Lorrie Moore: The Agony and Fun of Fiction

This spring marks a major literary milestone in American letters: Lorrie Moore’s first collection of short stories in over 15 years has just been released. The author of six books—including the most recent novel A Gate at the Stairs, and the story collections Self-Help and Birds of America—Moore is often hailed by critics and fans alike for her vibrant humor in the face of heartrending sorrows. Well worth the wait, her forthcoming collection, Bark, brings to readers that same perfect pitch of wit and wisdom that has made her one of the most quintessential voices in contemporary fiction. Moore takes the ALOUD stage on Wednesday, April 9 for a conversation and reading. I corresponded with the author before her upcoming appearance at Central Library about Bark, and for a longer version of this story originally published by the Kirkus Reviews.

 

For almost three decades, Moore taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but she has recently relocated to Nashville, Tenn. to teach at Vanderbilt University. Readers may begin to wonder how the South might permeate her future writing as the Midwest did for so long, but she’s never been one to rush out new work. She published the first story from Bark 10 years ago. That seems to be a comfortable incubating period for Moore: “If you wait too long you might not recall why you wrote any of them,” she says of her short stories. However, when I asked her about some of the influences of these new stories, it appears time has taken its toll: she’s already begun to forget the specifics. “But they are all responses to something and involve situations I was thinking very deeply about at the time. One then gets very involved with fashioning the story that can contain those thoughts and feelings. But now of course I’ve moved on. That is the beauty of shorter narratives: they allow you to move on.”

Like most Americans, Moore is probably relieved to move on from the fraught political landscape of the last 15 years in which Bark is set. Political consciousness naturally permeates Moore’s characters, who are immersed in the wounded American psyche of a post 9/11 country at war—from a teacher who sings the “Star Spangled Banner” for a ghost to an aloof intelligence agent who gulps down some Côtes du Rhône before a mission to a cynical author who taunts a supporter at a D.C. fundraiser. Moore believes political awareness is just typical of most people. “One’s life takes place in the world,” she says.

Moore_coverIn “Debarking,” the first story of the collection, a recent divorcé up in arms over the U.S. invasion of Iraq is deeply moved by a peace protest he witnesses while driving: “No car went anywhere for the change of two lights. For all its stupidity and solipsism and scenic civic grief, it was something like a beautiful moment.” Yet the story is not about the war, it’s about the absurdities of his struggle to date again. Gleaning insight into how the mentally unstable casually date, the story brilliantly balances the light and dark at the end of the tunnel of marriage. In fact, in many of the eight stories that comprise Bark, the sweeping themes of global politics are often pushed to the backdrop of the more personal moments of “one’s life.”

“Paper Losses,” “Wings,” and “Referential” all follow characters who are unraveling from failed relationships. Breakups and divorces are fodder for much of the pain these characters endure, but there’s some comic relief in how these estranged characters are placed in strange situations. In “Wings,” a struggling musician looks after a zany old man (who turns out to be dying) as a distraction from her boyfriend, whom she no longer loves. Disillusioned by an argument with her boyfriend about whether the old man is her sugar daddy, she has the epiphany that couples might never stay together if they knew the future: “This was probably the reason nine-tenths of the human brain had been rendered useless: to make you stupidly intrepid. One was working with only the animal brain, the Pringle brain. The wizard-god brain, the one that could see the future and move objects without touching them, was asleep. Fucking bastard.”

Although readers might find themselves laughing out loud at some of Moore’s zingers, she does not consider herself a humorous writer. “But let’s face it: These stories aren’t all that funny. Only a little bit,” she says. The bits of humor that Moore reluctantly takes some credit for are like a flock of inflatable dinghies bouncing alongside a sailing ship. Her humor breaks the tension of heightened moments with an effect of dramatic irony that somehow seems completely sincere. As Moore carefully handles all the various emotional vulnerabilities of her characters, she is able to mash up the comic and tragic parts into one lucid whole. In the final story, “Thank You for Having Me,” a woman at a wedding is buzzed enough from champagne to look beyond her own loneliness and see beauty in a shining sun. “I think it’s good to let hope have the last word,” says Moore.

