Sunday, April 26, 2009

Minnesota Book Awards

I haven’t been to the Minnesota Book Awards since they were dropped by the Humanities Commission, taken over by the Friends of St. Paul Public Library, and turned into a celebrity event. But last year I worked with Margaret Hasse on the design and production of her book Milk & Tides, and when the book was nominated for an award the publisher, Norton Stillman, generously arranged for Hilary and I to attend the proceedings. By the time we arrived at the hotel, the main room was thronged with people, with a bar and food tables in the middle and the nominated authors arranged behind tables around the edges of the room. We said Hi to Margaret and to William Kent Krueger, who was right next to her. (A few weeks ago I made a guest appearance on Kent’s cable TV show to discuss book design, and he also did a reading recently at Hilary’s library, so he’s practically an old friend.) We also chatted with Julie Kramer, the first-time author of Stalking Susan, who aced Kent out for the genre award later that might.

I ran into artist Randy Sholes and we discussed the look of a recently-published book he and I had worked on, Jill Breckenridge’s The Gravity of Flesh. Over the dregs of the grilled vegetables I mentioned to Louise Erdrich how much I had enjoyed her little book on Lake of the Woods (old news to her) and soon thereafter we ran into Peg Meier. We discussed the films we’d seen at the film festival (no overlap), and she informed us that the Minnesota Historical Society had recently cut its frontlist from 37 to 20 books, with her children’s history being one of those that got the ax. She asked me if I was still putting out a paper edition of Macaroni, and I agreed to put her back on the subscription list.

Hilary ran into a friend who’d recently lost her job as Customer Relations Manager during a Barnes and Noble cutback. Later we chatted with Debbie Wright, a very old friend whom we hadn’t seen in a decade at least, and we reminsced about weddings and squash matches of long ago. She’s teaching sixth grade now, and, as she puts it with a sardonic laugh, “The kids are getting dumber and lazier every year.”

But although the economic and social trends seemed bad all the way around, the atmosphere in the ballroom was festive, and that mood continued once we wandered in to attend the ceremony itself. Margaret lost out to Heid Erdrich in the poetry division, alas, though in her acceptance speech Heid informed to audience that she’d already lost three times already. Margaret has now lost out twice. Her time will come. On the other hand, there is so much life and experience in even one book of poems, I find it remarkable that poets like Margaret keep on producing material.

Her wonderful book aside, I had read only a small part of one of the 32 finalists—Landscapes of Minnesota. Several of the winners were entirely unknown to me, including Kao Kalia Yang, whose Hmong memoir, The Latecomer, won both the memoir and the People’s Choice awards.

In their acceptance speeches the winners turned our attention repeatedly to the robust book community the Twin Cities sustains, with its book arts center, library programs, bookstores, small presses, and talented authors and illustrators. Yes, books are wonderful. And the people who write, publish, and read them are pretty neat too.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Int'l Film Festival 2

White Night Wedding

It’s a type of greatness we come upon too seldom—light humor filled with wisdom and affection. Chekhov’s works often have this quality, and the Icelandic film White Night Wedding, based on the Russian playwright’s seldom-performed Ivanov, brings that same combination of virtues to the screen with true bravura. The landscapes are stunning, the lighting is beautiful, the characters are charming and idiosyncratic, the pacing is deft, and even the most absurd bits of physical humor—sinking rowboats and golf balls in the graveyard—ring true.

At the core of the farce, though not its most compelling character, is Jon, a handsome if slightly graying professor of literature. In the opening scene he’s wrapping up a complex and perhaps even evasive lecture on the ethical stance exemplified by a literary character the class has been studying—an analysis with which Jon himself seems a bit bored. One of his young female students challenges him on the point—Is life really that complicated?—and the scene is set.
Jon’s wife is an artist, a bit high-strung and moody, taking medication for we know not what. She implores her husband to pay more attention to her, and the couple agree to return to the island where she grew up to start afresh.

As it happens, Thora, the student who had spoken up in class, is also from that island, and her parents own its only pub and general store.

