Thursday, October 3, 2019

Don the Con: A Kid's book of Trumpian Humor for Adults! Very fun. See video on Kickstarter page

I have never before posted about a Kickstarter book but this one is so fun. By award winning children's book author Roseanne Greenfield and wonderful illustrator David Juarez, this is both original and very familiar!  Perfect for 2020 and the adult child in your life!  
S.W.



Don the ConA Kid’s book of Trumpian Humor for Adults!
 “With facts, our boy was not too picky.
War is peace…let’s not get sticky!”

Dive into a ‘swamp’ of tantrums, misdeeds and muddled understandings as a schoolyard bully embarks on a steep learning curve that takes him all the way through high school—only to discover what most learn in kindergarten! This wickedly-witty parody sings with lilting rhyme and is illustrated with satirical spice!  Woven into the text are current political mainstays: immigration, border walls, climate change, Russian collusion, fake information and more!  “He was soon loaded down with pounds of bling. These Russian kids are the genuine thing!”’

This is a call to endure the last year of Trump’s tantrums with the best armor we have at our disposal:  humor, wit, and a democratic ending!  Visit us at: 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dontheconbook/don-the-con 

to help publish this 26-page soft cover picture book that delivers THE BEST LAUGH OF 2020 that will carry us through to next November!

About the author     
Roseanne Greenfield is an award-winning author of 16 children's books that celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. Roseanne’s awards include New York Public Library’s 100 Best Books List, Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best, USA Today’s Best Holiday Book for Kids, California Reading Association Honor (Eureka!) Book, Best Latino-Themed Picture Book and more.  Roseanne teaches and has given author talks and writing workshops in numerous cities in the US and abroad.  You can see more of Roseanne’s books at www.greenfield-thong.com 

About the illustrator     
David Juarez is a storyboard artist, concept illustrator, and educator who enjoys sharing the joy of artistic expression in his community and beyond. He has studied at Pasadena's Art Center and in England.  A seasoned visual storyteller, he has lent his talents to the advertising and entertainment industries, helping craft the stories for striking campaigns and enthralling narratives.  David is a strong believer in "Doing what you can, where you can" to help those in need.  He sees this project as a great opportunity to address today's important issues through art and comedy.  You can reach out to David via his website. https://robotspaceninja.blogspot.com/

For more info:  www.donthecon.com.

















Thursday, September 19, 2019

GARDEN PRAYERS: Winter, Artist T.M. Givens paints life's rebirth in Botanic Garden


T.M. Givens, like his favorite poet Rilke, enjoys experiencing nature directly and making art from his impressions. Rilke's query; how do humans reconcile existence--beauty, suffering, life and death was answered in lyrical poems that begin in nature. Below, he  deals with the end of summer. (The last part reverberated with me, a city-dweller.)

Day In Autumn--Rainer Maria Rilke

After the summer's yield, Lord it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundial
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness
Direct on them two days of winter light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.

Whoever's homeless now, will build no shelter
who lives alone will live infinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city's avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.

I paint in my spare time and was fortunate this summer to be able to retreat into nature. Losing myself in existence without people can be more than peaceful, even transcendent.

It was with great pleasure that I received GARDEN PRAYERS: Winter by T. M. Givens. (Pelekinesis). This book's drawings form an extraordinary meditation of winter, moving toward Spring (which is the next volume). The earlier ones, with color edging out of  white space, seem to be life asserting itself. In the later ones, color dominates the white space. Maybe winter receding?











In his intro Terry Givens said  "After many long hours of wandering, I realized that not only did I enjoy this but over time I found some inner peace."

This kindred soul is an artist from Claremont California. His subtle beautiful drawings were done in the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which exhibited his work in a changing exhibition in 2018 entitled "Terry Givens 100 Garden Views."

For those curious about my ramblings, in NYC, I like St. Luke's Garden, the West River, in summer I love Long Beach Island, N.J. 






S.W.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

COLD WARRIORS, how writers' words were weaponized in war for "spheres of influence"



The Cold War was first an earsplitting siren, my first grade teacher urging us to crawl under our worktables and cover our heads. Hiding from "Nukes" was only a drill but real to me. Our teacher standing tall was very brave, as she waited--for what? The end of the world, wasn't a concept but many of us had seen mushroom clouds on TV, unsure what the images meant. We learned the BOMB brought peace, that our government protected us. But it was scary, threatening, a weird weapon in some global Western--bad guys behave or else?   Ideas are powerful after the unthinkable.