Visit www.lfla.org/aloud for reservations to Lorrie Moore in conversation with Brighde Mullins on Wednesday, April 9, 7:15 PM.

–Posted by Bridgette Bates and author photo by Zane Williams.

Celebrating Cesar Chavez at the Los Angeles Public Library

In honor of Cesar Chavez Day and The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, the just-released biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Miriam Pawel, ALOUD will be hosting a program celebrating the famed civil rights leader whose work has impacted the lives of millions across the world, including many artists who have been inspired to tell his story. On April 1 at ALOUD, biographer Pawel will be joined by renowned playwright and director Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit, La Bamba, and Teatro Campesinowhich has been in continuous operation since 1965 when it was founded on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union as a means to educate and empower workers). Pawel and Valdez will share their perspectives on the crusades of this unlikely American hero who ignited one of the great social movements of our time. As we get ready for this special evening, here’s a look into the Library’s archives at the myriad ways Chavez’s story has touched us.

Shooting Reflections: Film and Social Change

Actor, filmmaker, and activist Diego Luna visited ALOUD last year to discuss how storytelling can act as an agent for social change. Watch the program above or listen to the podcast. And keep an eye out in theatres for Luna’s latest feature, Cesar Chavez, which is now playing.

The Union of their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement

In 2010 at ALOUD, Miriam Pawel discussed the rise of the United Farm Workers during the heady days of civil rights struggles, the antiwar movement, and 60s and 70s student activism. Listen to the podcast.

The Los Angeles Public Library has an incredible collection of photos documenting Chavez’s activism around the city.

Cesar Chavez at GM Rally March http://jpg1.lapl.org/pics28/00033790.jpgLocal 645 President Pete Beltran, left, Cesar Chavez and Maxine Waters, march with GM workers, past the GM plant on Van Nuys Boulevard. Photo by Mike Sergieff, 1983.

 Cesar Chavez Pickets Supermarket

Father Luis Olivares (left) chats with Cesar Chavez while picketing in front of the Safeway supermarket at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles. Photo by Mike Mullen, 1979.

Brooklyn Avenue Becomes César E. Chávez Avenue
http://jpg1.lapl.org/pics03/00001218.jpgMembers of the Jewish Labor Committee participate in the renaming ceremony for Brooklyn Avenue to become César E. Chávez Avenue in Boyle Heights. The committee was asked to support the changing demographics of the neighborhood by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. 1994.

And of course, many related books for all ages, including Spanish language books, are available at the Los Angeles Public Library:

Cesar Chavez : A Photographic Essay, Cesar Chavez : Autobiography of La Causa, and A Picture Book of Cesar Chavez.

Book Jacket for: Cesar Chavez : a photographic essayBook Jacket for: Cesar Chavez : autobiography of La CausaBook Jacket for: A picture book of Cesar Chavez

Learn more about the upcoming ALOUD program and make your free reservation here. And remember the Los Angeles Public Library will be closed on Monday, March 31 in observance of Cesar Chavez Day.

Inspiring Dinaw Mengestu’s “All Our Names”

Coming up on Thursday, March 27 at ALOUD, Dinaw Mengestu, the MacArthur Award-winning author of two novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, will discuss his new book, All Our Names, with novelist Laila Lalami. All Our Names is a deeply lyrical love story that explores two worlds in the early 70s—a quiet middle-of-nowhere American town and the bustling, violent capital of Uganda. Although the story follows the lives of those living in exile, The New York Times warns readers not to oversimplify Mengestu as a writer of “the immigrant experience” because All Our Names is more profoundly “a story about finding out who you are, about how much of you is formed by your family and your homeland, and what happens when those things go up in smoke.” We caught up with Mengestu before his upcoming ALOUD appearance about balancing the political and personal in his writing, and where he finds inspiration—spoiler alert: the library!

Much of your work focuses on personal stories that take place within tumultuous political climates. What interests you in the balancing act of these two worlds?

