Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Long live gravity

March 27, 2009


By Matthew Ralph

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary
some in the wrong direction
Practice resurrection”

When I heard these familiar lines of poetry recited in the opening moments of a play celebrating the farmer, author, poet and activist Wendell Berry on Thursday, I felt a chill come over me like I have seldom experienced watching a stage production.

Practice resurrection. Two words of the 1973 poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” that, repeated while a hammer dulcimer played softly in the background, nearly moved me to tears as I pondered the deep meaning behind a simple, yet insightful turn of a phrase.

The poetry of Wendell Berry is full of moving moments like that, times where a simple phrase, a humorous anecdote or an observation of the natural world triggers the so-called light bulb of our minds to ever so gracefully turn on.

Wild Blessings, a new play based on Berry’s poetic works, is billed as a celebration of a faithful steward, a friendly neighbor, a loving husband and a kind of modern day prophet claimed by environmentalists, literature enthusiasts, Christians and conservatives alike. But the 75-minute play is as much a celebration of the things Berry has inspired readers for decades to appreciate, enjoy and protect. 

Aided by the lurid sounds of a hammer dulcimer and the striking photographic and video images visible through a large wall resembling a bay window in the middle of the stage and an even larger screen behind it, the play features four actors – an older couple and a younger one – dramatically reading Berry’s words. The actors march in circles, dance, play violin, guitar and percussion and sing. The hammer dulcimer player also sings, but the music mostly provides the soothing backdrop for the words that indirectly weave (using only words from Berry’s pen) a narrative of a slightly mad farmer, out of place in the city who falls in love, returns to the fields, raises a family and fights to hold onto the simple, beautiful things in life like family, friends and God’s creation.

Following along, even for someone familiar with many of his works, was somewhat dizzying at times. Unlike reading the words on a page, the combination of stunning visuals, soothing music and dramatic acting gives little time for you to completely digest. Breaks in the action do occur and the topically connected transitions are generally well played (he titles of poems flash on the screen as the images change), but as the play inches intermission-less toward the finish it does make you wish you could hit pause or maybe rewind on a few of the scenes.

An outline in the playbook might have been helpful as a guide, but in the end Wild Blessings succeeds in maintaining a lot of the subtlety, humor and vivid description that make reading Wendell Berry’s poetry such an enriching and life-giving experience. It doesn’t tell you how to think or lecture about why mountain top removal, conspicuous consumption or infidelity should be avoided. It shows you what you are missing when you trade in natural beauty, elegance and grace for artificial comfort, perceived safety and reckless convenience.

In other words, it shows you what it means to practice resurrection.

Wild Blessings is appearing until April 26 at The Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Click HERE for more information.

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Where The Wild Things Are trailer

March 25, 2009

Contentment in an age of excess

March 1, 2009

Lexington, Ky.-based authors Will and Lisa Samson, who last teamed up on an enlightening and challenging book called Justice in the Burbs, have a new book coming out this week called Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess.

Like the their previous collaboration, the title sounds pretty self-explanatory:

In an age of conspicuous consumption, where children worry more about their clothes than their grades, the world is being drained of its natural resources, and every universal temptation is dangled in front of us, is it possible to be content?

In Enough, Will and Lisa Samson address the idea of finding contentment in this age of excess. With a casual, accessible writing style, the Samsons discuss consumerism, contentment as a Christian discipline, and the notion of stewarding our resources. In four sections, they outline the ideas that drive a consumerist mindset; the effects those ideas have on ourselves, our communities, and the earth; conclusions about the situation; and practical solutions for negotiating everyday life once we understand that our abundant God is, in fact, enough.

You can order a copy HERE.

Failures and failing

February 26, 2009

“Why is it our failures only show us more clearly the people we are failing?”

-Leif Enger, from his novel “So Brave, Young and Handsome”

For the love of God, beer and cussing

February 26, 2009

Tom Larson loves God, beer and using four letter words to describe his journey from dropping LSD driving across the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains to being one of only seven invited guests to a private dinner party with a multimillionaire Christian evangelist.

Larson, the founder and former executive of the nonprofit Healing Waters International, is anxious to share his “adventures of a schitzophrenic evangelical” story but he’s run into a little trouble convincing a book publisher to champion his “For Love of God and Beer” memoir.

The problem: it’s apparently too Christian for mainstream publishers and too rough around the edges (read: his favorite word is shit and it has beer in the title) for the Christian bookstore shopping public.