COLD WARRIORS: Writers Who Waged The Literary Cold War by Duncan White (Aug. 27, 2019, Custom House/William Morrow) is an  exciting read of huge scope, showing how literature was weaponized by both sides in an ideological conflict (western capitalist vs.eastern communist). Establishing "spheres of influence" meant survival for competing systems of government.

The information battlefield: "Operatives inflated ten-foot balloons, armed them with their payloads, waited for favorable winds, and launched them into Poland..These were not explosives or incendiary weapons; they were books. At the height of the Cold War, the CIA made copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm rain down from the Communist sky....This was one campaign and there were front organizations that produced tens of millions  of books, leaflets, pamphlets, posters and hundreds of thousands of balloons flying them in."

COLD WARRIORS begins in Spain in the 1930s,when a fateful bullet through Orwell's neck might have changed the course of the world. That fraction of an inch was the difference between him being another promising novelist fallen in the fight against Franco or a writer who fulfilled his potential. The book moves from Spain to Moscow's "show trials," and New York, where Mary McCarthy, found herself isolated for her lack of symathy for the Russian "experiment." Later, she will report on Vietnam's endgame. The circular plot follows five major writers (American, British, Russian)-George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Mary McCarthy, Graham Greene and Andrei Sinyavsky--through time and geography. The book ends in 1991 with Greene, Solzhenitsyn and  LeCarre in Moscow (1986-1991).

Writers suffered severe consequences for their words. In the West, depending on your politics, a writer, like Richard Wright, who fled to France, could find his voice silenced--his work unpublished. Yet Orwell's voice was amplified in global editions. And politics made strange literary bedfellows: "the dynamics of the Cold War made the U.S. government the champion of difficult elitest art--that of James Joyce, Jackson Pollock, and William Faulkner--in large part because it was banned in Moscow.. Unknown to many of these artists, these organizations that published challenging literature were U.S. backed. Modernist writers must have felt it as validation instead of collaboration."

In the Soviet Union,  a writer, such as Pasternak, embraced by the official writers union, celebrated by his countrymen, made a good living, and traveled abroad. But if he spirited a controversial work (Dr. Zhivago) to publication abroad, he became invisible. No longer able to support himself, new publications pulped, he was hounded by surveillance, and often banished to a Siberian work camp. The poet Anna Akhmatova was applauded by thousands in public readings and then abruptly banned when a poem offended Lenin. Deprived of a living and her son, who was sent to Siberia, survival became an act of will. But Isaac Babel, shot in the head, purged in an anti-semitic paroxysm, had no such option. Uniquely, Solzhineitzyn weaponized the publication of his books. As an international figure, he became untouchable--until forced into exile..

One side's loss was thought to enlarge the reach of the other. And, among the literary giants in this book--Solzhenitsyn, John le Carre, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, Gioconda Belli Arthur Koestler, Vaclav Havel, Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Babel Howard Fast, Lillian Hellman, Mikhail Sholokhov--some had serious effects on outcomes of conflicts; such as the surrogate war in Vietnam, Poland's Velvet Revolution, the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.

I especially enjoyed the sections in COLD WARRIORS about spies and writers. Driven by patriotism, ideology, personal experience or demons, these men and women were also often attracted to the dark glamor of the secret life. Philby, who became a master double agent, lived the life. Graham Greene and LeCarre, who acted as spies, were fundamentally writers. Philby in Cordoba, Cambridge, Vienna and London (1934-1942), Greene (1941-44) in Freetown, St. Albans and London, and Castro's female agent in Washington's inner circle, give a fascinating look at lives lived in fiction and fact. When reality became muddled, the consequences were irrevocable.

One of the things I loved about this book were the facts, fairly unknown in the U.S. On the end of the Vietnam War: "In the spring of 1968, polls showed that after the Tet Offensive, opposition to the war was widespread in the United States. On April 1, the bombing stopped. The previous night McCarthy listened on Voice of America as Johnson announced the end of aerial bombardment of North Vietnam and that he would not be standing for relection in 1968. Domestic dissent had worn down the Johnson administration. In October 1967, one hundred thousand protestors had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and roughly thirty thousand of these marched on the Pentagon."