Mengestu: A large part of that interest is inevitably born out of my own family history–our migration from Ethiopia to the United States as a result of Ethiopia’s communist revolution. I grew up intimately aware of how politics can radically alter the course of a nation, and of course by extension the life of an individual or family.

Along the same lines, your new novel All Our Names is a love story that is also about exile—what was the genesis for this story?

Mengestu: For me this story is first and foremost a series of portraits of love. The exile that follows places those love stories into a state of crisis.

Since ALOUD is part of the Los Angeles Public Library, we’re always curious about authors’ connections to libraries. Do you have any connections to libraries—growing up as a kid, or as a parent, or do you use the library as a working writer?

Mengestu: As a child I spent much time in my public library, not only reading, but buying massive amounts of used paperback novels during the library book sales. By the time I graduated high school I had a wonderful personal library, purchased from my local library that I carried with me for years. While living in both New York and Paris, I did much of my writing in two beautiful reading rooms, one at the New York Public Library, and another at a small library that overlooked the river Seine.

Can you recommend other books to our readers—writing from a diaspora, political novels, or love stories—that have influenced your work?

Book Jacket for: Season of migration to the North
Mengestu:
One of my favorite novels of all time, and the one that I consider to be the most influential in writing All Our Names, also happens to be the same one that Laila Lalami wrote a superb introduction for: Season of Migration to the North.

 

 

Learn more about Mengestu’s upcoming ALOUD program and make free reservations here.

 

Rebel Music: An “Audiotopia”

Travel the globe through Hisham Aidi’s “Rebel Music” playlist and you’ll find yourself sampling Taqwacore (Islamic punk) from Pakistani-American punk rockers, Randy Weston’s fusion of jazz and Gnawa (African Islamic spiritual music), and poppy Brazilian funk from the soundtrack of a Brazilian telenovela filmed in Turkey. Throughout the extraordinary breadth of his book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, Aidi looks at the bridge between political activism and music through a historic and cultural lens, focusing on youth movements and the trans-Atlantic journey that Muslims, both European and American, are making in their search for freedom and a modern identity.  What might their “audiotopia” sound like?  Aidi previews a few of the tracks on his playlist for us here.  Join Hisham Aidi together with Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media’s art, culture and music editor, for a listening experience and conversation at ALOUD on March 13.

The Kominas, “Tunn”
Pakistani-American punk rockers part of Taqwacore movement, responding to Bush/Blair/Musharaf policy of using Sufism for de-radicalization

Randy Weston, “Blue Moses” (advance to 3:30 min mark)
Weston was one of the earliest American musicians to take an interest in Ganwa, helping bring the music out of the margins and into the mainstream

Koringa, “Dança Sensual”
Funk soundtrack to Brazilian telenovela “Salve Jorge” which addresses relations between Brazil and Turkey, and caused a mania for all Turkish things in Brazil

Hanine Y Son Cubano, “‘Ala Bali” (advance to 1:45 min mark)
Lebanese-Cuban collaboration and example of post-9/11 wave of Tropicalism-Orientalism. Stunning call and response

Outlandish, “Callin’ U”
Danish-Muslim hip-hop/R&B trio, pioneers of European Muslim rap & R&B

The above image featured on the ALOUD spring postcard features a photograph of artist Mohammed Ali’s fusion of street art and Arabic script (“Unity”) on a wall in Birmingham, UK.

Jeff Koons and John Waters Bring Art to the L.A. Masses

On Monday evening the “king of kitsch” and the “pope of trash” held court at downtown’s Orpheum Theatre. Co-presented by the Library Foundation and The Broad museum as part of the “The Un-Private Collection” series, artist Jeff Koons and filmmaker/author/photographer John Waters took the stage from opposite curtains like two opposing presidential candidates ready to debate—both in formal dark suits and politely shaking hands. The pair swiftly sat down and warmed up for the packed house of nearly 2,000 attendees to discuss Koons’ iconic body of work.