A one-year time shift brings us to the impending May-December wedding of Jon and Thora. In a series of flashbacks we learn piece by piece what happened to Jon’s wife. That strand of the tale is a dark one, and it gives the film a bitter edge; in fact, we spend much of the film wondering if Jon is simply a cad. But the cast of secondary characters make a remarkable ensemble of eccentrics, and they buoy the plot from the moment we arrive on the island. Among them are the island’s premier handyman and entrepreneur, who enlists Jon’s help in a wild scheme to lure tourists to the island with a golf course; Thora’s mother, a battle-ax who beheads puffins with relish and rubs everyone the wrong way; Thora’s father, a former opera singer and a bear of a man who is kindness itself; the hapless local priest, so deeply unloved that even his own hair has fallen out in an effort to escape; Jon’s obese alcoholic buddy who has arrived from the mainland to play the organ at the wedding; and Thora’s somewhat “slow” sister, who minds the store. Most of the film takes place in the open air, and many bottles of wine are consumed in the course of the final twenty-four hours before the nuptials are to take place.

With White Night Wedding, director Baltasar Kormakur has crafted a light but almost seamless masterpiece on the order of Nikolai Mikhalkov’s Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, or, (dare I say it?) The Rule of the Game.


A slow-moving tale from Poland about a young boy who has never met his father, but carries a photograph in his pocket that convinces him that the man appears at the railroad station frequently. His much older sister denies it, though her behavior suggests it’s true. Much of the film is devoted to incidental events involving a flock of local pigeons and the sister’s attempts to learn Italian and get a job with the local multi-national firm, which are undermined repeatedly by her tag-along brother’s meddling. The boy himself becomes obsessed with the man on the platform, and attempts to take matters into his own hands. Lots of silences in this dreamy but intriguing work.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Int’l Film Festival

We wandered down to the Mississippi on Sunday morning, planning to grab a bit at Kikugawa and then see a film or two at the festival. The restaurant was closed but the nearby Astor Café was open. There were couples sitting here and there scanning their festival schedules, and a man walked past our table with a smile so open that I almost asked him to join us. I wish I had. Turns out it was Toshifumi Matsushita, the director of Pachamama, the first film we saw. Matsushita (who studied law in Japan before turning to films) has spent the last ten years making movies about indigenous musical traditions.

Pachamama (which means Earthmother) tells the story of a young boy who lives with his family on a salt desert in Bolivia. The first half of the film allows us to settle into the rhythms of life in the village and on the distant salt fields. In the second half, we follow the main character and his father, along with other villagers and a herd of llamas, up into the mountains to distribute the salt they’ve been cutting into blocks all year. There are a few dramatic moments and one or two surreal sequences involving masks and feathered costumes and dancing—just enough to vary the pace and bring us even closer to the lives of these kind and simple people. Near the end of the film the caravan arrives at a mountain town on the eve of its harvest festival, giving us a remarkable peek at a place and a way of life most of us will never view first-hand.

Matsushita spoke after the film, but we were obliged to rush to the theater next-door, where Carolos Saura’s latest film, Fado, was being screened. It shares with Saura’s earlier productions, Flamenco and Iberia, the use of stage sets, mirrors, dancers, and famous singers who (as usual) aren’t identified until the final credits.

Fado, as you probably know, is a Portuguese musical style characterized by melancholy ballads sung to the twittery accompaniment of the Portuguese guitar (a sort of oversized mandolin). Bouncy up-tempo numbers offer variety from time to time, though they draw upon the same vocal inflections and chord progressions. Considered all in all, fado is far less diverse and intense than flamenco, but it can be subtle and expressive in its own way, and Saura has succeeded in making an immensely satisfying film within its somewhat narrow range of wistful emotion.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to the performers themselves, many of whom I had never heard of. I recognized the reigning queen of fado, Mariza, the young back Cape Verdean diva Lura, and the flamenco cantor Miguel Poveda. Amália Rodrigues (who did more than anyone to put fado on the map during her 40-year career) appears in films clips, as do other stars. Near the end of the film a traditional fado club date is re-inacted, with various singers standing up from their tables to sing a few verses. The instrumental numbers are also first-rate, as is the fado hip-hop number. I left the theater in a very happy mood, saying to myself, “Gee, I guess I like fado more than I thought I did.”

We were in the mood for some Spanish bocquerones (deep-fried vinegar-cured anchovies) but such dishes not being available hereabouts, the smelt and calamari at the nearby Red Stag Inn served as a fitting substitute. Thus refreshed, we returned to St. Anthony Main for round three—a Lebanese film called One Man Village.

Though sketchier in technique and a more roundabout in development, this little gem explores the life of the only man remaining in a mountain village that once boasted forty-three families. Semaan had loved his family’s cattle as a youth, and has abandoned a career in the city to return to his childhood haunts along with five cows that he refers to affectionately by name and milks daily. Life is peaceful and simple, though various relatives and former neighbors return from time to time to keep the orchards in shape and enjoy the summer air high above the city.