Many people today have no idea of this history, because much of our media focussed instead on drugs and sex of the 1960s counter culture--the first generation to work with the entire population to stop an unpopular war. Those marches were a coalition of groups with a common cause, including the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other Veterans Groups. Young and old, housewives, feminists, retirees,  Republicans and Democrats, politicians and clergy.. Colleges were closed as students throughout the nation knocked on doors with info about the March; including a copy of the U.S. Constitution about a citizen's right to end an unjust war. I was a witness to what national unity can accomplish.

But the focus of COLD WARRIORS is on the writers. They shaped an era of warring ideology which changed the borders of a post war world. Ironically, the era ended as a "zero sum game," defined as  a mathematical  proposition "where each participant's gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of other participants."

Today it might be useful for young writers in the U.S. to consider how literature can regain its impact on our culture. We could of course blame our short attention spans on internet immersion or actually look at the kind of censorship we take for granted--a kind of economic censorship. Years ago as now, truly controversial novels, books about our political ideas and what they lead to, would not likely be published in the U.S. If they are critical of capitalistic or even "neo-liberal" values, they would be deemed "uncommercial." Those works are okay, often lauded if about another country.  Our home-grown Dreisers and Dos Passos don't get published.

We are getting closer to having no choice but to get serious. Rapid climate change gives us no choice. Personally, I am a fan of  university and genuine small publishers. My own, Pelekinesis, published new editions of my political novels, The Anarchist's Girlfriend and Paradise Gardens.  I recently released a pdf of PG (a cautionary tale set when the environment is uninhabitable and unbridled capitalism has led to feudalism) a few places so perhaps my words might "gain utility."

S.W.









Friday, August 23, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates' THE WATER DANCER--mythic "coming of age" in slavery has unexpected light



I read that Ta-Nehisi Coates was once a student of both Tony Morrison and E.L. Doctorow. These two as influences make sense in Coates' THE WATER DANCER, a novel that weaves African spiritual tradition with the cultural annhilation that was the slave economy in Virginia and the rest of the South. The darkness of this infamy has an unexpected light in this mythic "coming of age" novel, a kind of awe for the mystery of life.

THE WATER DANCER is a lyrical first-hand narrative of  plantation life in Virginia in the 1800s, when slave families were destroyed on whim or the business interests of owners.  As loved ones were sold down "Natchez Way" in Texas and other destinations west, those born to the "task" suffered husbands, wives, children disappearing often with no warning or forwarding address. The threat was enough to quell outer rebellion, while those so bereaved took comfort where it could be found--knowing it was transient..

The narrator, Hiriam Walker cannot remember the face of his disappeared mother but knows she told him that his father was the "Massa." She seemed not to like him but young Hiriam is proud his father is the master of the plantation. And, while working in the fields he's recognized by his father, who flips him a rough totemic coin. He'd heard of Hiriam's clever tricks, based on his ability to remember anything he's seen or read (a skill he must conceal).

When Hiriam learns he is to move from the ramshackle slave street to the big house, he's thrilled,  seeing it as his first step to his aspirations. He hears but doesn't believe the warning of  the woman who raised him, that the house people were not his real family. Hiriam's values are split between the estate he sees as his destiny and the warm loving slave society that nurtures him. He gets an upper room with books, a tutor and is mesmerized by learning. But his comfort remains in the subterranean slave life, literally under the house.

Hiram's shockeed, when his education is suddenly aborted right before his long desired first astronomy lesson. But his education is more than sufficient for his task, serving as man servant to his white and legitimate half brother. To Hiriam's chagrin, the destined master of the estate is a childish doofus with little respect for his class, "the Quality"  of Virginia. Hiriam must save him from his rash impulses and profound ignorance. He is determined to uphold the behavioral standards of the "Quality" as opposed to the low whites, who do their bidding and bully slaves.

The ability Hiriam was born with is no match for the other's born privilege. Yet  he's got access to books  so life under this "task"is bearable. But as time moves on, and many slaves are sold to compensate for the increasingly poor tobacco crops, Hiriam knows his father could also sell him away like his mother. Though he realizes he's valued for his intelligence and judgment, his mother is a faceless trauma he cannot resolve.

