IU’s Summer Festival of the Arts, Running through August

◆ by Will Healey

Summer is here, and so is IU’s Summer Festival of the Arts. Since 2011, the festival has been the university’s way of showcasing all of the music, cinema, theatre, and art happenings on campus over the summer. That’s a good thing according to Brady Miller, Director of Special and Academic Events at IU, because there’s a lot going on.

“It’s often easy to think of a college campus as only being busy nine months out of the year, but that’s really not true,” Miller says. “Community members or visitors can look at the calendar for the festival and realize there is an opportunity to visit campus and experience the arts virtually every day from May through August.”

The festival also serves a greater function than merely consolidating IU’s arts into a convenient calendar. According to Miller, it helps campus arts organizations promote their events, as well as provide an atmosphere of collaboration and cross-promotion between organizations. It also helps visitors to campus plan trips.

“If someone were already planning to come to campus to visit the IU Art Museum, for example, they might decide to also stop and visit the Mathers Museum or the gallery at the Kinsey Institute,” Miller says. “Similarly, if a person had tickets to a theater performance, they may decide to come to campus a bit earlier and see the current exhibit of rare books on display at the nearby Lilly Library.”

The events, too numerous to catalog here, will keep even the most ardent patrons busy. There’s the Indiana Festival Theatre’s production of the Stephen Schwartz classic, Godspell, which sets parables from the Gospel of Matthew to modern music styles like rock & roll, pop, R&B, ragtime and rap. The cast features B.F.A students in the IU Musical Theatre program, and the production runs June 9-29 in the Wells-Metz Theatre.

The IU Cinema will continue to be the place in Bloomington to see quality arthouse films- Jon Favreau’s acclaimed new culinary comedy, Chef, will run June 13-14. Only Lovers Left Alive, the new film from maverick director Jim Jarmusch which tells the centuries-spanning love story of two vampires in Jarmusch’s unique way, runs June 26-28. And Richard Linklater’s coming-of age time capsule film, Boyhood, shot over twelve years with the same cast, will run August 14-16.

There are several art shows running through the summer, too. There’s the Creative Minds exhibition, running through September 12 at the Kinsey Institute, which features work produced by artists whose primary professions are as sex researchers, physicians or scientists. The IU Art Museum is running a special exhibition of Matisse’s Jazz, a collection of twenty color stencil prints and more than thirty other works by the artist, through June 28. And Spiritualists, Sorcerers and Stage Magicians: Magic and the Supernatural at the Lilly Library will offer a glimpse into how views of the occult and the supernatural have endured through the ages (see image at the top of this post). Among the wide array of texts in the exhibition is a correspondence between book collector Montgomery Evans and famed occultist Aleister Crowley.

Music lovers will be satiated by a litany of musical performances both in and out of doors, among them the Jazz in July program at the IU Art Museum, the 30th Anniversary Concert for the IU Summer String Academy, the Summer Philharmonic Performance at the Musical Arts Center on June 28.

There are also specific events geared toward family and children: in late June and early July the Indiana Festival Theatre will perform School House Rock Live!, the classic educational show featuring the classic songs Just a Bill, and Conjunction, Junction. The Mathers Museum of World Cultures is also running a mask-making event on June 9 that should be especially fun for kids.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of quality arts programming in Bloomington this summer. Brady Miller encourages people to attend, and he himself plans on taking in many of the events.

“It seems every time I look at the calendar, I come across something I hadn’t seen before and gets me excited, whether that’s a film at the IU Cinema, a concert with the Jacobs School, or one of the new gallery displays opening this summer,” Miller said. Go to the Summer Arts Festival website for a full calendar of events.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Enrique’s Journey

Sonia Nazario’s Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother ● by Justin Chandler

[Sonia Nazario’s appearance April 16 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is sponsored by the IU School of Journalism Speaker Series.]

In Honduras, and throughout Central America, the United States is referred to as El Norte. There is promise and hope in this simple title, fittingly so because every year adults and youths in Central America chase after that hope, trying their hand at reaching El Norte. They leave behind their families, sometimes even their children. They face down bandits, dishonest smugglers, corrupt police, and the trains themselves—the cause of countless deaths and disfigurements.

When he was five, Enrique’s mother left him and his sister in Honduras, recognizing that the only way she could provide for her family was by immigrating illegally into the States, finding work, and sending money back.

Sonia Nazario’s book, Enrique’s Journey, goes to great lengths to tell Enrique’s story. For more than twenty years Nazario has reported on social issues ranging from hunger, immigration, and drug addiction, but her work here is not merely a retelling but a reliving of Enrique’s journey; Nazario herself took the same journey as Enrique, retracing his steps in order to retell his story.

Book Cover

Nazario’s initial reporting on Enrique, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, won her the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2002. The book’s accompanying photographs by Don Bartletti won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. She will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The talk is part of the IU School of Journalism’s Speaker Series and is free and open to the public.

In part, the book deals with Enrique’s journey to understand his mother’s decision, but the greater journey is the one Enrique makes when, at 17, he decides to leave behind his pregnant partner, travel to the States, and reunite with a mother he hasn’t seen in twelve years. This journey is 1,600 miles, and is accomplished predominately through Enrique riding the tops of trains along what is called called El Tren de la Muerte (The Train of Death.)

[Image at the top of this post: Sonia Nazario riding a train through Mexico.]

It’s only on his eighth attempt (and in his seventh pair of shoes) that Enrique finally crosses the border into the United States. But what is truly incredible about Enrique’s journey is that he wasn’t alone in attempting it, that hundreds of thousands of Central Americans attempt to reach—often unsuccessfully—El Norte. Enrique’s Journey manages to not only tell Enrique’s story, but also the stories of so many of Enrique’s fellow travelers and those along the way who hinder or help their progress. The book captures so many facets of these lives, and in its less than 300 pages deals so thoroughly with issues of immigration, worker rights, family values, and the creation of identity, that at times Enrique’s story threatens to be lost in the larger scope of history and politics that informs it.

It’s a big risk, leaving Enrique behind for pages at a time to tell the reader about Padre Leo, the incredible priest who has turned his church into a shelter for the refugees—despite the wishes of half his congregation—and who allows Enrique to make the phone call that changes his life forever.

Nazario

Nazario

By the end of the book the risk is worth it. Enrique’s journey doesn’t end when he hops off his last train, and it doesn’t end when he finally accumulates enough money to get ferried across the border, or when his mother pays the ransom and his smugglers send him to North Carolina and he finally reunites with her. In truth, his journey is one that never ends. It is a journey that only truly begins with the recognition that the past and its trauma cannot be forgotten, that it must be faced before healing can take place.

Called “the adventure story of the twenty-first century,” Enrique’s journey and the journey of thousands of other Central American refugees is an odyssey that never ends, an odyssey to bridge not just those gaps between us created by time and space but by abandonment and resentment, drug addiction and depression, inequality and injustice. It’s a journey to mend despite all that has torn one’s life apart.