In the course of interviews with Semaan and his visitors, we learn a little about why everyone left. It was during the Israeli invasion of 1982, though no one wants to talk about it much. We also learn why Semaan never married, how his parents died; and perhaps we even learn something about how he can remain satisfied with such a simple and apparently lonely life in an abandoned village. In fact, watching the film, I felt that I was back in Delphi or the Alpujarras. And that’s a nice feeling.

We resisted the temptation to join the line that was waiting outside the screening room next door to see a film about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, returning home after a fairly long and stimulating day to read about Lebanon’s troubled history in Rashid Khalidi’s recent book Sowing Crisis.

But the film festival is just beginning.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tax Time

April 15. One of the most distinctive days of the year. There is something beautiful about a society that calls upon its citizens to voluntarily calculate how much money they owe and send it in—and beyond that, to keep the records of their financial affairs for seven years.

I have always done the family taxes, and I like to keep it simple. If we end up giving a little more than absolutely necessary, it’s a small price to pay for the peace and security, the national parks and the fine schools, the FBI and the social security, the medical research and the Medicare and all the rest.

One of the pages of the federal tax book that’s seldom read, I suspect, is page 91, where they tell you what they spend the money on. I note that 66 percent of the national budget is devoted to social programs. This includes programs for retirees, Medicaid, food stamps, temporary assistance, education, the environment, farm support, unemployment compensation, assisted housing, the waiters at Mammoth Springs Lodge, and other fine services. Twenty percent has been spent on keeping our armed forces modern and funding the Global War on Terrorism and “other national defense activities.” Only 1 percent was spent on international assistance and diplomacy combined, which underscores the old adage, “Talk is cheap.”

I always feel good when the taxes have been filed. It’s like the start of a new life. We know a little better where we stand.

Lots of people are feeling they’re not quite so well off as they used to be, and many are really wondering how they’re going to make ends meet. A recent Homeland Security report warned that right-wing extremist groups have been gaining adherents at an alarming rate, due to the economy’s downturn, and that seems like a plausible turn of events to me. But conservative groups have been clamoring for a retraction. I think the time has come for the expression “conservative knee-jerk reaction” to gain wider currency.

That will probably never happen, because Democrats are far less likely than Republicans to resort to such dumbing-down slogans.

Oh the other hand, the Democaratic slogan “Hope is on the Way” is perhaps the worst of all time. With Obama, we feel, better results are on the way. Even Homeland Security suddenly seems like a good idea.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

National Poetry Month

April is national poetry month. And these first few days of April also mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first examination of the heavens with a telescope. What a remarkable experience that must have been! Suddenly to see the shadowy edges of craters on the moon and canals on Mars! Even today, when you consider the fact that there’s a huge ball of dust and dirt circling the earth, and an even larger one off in the distance (to put it mildly) warming us with its thermonuclear heat—when you stop to think about it, it’s really quite remarkable.

And then you see the fuzzy tips of the magnolia tree opening in response to the increasing light, and the mallards bobbing their heads in a timeless mating ritual.

We passed two mallards engaging in this activity on the south end of Lake Harriet yesterday. The lake is still largely covered with ice, though it’s getting pretty gray and thin. A hundred yards down the way we spotted a second mallard—a male—floating idly in the water a few feet some shore, all by himself. I knew just what he was thinking. The same thing Hank Williams was thinking when he wrote:

Somebody else stood by your side,
And he looked so satisfied,
I can’t help it, if I’m still in love with you.

Poetry erupts, perhaps, when we stop to think about it. The awesomeness of the universe or the painfulness of our own loneliness and dejection. In either case it’s a matter of sizing up a situation in which we stand apart yet recognize something very valuable, very beautiful, lying just beyond our reach. This is an art worth cultivating, I think. It gives us pleasure, it gives us perspective, it allays our anxieties—and it doesn’t cost anything.

I was thumbing through a book of poems this afternoon by a Kashimi-American poet named Agha Shahid Ali. Though they often had the clear simple voice and short sentences that I like, I was not entirely enthralled by them. Too many moons and deserts and long phone calls home to the folks in the mountains ten thousand miles away, perhaps. But a remark in the introduction did strike my fancy. When asked what his philosophy was, Ali once replied, “I don’t have a philosophy, I have a temperament.”