Then Hiriam meets beautiful Sophia, the consort of his uncle. Though allowed more independence than a field worker, she runs "hot and cold" with him at first, bitterly aware she cannot command the use of her body. Their relationship proves radical, transforming and dangerous. What happens when a slave can no longer live under the task?  For Hiriam, his "fall" from privilege, means degradation and abuse; the loss of everything he loved, all that defined him.

Yet this destruction leads him to the reality underlying the tasked slaves of the South--the existence of the Underground Railroad. Here Hiriam's abiltiies prove invaluable and he grows into his ultimate task. Along the way, he meets the invincable Harriet Tubman and learns the secret of his mother's disappearance and his own startling transcendent powers. And, like a ballad, where the past intersects with the future, THE WATER DANCER travels to the free land--Philadelphia, where slaves could live as free men--if they avoided capture by preying bounty hunters.

I have read the stories of Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 for works like The Magician of Lublin. What Singer did for his massacred people, forced to flee at the whims of governments, was provide vibrant stories and myths from lost homelands. In a similar vein, Coates' novel celebrates myth, memory and mystery.

From a Virginian tobacco plantation to the secret lore of African kings and the spycraft of the  Underground railroad, this is an enchanting novel. It's full of truth about the human evil of men, strange unexpected deliverance, and the joy of  true companions. Ultimately, THE WATER DANCER explores the coming of age of a biracial boy in a nation becoming indivisible.

S.W.






Saturday, August 10, 2019

America's terrorist underbelly exposed in Slaughter's THE LAST WIDOW and O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"


In Flannery O'Coonor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a criminal called The Misfit, a caricature of a good ol' boy gone bad, and his atavistic cohorts randomly capture a typical southern family. In this darkly satirical story, the criminals' shockingly casual killings are indelibly linked with the family's hypocritical values--illusions about class and virtue, racial prejudice, religious pretensions. This story, like Karin Slaughter's thriller, is about America's underbelly, where mainstream values have gone to seed, as the disaffected revel in demented revenge.

Karin Slaughter's THE LAST WIDOW (August 2019, HarperLuxe) begins in our time, July 7th, 2019 with the odd "random" kidnapping of a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control.  It's but a prologue to a bombing in Atlanta near Emory University; two major hospitals, the FBI headquarters, and CDC. The two actions are no coincidence and only the beginning.

Sara, a medical examiner, and her partner, Will, an investigator for the Georgia Bureau of  Investigation, rush to the scene that resembles our worst terrorist nightmares. What they eventually uncover is a deadly conspiracy, as savagely American as O'Connor's tale. This is literary territory but though Slaughter writes fast-paced bestsellers, THE LAST WIDOW crosses over to explore the origins of  radical right wing conspiracy against mainstream American life.

Dreiser's An American Tragedy traces evil action back to America's hyper valued ambition,  business success, high social status and prejudices against dreaded poverty and career failure. Like Dreiser, who was influenced by evolution, Slaughter's novel brought to mind the concept of the primitive "reptilian" part of our human brain, These are big themes in a page turner with believably noble characters amid monsters that unfortunately aren't too hard to believe.

In THE LAST WIDOW racism and xenophobia masquerade as patriotism. "Traditional" family values mask abuse of women and children. Through her protagonists' race to halt the death of thousands,  commercially cherished values; marriage,loyalty, fairness translate into their opposites. This is both a thriller and a novel of ideas in a high stakes situation, where nothing can be taken for what it seems.

I loved how Slaughter's lovers were both flawed and aware of their shortcomings. I found dyslexic Will, once an orphan on the streets, now an intrepid fighter for the helpless and Sara, born with a silver spoon, a doctor who saves lives and tracks criminals who take them--actually touching. The couple's differing kinds of intelligence, ambiguity about love and shared risk-taking are the heart of the  plot to find the terrorists. Stakes constantly ratchet up and when Sara is also kidnapped, Will becomes a one-man army to save her and America from a virulent home-grown  terrorism.

It was a pleasure to spend time with this couple, willing to put themselves on the line, pay the ultimate price--but not their loved partner! You want both to make it. This was an  "edge of your seat" thriller for me. With more sugar than Dreiser or O'Conner's endings,THE LAST WIDOW neatly ties up. But Slaughter doesn't back down from the hard truths of America's cultural underbelly. And her heroes don't easily recover from trauma. No one is unchanged nor the reality that this terror happens here.