To drum up an audience, Larson has posted the book’s prologue and first chapter on his Web site as well as a survey with an array of odd questions to gauge reader interest and judge the demographics of the book’s potential audience.

It’s a bit of an awkward approach and Larson even admits on the site that he feels “like a dick” promoting himself, but I was amused and enlightened enough by what I read of his story to want to share it with you.

Check it out, whether you love God, beer and cussing or not.

(The above photo is from the short-lived NBC show “God, the Devil and Bob.” It seemed an appropriate illustration.)

Kindle still unnecessary

February 15, 2009

As usual, I have to agree with Rob Horning:

Basically publishers have no incentive to encourage people to read books on screens and every incentive to get them to enjoy the fetish of the object. The preference consumers have shown for digitized music and iPods doesn’t seem to translate to books. The usefulness of the iPod derives from its ability to shuffle songs that many people enjoy as background, more or less passively. On the subway I hear about a dozen songs each morning, and it pleases me that they are randomly selected from a list of several thousand. But I wouldn’t want my reading material served up that way. Generally I’m reading one thing at a time, and I benefit from the finality of that decision, when I leave home with one book. Books have the great built-in advantage of preventing me from surfing away elsewhere when the reading becomes arduous or requires an effort of concentration.

Day-Lewis and Del Toro to star in Shusaku Endo adaptation?

February 2, 2009

Variety is reporting that Daniel Day Lewis and Benicio Del Toro are in negotiations to star in Martin Scorcese’s next film, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece novel “Silence.”

The story centers around two 17th century Jesuit priests who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan as missionaries.

Scorcese has reportedly had the project on his radar for more than a decade.

(Hat Tip: Looking Closer)

Irving and Updike

January 29, 2009

“We weren’t friends. We knew each other socially for the brief period of time when I lived in Massachusetts—in Cambridge—and he was in Beverly Farms. We had dinner together a few times. We had a polite but not frequent correspondence, too. For a period of time—no longer—fans used to confuse the two of us. How could this have happened? Because we were both “John”? It was baffling, but I got numerous fan letters that were meant for him, and he got fan letters that were meant for me, and this gave us the occasion to write to each other—and send the misdirected fan mail to each other. This has stopped; it hasn’t happened in five or six years. Maybe this was mail from a single demented village or the same deranged family; maybe it was generational, and they’ve died out—those idiots who thought I was John Updike and John Updike was me.”

John Irving

(Hat Tip: Mighty Red Pen)

2008 in review: Matt Ralph’s best/worst

January 1, 2009

The Best

1. Honeymooning in Montreal. As unforgettable as my wedding was, spending a week in Montreal with my best friend was even more memorable. Chocolate croissants served at our door every morning, afternoon hikes, delectable meals and long walks around downtown and along the water at night. Not to mention, no computers, cell phones, work or other outside distractions for an entire week.  

2. Holding my niece for the first time. I have a really small family so the birth of my first niece/nephew and my parents’ first grandchild was a really big deal. Loudon Wainwright, Sigur Ros and Mojave 3 provided the soundtrack for this unforgettable moment in a Lexington, Ky., hospital in May.

3. Sherron Collins’ steal/three-point combo. Mario Chalmers’ shot will be remembered 100 years from now, but it was Sherron Collins’ acrobatic steal and subsequent three-pointer that gave Jayhawk fans everywhere hope, setting up Mario’s buzzer-beating, overtime-forcing shot for the ages.

4. The Wire. Access to HBO for the first time in my life during the first part of the year led to my prompt addiction to the final season of a show deserving of the endless praise lavished upon it over the last five years. I’ve since gotten my fix watching 30 additional hours of the show’s earlier episodes and read a significant chunk of The Corner before I ran out of renewals at my local library.

5. The Phillies winning it all. Mike Schmidt was still roaming the hot corner when I last considered the Philies a rooting interest (I was rooting for a Blue Jays win from the upper deck of the Vet in the ’93 series), but by the time the reality of the Cubs’ latest failure had sunk in I was excited to see the Fightins’ end that silly William Penn curse. Better the Phillies than the E-A-G-L-E-S and all of their annoying fans.

6. Finally finishing the book “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music” by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg. One of the best books about music I’ve ever encountered, this meticulously researched, insightful and heartbreaking book took me a while to get through, but it was well worth the time investment.  