And it is a journey not just for Enrique and not just for those who travel on El Tren de la Muerte. It is everyone’s journey: those who work toward reconciliation, those who perpetuate the failures of the past, and even those who ignore the fact that history is happening.

It is happening, and it is happening to all of us. As Padre Leo tells his congregation (which include many Mexicans who are resentful of Central Americans migrating into their country in search of a better life) “they, too, were once migrants. Saint Joseph was a migrant. The Bible was written by migrants. Running off a migrant…is like turning against yourself.”

The Ryder ● March 2014

Poetry & Technology

Poetpalooza 2014 ● by Richard Taylor

[Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Indiana, will host Poetpalooza 2014: A Tri-State Poetry Summit, Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th, with hourly readings and signings by a score of nationally and regionally acclaimed poets. The poets laureate from Indiana and Kentucky are scheduled to appear. Featured independent publishers will be Dos Madres Press, of Ohio, and Broadstone Books, of Kentucky. Book launches by Ohio poet Michael Henson and Kentucky Poet Laureate emeritus Richard Taylor. Live music Friday evening and Saturday morning. Gallery exhibit of artworks by Richard Taylor. Community open mic poetry slam Saturday evening. 812-265-1800 or the Village Lights website for schedule and more information.]

Most poets have few illusions about what they do and don’t do. They are not, as Shelley once imagined, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because even the poetry that is most moving does not mobilize us into collective social action. But the best poets are witnesses to the daily phenomena we all experience and often ignore. They provide us with insights — a first step toward wisdom — that we seldom get elsewhere. The level at which poetry functions best is individuals speaking to individuals about common interests, about the condition of the spirit, the mystery of our being, the unspoken dialogue that goes on between each of us and the world. T.S. Eliot raised provocative questions about the levels of communication that each of us encounter daily: “How much knowledge is lost in mere information? How much wisdom is lost in mere knowledge?” Most of us have neglected these higher regions of communication. Instead, we are bombarded with data, with often irrelevant facts, with news that is news only for moments. If we tuned in only to wisdom, there would be little on television and the world-wide web to hold our attention.

[Image at the top of this post: Calliope — Greek muse of epic poetry.]

We live in three worlds — the natural world, the man-made world, and the world of mind and imagination. The natural world we know is a landscape of rivers and valleys, farmland and mountain hollows with areas of mixed deciduous hardwood forests that are among the wonders of eastern North America. Increasingly, this primal world, the necessary condition of our existence, is being replaced by our man-made world of shopping malls, urban sprawl, and asphalt. These changes have been made possible by an unprecedented application of technology — through computers, through gigantic earthmovers, and through internal combustion engines that permit us to live farther and farther from the places where we work and more and more dissociated from the places where we live. In the process, we are rapidly erasing the old divisions between town and country, the natural and synthetic, the “developed” and the wild. Increasingly, the world we witness is a secondhand world presented to us over satellite dishes and the world-wide web.

The word “technology” derives from the Greek word techne, which means “skill” or “art.” The word “poet” derives from another Greek word, poeta, meaning “maker,” and by extension, creator. Technology demonstrates our skills, our mastery of techniques to alter the physical world for human purpose, but it provides little nourishment for the spirit. Art, as Lexington, Kentucky writer Guy Davenport has said, is “the replacement of indifference with attention.” Art, or artifice, provides us with the means to reshape the world in our minds and hearts, to reconnect ourselves with not just the surfaces of the natural world but the pulse, the mysteries of life itself. At its best, poetry reclaims the natural world for us. It focuses our attention from our distracted lives and, at its best, transforms our sight to vision. It offers a means of interpreting both worlds, and often it imparts a wisdom that we won’t pick up on CNN or the evening news. As the poet Ezra Pound memorably said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

Poetry and other expressions of the imagination — fiction, the visual arts, drama, music, and dance — are one means by which we can re-connect ourselves with the natural world, the rhythms of the live around us. They are the means to reestablish linkages between the man-made world and the domain of wildlife and natural cycles that exists in precarious counterbalance with our own human destinies. The arts are one means to reunite us with our best selves in a more thoughtful relationship with the natural world. The third world of mind and imagination is in part the healthful connection all of us can make with the world of nature and the world we have made and are making, a world that is rapidly altering the balance between the human and the non-human, the subdivision and the ecosystems to which we are inextricably tied.

[Richard Taylor, Kentucky Poet Laureate (1999-2001) lives in Frankfort, Kentucky and owns Poor Richard’s Books. Author of eight collections of poetry, two novels, and several books relating to Kentucky history, he currently teaches creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington. His latest book of poetry, Rain Shadow will have its launch on April 11th at Poetpalooza 2014.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Lego Movie

by Adam Davis

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used at least since 1860. A hundred and fifty-four years later — and after being the moral of a great many works of literature and cinema, especially children’s and family cinema — the phrase might seem cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For example, The Lego Movie seemed destined by its very nature to be a one-joke film; a feature-length toy commercial passing itself off as a low-quality comedy where all the jokes essentially amounted to “ha, these people are minifigures and their world is made of Lego, isn’t that silly?” (for those not in the know, “minifigure is the Lego Group’s term for the small plastic people that come with sets of Lego pieces). That’s not to say that such jokes aren’t present, that they aren’t funny, or that the Lego Group isn’t capitalizing of the film’s success, but the film has more to offer for 90 minutes than just a single joke and constant marketing.

[Image at the top of this post: Emmet — a minifigure character.]

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is one of the many generic construction worker minifigures who populate Bricksburg, a city made entirely of Lego bricks. Bricksburg is quickly established as a highly conformist dystopia (everyone buys the same overpriced coffee (over $30), watches the same dopey tv sitcom (“Where Are My Pants”) and listens to the same catchy pop song (“Everything Is Awesome”) where the general public never question their tyrannical leader President Business (Will Ferrell). Conformist even by Bricksburg’s standards and viewed by his co-workers as completely generic, Emmet is lonely and friendless until he discovers a mysterious Lego brick called the “Piece Of Resistance”

Suddenly, a woman named Wyldstyle comes into his life and mistakes him for a prophesized figure called “The Chosen.” The wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freemen) claims that whoever finds the Piece Of Resistance is The Chosen; the most talented, important, and interesting person in existence and the person who can help the “Master Builders” free the Lego universe from President Business, so Wyldstyle quickly recruits the bewildered Emmet into the resistance.

The Master Builders, it turns out, are minifigures capable of disassembling the Lego bricks of anything around them and reassembling them into everything else. Aside from Wyldstyle and Vitrivius, the other Master Builders all seem to be characters that the Lego Group really has made minifigures of (i.e. almost every family friendly character you can think of), including Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse, Shakespeare, the 2002 NBA All-Stars, an Abraham Lincoln with a rocket-powered chair, and various assorted DC comics superheroes. These individuals prove much less pivotal to the film than trailers might have viewers believe, and our heroes are unable to count on them for help. Thus it’s up to Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman (Will Arnett), a cheery unicorn named Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pirate with a robot body named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and someone simply named “80s Space Guy” (Charlie Day) to travel other worlds made of Lego bricks on a quest to attach the Piece Of Resistance to Lord Business’ super weapon “the kragle” (a tube of crazy glue) before he uses it to glue everyone in place forever.

