Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ian Frazier, Sherman Alexie, Geoff Dyer

In the aftermath of the announcement Wednesday that two writers who call Minneapolis home had won National Book Awards—that’s half the total—local journalists were eager to riff on the vibrancy of the local literary scene. And with good reason. There always seems to be something going on hereabouts in the line of readings, tweet-ups, and other arts-related events, sponsored by various local alliances, bookstores, and publications. Of course, the correlation itself is a little shaky; Louise Erdrich didn’t learn to write as well as she does by going to literary events. All the same, Twin Citians can be thankful for a seemingly endless stream of opportunities to listen to, and rub shoulders with, literary and cultural luminaries—both visitors and home-grown talent.

My thoughts were drifting in this direction on Sunday afternoon, a few days before the awards were announced, as I sat in a plastic folding chair and watched Garrison Keillor wander forlornly into Common Good Books (which he owns) dragging a small black carry-on bag behind him. I was among perhaps sixty people who’d gathered in an open space in the center of the store to hear Ian Frazier read from his new book, The Cursing Mommy. During his introductory comments Keillor remarked that “very funny people often don’t like to be referred to as ‘very funny’ … so I’ll say no more about that.” He went on to draw attention to Frazier’s substantial book about Siberia, which “has not yet found its audience.”

Frazier, in turn, began his intro by remarking that he spent a lot of time traveling to small towns, where he marveled again and again on how great Keillor’s influence has been on that hue of the American demographic spectrum. “These people know they like living in small towns, but Garrision has made it possible for them to actually be proud of that fact.”

Once he got into the reading, Frazier was very funny indeed, bringing to life the personality of the cursing mommy in ways the printed word can only hint at. During the question-and-answer period, he talked a lot about growing up in Ohio, and characterized his latest literary creation as “a cross between Sylvia Plath and Phyllis Diller.”

It snowed during the night, and the next morning Hilary and I headed up to Maple Grove to see the new nature center at Elm Creek Regional Park. That’s another outstanding municipal amenity we Twin Citians have long appreciated—all the green and wild open spaces.The new nature center proved to be very fine and airy, adding some sparkle to a creek-bed that can sometimes seem a little dour and skanky.

Snow on the ground affects your mood in subtle ways; it tends to make you more withdrawn, and more poetic. Maybe you end up reading more? In her Star-Tribune interview, Erdrich remarked, "People elsewhere think that it's cold and desolate around these parts, but that cold is good for literacy and reading and culture."

Inspired by the Frazier reading, we went downtown that evening  to hear Sherman Alexie speak at Plymouth Congregational Church. The church sponsors a fine “literary witnesses” program, and Alexie drew such a large crowd they had to set up chairs in another part of the building to manage the overflow. The disparity between the Frazier crowd and the Alexie crowd seemed a little odd to me. Then again, aside from being a literary and a nature capital, Minneapolis is also considered the urban capital of America’s Native American population.

Alexie himself, who’s from Spokane, WA, admitted as much, and to underscore the point he added, “I think every Indian in America has gotten laid in Minneapolis at one time or another.”

Such was Alexie’s monologue—raw, funny, antagonistic and affectionate by turns, droll, insightful, intense. Once again, the human voice and personality took us beyond anything to be found on the printed page. His comic timing was superb, his improvisational genius remarkable. He delivered an extemporaneous monologue about house fires (he’s been in three or four) and Claude Van Damme movies that deserves a place in the Library of Congress.  At the root of it all there was clearly a troubled soul who’s learned to modulate and temper his emotions, though he's no where near finished working through them.

It occurred to me later than Alexie has a lot in common with Richard Pryor. (And if you haven’t seen Richard Pryor Live, you should. Might as well see Smoke Signals again, too, while you’re at it.)

Two days later we drove across town to my home town, Mahtomedi, to see the premier of The Girl from Birch Creek, a documentary about Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl. Her son Tim has been a very good friend of mine for a third of a century at least, and I’ve known Rosalie as a mom and friend for just as long. The film brought out aspects of her early life in Kansas that I’d never heard before, and though its one-hour length made it difficult to touch on every aspect of her background and character, what did shine through was her simple decency, commitment to helping others, and dedication to fairness…and also Rosalie’s poetic streak. It isn’t often that you get to hear a Supreme Court justice sing a hymn a capella or recite a poem she’s written.