S.W.






Monday, June 3, 2019

Arthur Miller's rarely performed play, The Archbishop's Ceiling, goes behind a 1970s "iron curtain" to reveal control of information & writers.



The Archbishop's Ceiling by Arthur Miller, presented by Regeneration Theatre, is a play rarely done and this was the first New York production.  I thought I knew Miller's work but never heard of this  play set in the 1970's in an unnamed Eastern European country, where government controls  information and the freedom of writers.  In this behind the "Iron Curtain" drama, Miller, who lived through the McCarthy era, had insights into the clash between governments' need to control information and writers' need for free speech. This reverberates in 2019's chaotic "fake news" environment. Our former Cold War enemy's divide and conquer tactics, that influenced our 2016 elections, is a propaganda model used in the former soviet bloc and now imported abroad. History does repeat itself, though never in the same form.

Miller's play opens with Adrian and Maya having drinks in an elegant high ceilinged room in a bygone Imperial style. Maya (Kristen Gehling) is flirtatious but chooses her English carefully. They have a sexual history. Adrian (Levi Morger) is a famous American journalist she hasn't seen n years. Why now, she probes, though he's more interested in her relationship with Marcus (John Spano), who has the apartment. Are they just associates, business partners or more? It's a sparring match less about sex than information and the stakes are high.

The Archbishop's Ceiling  precedes the seismic shifts in political, economic and later information dissemination policies that began with Perestroika (1979) and Glasnost (1985).This is in the future  but Adrian, a Vietnam War era journalist (ended 1975) is a catalyst in this play. He remembers Marcus' apartment, as a meeting place for writers and knows that many were compromised afterward. He's also aware that Marcus enjoys privileges that indicate his "influence." with officials.  Is Maya also corrupt, selling out writers to advance herself, a realist working within the system, or simply a poet who likes to help writers?

When Adrian provokes her, suggesting he's writing a book about her and Marcus, Maya questions his purpose. In his work he pleases publishers and audiences, who want what "truth" he's selling. But does his freedom mean he's ignorant of consequences? Adrien's clear, freedom from government control is not negotiable. She says that Adrien doesn't understand anything

This is a multi-layered story but under the direction of Barnaby Edwards, who also produced, it's lucid. The high ceiling of the writers' club has limits; "bugs" that record voices for the authorities to review. Even Adrien with his foreign V.I.P. status, has limits. His words can cost him access or  jeopardize writers. Information is used to censor writers; punished with invisibility; loss of  the ability to write, publish, travel abroad, employment and education for their families, housing, and incarceration. Once the "bugs" are admitted (and also denied), action is deftly choreographed, as Adrian, Maya, Marcus, take others outside to discuss what is really going on.

Adrian, played astutely by Levi Morger, is a nervous mix of seasoned journalist and naive foreigner.  When his friend Sigmund (Michael Meth), a dissident writer, tells Adrian his book has been stolen by the police, he is  shocked police would go so far. Meth's pitch perfect as the "great writer," devestated at the loss; an investment of years of his life. Famous abroad and revered by his countrymen, Sigmund is officially nonexistent. Meth's sincerity and despair are poignant and believable.

His opposite, sophisticated Marcus, is ironically aware that the dissident, also a friend, is a true genius. Though an officially sanctioned writer, Marcus knows he's not in the same class. Spano makes him fascinating, as he switches masks. He's a supporter of writers, yet rep of the authorities. He's also a lover, who brings home from his travels abroad a "prize," a sexy Danish woman (Jessica Carollo), he expects to bed  He is also a "fixer" with an offer for Sigmund to recover his book Will Sigmund take it or Adrian's offer of comfortable American exile?  Prison is another choice.

Maya, in Kristen Gehling's surprising turnabout, shows it little matters how Adrian labels her. She's a patriot, concerned with saving her country's genius. Adrian's post Nam journalist, also wants to rescue Sigmund from government control. Are these two fellow-travellers? Miller's American writer is both a would-be savior and a man aware of his privilege and shortcomings. In The Archbishop's Ceiling Levi Morger's interpretation reveals self-doubt beneath his entitled pragmatism

The play questions characters' and audience assumptions. Can journalistic truth exist when the form requires simplifying complex reality? For instance, Marcus' luxurious life is based on accommodating those in power but he helps writers survive, can Adrien sell that story?  When corruption is commonly accepted, are truth and integrity threats to that order?  As the N.R.A. outspends arms control reforms, despite ongoing massacres in our schools and the testimony of victims. In 2019 we might ask how can truth and integrity have an affect on that order?