With the enormous success of Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, other major studios jumped back into animation in 1990s. Initially it was animation of the 2d hand-drawn variety – including all but one of the films created by the short-lived division Warner Brothers Feature Animation – whether it was drawn using pencil and paper or computer software. With the rise Pixar, many other studios quickly switched to over to 3d computer animation and found great success there, but WBFA’s one attempt at a film with 3d animated characters (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) bombed and forced the division’s closure.

Since then, WB’s animated output has consisted of tv shows (almost all about Looney Tunes or characters WB has acquired) and direct-to-video Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry films. Then, last year, they created an animation “think tank” to develop ideas for animated films to be written in-house and animated by outside studios. In the meantime, the Lego Group has produced films for the small screen (both the TV and direct-to-video markets) since 2001, generally based on licensed properties (such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail In Lego and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload) but sometimes on in-house creations instead (such as the Clutch Powers and Bionicle franchises). Lego Movie is a good return to theatrical animation for Warner Brothers and a good theatrical debut for Lego, and we should be grateful to both of those companies and co-producers Lin Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Vertigo Entertaiment for bringing it to the screen.

The computer animation by Animal Logic (a company also responsible for the animation of other cg films like Legend Of The Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole and the visual effects for a diverse array of live-action titles including The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Great Gatsby) looks fantastic. The plastic texture of the characters and their world look much more believable than in cheaper Lego productions, and the cgi blends seamlessly with the stop-motion that’s purportedly in there at certain points (at all times, the characters are deliberately animated to move in the jerky fashion one would expect from a completely stop-motion animated Lego film). The voice work imbues life into these characters, particularly Chris Pratt’s likeably enthusiastic portrayal of Emmet, Will Arnett’s amusingly over-the-top grim voice for Batman, Morgan Freemen combining his authoritative voice with a dry delivery of blunt lines for a hilarious Vitruvius and Liam Nesson’s deep voice giving threatening dialogue delivery for President Business’ henchmen Bad Cop. The writing mixes parody of standard fantasy stories about a “chosen one” who will save the world with some genuinely sweet and moving character drama (such as Emmet’s sad desperation to feel special) that creates a more unique tone that a pure parody or drama would have (even if it does skew towards more comedy than drama because, well, it’s a Lego movie). The comedy is childlike without being childish, which is infectious and a big part of the fun of watching the film.

Is it possible the film is getting more praise than it otherwise would because critics and parents went in with understandably low expectations? Certainly. Is it a perfect story? Not quite. Characters like Wyldstyle and Vitruvius don’t leave as strong an impression as they should, and a plot twist near the end becomes a tad bit confusing if you think about it too hard. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more good than bad here, and anyone who is a child or hasn’t abandoned their inner child and can still enjoy goofy family films should have a blast watching this.

The Ryder ● March 2014

The Correspondence Club Of Bloomington

◆ by Hannah Waltz

Addison Rogers assumes his station beside an open briefcase stuffed to the brim with postcards, festive stationary, stamps, and writing utensils. A makeshift mailbox labeled “Correspondence Club of Bloomington” sits among the post supplies, announcing the Club’s business. Twice a week Rogers sets up shop in a downtown café—today he’s at Soma—encouraging customers to write a bit of snail mail. A man at a nearby table asks him what he’s doing. Rogers makes his pitch.

Picture 2

Addison Rogers

“This is a correspondence club,” he says. “I’m just trying to get people to write more.” Rogers’ motives are clear and simple, but to what end? Although it’s still getting its wheels turning, the Correspondence Club of Bloomington celebrates snail mail and the underappreciated tangibility of a handwritten letter. “There are people who have said that I’m trying to revive this dying thing, but I don’t think it’s dying. I think it continues. It’s still really cool having something in your hand that someone else had in theirs.”

The Club is held on Tuesdays at different locations where Rogers invites customers to pop a squat and write a postcard or two. In last meeting of 2013, the Club sent 35 pieces of mail into the postal current, reaching a new record for one session.

“I’ve got about 10 to 15 regulars. It’s been mostly friends so far but I’ve also managed to get a few strangers to sit down and write,” says Rogers. The Club has no regular attendance rules or membership requirements—it’s virtually obligation free. That being said, Rogers does encourage his “members” to make writing and sending snail mail a habitual activity. “I’ve been calling them members. There’s actually a debate as to what makes a member of the Club. I say you’re a member if you drop something in the box.” No hidden fees (except stamps). No cheesy t-shirts. Just written word, from one human to another.

The first “official” meeting in September of 2013 doubled as both a launch party and as a collective birthday gift. “I’d been wanting to do this for years,” says Rogers. “I just kept talking about it, and my friends said they would be into it. So this year I decided it was a good way to mark my birthday, September third. So I said ‘Don’t get me anything for my birthday, just come participate in the Club.’”

Jessika Griffin, friend of Rogers and frequenter of the Club, has never been in the habit of writing or sending things via snail mail, until now. “The only time I ever wrote to anyone was when I was at summer camp, and my mom sent me stationery.” says Griffin.

CCofB CCofB

But Rogers proffers the CCB as a more personalized option for reaching out than what has become the preferred way to communicate, i.e. email. Or Facebook message. Or even Skyping. Alternatively, the Correspondence Club takes the technology-free, time-consuming approach in an almost nostalgic fashion. No, it’s not the most efficient way to correspond; in fact, it’s fairly antiquated. While most participants have shown their fervent support for the Club, Rogers has also encountered those who see his efforts as fruitless. A man at Soma quips that “we already write more than we want to.” Given the age of technology and convenience in which we find ourselves, this less-than-enthusiastic attitude isn’t surprising. Yet it seems to yield more pleasure to both the writer and the recipient of a letter or postcard than, say, an email written in generic Times New Roman.

“I get a nice little zing and a smile when I open my mailbox and see my name handwritten by someone I know and that cares enough to write,” says Rogers. “I don’t disparage people who don’t write. It takes a moment and there are a few steps to the process. But I hope with the Correspondence Club I can show people that the reward far surpasses the effort.”

A mailman walks into Soma, just minutes after we begin the interview, and a chuckling Rogers waves off his arrival as coincidence, but he’s also sipping from a mug that sports the United States Postal Service emblem. They greet each other and Rogers updates him on the goings-on of the Club–two men of similar trades in a small town talking shop. “He’s even given me a couple of tricks to get people writing,” says Rogers. “He sends comics to his nephews in installments, and, if they want the second half to see what happens, they have to send him a letter back.”

Rogers’ own history with the U.S. Postal Service kicked off with his family’s monthly subscription to Radio AHHS, a music magazine for kids. During his childhood he always looked forward to the issue’s delivery straight to his mailbox, an excitement that inspired him to begin a correspondence of handwritten letters to a cousin. “She lived in Arizona and we kept in touch that way. Now she’s like, ‘We wrote each other?’ But it meant a lot to me.”