Holding tight to his clipboard of questions, Waters drilled Koons on his early days fishing for some sign of unhinged behavior of the artist as a young man. Undeterred by Waters’ playful prodding, Koons remained calm and upbeat as he spoke about his traditional upbringing in Baltimore—the one scathing story he remembered involved a “sexy” ceramic ashtray that he gravitated towards every time he visited his grandparents. Meanwhile, Waters, more easily inhabiting his outsider-artist status from an early age, confessed that as a child he constantly pretended to be the “nude descending the staircase.”

Waters also grew up in Baltimore and the two flashbacked to local haunts like a gaudy furniture store that either directly (Waters) or indirectly (Koons) inspired their art. They told a touching story about how Koons’ aunt and Waters’ mother, who both recently passed away, had lived in the same retirement home and used to exchange anecdotes about their provocateur nephew and son. Koons credited his aunt for taking him to art classes on the weekends, which helped to foster his early knack for drawing and gave him a sense of self. But he seemed to learn more about expressing feelings from music than art, “I started to become ambitious when I heard Led Zeppelin,” recalled Koons of driving around, cranking up Zeppelin and wanting to take his life in a different direction.

He enrolled in art school and on his first visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art he was humbled by all the great artists he had never heard of. Surviving this moment of realizing he didn’t know anything pushed him to become a disciplined student, and eventually a great artist. He explained how his paintings soon became bigger than the walls, so he naturally moved on to other mediums, producing the body of work that fans are familiar with today.

Waters curated slides of some of his favorite Koon pieces, including The Rabbit and Balloon Dog (Blue). When Waters asked how Koons felt about viewers who became confused or angry over his work, Koons seemed nonplussed. “The art happens inside the viewer,” said Koons. From his famous titillating rendering of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles to a recent Lady Gaga album cover, Koons has been influenced by popular culture as much as he has been influenced by Plato and Kierkegaard. He emphasized how ultimately his art is about acceptance—accepting ideas and the self—and that is why he often incorporates familiar images and objects like garden gazing balls into his work. This accessibility has afforded him a huge following and success, which Waters astutely defined his own barometer of success by two things: “You can buy any book you want without looking at the price tag, and you don’t have to be around assholes.”

If you missed this memorable evening full of witticisms and insights on art, life, and the occasional divergence into sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, then you can watch the video below.

Video streaming by Ustream

–Posted by Bridgette Bates and photos by Gary Leonard

Tales from Two Cities

From the gritty drama of noir to the free-spirited poetry of the Beats, how does the literature of California tell us who we are? This Thursday, February 20, ALOUD kicks off the second part of this special home-grown conference in collaboration with The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Free and open to all at the downtown Central Library, Tales from Two Cities will explore the language, culture, and aesthetic that has helped to shape the writing of California. Here’s the full schedule of events, but for a sneak preview at some of the California voices gathering this week, check out these highlights from past ALOUD programs.

Walter Mosley, Between the Sheets: Sex, Literature, and the Future of Erotic Fiction. Listen to the podcast here.

 

Attica Locke, The Future of African American Literature and the Paradox of Progress. Listen to the podcast here.

 

David Ulin in Conversation with Joan Didion.

 

Poet Gary Snyder. Listen to the podcast here.

Learn more about the other upcoming participants and how you can watch the conference from home.

A Message from the Chair of the Stay Home and Read a Book Ball

Dear Reader:

I’m excited to officially invite you to celebrate the 2014 Stay Home and Read a Book Ball with me. Here’s an opportunity to reduce your carbon footprint and simultaneously keep alive the mission of the Los Angeles Public Library to “Provide free access to ideas and information.” By deciding not to get dressed up, not to drive across town, and not to valet park at some glittery ballroom, you’re playing a vital role in making available free cultural and educational programs for Angelenos throughout the city. Presto-digito!

Just think, when you contribute to the Stay Home and Read a Book Ball, you encourage public discourse through programs like ALOUD, which presents more than 70 free author talks and conversations every year with internationally acclaimed novelists like Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood; human rights legends like Judge Albie Sachs and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee; master short story writers like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore; and, great chefs like L.A.’s own Roy Choi.