Thursday was Jazz-and-Pie Night. For several years we’ve been gathering once a month in Edina at the condo of Hilary’s parents, Gene and Dorothy, to listen to cuts from our favorite jazz albums. Everyone brings a few tracks and gives a little speech about why they brought a particular number before putting it on; then we sit quietly and listen, interjecting an appreciative comment from time to time about the drummer, perhaps, or the tone of the reedman who’s currently at the mike.

Gene often brings Big Band numbers or jazz vocals, Hilary’s brother Paul is a fan of Happy Apple, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau, and brother Jeff has made an effort to introduce us to young Turks such as Gerald Clayton and William Smith III, though his selections range from Weather Report to the Wailin’ Jennies. Yet each gathering produces quite a few surprises, and an added source of amusement is the habit we’ve gotten into of trying to devise a line of reasoning connecting the track previously played with the one we’re about to put on.

Thursday’s playlist was a little skewed by the fact that Jeff couldn’t make it and the CDs Paul brought wouldn’t play because he’d burned them just that day and used the wrong pen to write the names on them; the lettering had somehow bled through to the other side. All the same, we ran through a very interesting “set” that included several numbers by songstress Anita O’Day; a live performance by Sonny Rollins of  "You Are Too Beautiful"; the Maria Schneider Orchestra (coming to town soon) doing “Over the Rainbow”; a 1955 rendition of “Out of Nowhere” by Coleman Hawkins; Gerry Mulligan coursing through "Bippity, Boppity"; Paul Desmond and Jim Hall performing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”; and Cannonball Adderley loping through a sweet version of one of my favorite songs, “I Can’t Get Started (with You).”

Then we all went into the kitchen to sample Dorothy’s pumpkin pie.

Culture Week was brought to a fitting conclusion last night at the downtown Minneapolis Library where Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae interviewed English essayist (and novelist) Geoff Dyer, author most recently of a collection titled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.

Before the show we indulged in a plate of sashimi and some Happy Hour tempura at Origami, an intimate restaurant nestled in the bosom of the Federal Reserve Building a few blocks from the library. We arrived at the event—a fantastic building at night—and secured two seats in the mid-sized auditorium before rounding off our meal with a napkin-full of complimentary cookies from the table outside.

At that point I noticed that a party was underway down the hall, and in the best Dyeresque gate-crashing spirit we went down to see what we could see. As I had suspected, it was a pre-reading soiree sponsored by Graywolf Press. There was Geoff, of course, assuming a conversational pose in front of the water cooler just beyond the string duo as he listened to one of the Graywolf guests expound a theory of seemingly elaborate proportions.  We got no further into the room, and hadn’t intended to.

The conversation in the auditorium was top-flight. Geoff read one essay (in which he ends up comparing the world of haute couture to Amazonian fertility rites) but mostly talked about his approach to writing an essay, how America differs from England, and how he chooses his themes—or how they choose him. There were few surprises but plenty of well-fashioned sentences and off-the-cuff humor.

I started off the Q & A myself, remarking that I’d enjoyed his essay on W.S. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. I went on to say that after reading it, I began to notice that Dyer himself sometimes uses the circular, repetitive, Bernhard style. “Do you actually like Bernhard? Do you consider him an influence?”

Dyer paused for a second, then replied sheepishly, “Guilty as charged.” He extolled Bernhard’s work, referred to the famous blurb about its affinities with Broch and Musil, and admitted that the opening passages of his book on D.H. Lawrence had been directly inspired by Bernhard’s novel Concrete

This strikes me as interesting because Dyer and Bernhard are temperamentally quite dissimilar. Bernhard is the ultimate crank, and no one will enjoy reading his work who fails to see that his extreme misanthropy is supposed to be funny—though he’s being perfectly serious, too. Dyer, on the other hand, though also quite serious most of the time, in the end just wants to have fun. And share that fun with us.

Maybe it all boils down to the same thing in the end. But the cool thing about literature is that it isn’t a process of boiling down, so much as it’s a process of building up. Regional culture, too.

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