In a sense, the Club keeps alive Rogers’ childhood affinity for postcards—his briefcase threatens to overflow with them. Having eventually matured into a pretty hefty assemblage, Rogers estimates that about a third of his current stock was acquired in his younger years. “I always collected postcards, I don’t know why,” says Rogers. “They’re just everywhere, or at least they used to be. They aren’t as readily available as they once were.” These days Rogers is in the habit of buying postcards anywhere he can find them. Salvation Army and the Opportunity House are among his favorite places to scavenge. “In the two months before I started the Club, I decided I’d start collecting stationary. It gives me a good excuse to pick up stuff from [the Opportunity House],” says Rogers.

This past October, Rogers promoted the Chicago-based South Side Letter Writing Club’s initiative called “31 Postcards in 31 Days” to encourage Bloomingtonians to hang out and write postcards at his selected locales. “I found this collection with old photos of Indiana from the 1950s that I really wanted people to use. I think people like to write on postcards that are local.”

Other projects around the world feed into to this snail mail movement that Rogers is supporting. For example, an enterprise similar to the Correspondence Club called Postcrossing specifically facilitates postcard exchanges all around the world from one participant to another random participant. A Google search for “pen pals” provides hundreds of sites in which aspiring pen pals can exchange addresses, even internationally. Clearly Rogers is not alone in his efforts to encourage old-fashioned, handwritten correspondence, no matter how thwarting the Internet may be.

Another week, another CCB meeting, another venue. This week Rogers sets up shop at a booth in the Owlery. His briefcase and plastic red lunchbox advertise his stationery while he waits for people to come write, dressed to the nines in a corduroy blazer, even sporting a pocket square. The waiters come and go, allowing him to do his thing for a couple of hours. Friends and strangers alike pick out stationery from the briefcase or a postcard out of his lunchbox, then deposit them into his mailbox for Rogers to feed into the U.S. mail. The convenience and ease of this seemingly archaic process and Rogers’ jolly personality keep people interested and supportive of his project.

For members who cannot recall any addresses offhand, Rogers has compiled a list of addresses volunteered by willing recipients, to which members can choose to send something in hopes of starting a dialogue with a stranger. Why not send a card to an unknown addressee? “It’s been awesome getting addresses of random people,” says Griffin. “In fact, I just sent something to a stranger.” Rogers nods his head in agreement. “Even if you don’t know who you’re receiving it from, it’s just nice to receive something, that’s not junk mail or a bill.”

In 2011 Rogers signed up for a Redditgifts account and has since been sending and receiving small gifts and letters from other users around the world. “It started with a Secret Santa exchange as far as I can tell, and that’s how I got involved,” says Rogers of Redditgifts. “I technically am a Guinness World Record holder through that first exchange I participated in. They set a record that year for the biggest secret Santa exchange to have happened.”

Rogers continued participating in Redditgifts and developed a steady habit of sending packages and letters in the mail. He has also received some cool international knickknacks in his own mailbox. “So far I’ve gotten gifts from China, Singapore, and Canada,” says Rogers. “I got something called a chapthe from Singapore, which the person described as an Asian hackysack with feathers.”

Rogers’ involvement in Redditgifts prompted him to advertise the Club on the Reddit Penpals page, which wound up yielding several international mailing addresses that Club members can choose. The Club recently hit the one hundred mark: one hundred pieces of mail, both letters and postcards, have been sent from Bloomington to recipients all over the country and several internationally to countries including England and Lithuania.

When he’s not running the Correspondence Club or working at Plan Nine Film Emporium, Rogers is all about music. He and his brother Lewis form the Bloomington-based band Busman’s Holiday, Rogers on the drums, his brother on guitar. They tag-teamed the songwriting process and have played as a duo for the past three years, but in the past the band often performed with accompanying guests. The brothers celebrated ten years of playing together in 2013. Generally the band avoids playing at too many bars; instead they prefer the “DYI scene” at house shows and art spaces. “At one point we were selling the band’s merch out of a suitcase too,” says Rogers. “We would sell cassette tapes and trading cards from Salvation Army and say ‘Even if you don’t like our music, we’re still offering tapes and trading cards!’” Busman’s Holiday will release a new album, A Long Goodbye, in April through the Indianapolis record label Joyful Noise.

Quite the versatile musician, Rogers traveled overseas in 2011 on Jens Lekman’s tour, a Swedish musician signed on Secretly Canadian. During this time he drummed and sang with Lekman for two weeks in the U.S. followed by two more weeks in Europe. No surprise, Rogers collected many postcards in his time abroad, which are now up for grabs in his lunchbox.

While munching on a bowl of french fries and buffalo sauce, Rogers reflects on his personal goals for the Club. “I just want people to write more often and more consistently. Mail is a very personal way to communicate. You feel charmed when you find a piece of mail sent from someone you know. At the very least, your grandmother would love to hear from you. Club members have consistently given their best to their grandmas,” says Rogers. “Oh, and there’s half-price pitchers at the Runcible Spoon on Sunday nights, so don’t drunk-dial. Write a postcard instead. It’s a great way to show people that you’re thinking of them. We should hold on to a piece of this fantastic culture.”

When and Where?

The Club is held twice on Tuesday and Thursday: the afternoon session runs from 2 to 4 p.m., and the late session runs from 8 to 10 p.m., at a variety of locations. The CCB meets at the Rainbow Bakery on the first Tuesday of the month, Soma on the second Tuesday, the Runcible Spoon on the third; on the fourth Tuesday of the month the Correspondence Club could be almost anywhere. The first Sunday night of the month, meetings are held at the Runcible Spoon at 7 p.m. About that fourth Tuesday: the best way to keep current with the Club is on Facebook. The page is public; you can check it without having a fb profile.

Sidebar: Top 5 Pop Songs About Letters

  • The Boxtops The Letter
  • Fats Waller & BillyWilliams I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
  • The Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman
  • Stevie Wonder Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)
  • The Zombies Care of Cell 44
  • Honorable mention: Allan Sherman Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Cinema Substitute

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her ◆ by Brandon Walsh

With romantic drama driving so many mainstream Hollywood plots, it’s surprising that few care to chart the sordid trajectory of many romantic relationships. Audiences today generally know what they’re getting into when the terms “romantic comedy” and “romantic drama” appear, and the associations tend to be negative. I’d venture to say most Hollywood films are uncomfortable resolving heartbreak without a clearly defined material payoff, which usually comes in the form of sex with Jennifer Aniston.

Then there are films like Spike Jonze’s Her and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — two longitudinal studies of passionate males falling in and out of love in a near-future where technology romantically intervenes in ways both liberating and self-destructive.

In Her, Theodore Twombly falls in love with his operating system named Samantha, a sentient being with complex human emotions. Charlie Kaufman’s tightly scripted Eternal Sunshine questions whether it’s possible for Joel Barish to erase all memories, painful and joyous, of an extended relationship with a woman named Clementine using a fantasy version of electroshock therapy.

