Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday Night at KGB: Nina Siegal & Warren Adler

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Monday, March 17, 2008:

Sunday Night at KGB: Nina Siegal & Warren Adler

Teaching everything from business writing to creative writing five evenings a week at four campuses – The School of Visual Arts, Fashion Institute of Technology, Borough of Manhattan Community College and Brooklyn College – I don’t get to go much to readings this semester. But last evening I went to a terrific one at KGB with classy debut novelist Nina Siegal and the legendary Warren Adler, screenwriter and author of dozens of novels and story collections, including the justly-celebrated best-seller The War of the Roses.

Siegal, an MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, worked as a top New York journalist for a number of years and she’s put her newspaper experience to good use in what sounds like a delightful romp of a murder mystery, A Little Trouble with the Facts, published two weeks ago by HarperCollins.

It’s a very New York novel, and from the first chapter and other excerpts that Siegal read fluidly last night, it’s a breezy and very funny noir-ish take on the upper reaches of the Manhattan media and art worlds. Valerie Vane (all the names sound as if they belong to characters in 1930s films featuring fast-talking swells and gum-snapping dames) is a reporter who covered the glamorous and famous for a Times-like "newspaper of record," now demoted to the obituary desk.

When a mysterious caller, "Cabeza," feeds her information that the supposed suicide of a once-famous graffiti artist wasn’t really a suicide, Valerie turns gumshoe (after listening to Siegal’s snappy prose, I find it hard to avoid writing words like "gumshoe") to investigate. The novel seems as if it’s full of social satire from someone who knows the scenes she’s covering like she knows the back of her hand.

After a short intermission following Siegal’s reading, Warren Adler came up to read a story from his new collection, New York Echoes. Although he lived elsewhere for forty years, the Brooklyn native recently returned to the city (I know the feeling) and if the piece last night is any indication, his eye for details and Manhattan milieus is as sharp as ever).

"The Mean Mrs. Dickstein," which Adler said he was not going to read half as well as Cynthia Nixon did for (you can listen here) is an old-fashioned story about a 75-year-old lifelong New Yorker, a genuinely sweet old widow who’s nevertheless no fool. Like many older Manhattan residents, she’s a prisoner of her routine, and when she sets out to re-read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black on "her" bench at Central Park on a spring weekday, the confrontation-averse Mrs. Dickstein is faced with a nightmare: a stylish, vulgar yuppie woman who will not stop yakking loudly and pretentiously on her cell phone. I could see the ending coming a mile away, but that didn’t make the resolution of the story any less perfect or less satisfying.

I’ve long admired Adler’s fiction, particularly his stories. Living in a condo at Sunrise Golf Village in 1982, when I was decades younger than any of my neighbors, I stumbled upon Adler’s story collection The Sunset Gang, set in a South Florida condo similar to the milieu I found myself in. I was entranced. Just two years ago, I taught his story "Yiddish" to students at a Jewish community high school in English and the teenagers in my class loved the story of forbidden love among people their grandparents’ ago.

Last night Adler also mentioned his just-published novel, Funny Boys, about young comedians in Catskills resort hotels in the 1930s, is "historical fiction" and he wondered if people today even knew what the Borscht Belt was. (Being of a certain age, with parents who owned the DeVille Country Club in South Fallsburg – "where the elite meet," the slogan went – I certainly did.) It looks like a charming book too.

Warren Adler is really an amazing journeyman writer who deserves more recognition. I’ve enjoyed his books and his email newsletters. Adler has more advanced ideas about the publishing industry and using online technology than writers and editors one-third his age. His avatar lectures on Second Life and he runs web-based short story contests. Check him out.

As it did with Siegal, the KGB audience gave Adler a lot of applause when he finished his stint at the podium. Although the old pro Adler admitted that he didn’t go to many readings because he found them boring, this night at KGB was anything but boring. I enjoyed both authors a lot and look forward to reading more of their work.

--- Nina Siegal will be giving her final New York reading this Wednesday at Three of Cups in the East Village.

Also at KGB, in the Kraine Theatre, you’ll find currently running the new rock musical based on the gripping memoir, Attorney for the Damned, by Denis Woychuk, my friend for 34 years from the Brooklyn College MFA program, who adapted his book for the stage.

It’s got a limited run, so catch the show while you can. (Denis is also the owner of KGB!)