Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our December Author: Jenny Erpenbeck

This month we are reading a short but rich novel, Visitation, by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. The video above attempts to visualize the impressionistic style of the novel in which ordinary domesticity is repeatedly swept away by historical events as the author chronicles the life of a vacation home.  (I'm a bit murky on the film's origins, but I love when novels inspire artistic responses.)

As with many of the works in translation that we read, it's a bit difficult to find supplemental material in English. She has a new novel out in translation, The End of Days, so as she becomes better known we may be able to find additional resources.

A couple of video interviews are available, one from Boston University with her translator Susan Bernofsky  Start around the 30 minute mark to hear her discuss how much historical research went into the work as well as some biographical details. In a panel discussion from the Center for Fiction she also gives a good overview of the relationship between the intimacy of the places we call home and the sweep of history.

Here are some print interviews worth exploring to learn more: 

The Jenny Erpenbeck Interview | Quarterly Conversation
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?  
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.
Focus on Literature - Goethe-Institut
If in the course of your life you’ve spent a lot of time in a place, in a street, in a city, at some point that tilts and time itself becomes something like home. At some instant it suddenly gains a great deal of weight and this weight then holds you fast to the place.
Finally, this Paris Review essay, Homesick for Sadness, seems to throw light on the inspiration for this book as well as Erpenbeck's experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
When my son and I are in the country in the summer, sometimes we roam around, crawling under fences that have been blown over and knocked full of holes to access vacant lots once used for company holidays. We open the doors of empty bungalows; they aren’t even locked. We gaze at the carefully folded wool blankets at the foot of the bunk beds, the curtains that were neatly drawn shut before some long-ago departure, and the Mitropa coffee cups that someone washed and put away in the kitchen cabinet twenty-five years ago. Without saying anything, he and I gaze at all these things that have been preserved unchanged, as if by a magic spell, ever since the last Socialist vacationers spent their holidays here—just before their companies were phased out at the beginning of the nineties, transforming an absence that was to last only two days into an absence forever.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our November Author: Kai Bird

This month we are reading Kai Bird's memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978.  Bird's personal website will give you more info on his other books and articles. Be sure to check out the slideshow for photos relevant to Crossing.

The video clip above is from a C-Span discussion of the book. The full interview can be found here and provides a good overview of the book. This interview Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD presentation is also good.  Shorter interviews are available from NPRWNYC and
Open Source.

Learn more about Amnesty International's concerns in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories here including the action on the Israel/Hamas ceasefire.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Our September Author: Gilbert King

This month we journeyed back in time to read Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New Americathe Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King detailing the case of four African-Americans falsely accused of rape in the early 1950's. I found the book to have tremendous relevance to our contemporary headlines regarding police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct. In addition to the engaging presence of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the story has many compelling characters, so it's not surprising to learn that film rights have been sold and a screenplay is being written. Let the casting speculation begin!

You can get to know Gilbert King via his personal website and Facebook page, where he regularly shares articles that reflect how the themes of the book still resonate today. For a short synopsis of the case, see this "Real History" segment.  For a longer introduction, the Miller Center has a good video and audio interview. If you like podcasts, The Drunken Odyssey also has an interview, My personal favorite though, and a good one if you've already read the book and aren't looking to recap the details, is this free-flowing conversation between King and novelist Maaza Mengiste (someone we will will surely read at some point) from New York University. It's just great to see two seemingly very different writers find so much in common.

King's previous book looks like it would be of interest to our Loyal Readers as well. The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South details the botched electrocution of a seventeen-year-old Louisiana boy. In light of more recent botched executions, King wrote a compelling op-ed for the New York Times about the case. Noting that both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas cited the Francis case in opinions regarding execution protocols, King wrote,
And 60 years after two drunken executioners disregarded the tortured screams of a teenage boy named Willie Francis, the Supreme Court continues to do so.
Sounds like Willie Francis is a must-read for all death penalty abolitionists.

I'm sure our Pasadena Readers with loyalties to NASA will enjoy learning that King is involved in the writing of a forthcoming series called Unravelling the Cosmos involving what sounds like a lot of JPL-generated imagery. King also writes for the Smithsonian on a variety of topics. Here's a short article about astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Finally, reading this book reminded me that Laurence Fishburne did a one-man show Thurgood, about Thurgood Marshall a few years back which was made into an HBO film. This book really whet my appetite for learning more about this important historical figure and the film sounds like a fun place to start to learn more.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Grab a Hunk of Lightning: Dorothea Lange on PBS

Save the date! PBS American Masters will premier Grab a Hunk of Lightning, a documentary about photographer Dorothea Lange on Friday August 29.  The film is directed and narrated by her granddaughter, an award-winning cinematographer.