From "Her"

Theodore Twombly installs his OS (Samantha) in Her

Her follows a real relationship with fervent wit and sincerity, less concerned with science fiction formalism. Eternal Sunshine’s frantic structure tells a love story in reverse, beginning with heartbreak, rehashed arguments and lingering unhappiness, and traveling back through the moments of unbridled joy that come with the early stages of love. In Her, similar moments with his ex-wife torture Theodore, to the point that he purchases Samantha, a comfortable alternative to what has brought him unspeakable heartbreak.

The films implicitly comment on an age where many of us connect with one another through media, to the point that minor plot changes could ground the films in a realm of uncomfortable reality. The shock therapy of Eternal Sunshine could be replaced with deleting one’s online presence, a blinding to images and words loaded with personal and potentially romantic meaning. Samantha in Her could be replaced with a meaningful online bond with another, not having met in-person and facing the challenges at a vague distance. The more we become involved in the input of our own identity, the more technology challenges our standard measurements for intimacy.

The insatiable desire for companionship runs though the films, a quality unidentifiable as it is silently corrosive to the heart. In Her, Amy Adam’s character describes love as “a form of socially accepted insanity.” Gondry’s entire film plays with the idea of love as the result of brain damage. Yet, these jokes intend to describe the cultivation of romantic love as an intensely spontaneous, subjective human experience that can’t be replicated (as Samantha does) or easily defined (what I see as the defined and marketed intention of most romantic comedies). Theodore speaks with Samatha about the strangers he encounters throughout the day, saying, “I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they’ve been through.” It’s with this outward empathy that we’re able to care for Theodore, in a way audiences can feel distanced from Kaufman’s inward-thinking hero, one of the film’s two thoroughly-defined characters.

[Photo atop this post: Joel Barish’s memories of Clementine are erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.]

Both films hope to remind us to absolve the past in order to make new and meaningful relationships. When Joel and Clem fear they will face the same frustrations over again, they simply say, “Okay.” Likewise, Theodore is unable to escape the memory of his ex-wife. He writes to her, “I just want you to know that there’ll be a piece of you in me always.” Eternal Sunshine and Her portray relationships as a predictable affair, a story we’re bound to repeat, but are equipped to face their anxieties with honesty and compassion.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing film at Indiana University.]

The Ryder • February 2014

King Lear: Once Upon A Time In Britain

◆ by Tom Shafer

[IU Theatre’s resident dramaturg speaks with guest artist Henry Woronicz (pictured above) about his experience, past and present, with Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy.]

When one reads a brief introductory summary of the plot, the play almost seems like a fairy tale.  Shakespeare based King Lear upon his earlier drama, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, published in 1605. In fact, late-19th century folklorists noted the parallels between King Leir’s Cordelia and Cinderella, which they classify, folklorically, as Type 501, “The Persecuted Heroine.”

Sooo, Once Upon a Time….

Lear, the King of Britain, having decided to retire, stages a kind of popularity contest among his three daughters: “How much to you love me?” he asks. Gonerill declares her deep love and admiration, and is awarded a portion of the kingdom. Regan, the next daughter to answer, tells him, “I love you as much as Gonerill, but more,” and is granted her portion.

King Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who says only “I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less.” He erupts into rage and disinherits Cordelia, giving over her “share” of the country to Regan and Gonerill.

Appalled at Cordelia’s treatment, the Earl of Kent strongly objects and asks Lear to reconsider. For his troubles, he is banished from the kingdom. With his Fool and retinue of one hundred knights, Lear takes his retirement, planning to spend his time enjoying the perquisites of power and basking in the love professed by Gonerill and Regan.

Things do not go as planned, and Lear finds himself tolerated rather than revered. The unfortunate king is stripped of almost all his company: cursing both Gonerill and Regan, he finds himself abandoned on the heath, accompanied only by the disguised Kent and the wise Fool. A storm is coming up, and Lear, now as homeless as the poorest of his subjects, is sent into the rain and wind and madness.

King Lear is a rare Shakepearean tragedy with a double plot. Paralleling the story of “Lear and His Daughters” is that of the “Earl of Gloucester and His Two Sons,” the elder Edgar and the younger bastard Edmond. Edmond convinces Gloucester that Edgar plans to commit patricide, which results in Edgar’s exile into the very same heath (and storm) now occupied by Lear, the Fool, and Kent.

Tom Shafer: Why do you think Edgar is the hardest role in [King Lear]?

Henry Woronicz: Why do I think Edgar’s the hardest role in the play? Because half of what he says people don’t understand. He’s got all of that flibbertigibbet stuff. Half of what he says is kind of feigned madness. In Shakespearean times or terms or playwriting, he goes off into these cultural references that are from the thirteenth century. So it’s a tough one, he spends a lot of his character time in disguise. I think it’s a very tricky role, very difficult role. The part of King Lear, I think, is pretty straightforward.

TS: Is [Lear] mentally unstable from the start? Is he a foolish egomaniac? I guess the question is, here, before the rehearsals start: have you laid out a path for the character, or are you going to wait to see what happens?

HW: My general work method is to wait somewhat to see what happens. I’m certainly familiar with the play; I’ve been in it four times.

TS: Oh, have you done [the role of] Lear? 

HW: This is my first Lear. I’m a little young for Lear, you see. The tradition is that you always get a couple under your belt while you can still play it. I think you’ve outlined the two major tracks that you have to choose from: he’s either just a mean, cantankerous S.O.B. from the beginning, which he partly is, but it’s always seemed to me, from the text, that there’s something going on inside him already. His daughters mention that, that he’s become forgetful. And there’s that lovely scene, right after he left Goneril in a huff, and he and the Fool are on the road, and he seems to be talking about Cordelia when he says, “I did her wrong.” He doesn’t really reference who the ‘her’ is, but you get some sense of that. And the Fool is trying to kind of coax him a little bit into smiling and maybe learning something about what he’s going through, and Lear also says at that point, “Let me not be mad, let me not be mad. Keep me in my right mind, I would not be mad.” I think that’s always been a significant moment for me because it seems to be fairly early on in the play, and he has an awareness that something is slipping in his mind. Something’s slipping. I think that’s kind of there from the beginning.

TS: And it’s fearful. I mean, you have to search for that sense of desperation.

HW: Yeah, exactly. But I think those are the two big choices for the Lear track in the beginning. And Lear, like a lot of the major tragic characters, then becomes reactive: things happen to him, and the drama becomes: “How does he respond?” And we watch an elderly man who was used to living his life in a certain way with certain expectations, we watch him fall apart and lose his mind, then come back together. I was reading an interview recently with Frank Langella, who was getting ready to do his first Lear…he said he’s always avoided the role. He’s never felt that interested in it, because the take was always “this is about the guy who falls apart.” But he’s now come to look at it as “the guy who finds his way back from falling apart.” I think that’s certainly part of the story.