7. Parking the car and riding the TARC bus instead. Rising gas prices convinced me that I needed to figure out my local bus system back in April. A September wind-storm wiped out one of our cars, but we didn’t even blink at being a one-car family thanks to the monthly bus pass I managed to get my work to subsidize in place of a parking space in a nearby garage. My bus riding also helped me win $200 in a TARC contest and read a lot of books that had been collecting dust on my shelves.

8. Turning 30 and going on a surprise scavenger hunt set up by my wife where I serenaded a TGI Friday’s hostess with the song “I Believe I Can Fly,” asked a couple of bikers to hug said wife and arm wrestled a guy who kept telling me the bottle he was carrying was filled with iced tea.

9. Slumdog Millionaire. I know the movie doesn’t completely hold up to critical analysis and that parts of it resemble a music video. I know it’s probably one of the most overrated and overhyped films of the year. I know the dance during the credits is hokey and that some of the graphic design of the promotional pieces is gawdy. I don’t care. I loved every minute watching what I would consider my most enjoyable cinematic experience of 2008 (Young @ Heart takes a close second).

10. Damien Jurado’s “Caught In Trees.” It wasn’t what I’d consider the best album of 2008 and it isn’t even Damien Jurado’s best album to date, but “Caught In Trees” received more rotation on my iPod than any of the other dozens of albums I purchased, downloaded or received in the mail in 2008.

The Worst

1. The presidential campaign. Simply put, the campaign brought out the worst in almost everyone involved either directly or indirectly…on both sides of the aisle. Inane conspiracy theory, anti-Muslim rhetoric and blatant racism from the right. Vile hatred, equally as ridiculous conspiracy theory and sexism on the left.

2. Libby Dole. Her campaign released an attack aid against her Sunday School teaching opponent trying to link her to an atheist group. Fortunately, the sleazy ad, which featured an off-camera voice yelling “there is no God” in the finale, back-fired.

3. Manny Ramirez. Though I’m still not sure what is more annoying, Manny Ramirez or the endless media coverage that has elevated Manny to the Britney Spears of baseball status. Fortunately, the Phillies put an abrupt end to the inane chattering and speculation of a possible Dodgers/Red Sox match-up.

4. Philadelphia sports fans. Whether it was booing vice presidential candidates or flipping over cars celebrating the end of a long championship drought, the bad apple Philadelphia fans gave some backing to the claim that the city of brotherly love has the worst fans west of New York City.

5. Kosuke Fukodome. “America, Fuk yeah,” was the way one clever Cubs fan put it when news spread of the Japananese star signing with the Cubs. His three-run, bottom-of-the-ninth homerun to tie the game on Opening Day only added to the endearingly clever word play, but unfortunately for Cubs fans that was the highlight of an otherwise frustrating and annoying rookie season.

6. Hallelujah. Just when you thought one of the most covered songs of our time couldn’t get any more ubiquitous, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was featured on the British reality show X-Factor. The song has topped the UK charts and propelled Cohen’s original and Jeff Buckley’s rendition into UK’s top 40.

7. Astroland closing. Another thing that made Coney Island a colorful, kitschy tourist attraction has apparently bit the dust. Astroland closed its doors supposedly for the final time in September, but fortunately landmark wood coaster The Cyclone is going to be sticking around. 

8. The New York Yankees. It wasn’t enough that they signed CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett. Oh no. They had to go and dump a wheelbarrow full of greenbacks on Mark Texeira too.

9. AIG executives. You know who I’m talking about. The ones that took a reported $440,000 spa trip a week after the company received an $85 billion bailout from taxpayers.

10. Josef Fritzl. The Austrian sicko who, we learned back in April, had sexually abused, raped and physically assaulted his daughter for three decades, holding her captive in a small cellar.

Will you miss me when I’m gone?

December 15, 2008

Don’t believe the rumors. Scratch that. The rumors are true.

The 22-year-old Arena Football League has canceled its 2009 season.

Diehard Bon Jovi fans in Philadelphia aside, will anyone actually miss indoor football when it’s gone?

I once read a book and wrote an article about a journalist playing arena football “Paper Lion” style, but honestly that’s about as close as I’ve come to engaging in the sport.

That said, I won’t really miss it but think it’s a shame for the players, fans and everyone else involved that the league is being put on hold for a year, maybe longer.