Earlier this year, our Loyal Readers enjoyed reading Marissa Silver's Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photo. This looks like a great opportunity to learn more about this great artist through an intimate take on her life and work.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For September: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

Next month please join us in reading Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America  The book was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. I am really looking forward to exploring the relevance of this historical incident in light of today's headlines regarding police brutality and race relations. In fact, if you are a fan of Slate's Political Gabfest, you know that Yale Law professor, James Forman recommended Devil in the Grove this week for that very reason! Start reading now and mark your calendar for our September 21st discussion!
Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in an explosive and deadly case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life. 
In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor. To maintain order and profits, they turned to Willis V. McCall, a violent sheriff who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old Groveland girl cried rape, McCall was fast on the trail of four young blacks who dared to envision a future for themselves beyond the citrus groves. By day’s end, the Ku Klux Klan had rolled into town, burning the homes of blacks to the ground and chasing hundreds into the swamps, hell-bent on lynching the young men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.” 
And so began the chain of events that would bring Thurgood Marshall, the man known as “Mr. Civil Rights,” into the deadly fray. Associates thought it was suicidal for him to wade into the “Florida Terror” at a time when he was irreplaceable to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but the lawyer would not shrink from the fight—not after the Klan had murdered one of Marshall’s NAACP associates involved with the case and Marshall had endured continual threats that he would be next. 
Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI’s unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader, setting his rich and driving narrative against the heroic backdrop of a case that U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson decried as “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Our August Author: Andrey Kurkov

This month we are having fun with Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov's book Death and the Penguin, a dark humorous novel set in post-Soviet Kiev.

A couple of good places to get acquainted with Kurkov are this Guardian profile with intriguing details such as,
It was Kurkov's hobby of collecting cactuses – "I had about 1,500 at the peak of it" – that led him to an interest in languages, starting with botanical Latin.
Or this Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview which relates the plot of his children's book The Adventures of Baby Vacuum Cleaner Gosha, among other biographical insights. And while we are on focused on the quirky, Kurkov discusses penguins here.  Although this video interview from the Wilson Center is about a different book, it contains some good insights into his writing process.

Bearing in mind that Death and the Penguin was published in 1996 so lacks some relevancy to more recent events in Ukraine, here are some links relating to the current situation:

Kurkov's Facebook page is a great place to get his take on current events.  He also wrote an article for The Guardian in March: Why I stayed as the crisis in Ukraine flared,
Another morning without war. It is horrifying to think that tomorrow or the day after we may not be able to say that.
Also worth a look in this vein is this interview from Sampsonia Way. I know the endangered journalists in the novel brought to mind Anna Politkovskaya for me. Kurkov has had a taste of this himself,
After Ukraine’s independence, I was openly followed for three months in 2001, after the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. I was followed by security officers who wanted to put psychological pressure on me because I was writing too much about the murder for the international press. I was also attacked by the government media syndicate.
As it happens, Kurkov just published his journal of the recent protests, Ukraine Diaries last month, so if you are looking for some street level insight into what's going on, this would be a great follow-up.

Ukraine Diaries is acclaimed writer Andrey Kurkov's first-hand account of the ongoing crisis in his country. From his flat in Kiev, just five hundred yards from Independence Square, Kurkov can smell the burning barricades and hear the sounds of grenades and gunshot. Kurkov's diaries begin on the first day of the pro-European protests in November, and describe the violent clashes in the Maidan, the impeachment of Yanukovcyh, Russia's annexation of Crimea and the separatist uprisings in the east of Ukraine. Going beyond the headlines, they give vivid insight into what it's like to live through - and try to make sense of - times of intense political unrest.   

Finally, a bonus link: New Yorker photograpner David Monteleone's slideshow of Revolutionary Relics from the Ukrainian protests.

Monday, May 19, 2014

More Transoceanic Zen

Bottle from Kirsten Lepore on Vimeo.

While we are still enjoying the warm afterglow of our discussion of Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, I thought I'd share the wonderful animated video above, about a transoceanic conversation with a very Zen ending!

And on the subject of strange tales of lost and found objects and impossible journeys, I'd like to recommend Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn. It's a story that meanders along exploring children's books, toy factories, container ships and ocean science among other topics. I got bogged down occasionally in the author's personal story, but overall, I learned a lot and enjoyed the trip.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Our May Author: Ruth Ozeki

This month we are reading, Ruth Ozeki's multiple award-winning novel, A Tale for the Time Being. The book concerns a Japanese girl named Nao and a struggling North American novelist, Ruth, and the accidental connection that is made between the two by the teen's diary. The narrative spins out to explore themes such as suicide and bullying, the Fukushima tsunami, Alzheimer's and Zen practice, to name just a few. Most of all I liked the empathetic connection over space and time formed by Ruth's reading of Nao's journal and Ruth's desire to act on her concerns. It felt very much like what we try to experience with every book we read and discuss here at Rights Readers-- trying to establish greater empathy with distant cultures and better ground our activist impulses.

