Friday, October 27, 2017

Songs for Amazing Comet Girls

Behold, a photo of the raffle prize I brought to last week's staged reading of my newest play, Carmenta (themed raffle prizes being one of the charms of the San Francisco Olympians Festival).

Carmenta is a play about motherhood, rock music, and the turns a woman's life can take, so my prize was a book called Record Collecting for Girls and a handwritten playlist of songs that fit the play's mood. Female singers, jangly guitars, '90s nostalgia, empowering and/or mystical lyrics, and no love songs or breakup songs. I call it Songs for Amazing Comet Girls (after a line in the play) -- listen on Spotify or just reference the list of song titles below:
  1.  “Feed the Tree” - Belly
  2. “Can’t Be Sure” - The Sundays
  3. “Gepetto” - Belly
  4. “Running Up That Hill” - Kate Bush
  5.  “Dog Days Are Over” - Florence & the Machine
  6.  “Winter” - Tori Amos
  7.  “Dreams” - The Cranberries 
  8. “Not Too Soon” - Throwing Muses 
  9. “Wonder” - Natalie Merchant 
  10. “Ray of Light” - Madonna   
Admittedly, the playlist was also a means of sweetening the raffle-prize pot, because I bought the book mainly for its title and don't actually think it's a great read...

Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a TimeRecord Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time by Courtney E. Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Courtney E. Smith has definite music-nerd cred. She owns hundreds of records, she loves pop-music history, and she used to promote upcoming indie bands at MTV. Unfortunately, all that music cred doesn’t automatically make someone a good music writer. Yes, yes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—Smith even uses this quote in her book, crediting it to Elvis Costello, her all-time favorite musician. But clearly some people are better music-writers (or architecture-dancers) than others. Describing her love for Costello’s music, Smith resorts to banalities like “I found myself really getting into his clever lyrics. His songs are so easy to fall in love with.” Surely it’s possible to come up with livelier commentary than that.

I picked up Record Collecting for Girls because I’ve been thinking a lot about how women make and listen to music (my new play Carmenta touches on that theme, and I’ve been diving into NPR’s Turning the Tables project). As such, it’s kind of unfortunate how many of these essays are about men. Smith’s tone is somewhere between “cool big sister” and “one of the boys.” She obviously wants young women to explore their musical passions and to hold their own with other music nerds (who tend to be male). But I wish there was more in here about music-related experiences she has had on her own or with female friends, rather than with crushes or boyfriends.

And yes, I know this is intended as a light, fun memoir/essay collection, not a how-to book, a scholarly study of how women relate to pop music, or an in-depth work of music criticism. All the same, I feel like I read better pop-culture writing on the Internet every day. The online personal-essay boom produced lots of deep, funny, vulnerable writing, and Smith just can’t compete. For instance, one essay here is about how you should never date a guy who loves the Smiths. Isn’t there something amusingly Freudian about a woman named Smith who distrusts men who like The Smiths? But she never gets to that deeper level, she just keeps sniping about Morrissey.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Majok and Ionesco

Today's Script Reading Roundup: two talented playwrights of Eastern European heritage with very different styles, approaches, and places in the canon.

by Martyna Majok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Ironbound is a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, but it's also an appropriate metaphorical title for this play about a Polish immigrant woman struggling to make the best of a bad set of options. Martyna Majok dramatizes pivotal moments in the life of Darja over the course of more than 20 years, creating a bravura role for an actress in the process. Although the title of the play makes it sound very grim, it has moments of humor and tenderness, and the three male roles reveal unexpected depths. Admittedly, some plot developments at the end failed to convince me: the main difficulty with this kind of character-study, slice-of-life play is wrapping it up in a satisfying way, and I'm not sure Ironbound pulls it off. Still, this is an absorbing and heartfelt drama about the crumbling American dream and the choices Darja makes to cling to it.

Rhinoceros and Other PlaysRhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugène Ionesco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just after the 2016 U.S. election, Teju Cole published an essay on what Rhinoceros can tell us about the dangers of “minimiz[ing] evil or describ[ing] it as something else.” And it really is uncanny how the dialogue in this play anticipates arguments that I am currently reading online and in newspapers… even though Ionesco's characters are discussing an invasion of terrifying, mindless, destructive animals, and we nowadays are discussing the Trump administration. (Oh, wait.)

Admittedly, Rhinoceros is one of those plays that was groundbreaking when it was first produced but now feels more familiar. Just as R.U.R. set the pattern for subsequent “robot uprising” stories, Rhinoceros often feels like a prototype for zombie movies. I mean, obviously it’s about people turning into rhinos, not zombies, but it uses a lot of the same tropes: the mysterious outbreak that advances with terrifying speed, the confusion and angst of the dwindling band of survivors, the understanding that this supernatural horror is really a metaphor for something else.