[King Lear, directed by Fontaine Syer, opens on February 28th at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre with set design by M.F.A Chris Rhoton, costumes by M.F.A Julia Whalen, and lighting by M.F.A Lee Burckes.]

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: 13 Films For ’13

A Provisional List Of The Year’s Best Films by Craig J. Clark

For the third year running, I have been tasked by The Ryder with providing a summary of the year in film. As ever, it’s difficult for me to compile a proper year-end list when there are still so many major films that I haven’t been given the chance to see. Among the ones that didn’t make it to the Bloomington area by press time are the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Spike Jonze’s Her, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Even after removing those from the equation, though, there are still plenty of great films left for me to pull together a baker’s dozen that are worth seeking out, either at home or (in some cases) still in theaters.

One thing that hung over the first half of the year, cinematically speaking, was Steven Soderbergh’s impending retirement from film directing. If he sticks to it, that would make his last domestic release Side Effects, a solid medical thriller in the same way Haywire was a solid actioner and Contagion was a solid disaster film. Side Effects was merely a warm-up, though, for his true swan song Behind the Candelabra, which premiered on HBO in the States, but actually screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has been shown in theaters virtually everywhere else in the world but here. Anchored by Michael Douglas’s flamboyant performance as Liberace – one that extends beyond mere impersonation and finds the beating heart beneath all the sequins and razzle-dazzle – and Matt Damon’s take on hunky up-and-comer Scott Thorson, who finds himself caught in the glitzy showman’s orbit, Behind the Candelabra is a compelling portrait of a closeted entertainer and his overwhelming need to see himself reflected in the beaming faces of his (invariably) younger lovers.

From "Frances Ha"

“Frances Ha”

Summer brought with it the usual conflagration of big-budgeted blockbusters and star-driven spectacles, but I was more taken with the intimate character studies of Frances Ha and Before Midnight. Filmed on the streets of New York in luminous black-and-white, Frances Ha is an unabashed love letter to the city and to its lead actress, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. As an understudy for a cash-strapped modern-dance troupe who is struggling to hold onto her dream of dancing professionally, Gerwig’s Frances has a lot of growing up to do over the course of the film, which is why it’s so gratifying when she finally comes into her own.

While Frances is trying to find her place in the world, Céline and Jesse, the protagonists of Before Midnight, have settled into an uneasy partnership that threatens to dissolve during an evening of no-holds-barred self-examination. Returning to the characters they previously played in 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke continue to compel us to care about them as a couple, raising the stakes in a way that feels organic to the story, which they once again concocted with director Richard Linklater. If they plan on keeping to this schedule, I look forward to seeing where the two of them are in another nine years.

From "Before Midnight"

“Before Midnight”

The closest analogue to the Before trilogy is Michael Apted’s Up series, which has been checking in with the same group of Britons every seven years, starting when they were seven years old in 1964’s Seven Up! Over the years, some of the participants have dropped out and then dropped back in again, but 13 of them made themselves available to Apted’s camera crew when it came time to make 56 Up. (As is sometimes the case, one who’s been absent since 28 Up returned mostly to garner some free publicity for his band.) Taken individually, the Up films may not seem that revelatory, but their true power lies in the accumulation of detail as each installment builds on the ones that came before it. And I’m not ashamed to admit that the way each one ends with a replay of the closing moments of Seven Up! never fails to bring me to tears.

The capacity of human beings to be moved by the plights of strangers (or not, as the case may be) is at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, which examines the fallout from Indonesia’s anti-Communist purge following the military’s 1965 coup. Cannily, Oppenheimer does this by telling the story of Anwar Congo, a gangster-turned-executioner who’s more than happy to demonstrate his wire-strangling technique for his camera. “This is how to do it without too much blood,” he boasts, but when he’s shown the footage later on he’s not impressed because it doesn’t look realistic enough. When Congo’s given the chance to do some re-enactments with the help of actors, makeup artists and the like, though, he starts to recognize just where his bad dreams come from. The result isn’t always a pretty sight, no matter how baroque some of Congo’s fantasies are, but the birth of a conscience is a rare thing to capture on film.

Another rarity in the world of film is the work of multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth, who went nine years between his debut, 2004’s Primer, and his follow-up, this year’s Upstream Color. Like Primer, Upstream Color is designed to be the sort of film that one needs to see more than once in order to fully grasp everything that’s going on, but it can also be appreciated for its hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. This is a quality shared by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which stars Toby Jones as a soft-spoken British sound engineer who’s summoned to Italy to supervise the mix on what he’s dismayed to learn is a horror film. On top of that, the longer he works on “Il Vortice Equestre” (or “The Equestrian Vortex,” which doesn’t have all that much to do with horses), the less Jones is capable of distinguishing between it and reality, leading to a break in the film that matches his mental state. I guess seeing yourself dubbed into Italian can have that effect if you’re not prepared for it.

From "Upstream Color"

“Upstream Color”

While the protagonists in Upstream Color and Berberian Sound Studio have a difficult time adjusting to the circumstances they find themselves thrust into, the dangers of living in the past are ever-present in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, in which his co-writer Simon Pegg gets his old mates back together 23 years after they failed to complete The Golden Mile, a twelve-pub crawl in their hometown. In the years since, his mates (whose ranks include uptight real estate agent Martin Freeman, soulful property developer Paddy Considine, weedy car salesman Eddie Marsan, and teetotaling corporate lawyer Nick Frost) have managed to grow up and become productive members of society, so they’re reluctant to give it another go, but as the oft-repeated refrain goes, there’s no point in arguing with Pegg. The perfect film for anybody who enjoyed the first two parts of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World’s End also pulls off its “end of the world” scenario with a lot more heart than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s similarly apocalyptic This Is the End, which has its moments, but was less interested in combining them into a satisfying whole.

From "The World's End"

“The World’s End”

One of the nastiest surprises of the summer came right at the end of it with the belated release of You’re Next, a well-plotted home-invasion horror film that had the misfortune to come out a few months after The Purge (which should have been purged from multiplexes). Unlike a lot of its impatient ilk, You’re Next eases the audience into its milieu, introducing us to the potential victims and their attendant quirks before a trio of thugs in animal masks descend upon them with an array of sharp weaponry at the ready, prepared to pick them off one by one. Once the games get underway, we discover just how thorough the hunters are — nobody can get a signal, their cars have been disabled, the power is cut — and how surprisingly resourceful one of the would-be victims is in an emergency. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett keep the surprises coming, though, making it impossible to predict who’s going to be next or how they’re going to get it.

The last four films on my list are all recent enough releases — and are garnering enough attention from various critics groups — that I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about them. Interestingly, three are about how individuals hold up when they’re dealt an unlucky hand. J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is a compelling tale of survival starring Robert Redford as a highly resourceful yachtsman whose boat is damaged beyond repair in the middle of the ocean, but in the gritty-determination department he’s matched by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts set adrift in orbit after their ship is struck by space debris in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. They’re all trumped, though, by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the wrongfully enslaved freeman in the pre-Civil War South who goes from one untenable situation to the next in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In comparison, Bruce Dern’s borderline-senile would-be sweepstakes winner in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t have it so bad, now does he?