Arthur Miller's plays extoll the importance of freedom of speech but recognize the ability of power and greed to corrupt values. These plays respect human persistence, when faced with oppression. They are important, especially in our America, when universal values are routinely violated by the powerful for commercial or political advantage. The "new normal" is a cynical name for getting used to the abuse of power. I an glad there is a revival of interest in Miller's plays. It's great this one has been done now. I also would like to see Remarque's "Full Circle" some time soon.

The cast in Regeneration's production were all excellent. In some ways the hardest role may be Irina, the Danish musician Marcus brings home, thinking his apartment empty. She only speaks German and is at a loss about what is happening. Jessica Carollo's Irina reflected the high emotion in the room. She reacted to discussions, switching her position or expression. With varying difficulty, she managed her boredom and impatience, waiting for her lover's attentions. Loved her acceptance of confusion and conflict she couldn't understand. I feel her pain.

S.W.




Monday, May 20, 2019

Up close and personal with Alice Neel. FREEDOM (David Zwirner Books)

"When you're an artist you're searching for freedom; you never find it,'cause there ain't any freedom. But at least you search for it. In fact, art could be called the search."

"Art is two things: a search for a road and a search for freedom. You know all these things in life keep crawling over you all the time, so it's very hard to feel free."

--Alice Neel

I met Alice Neel at her Whitney retrospective in 1974. A year out of art school, I was working for a  San Francisco paper actually called Art News. She offered to take me through the exhibition and made the point she wanted NO review about her work that ignored the life that made it. ( At this time, art criticism "deconstructed" art as separate from the artist). Alice pointed to a portrait of a guitar player and explained how she ran off with him to Spanish Harlem. He left her but she stayed because it was cheap and she had kids.

 Alice liked  painting neighbors, who worked hard to feed their kids.  She mentioned, almost in passing, how difficult it was to have a child die. The WPA saved her when she was broke. She had a job painting and regular money. Below some neighbors.




 Alice wasn't sentimental about mothers and their children. It was very difficult, as shown in these two early WPA works, a well-baby clinic, and a mother and children.


At her iconic portrait of Andy Warhol, she did a full stop, and in a hushed voice said his body was a map. The road she traced,  a finger above the canvas, was the scar where Valerie Solanos shot him. "Why would anyone want to hurt Andy?" she asked. He was shy but would come to her place to talk. He told her funny stories. But he was isolated, very alone. One could see that on his body.  She had painted a desert.


At the end of my tour, I thanked her and turned to leave. She almost whispered, close, "Make it when you're young. When I was 35, this show would have changed my life. Now it makes little difference. My life is made. But I come here every day. I like to see the reactions of people to my work." I looked down, her legs were swollen. The trek to the Whitney cost her something.

Ptredictably, my article was rejected as "too humanistic." The editor chastized me, "a person's subjective experience had litle to do with how the art was constructed." A dissenter to that mostly dead approach, I opened FREEDOM, a David Zwirner Book (published by D.A.P.) with great pleasure and curiosity about Alice's nudes. In her portraits clothes identify what's underneath. But they are stand-ins. I guessed the Warhol painting was no outlier. Neel made thick outlines to separate her sitters from their backgrounds. Body and psyche are continuous, despite the clothes. Warhol's head was somehow less animated than his exposed chest.

Figure drawing offers the chance to see the skin the person is dressed in. No wonder she preferred nudes. In the excellent intro to FREEDOM, daugher in law Ginny Neel talks of how Alice's art defied female steriotypes. Her  honesty about pregnancy and childbirth is still as rare as her open sexuality, She painted male bodies as men painted women. Take a look at her portrait of the the art critic John Perrault. She asked him to pose for the Whitney Show. Here is character and male beauty.



Helen Molesworth's essay "Looking with and Looking at Alice Neel" gives an art historical context to the question, how does a woman paint a naked body when there's no tradition of the female "gaze?"When I was an art student in Philadelphia the blue laws were still in place. We had to draw male nudes with a brief hiding their genitals. Women were uncovered but not men. When the law was changed, we women were disconcerted. How were we to draw this body part we had never studied?  It was embarassing.

