Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday Night in Tempe: Michael Montlack and "My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them" at Changing Hands Bookstore

We went back to the fabulous Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe for the second evening event in a row, and we're glad we did.

Michael Montlack, whose poetry we've admired for years, gave a wonderful reading from and talk about the well-received anthology he conceived and edited, My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them.

Like last night's event, it drew a smallish (about twenty) but enthusiastic crowd, including Big Bird sitting in the back row. We all pretty much adored Michael's talk about how he came to create My Diva and his readings, assisted by a friend, of not just his own essay but those of several wonderful writers who are among his 65 contributors.

The book has received wonderful notices, such as this rave in Publishers Weekly:
In very short, very tender essays, a variety of gay male writers, from poets to playwrights to a standup comic, pay homage to an even wider variety of women who have inspired them. Peter Dubé writes how the photography of Claude Cahun suggested "a delirious world of possibilities"; Jeff Oaks recalls a childhood of wearing wristbands fashioned from paper cups to emulate his "model of power," Wonder Woman; Christopher Lee Nutter looks back on his closeted teenage years and how Sade taught him "that there was a world somewhere that suited them better than the world they'd been born into"...such standout pieces as Mark Doty on Grace Paley are elegant and affectionate tributes to how these muses have been "fairy godmothers" and "older sisters," as Montlack's introduction explains, and illustrate how complex, sustaining and lifelong are the bonds between gay men and their divas.

And Library Journal:
The essays, mostly three to five pages, are touching and thoughtful as well as funny, as they lovingly detail what each author's personal diva has meant to him. Show business and popular culture icons abound, with most of the usual suspects present (Liza, Marlene, Cher, both Bettes, and Joan), as well as choices from history and politics (Elizabeth I, Eva Perón), the culinary arts (Julia Child, Jennifer Patterson), and even fictitious figures (Auntie Mame, Princess Leia, Endora)...This is one of those delightful books you can open at random and be amused, enlightened, or moved by.

Michael, who divides his time between New York City, where he'a an English professor at Berkeley College, and San Francisco, discussed how he came up with the idea of the book, a departure from his work in poetry (his chapbooks include Girls, Girls, Girls, The Slip and Cover Charge).

He found that nearly all the gay male writers he solicited as contributors were immediately excited about the idea of writing about their personal divas; their only concern was that someone else might reserve her first. It turned out there were few overlapping requests. There's a diva for everyone, it seems.

After discussing how the book was put together, Michael read his own essay on his diva, Stevie Nicks, whom he's loved since viewing her on MTV in the early 1980s during his Long Island childhood.

The essays Michael read are fairly brief but interestingly varied. Surprisingly, the most stereotypical divas -- the trinity of Judy, Barbra and Madonna -- were not among them, but there were some fascinating choices. (Michael said he got a little grief early on for having such a "non-traditional" diva as Stevie Nicks.) For example, "Heart of a King" by Patrick Letellier is an appreciation of what the author admits is a "nerd's diva," Queen Elizabeth I.

RJ Gibson's penetrating look at Annie Lennox takes off from her legendary appearance with the Eurythmics at the 1984 Grammy Awards ("Mom, is that a guy?") and evolves into a meditation on androgyny.

We especially liked the unconventional selection of the brilliant and underrated comedian Margaret Dumont in Christopher Murray's "The Duchess of Dignity," which has brilliant insights about the Marx Brothers' straight woman as a role model for how a ridiculed outcast can maintain her power and grace.

And delicious is the first word we can think of for one of the essays on a fictional diva (others in the book include Princess Leia and Auntie Mame), "Afternoons with Endora" by the always-worth-reading Richard Blanco, who chronicles how the witch created by Agnes Moorehead on TV's Bewitched served to empower a sensitive Miami kid constantly ridiculed and demeaned by his homophobic abuela. Like the other divas, Endora helped a young man survive and thrive.

We look forward to reading the contributors' other essays in My Diva. Thanks to Changing Hands (don't forget their annual New Year's Day sale) and to Michael Montlack for tonight's event, and if he ever decides to do a sequel, we know at least one diva who merits inclusion.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday Night in Tempe: Mary Z. Maher and "Actors Talk About Shakespeare" at Changing Hands Bookstore

On a cool, pleasant evening, we drove over from Apache Junction to our favorite bookstore of all time, Changing Hands in Tempe, for a fascinating talk by Mary Z. Maher on her new book, Actors Talk About Shakespeare.

The book features interviews with Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Zoe Caldwell, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Nicholas Pennell, Geoff Hutchings and other American, Canadian and British actors talking about acting Shakespearean roles. Maher, who taught acting and Shakespeare at the University of Arizona, worked on BBC's The Shakespeare Plays series and has published over 50 articles and book chapters in her field, and her earlier book Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies is a classic in performance studies.

Maher now lives in Ashland, Oregon, home of the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she lectures on the art of performing Shakespeare. We felt lucky to hear her talk over a wide range of issues related to the subject tonight.