For my own evening as Official Stay-At-Home Philanthropist, I’ve plotted a few scenarios. Take one: Brocade dressing gown. Apricot silk mules.  Seated at dressing table. Dostoevsky.  Or maybe Patricia Highsmith. Cigarette holder. Bushmills with one rock. Take two (more likely):  Old sweatpants. Curled up on couch under red wool blanket. Fat grey cat staring into my eyes. Rereading Charlotte’s Web. Mug of hot masala chai.

Remember, you are the key to making possible cultural and educational programs like ALOUD for the people of Los Angeles. So, just before you take the first sip or turn the first page, whip out your checkbook (or credit card) and please… give generously.  Then, turn out the porch lights. Put your feet up. You’re not expecting anyone – just a rendezvous with those clever, persnickety, angst-ridden characters in your favorite book.  Have a ball!

Sincerely,

Louise Steinman, Chair

An Invitation to “Orfeo”

What happened when Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s literary talk show Bookworm, David Foster Wallace, and Richard Powers were together years ago in Santa Fe and heard a presentation on cellular mechanics?  Might it have been the impetus for Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo?  Here’s more on that from Silverblatt.

“The reason I’m looking forward to spending Tuesday night at ALOUD with Richard Powers is because of something that happened ten years ago in Santa Fe, which was the last time I saw Richard.  David Foster Wallace was there, so was John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive Press.  The four of us will never spend time together again, which is a source of sorrow, but wait.  Listen.

It sounds a little too good to be true, but the day after a public reading event, Lannan Foundation arranged for us to spend the morning at the famous science think tank in Santa Fe where Cormac McCarthy sometimes hangs out.  We spent the morning, I swear, listening to presentations on cellular mechanics, particularly penetration of the nucleus.

I don’t know if Richard will remember that morning, but he was the only one of us capable of asking intelligent questions.  David Wallace kept up a good front; I was overwhelmed and goofy; but Powers was, I swear it, thriving.

Anyone who reads Orfeo, Richard’s magnificent new novel, will find that it is about Peter Els, a classical composer who attempts to splice a musical structure into the DNA of a germ cell: a do-it-yourself hobby in a web-bought home laboratory.  His house and lab are raided by Homeland Security, and Peter becomes known as the “bioterrorist Bach.”

Everyone will be stunned by the evocations of twentieth century music:  Mahler, Cage, Shostakovich, Messiaen.  The connections between musical structure and cellular composition are stimulating, even mind-blowing.

But I want to know is did the seed of Orfeo, dare I call it the germ of Orfeo, get planted one morning ten years ago in a Santa Fe think tank?”

Join Silverblatt and Powers in conversation on January 28th at ALOUD.  

Wanda Coleman’s Muse Was Los Angeles

Wanda Coleman’s poetry was all music.  All street. All wild.  She was one of the most authentic people I have ever met.  She was entirely herself and if you didn’t like her, that was your problem.  She did not kowtow; she did not pretend to be anything that she was not.  I remember her leaning into me across the table when I asked her what she thought of so and so.  “That trifling yellow bitch!” she’d say, followed by that huge laugh and I’d be left wondering, “Is she serious?” There are poets who write privileged academic poetry, poetry that you need degrees to understand. And there was Wanda, playing the drum for the language of life, of poverty, of racism, of the soul of Los Angeles.

To hear Wanda read poetry was like being at the circus and watching all the animals come into the Big Top at once.  There was an energy and rush and movement to her performance.  Wanda brought the audience in with her hair, her laughter, but underneath was a deep sadness.  Los Angeles, her deepest love never gave as much to Wanda as Wanda gave to the city.  The Los Angeles of Wanda Coleman was a wandering mess of dangerous streets and unpaid bills.  Wanda Coleman’s performances of these poems ringed with sadness were electrifying.  She was our city’s poetry rock star; an uninhibited rush of raw emotion and longing.