Craig J. Clark’s Top 13 of 2013 (listed alphabetically)

  • The Act of Killing
  • All Is Lost
  • Before Midnight
  • Behind the Candelabra
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • 56 Up
  • Frances Ha
  • Gravity
  • Nebraska
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Upstream Color
  • The World’s End
  • You’re Next

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Film

Much Ado About Mud And More by Robert Singer

2013 has been a truly bountiful year in cinema, with plenty to offer for both the casual filmgoer as well as the seasoned cinephile. With so many wonderful films to have been released this year, it can be difficult to choose which were the overall best. I myself am a huge comic book and sci-fi geek making it temping to compile this best of the year list: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Man of Steel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness — and just call it a day. Conversely, I’m a cinéaste and lover of independent cinema, tempting me to make a list that looks like this: Upstream Colour, Europa Report, Mud, Gravity, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelve Years a Slave, Blackfish, Dallas Buyers Club, Frances Ha, etc. But as in years past when I have compiled my list for The Ryder, I’ve found it best to go with a list of the films that I found to be the most enjoyable of the year. So, without further ado, the Most Enjoyable Films of 2013.

Man of Steel Zack Snyder, director

The temptation must have been great for Warner Brothers to come up with a darker take on Superman after the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Producer Nolan, writer David Goyer, and director Zack Snyder were wise enough to key in on the fact that what makes Superman so great is the hope he inspires in all of humanity and in turn, Superman is inspired to do more and be more by those he protects. Henry Cavill makes us believe that he is Superman in much the same way that Christopher Reeve did, but with a bit more nuance and angst. The film is visually splendid with many of the flashback scenes evoking the majesty and poetry of a Terrence Malick film, while Snyder’s masterful understanding of the visual language of comics invests Man of Steel with some of the greatest super-powered action set pieces ever filmed.

Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon, director

A far cry from 2012’s The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon’s modern take on Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy is a hilarious delight and Whedon’s most mature film to date. Filmed over 12 days in Whedon’s home with many of his friends and Whedonverse alums, Much Ado About Nothing boasts the best and most underrated ensemble cast of the year. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are electrifying in their roles as the rivals-turned-lovers Beatrice and Benedick while Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk provide hilarious turns as two buffoonish and inept detectives.

Mud Jeff Nichols, director

A folksy coming of age story evocative of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mud follows 14-year-old Arkansas buddies, Ellis and Neckbone, as they cross paths with outlaw Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is in hiding. The boys strike up an unlikely friendship with Mud, as they become his accomplices in evasion. What follows is a deeply rewarding Southern Gothic fable that is as whimsical and hopeful as it is dark and suspenseful. Between Mud and 2011’s Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols is emerging as a truly unique voice in American cinema, turning simple stories about ordinary people into tales that feel much larger and mythic in scale.

[Photo of Ellis & Neckbone from “Mud” at the top of this post.]

Gravity Alfonso Cuarón, director

The word that comes to mind most upon viewing Gravity is ‘awe.’ Awe at the beauty of Earth, awe at the infinite scope of the universe, awe at the breadth of the human soul. Director Alfonso Cuarón meticulously crafts a film of such intense visual splendor that one might worry that the story or development of character would get lost. Not to worry — Cuarón is at the height of his prowess as a master filmmaker. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney turn in exceptional performances, especially Bullock who gives us a heartbreaking heroine for the ages. The 13-minute long continuous opening tracking shot may just be the greatest tracking shot of all time, beating out the famous “uprising” scene from Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Europa Report Sebastián Cordero, director

In the near future, a private space travel company sends a crew of six to the icy moon of Europa, orbiting Jupiter. Their mission is simple: to uncover evidence of life in the frozen seas beneath Europa’s patches of ice. This impressive indie sci-fi thriller is one of the best and most believable films about space exploration ever made. From its clever use of the found footage aesthetic to its grounding in hard science, the film goes to great lengths to convince the viewer that they are watching a very real space expedition. The performances in the film are likewise grounded and believable. As month after month passes by for the crew, the anxiety and feelings of isolation become more and more palpable, culminating in a truly stunning hold-your-breathe spacewalk scene that rivals that of the other space travel film on this list. Once the crew lands on Europa, they are already completely altered by the struggles of their journey but still resolved to carryout their mission. The film takes a powerful turn here as the crew faces new and deadlier struggles on the alien world, culminating in what is a truly astounding climax that simultaneously fills the viewer with hope and dread.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Fiction

by Justin Chandler

If 2013 proved anything, it’s that the novel still has a place in today’s fast-paced consumer culture. The rights to Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel sold at auction for $2 million dollars, or that three first-time novelists received six-figure deals at the London Book Fair. The fact that more people are reading books than ever before is only bittersweet because it means more people are writing books than ever before too. There’s just no time to experience all the great things that 2013 had to offer. One of my biggest regrets of the year is that Richard House’s The Kills remains unread. But here’s to hoping there’ll be plenty of time to read when we’re dead. Either way, here are five very diverse books that you really ought to check out (preferably before 2014’s bounty arrives).

Mira Corpora Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 186 pages)

Mira Corpora is the first-person coming-of-age account of Jeff Jackson. The author? No? Or maybe, because if not, who’s the one narrating the tiny chapters on writing that are wedged between the episodes of his life? But surely, probably, hopefully not the author.

Book Cover

The novel follows “Jeff” through an early childhood of orphanages, foster homes, and brief stints living with an alcoholic, abusive mother. At 11 years old Jeff finally runs away, into the wilderness, where he finds other wayward children who’ve created a primitive community without adults. Though he has some very formative experiences, Jeff ultimately leaves this community behind, and readers next find him living on the streets, alone but called out to from graffiti on the walls and mail that miraculously finds its way to its addressee, “The Kid in the Alley behind the Chinese Place on 1st Avenue.”

The summary so far may sound simple and harmless, but it isn’t. Mira Corpora is overflowing with fear, with the threat of violence, and the possibility that however close Jeff comes to creating some semblance of home, it might at any moment be torn away.

These fears come to a head with the appearance of Gert-Jan, an ominous German who accosts Jeff on the streets, informing him that he, Gert-Jan, knows someone who can cure Jeff of what ails him. What is that? We — and Jeff — don’t know. But in the next chapter we’re introduced to a nameless sex-slave version of the novel’s central character, ostensibly cured, who is now called “the body” and has only two phrases it can utter: “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

And this is like only halfway through the novel. It’s terrifying, and trippy, and you’ll likely read the thing in one fevered, nightmarish sitting.

But nestled in all the dark and hideous acts and thoughts is a sense of hope, I think. Told from the perspective of the young, the disenfranchised, the victimized, the homeless and orphaned and too, mortal, born with a body of flesh and blood and subject to the terror of being alive without your choosing, the book can be read as a striving — in its darkness, in its many refusals — toward a life of fullness and freedom. This striving is both the terror and the hope of youth, an insatiable hunger for union as the world expands to reveal how very large the gaps between yourself and everyone else are. There’s a feeling, reading these pages, that despite everything that’s happened to Jeff, anything — someone he’s just met, or a mixed tape from a complete stranger — might give the chance to come back to life, to begin again, forever fresh, gone but returning, newness itself a sort of grace.