To help you learn more about the author and the book, Ozeki has a great website to browse called Ozekiland. The video above from her publisher gives a concise summary of some of the sources and themes of this very layered narrative.

Here's a good print interview to check out: The Shores of My Imagination: A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki » Public Libraries Online Sample:
PL: As a reader you get so caught up in the Ruth version of the story and the fates of characters that might not exist. 
RO: And I was doing that on purpose. I was very much playing with what’s real and what’s not real. And how do we experience reality, how do we experience the gradations of what’s real and what’s not real? And also how do we experience uncertainty? Having planted the seed of uncertainty, it’s always going to be there vibrating in the background. 
And the book is about not knowing, too. Once again, I go back to the tsunami and the thousands of people who were washed out to sea. And we don’t know. There’s so much that we don’t know. 
I look at the Ruth section of the book as being my failed memoir. Because in reality I was thinking about writing a memoir, in fact I was working on a memoir—
In a Granta Podcast, Ozeki talks about Tale and an essay she wrote for the publication about her grandfather and a mysterious photograph she has of him and about the ways she feels linked to him across time-- themes that are obviously similar to the novel. She also wrote a short piece for Shambala Sun, Nothing is Wasted, about her grandmother's death that is worth a look as well.
The Missouri Review (for literary insight) and Oregon Public Radio (where she talks about caring for her aging mother and her Zen practice) podcasts are both worth a listen. Both interviews are also downloadable via iTunes.  On the Ozekiland blog, be sure to checkout the post On Zen Nuns & Novelists about Jakucho Setouchi, the inspiration for the character of Old Jiko. Here's a video of the activist nun talking about empowering the elderly and Japan Times reports on her anti-nuclear hunger strike.

Finally, Nineteen Questions puts some interesting queries to the author and our resident language buffs will appreciate this one:
With your bicultural background, please explain something in Japanese that is hard to translate into English.

I think kotodama (literally word- spirit/ soul) is one of those beautiful concepts and ideas that we just don’t have a word for in English. It is a uniquely Japanese notion, and it is very beautiful. Anyone who loves language has a sense that there is a spirit in language. Words have a spirit in them, but we don’t identify it as such in English.
Ozeki's sensitive and playful use of multiple languages is certainly one of the joys of reading this novel. Visit nineteenquestions for her full explanation of this Japanese term.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Fans Put Their Spin on Ozeki Novel

This month's novel, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a book about the connection between a North American novelist and a Japanese teen, has sparked some creativity from it's many fans, such as the little animation above about the passage from the book describing the Pacific gyres. It's a great example of how this book makes globe-spanning concepts feel intimate.

In the video below you will find another gyre-like spin, a song inspired by the book, written and performed by a group of young British book enthusiasts. Fun!

Finally, to help you get a little more grounded, you might want to have Ruth Ozeki herself lead you in a Zen meditation.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Our January Author: Vaddey Ratner

This month we are reading Vaddey Ratner's novel of hope and survival during the Cambodian genocide, In the Shadow of the Banyan. Visit Ratner's website to learn more about her, especially the media page, where you can listen to a short speech she gave to the United Nations Association and another she gave at the PEN/Faulkner award ceremony in which she articulates her commitment to human rights and free expression. Bonus points for her reference to Indonesian writer Pramoedya Anata Toer who we enjoyed reading some time ago! Ratner answers questions from a university class studying human rights in ▶this video, but unfortunately, the audio is poor quality. A few other interviews worth a look:

Her voice breaking, she says she, like Raami, feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. "So I wrote this book to make him live again, and to make him live forever."
Publisher's Weekly explores her influences, Elie Wiesel's Night and Rights Readers favorite Michael Ondaatje,
I felt a part of the spirit of those who died. I know some people see only death in that experience, but as a child I saw the desire to live. I wanted to capture that. Wiesel’s Night gave me a language for a story that lived in me that I hadn't yet learned to articulate.”
Many interesting insights on the creative process from The Writer,
To make it personal, to take it beyond the place I loved as a child and make it also a place my reader would love and care about, I needed to articulate it in the minutiae of a child’s daily connection to the place, a connection cultivated with little preconceived notion or judgment of the surroundings.
To bring the human rights discussion around to present-day Cambodia, please visit Amnesty International's Cambodia page where you can learn more about the crackdown by security forces on protesters resulting in at least four deaths earlier this month. Witness has citizen video of this serious incident. Be on the lookout for actions to follow!
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