Listening to Wanda Coleman’s work was listening to the dark story told in such a rage of lyric intensity and jaw dropping music that you felt you were inside love, inside the blues, inside the best kind of blues/jazz club listening to the city sing to you, never to sleep, always to wake, always to wake into another dark story with a dark woman dancing toward you, dancing and singing the Los Angeles blues.  Her poetry was laced with rage, with political overtones, with the song of the oppressed, the outcast, the alone, the underpaid, the ones to whom life is always teaching the same lesson:  We do not want you.  The ones who always sing back the same song:  But we will make music in this outcast place.

For all of us who write poetry in Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman will always be the voice singing in our dreams, threading through our poems, asking us to write truth and to write that truth in music.

By Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press

Come pay tribute to Wanda Coleman on January 18th at ALOUD.

Photo: Wanda Coleman at ALOUD, Los Angeles Public Library, 2013.
Credit: Gary Leonard

This Year’s Highlights of Membership

Members of the Library Foundation are a dedicated group of people who share a deep commitment to helping the Library provide all Angelenos with access to ideas, information, and lifelong learning. We are so grateful for their support, and in return, have spent 2013 hosting a range of events to celebrate their love for the Los Angeles Public Library. Before we look ahead to 2014 and invite Members to join us for a new slate of special events, here’s a look back at some highlights from this truly remarkable year. If you are not a Member already, please consider becoming a Library Foundation Member today to take part in these special events.

2013 marked the debut of “The Writer’s Cut.” This new program brings today’s most well known television writers and showrunners to the Central Library to discuss storytelling for the small screen. Members heard behind-the-scenes tales from Dan O’Shannon (“Modern Family”), Glen Mazzara (“The Walking Dead”), and, pictured above, Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”).

After the coziest of all fundraisers, the Stay Home and Read a Book Ball, took place last year, writer Mark Salzman, chair of the event, invited Members to participate in a private writing workshop.

Members were also invited to many other exclusive events with celebrated authors including these Leadership Circle receptions and private events:
Displaying A3S_9299.jpg
Sharon Rising, Marlene Billington and Patt Morrison gather for a reception with Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California.

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As part of What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?, D. Graham Burnett with Douglas Murray, Bernadette Glenn, and Ken Brecher.


Songs in the Key of LA performance with Van Dyke Parks and special guests.

Membership also comes with some special savings benefits. This year, Members received early access to the Summer Sale at the award-winning Library Store and discounts at other Los Angeles organizations as part of May and November’s Member Appreciation Days.

As always, Members received priority notice of the ALOUD lineups throughout the year, and this past September Members also received priority notice to the launch of “Lost & Found at the Movies,” a new series celebrating the art of cinema and the vitality of film culture. Curated by John Nein, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, the program kicked off with Los Angeles Times and NPR Film Critic Kenneth Turan talking about how and where we watch films in L.A. (pictured above.)
The Young Literati’s annual Annenberg Beach House party was the perfect kick off to “Whatever Happened to Moby Dick?”. Members were treated to readings by Moby, Mark Z. Danielewski, Colin Hanks, and Attica Locke; a DJ set by Shepard Fairey; and a special acoustic performance by thenewno2.

Young Literati also enjoyed cocktails with Roy Choi after a particularly mouthwatering edition of ALOUD. During the evening, Roy Choi discussed his fascinating journey, which has culminated in his critically-acclaimed Kogi BBQ Trucks and several much-loved restaurants. He then joined Young Literati Members in the courtyard for a private reception featuring tacos and beer!
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And the Young Literati’s Private Party at Subliminal Projects was an evening of literary inspiration at Amanda and Shepard Fairey’s Echo Park gallery space. Kai and Sunny’s literature-inspired artwork provided a beautiful backdrop for Young Literati to mingle and enjoy special cocktails from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

Thank you to all of our Members for spending the year with us! If you are looking for some last minute holiday gifts, Membership is the gift that keeps on giving. For a limited time this December and January, a generous Member of our Board of Directors will match your gift dollar for dollar when you join the Library Foundation.

For more information about Membership contact Erin Sapinoso at erinsapinoso@lfla.org. Or for more information about the Young Literati, contact Jennnifer Kondo at jenniferkondo@lfla.org.