Though Ionesco’s message about the lure of fascist conformity is pretty grim, there is enough absurdist humor here to keep it an entertaining read (I particularly liked the stage direction “the rhinoceros replies with a violent but tender trumpeting”). It’s also comforting to think that maybe the misfits of the world are the ones best equipped to resist mass hysteria. The protagonist, Berenger, is a bit of an outsider in his small provincial town: he’s melancholic, alcoholic, dissatisfied with life. But he is able to resist the rhinoceros plague after the more outwardly successful citizens succumb.

I was less impressed with the other two, shorter plays in this volume. While Rhinoceros deals with “normal” people reacting to an absurd situation and involves some degree of psychological realism, the characters in the other plays are shrill, absurdist caricatures. Also, it’s annoying that the The Future is in Eggs is listed as “a kind of sequel to Jacques, or Obedience,” but Jacques isn’t included in this volume (you have to get Grove Press’s other Ionesco compilation, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays , for that).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jane Austen on the Haight-Noriega Bus

A friend sent me this cartoon a few months ago, saying "this woman IS you," and never have I felt so seen and so called-out.

 An Account of the Perturbations that may Befall a Young Lady 
who reads Classic Literature on a Public Conveyance

After the young lady had stood strap-hanging for far too long for comfort, a pair of seats on the omnibus became available when the conveyance made its arranged stop at the busy but unpropitious intersection of Haight-street and Stanyan. Fortunate chance! With alacrity she hurried to sit—making sure only to occupy one seat, the window-most, for to take up both would be most discourteous—though indeed she was burdened with possessions: a Handbag, and a Laptop-computer.

No sooner had she caught her breath than a young man sat down next to her: a shaggy-haired fellow, in wool trousers cut off at the knees and with the reek of something herbal about his person. He too was laden down; he bore several brown paper bags from Whole-foods, though in truth his appearance did little to suggest that he frequented this most costly of grocers.

The young man (for that I must call him, being most uncertain as to whether he was entitled to the rank of gentleman) apologized to the young lady for taking the vacant seat, saying “I have to sit here to make room.” The young lady merely nodded her acknowledgement. Indeed it is courteous and gentlemanlike to sit in a vacant seat rather than to stand in the aisle, yet it is not a gesture that needs verbal acknowledgement on the part of the lady, nor apology on the part of the gentleman. It is simply good manners, yet to boast of one’s good manners in the guise of a “humbly-bragging” apology is no manners at all.

The young lady continued to peruse her book, the delightful and instructive Emma. The young man retrieved a container of “boxed-water” from one of his shopping bags and proceeded to guzzle down many swigs of it directly from the carton.

After some time the young man attempted to gain the young lady’s attention. He peered intently at the back cover of her book (for this was the cover nearest to him) as well as at the bookmark she clutched between her fingers. The young lady readied herself to be addressed, and a slight hope rose in her breast that despite the man’s infelicitous appearance, he might prove a pleasant conversationalist on the subject of classic literature.

But she found herself perplexed at his opening salvo: “Will you trade that book in after you’re done with it?”

“No, thank you,” she said, with a slight frown.

“It’s because of that bookmark—it says Buy, Sell, Trade.”

“Ah,” said the young lady. Curt her response may have been, but his words led her thoughts on a series of sad reflections. “Great Overland Books—Buy, Sell, Trade!” How many delightful hours she had spent in that cluttered bookshop with its creaky stairs, its white-bearded proprietor who had once written letters to the great Samuel Beckett! And now the Great Overland was soon to shut its doors forever—the sign for its going-out-of-business sale was displayed in the window. She had not yet been able to work up the emotional fortitude to enter the bookshop for the final time and say goodbye.

As she engaged in these melancholy reflections, the young man persisted: “Did you trade something else for it?”


“Did you buy it new?”

Such interest in how she had chosen to outlay her money on this Penguin Classics paperback! “Yes. The bookmark is from something else—it did not come with the book—I had it lying around.”

The subject of how the young lady had bought the book being exhausted, and the subject of Miss Austen’s writing obviously not being to his interest, the young man attempted to redirect the conversation: “Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?”

“No,” said the young lady, with a slight chuckle to herself. Really, what was it with would-be suitors and Dostoevsky? The first young man who had courted her (who turned out a cad and a bounder, but no matter) had insisted that she ought to read The Brothers Karamazov. But despite the urgings of first love, over ten years had gone by and she had never read a word of this bleakest of Russian novelists.

“It’s a bit thicker than that one there,” the young man said boastfully. As though thickness were the ultimate measure of a book, and more valor accrued to he who reads Dostoevsky’s thick tale of a murderer than to she who reads Austen’s slimmer and more domestic volumes! With a slight irritation in her voice, the young lady replied, “Well, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve ever read, or anything.”

Satisfied in having gotten the last word, the young lady was also satisfied in being spared any further discourse: the young man reached his stop and descended with his bags, leaving behind only a sharp, herbal scent that irritated her nostrils as his conversation had irritated her mind.