Alice's male nudes, like her females, are individuals instead of the usual idealized figures reflecting male fantasies. Ahough her lovers may be rendered erotic, sexually attractive, her emotions are not the subject of the portrait. Similarly, when a male is paired with a female nude, in the painting below,  the subjects are individuals while in relation with each other. They seem physically together and emotional worlds apart. 



Rare is the man, who paints women without their clothes  observing their emotions and character-instead of  how he feels about their looks. With Alice Neel's nudes the closest she comes to projection of her feelings seems to be in the pregnant ones. Neel who had 4 children, may have identified with the strange plasticity of the pregnant body. In her work, there are no idealized round beaming earth mothers.



Neel's pregnant nudes can appear uncomfortable, surprised, resigned. They are true to the odd truth of pregnancy--a strange being inside a woman's body. Perhaps Neel identified with the unguarded moment, feelings she might have shared. The children she paints are also individuals, not  appendanges of their mothers. Here is a portrait of her own daughter at 9. Also a set of twins with their mother and a boy baby--contented, curious,  male.





This book of nudes is unvarnished, inexplicably human and emotionally unafraid. The compassion and even occasional revulsion she paints is the perfect antidote to the distanced ironic even pornographic stances in some contemporary depictions of naked people.

In Alice Neel's work, eroticism is more complex, up close and personl, a rare female gaze. 
Recommended, especially if you have been  feeling distanced from the human condition.  
Perhaps estranged in a sea of cellphones 
SW

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Barbara Kahn's dark comedy WHERE DO ALL THE GHOSTS GO? Theater for the New City



WHERE DO ALL THE GHOSTS GOTheater for the New City (Written and directed by Barbara Kahn, ) opens with a rapier thrust by Sarah Bernhardt (Steph Van Vlack). a ghost in Napoleonic drag. She thinks herself condemned to solitude in the derelict hotel, until Marcel Duchamp with his transparent chessboard shows up. Played with droll astringency by David Leeper, his verbal provocations are interrupted by fellow ghouls Elizabeth Keckley, a  demure companion to Mary Todd Lincoln (Chloe Simone Crawford). Then Buffalo Bill Cody (Christopher Lowe) crashes into the room. When Duchamp purposes chess, you get that he and Cody may have been playing an infinite game. When the Baroness (Sarah Teed) floats through the room and Duchamp dramatically calls her a thief, it's but a ripple in her trajectory through time with a bright scarf.

It is a scarf, ostensibly lost, that brings Jos (Ashley Versher) and her wife, Frankie (Fleur Voorn) to return to the derelict hotel. A novelist who writes ghost stories, Jos is stuck on Chapter three. Is the scarf an excuse for something else missing?  Objectives, ghostly or human, are part of the vague atmosphere of the room, a former therapist's office  (kudos to Mark Marcante for lights and set).  Jos is able to see and hear the ghosts. Frankie, a scientist, is less than comfortable that Jo is talking with invisible people. Creeped out, she leaves and Jos quizzes the ghosts about what humans expect from ghosts. She also takes on the therapist's role listening to the indignities suffered by once famous beings now lonely and unrecognized.

All have connections to the hotel and their histories play a major role in this play. Haunted by past misfortunes and pleasures, creative work and major challenges, they navigate the halls of times past. Keckley, an African American, was seamstress and companion to Mary Lincoln, experiencing racism in accommodations and proud of how she faced it. Buffalo Bill, who employed American Indians, eternally mourns the death of Sitting Bull. Bernhardt, baptized Catholic, faced 19th century anti-semitism, after she acknowledged her heritage during the Dreyfus case. Duchamp pioneered a drag persona as a creation, declared toilets sculpture and exiled himself to Chess' pure abstraction.

The unearthly ringing of a telephone (Alexander Graham Bell's experiment), warns the ghosts of life outside and the imminent destruction of their home. Their  fears intensify, affecting the lights and Jos fears she will be plunged into darkness. When Frankie appears with her Ipad,  the living and the dead unite to find the ghosts' final resting places. In the process,the ghosts acknowledge the lesbian couple as social pioneers and lovers. In the light of Apple technology,will humans and ghosts outpace the wrecking ball?