She began by decrying the lack of documentation of acting performances and stage productions in the United States, saying that "when the curtain is struck, not a rack is left behind." Actors' unions make difficult the videotaping of theatrical performances, which with today's technology, wouldn't be that expensive. As a scholar, this lack has made her work difficult and frustrating; there really is no way we can compare Shakespearean acting styles of, say, the 1920s, 1950s and today.

There are some wonderful video resources, Maher said, at a few places, like the Billy Rose Performing Arts Library (near the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University, where we teach), but it's limited to one-time screenings by scholars, and Maher complained that there were no decent video performances of, say, the Lears of Stacy Keach or Kevin Kline.

So Maher began interviewing actors for her Hamlet soliloquies book and this one as a way of providing a record of some sort of these ephemeral but often historic performances. She began shyly, but actors, Maher said, taught her how to do interviews, and she told a charming story about Ben Kingsley, who'd suggested they do a Saturday morning interview at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater, unaware that a hundred noisy kids would be there for a drama group. The old pro Kingsley showed her how to muffle the sound so her tape recorder would work and proved generous with his time and insights.

Clearly, Maher is smitten with her subjects, some of whom are happy to go over the limited time periods they originally scheduled (Kenneth Branagh offered her only an hour but then said he'd come back for a much longer session once he'd "had a pee") and some of whom, like Kevin Kline, seem to have become her friends.

Aided by photos of some of the actors in their classic Shakespeare roles, Maher told some wonderful stories (and withheld others, like the theatrical gossip about co-stars and directors told to her by the legendary Zoe Caldwell). It's easy to get swept up in Maher's enthusiasm for her subject, and she tells nice stories on herself too, like the time Tom Stoppard startled her at Waterstone's in Stratford-Upon-Avon by coming behind her and putting his hand on her shoulder and praising her theater scholarship.

She called Kenneth Branagh "the king of networking" and described him going into "his little professor persona" as he talked about his work with such precision. Zoe Caldwell explained in painstaking deal how she prepares for a role like Cleopatra. And Derek Jacobi (who we saw in the wonderful Royal Shakespeare production of Much Ado a quarter-century ago) was frank about the shortcomings of some of his directors.

Kevin Kline seems to be Maher's favorite, inviting her to rehearsals of both theatrical productions and his work as a director for TV's PBS version of Hamlet. But it's obvious that Maher loves all the actors who's given her interviews, and she's got a treasure trove of stories about them; during the enlightening Q&A period, Maher proved just as interesting in her opinions of various Shakespeare productions.

Her favorite play? A Midsummer Night's Dream, which "unfolds like magic." She's naturally a partisan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but she seems open to all kinds of productions of the Bard's plays, including Henry VIII and perhaps even Two Noble Kinsmen. Her books sound fascinating and we look forward to reading them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday Morning in East Mesa: Christmas Eve Shopping at the Signal Butte Wal-Mart SuperCenter

After getting the New York Times and iced tea at the Starbucks on Signal Butte Road in far east Mesa near our house this morning, we moseyed over to the shopping center across the street to check out Christmas Eve shopping at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

It was just 9 a.m., but we thought the store would be more crowded.

The Great Recession has hit this part of the Phoenix metro area hard, with lots of foreclosures and a halt and reversal of the phenomenal Arizonan growth early in this decade (our house was bought in 1999).

Where we live, the Apache Junction unified school district, whose greatest problem always seemed to be keeping up with demands of an exponentially growing community, is now contemplating closing two schools due to fewer students.

Although yesterday's Census figures show Arizona still growing slightly, local leaders suspect the numbers are a desert mirage and that Cactus State growth is at a standstill or even declining like our former home state of Florida.

Still, we were surprised by the empty aisles and lack of shoppers. Of course, maybe everyone did their Christmas shopping on time. Or maybe the last-minute people will come later in the day.

Anyway, according to the New York Times blog Bucks yesterday:

Retailing groups...have been noticing that shoppers have been procrastinating a bit more than usual this year. According to the National Retail Federation’s 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch and released last week, the average person had completed 46.7 percent of their holiday shopping by the second week of December, less than the 47.1 percent completed by this time last year and the lowest percentage since 2004.

But most of the people at the cash registers seemed to be buying groceries, not gifts.

Certainly, a few people were stocking up on Christmas presents, but we didn't see much evidence of frantic last-day shopping here.

Of course, we have nothing to compare what we saw today with, so this could be a very good Christmas shopping season for all we know.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, our family had a place at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, the South's largest flea market, and we were highly attuned to the ups and downs of Christmases in years of recession and boom.

For the sake of the 2010 economy and our fragile recovery, let's hope everyone got out and spent more than we did.

After paying about $16 for socks and underwear - with only one guy with one item ahead of us at the cash register - we headed home to Apache Junction. As often as we see it, we're always in awe as we approach majestic Superstition Mountain.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday Evening in Downtown Brooklyn: Giant Menorah Lighting and Chanukah Party at the State Supreme Court and Borough Hall

Six days after the lighting of the giant outdoor Christmas tree at Borough Hall and three days after the start of Chanukah, we stood with about a hundred others in front of the state Supreme Court building at 5:30 p.m. this evening to witness the official inauguation and lighting of Brooklyn's 25-foot tall "official menorah," The Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht Menorah.