Orkney Amy Sackville (Counterpoint, 224 pages)

Orkney tells the story of a professor on his honeymoon with a former student nearly forty years his junior. The bride has chosen the Orkney Islands as their getaway, and their island is largely uninhabited, giving the whole novel — which details the two weeks that comprise their honeymoon, each chapter devoted to a day — reads as a very intimate portrait of the beginning and possibly the end of a marriage.

Richard, technically still on sabbatical, is supposed to be working on a compendium of the various enchantment narratives he’s been studying his entire career, but for much of their vacation he can’t do more than stare longingly out the window at his wife, thinking back on the few brief encounters they had before he asked her to marry him. When he’s not reminiscing, he’s watching her, jealous of anyone or anything that might potentially steal her away from him. As she walks the shore, passing across the frame of his window, or sits on the beach, contained and stilled, searching for nothing in the nothing gray of the sea, Richard longs (even in the midst of it) for their time together to never end. Each night they come back together to make love and attempt to get some rest, the wife despite her nightmares of drowning and Richard despite his worrying over her. By the end of their stay together, small cracks are beginning to show in the armor of Richard’s idyll, though these signs in no way prepare the reader for what’s to come.

The novel is subtle and layered. That they are practically the only two characters in the book, and given that Richard’s first-person account creates such distance between his bride and the reader, it becomes hard in some ways to tell how the relationship works, just what’s at stake, whether what we’re reading is a story of true love, depraved misogyny, or an enchantment story not unlike the kind to which Richard has devoted his life.

This is a quiet book, one that should be read with care, when time is not of the essence. Don’t force your way through it. Float across the pages as if riding the sea. It’s ruminative, meditative, and it deserves a slow and careful reading. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt if you read it by the fire.

Byzantium Ben Stroud (Graywolf Press, 192 pages)

Because I’ve been working on a novel of my own, most of the books I’ve read this year have been novels. I missed out on a lot of good story collections, but I didn’t skip over this one, and I’m glad for that.

Byzantium contains ten stories that vary widely both in terms of time and place. The title story takes place in the 7th Century AD, and follows the son of a deceased general who’s offered the chance to reclaim his family’s lost nobility. This opportunity, as any in this collection, comes with a price — if the narrator wants to serve the empire, and reclaim that nobility, he must castrate a seemingly innocent, possibly miraculous monk whom the current emperor fears is a threat to his rule.

Here, as in many of the stories in this collection, what’s really at stake goes deeper than the outward struggles. The reader consistently finds Stroud’s characters torn between two worlds, as if they’re nearly resigned to the life they’ve been offered but feel still called to another version of life, one more genuine and harmonious but far more difficult to navigate. Their choice, as well as the meandering ways they attempt to delay or forego that choice, is what these stories really want to show us.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Amy, a story that comes later in the collection. A foreign-exchange professor teaching in Germany for a semester (and “fleeing a failing marriage”) runs into an acquaintance from high school. A strange and pitiful affair—if it can be called that—ensues and escalates, despite the narrator’s wishes, and by the end of the story our narrator has not only lost his chance with Amy and his wife, but seems in some ways content with this, as if his loneliness were not only his fault but what he wanted all along.

Don’t let my penchant for the more lugubrious stories in this book fool you. If Stroud casts a wide net in terms of time and place, the net he casts for tone is even wider, and there are plenty of moments that will leave you pleasantly surprised, even laughing. It’s an incredible first collection, full of stories where characters struggle to tell their own.

We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo (Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages)

This coming of age story begins in Zimbabwe and follows the path of Darling and her friends as they run amok in a shantytown called Paradise, stealing guavas from the rich, daydreaming of America, and growing into an awareness of the instability of their lives.

Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo

Throughout the first half of the book we are given glimpses of the unimaginable difficulties of being a child in an impoverished and war-torn country, and reminded constantly that Darling’s aunt in America will someday soon be taking her to live there. When the aunt finally comes through on her promises, Darling’s America is not quite the one she’d envisioned. The celebrities and fancy cars are still very far away, and worse, what Darling has lost in leaving Zimbabwe seems incalculably greater than the safety and privilege she has gained in coming to the USA.

Bulawayo’s ear for voice is incredible, and Darling’s story is sincere and moving, but probably the most powerful force in Darling’s narrative is a prevailing question that haunts it: what can activism do? What does it mean to give voice to suffering? Just what can activism do when it is so far removed from what it is trying to help? Often, what masquerades as activism becomes commodified, another badge to be worn (think here of TOMS’ “One for One” concept, or The Gap’s “Red” campaign) rather than a sustained investigation into poverty and suffering. It is the commodification of caring that appalls Darling throughout her time in America, the pity  that revels in the cruelty and poverty witnessed rather than making any concerted effort to understand and overcome.

Bulawayo’s novel is one of the few places where the voice being heard isn’t an uninvited, indifferent observer, commenting on the suffering the way a connoisseur might a sip of wine. As Chipo, one of the children Darling left behind, says while they are Skyping together some years after Darling has left Zimbabwe, “But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 640 pages)

While the preceding books were in no particular order, I have to admit that I’ve saved the best for last. And my god is it good. Shacochis’s second novel, 20 years in the making, is the type that defies summation and demands you experience it first-hand. And I demand you read it first-hand too, if I’m allowed to demand something. Because it’s so damned good, part of me doesn’t want to talk about just on the principle of you experiencing it on your own. But I’ll give it a try anyway.

 Shacochis

Bob Shacochis

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul begins with Tom Harrington, a human rights lawyer, being asked to accompany a relative stranger down to Haiti to investigate the inexplicable murder of Renee Gardner. Turns out Harrington not only knew the deceased but was intimate with and betrayed by her, though she was known by another name at the time. Harrington’s search for justice is carried parallel with his reflections on their time together, and by the end of the first of five books that comprise the novel Harrington has uncovered far more than he’s solved, leaving readers with a strangely satisfying anti-climax.

But what seems an entire story in and of itself turns out to be only one of the final turns of the screw, as the next book takes us back fifty years to Croatia, at the end of World War II, to explore the beginnings of a struggle Harrington was barely able to even glimpse. It’s here that the story finds its chronological beginning and its seed, and for the next four-hundred pages what opens itself up to the reader is a beautifully rendered blend of mystery, history, and family drama.

What makes the novel so amazing is that in dealing with all of these subjects it is able to transcend them too, to achieve an aboutness that is beyond the bounds of its content. The novel is more than merely what happens: in its closeness and depth and its attention to acute details, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ends up being about both a fully-realized individual and everyone who has ever lived. It’s great, and more than that, it’s one of those rare great books that might just be for everyone.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

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