Barbara Kahn calls this a dark comedy but it's "Topper" friendly, a valentine for souls lost and found. Kahn was inspired to write Where do all the Ghosts Go? after hearing about plans to demolish the St. Denis, a 165-year old building at the corner of East 11th St. and Broadway, south of Union Square. She has won numerous awards, including the Torch of Hope, the Robert Chesley Playwriting Award and the 2017 Acker Award for her work in downtown theater.

Kahn's historical plays include Verzet Amsterdam, The Three-Mile Limit, Ghost Light now and Then, Women of the Wind, Island Girls  and many more. Look for her next wise comedy.

. S.W.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Heroines named Alice, like no one you know, in THE PARAGON HOTEL and A HAIRPIECE NAMED DENIAL

The Paragon Hotel by Lindsay Faye (Putnam) and A Hairpiece Named Denial  (Pelekinesis) by S. Sal Hanna are very good novels with strange affect, where humor and identity take turns you can't anticipate. Stranger yet, both have heroines named Alice.

As The Paragon Hotel  opens, Alice, also known as Nobody, is a young flapper on the run from Prohibition Harlem's mafia gang wars. Wounded and bleeding heavily, she boards a train where Max, a concerned porter, spirits her to Portland's Paragon Hotel, the only hotel for African Americans in a white city. A very skilled African-American doctor saves her life but then Alice, who uses invisibility to survive,finds herself a prominent, unwanted guest. She has to convalesce and the hotel is a perfect hide-out, yet her presence generates outsize fear, unmitigated by the cash in her bag. Suspicious residents shun her until a protector emerges. The charismatic Blossom, a wordly caberet performer, invites her to her room, curious about Alice, guessing she's not easily shocked by secrets.

Before the novel is over, Alice and Blossom's strange histories unravel, along with the curious life of the hotel, which provides not just rooms but crucial refuge for "travellers." As Alice recovers from her injuries, so does her razor sharp sleuthing instincts. When a mulatto boy goes missing from the hotel, she joins the search and uncovers secrets--outrageous, forbidden, pathetic  and ultimately dangerous. The hotel becomes a catalyst for revelations hidden in Portland society, including a nascent Klu Klux Klan.

The dialogue is filmic with lush historic details and tantalizing mysteries. Through Alice/Nobody's almond shaped "sicilian eyes" I experienced Prohibition era New York, streets and clubs with entertainers, as well as the forbidden high life of a portland party barge. This novel puts you front and center from the first lines:

"Sitting against the pillows of a Pullman sleeper, bones clecking like the pistons of the metal beast speeding me Westward, I wonder if I'm going to die." Faye was nominated for an Edgar for Jane Steele, an earlier book. This one is certainly a contender.

 A Hairpiece Named Denial, begins in the 1980s in Kansas, with  "Alice, a writer of comic prose, printed on the title page of a manuscript: Guaranteed to make you laugh or your sense of humor back, she mailed the manuscript to an editor who, in her words, "misinterpreted the guarantee and set the manuscript back."

"Alice Princeton Goe and her husband Frank were a wealthy couple who had kept their fortune a private matter. No one in Samsville, their small town located on the wide-open, wind-ransacked plain of central Kansas, knew of the millions they had tucked away in a bank in the big city of Wichita..."

After Frank's death Alice decides to give away seven million dollars. She concocts a hilarious scheme and shares her ideas with her "deluxe cleaning lad," a young man who holds a B.A. in Philosophy and wears an Elvis pompadour hairpiece. The scheme, a kind of test of the "endowment" industry, involves two hapless financial officers at a small arts college.

Alice turns a linear process meant to end with her signature into a madcap circle. As traditional expectations are jettisoned for the absurd, Alice's brilliant nonsense reaches no foregone conclusion. Instead, her truth seeking missle results in a satisfying demise of expectations and role-playing. Her new college friends do prosper from Alice's adventure and she gets another bestselling novel. There is also much serious wisdom in the revelation of her life and what, in the end, has value.

Look for S. Sal Hanna's A Hairpiece Named Denial at Peleinesis and for previous books, The Gypsy Scholar and Beyond Winning, in university press sections.

I found this a very good book to read before bed. It amused me and gave me a comforting sense of the value of being a human being. Better than Netflix.


S.W.