(This giant "official menorah" is not to be confused with Brooklyn's "largest public menorah," the 30-footer at Grand Army Plaza

sponsored by Rabbi Shimon Hecht of Park Slope, who's the son of Jacob J. Hecht and the uncle of Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin, the sponsor and MC of tonight's "official" menorah lighting in Cadman Plaza.)

(Brooklyn's long-running annual menorah wars, spilling over into the Atlantic Terminal mall and presumably around the borough, are too arcane a shonda for our goyishe kupf to comprehend, though our bet is that Hamas and Likud will be friends before the rival Chabad branches make peace.)

(Also, the Grand Army Plaza menorah in Brooklyn is not to be confused with the "world's largest menorah" at Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue at 59th Street in Manhattan which has been lit up since, appropriately, the Beame administration. In the spirit of the holiday season, we have just decided to disallow reader comments for this blog post.)

Anyway, we got there to see a talented young man named Shmuli Rutman juggle torches just like the Maccabees once did when they weren't killing people (we were playing hooky, as usual, from the Flatbush Park Jewish Center Hebrew school on that day in 1960 when the Festival of Lights was explained, but Mitchell Heller from East 54th Street told us about it later).

He also juggled balls while eating an apple

and balanced a unicycle on his head while wearing, variously, his chin and a black hat, as another talented young man played the keyboard. The musician's name we caught as Elly Melech, but that may be just his stage name, changed by a talent agent or a rabbi (same thing, some will say). (Readers who want non-blurry photos and non-sarcastic commentary are directed to the fine Brooklyn Heights Blog.)

Rabbi Raskin then welcomed the crowd and introduced the noted chazan, Zalman Baumgarten, who melliflously and soulfully sang "Sholom Aleichem" and "God Bless America."

We were hoping he'd do another Irving Berlin number (our fave: "White Christmas") but were delighted when he sang the world's greatest Chanukah song in Yiddish:
Oy Chanukah oy Chanukah a yontif a
A lustiker a freylicher nito noch a zeyner
Alle nacht in dreydlech shpiln mir
Zudik hesse latkes essen mir
Geshvinder tsindt kinder di Chanukah
lichtelech on
Zol yeder bazunder bazingen dem
vunder un tantzen freylech
in kohn

Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn Borough President for Life and someone we've known and loved for 40 years now, then made his inevitable, inimitable appearance. He's at his best at festive events like this evening's, misspeaking only once when he said that throughout history, the Jewish people had "found tragedy in the world's worst tragedies." Clearly, he meant to say hope, the theme of his talk.

In introducing the Consul General of Turkey, Mehmet Samsar, who would light the menorah again this year, Marty spoke about the long history of Jewish people in Turkey and Turkey's friendship with Israel, though he conceded a recent "blip" in relations, likening it to tensions between family members - perhaps like those between certain related Brooklyn rabbis.

And Marty also likened the wonderful city of Istanbul to New York, with the European part of the city akin to Manhattan and the Asian part of the city on the other side of the Bosporous like Brooklyn. And we do hear Turks actually call it "Brooklyn on the Bosporous." (Someone we met at Güllüoglu told us that.) Anyway, the Consul General gave a nice little speech

and then got on the Con Ed cherry picker with Rabbi Raskin to do the honors and get that shamash and the other four electronic candles lit.

As the Consul General and Rabbi Raskin lit the menorah, Cantor Baumgarten said the two blessings. We are happy to note that he pronounced the Hebrew correctly (i.e., the way we do):
Borukh Ato Adoynoy Eloyheynu Melekh Ho-oylom Asher Kiddeshonu Be-mitsvoysov Ve-tsivonu Lehadlik Neyr Shel khanuko

That's Common Ashkenazi, according to the always-informative Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, which also lists the renegade but popular Sfaradi/Modern Israeli pronunciation:
Barukh Atta Adonay Eloheynu Melekh Ha-olam Asher Kiddeshanu Be-mitsvotav Ve-tsivanu Lehadlik Ner Shel khanuka

as well as the eccentric Southern Ashkenazi drawl employed by Moldovan hillbillies:
Burikh Atu Adoynoy Eloyhayni Melekh Hu-oylum Asher Kiddeshuni Be-mitsvoysuv Ve-tsivuni Lehadlik Nayr Shel khaniku

Afterwards there was a nice, if somewhat blurry, Chanukah party inside Borough Hall.

There were lines for toys for the tottelehs as well as for food supplied by Trader Joe's and great Midwood establishments like Avenue J's Kosher Bagel Hole and Coney Island Avenue's Chiffon Kosher Bakery and Pomegranate supermarket.

The latkes went fast. Even the Turkish and Egyptian people in front of us liked them despite their not being burmuelos.

On the way out we got a last glance at the giant Borough Hall Christmas tree.

We're on our way west to get out of the cold before the holidays end.

Happy Chanukah to everyone except Joe Lieberman, trinkn zoln im piavkes.