 2007 series, written by Steven Moffat, who later becomes the main writer for the 2009 series. A diamond in the rough, as it were. Now, back to the Tardis!
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): I’m probably a few years late in recommending Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, but I think it’s worth mentioning how wonderful the audio version is. Urrea reads the book himself, and if you’ve ever seen the man read–or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say orate, recite, preach–you know he can perform. I’ve been on a audio-nonfiction kick, but I typically avoid books where I want to savor the sentences. Here, however, I feel like Urrea’s voice and intonations only add to the effect.
Rob Spillman (Editor of Tin House): Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives. Memory is the material for Hemon’s memoir-like first book of nonfiction, and he packs a lot–linguistically, stylistically, and emotionally–into the short pieces.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I just came off a glorious spate of neglecting other duties in favor of tearing through a pile of books, and I must say it did me good. At the top of my list was Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, which examines the bizarre cult of Hollywood celebrity, from silent films’ Florence Lawrence to Angelina Jolie, and Burr is especially wonderful at illuminating the particulars of each star’s appeal, breaking down what feels like mere gut feeling into a complex convergence of physical and dramatic characteristics, our own desires and perceptions, and cultural contexts.
In Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, the GQ deputy editor delves into the mysteries surrounding his father’s death back in 1970. This isn’t a murder mystery, so it’s less the uncertainty in the cause of death that carries such weight than the silences and blank spots surrounding the man himself, where he was that night and why, and the long shadow cast by his absence.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Boris Vian tunes, the French trumpeter—and also novelist, poet and singer—who played in Paris nightclubs like Le Tabou and Le Caveau de la Huchette (still in existence) in the 1940s and 1950s. Running with the Left Bank jazz-loving crowd, Vian was friends with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Raymond Queneau and is probably best known for his whimsically dark novel, Foam of the Daze: L’Ecume Des Jours. His songs range from purely delightful jazz numbers like “Jazz Me Blues” to the anti-war song “Le Deserteur” to pure blues with “Rose Room.” Spring seems a particularly wonderful season to listen to Vian, windows open, light leaning longer into the night.
Devon Walker-Domine (The Open Bar Intern): On the poetry front, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the anthology The Gift of Tongues. In this rather hefty volume, Sam Hamill, one of the founders of Copper Canyon press, assembles an array of real poetic gems from over 150 different titles the press has published since its inception in 1972. The poets range from Su Tung-p’o (11th-century China) to W.S. Merwin to Lucille Clifton, and each voice is as stirring and stilling as the next. The themes, feelings, even moods found within these poems are as diverse as the body of poets from which they are drawn, though many of the individual poems share an interest in the complex relationship between humans and nature, exploring with a sense of wonder and reverence both the pleasures and pains we derive from our interactions with natural world.
Hamill says in his forward, which is in many ways as artfully drawn as a poem, that he selected each piece in this collection because it moved him in some way, because it defied forgetting. And after reading just half of the poems in this collection, I can see why he chose the ones he did. Each poem presents itself in such a memorable way it saddens me that I don’t have enough time to just hunker down in a comfortable armchair for the day and memorize line after beautiful line.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor): Peter Rock’s new novel, The Shelter Cycle, follows the lives of several people who were brought up under the influence of the Church Universal and Triumphant, in Montana in the late-’80s, early-’90s. While the organization is often referred to as a cult, Rock remarkably manages to skirt all such judgment and, more importantly, avoid any whiff of parody. The characters earnestly search and you search with them. They’re haunted by the residue of their former beliefs, as are you. The prose is spare and lyrical and the book as a whole is strange and wild and luminous, often literally. I’ve been recommending it so much it sounds like I’m chanting. If you’re intrigued, check this out and this.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I read Ray Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” as a kid and was both amazed and terrified at the idea of an evil infant terrorizing his parents. The story has stuck with me for years and I credit Bradbury with giving me my first taste of the creepy kid genre of horror. Murderous tots have been used successfully in movies like The Brood, Children of the Corn, The Omen, and recently The Children (2008).
It’s Alive (1974) is not so successful, but it is a schlocky classic, nonetheless. The plot—a homicidal newborn that is somehow able to survive on its own in LA—is not nearly as ridiculous as the fact that no one in the film doubts the existence of such a creature. The production values and acting hover just above B-level. It’s entertaining and unintentionally campy, with just one genuinely horrifying scene—mostly when viewed as a critique of institutionalized birthing practices.
It’s Alive is most interesting as an artifact of the 70s. Made a year after Roe v Wade and in the aftermath of the Thalidomide tragedies, ideas of reproductive rights and personhood feature prominently, as does a concern over the increasing use of pesticides and chemicals. In more capable hands, the film could have been a smart critique of social and environmental issues. Unfortunately, the follow-through is frustratingly weak and we’re left with an amusing late-night horror film, but not much else.
Lance Cleland (Pickup Basketball Star): There are endless amounts of people who have amazing stories to tell. The number of people who can construct those stories into a compelling narrative is considerably less. It is what separates your stoner friend Ralph from Denis Johnson. The reason I mention this is because I recently watched a documentary where this dichotomy was frustratingly on display. The story of The Imposter is astonishing. In fact, it might be the strangest story I have ever encountered. A serial French child imposter, a loose cannon detective, a family who may or may not have buried their troubled son in the backyard; this is tailor-made edge of your seat material the filmmakers were handed. So why muck it up with cheesy reenactments, a terrible score, and a story arc that reveals everything too early? I can’t remember the last time I was so riveted by a narrative yet so irritated in its telling. I absolutely urge you to seek this out on Netflix. Just don’t blame me when you throw your remote at the screen.