wet earth

Alice LaPlante at Pacific Grove Library

What makes a story true?  What does it mean to tell a story “based on real life”?  Is it possible to separate the part that is “true” or “real” from the part that was born in the author’s imagination?

Next Thursday, June 13, the Pacific Grove Public Library presents author Alice LaPlante, whose highly-acclaimed first novel Turn of Mind is told from the perspective of a Chicago woman sinking by rapid degrees into the fog and confusion of Alzeimer’s disease.  Narrative clarity is an important goal for any writer.  How can one convey the fraying, fragmented nature of a point of view in a way that gives the reader access to a mind that is falling apart?

To complicate matters, the woman, a retired surgeon named Jennifer White, is the prime suspect in the murder of her best friend, a fact she often forgets.  She also regularly forgets that her husband is dead.

I’ve just started reading Turn of Mind and am looking forward to hearing LaPlante discuss how she drew upon real life experience and transformed it into fiction.  In the passage below, Jennifer is with her daughter, Fiona, who is bringing her back to the house she has just wandered out of.  (Fiona’s voice is in italics.)

How I love this house, she says. I’ll be so sad to see it go.

Why should it go? I ask. Your father and I don’t intend to move. The wind whistles past and both of us are white with cold, but we stand there on the sidewalk in front of the house, not moving. The frigid temperature suits me. It suits the conversation, which strikes me as important.

Fiona’s face is pinched and there are large goosebumps on her arms, but she still doesn’t move. The house before us is solid, it is a fact. The warm red stones, the large protruding rectangular windows, the three stories capped with a flat roof emblematic of other Chicago houses of the era.  I find myself yearning for it as desperately as when James and I first saw it, as if it were out of our reach. Yet it is truly ours. Mine. I bullied James into  buying it, even though it was beyond our means at the time. It is my home.

Home, she says as if she could read my mind, then shakes her head as if to clear it. She takes me by the elbow, propels me up the steps, into the house, helps me off with my coat, my shoes.

Alice LaPlante at the Pacific Grove Public Library, Thursday, June 13, 7:30 p.m.  Suggested donation to benefit the Library is $10; refreshments are included.  Books are available at the event.

"Light Up the Sky" at MPC

Anyone who spends time in the company of art, whether making it or living with those who do, is no stranger to one of its central conflicts: to be engaged in producing art is to choose to be open to a certain kind of vulnerability, but to get your art in front of an audience requires a robust, untender ego.  The romantic myth about art, as a character puts it in Moss Hart’s 1948 play “Light Up the Sky,” currently showing at the refurbished MPC Main Stage Theatre, is that genuine artists “do something with their hearts, instead of their heads or their pocketbooks.”  The truth, especially for collaborative forms of art such as theater, is that the place is where art, commerce, self-interest, connection, and longing collide is far more interesting than any idealized notion of artistic purity, untainted by the baser human qualities.

“Light Up the Sky” is an entertaining backstage comedy that pokes fun at the pretensions of theater folk (who are given to pronounce the word thea-tuh) while subtly emphasizing their humanity.  Peter Sloan (Chris Deacon), a former truck driver, is about to see his first play produced, in a pre-Broadway Boston tryout.  The play’s director, Carleton Fitzgerald (Keith Decker), is a highly emotional man who expounds upon the play’s “nobility,” calling the production “shattering” and “beautiful.”  The glamorous star of the play, Irene Livingston (Kristin Brownstone), calls everyone “dahling” and is used to being the center of attention.  The play is being produced by Sidney Black (James Brady), a successful if insecure businessman, and his demanding wife Frances (Teresa Del Piero), an ice skater.  Joining this motley assemblage in the Boston hotel as they await the play’s premiere is Miss Lowell (Alexander Bristow), the writer-secretary Irene has hired to write her memoirs, Irene’s mother, Stella Livingston (Phyllis Davis), her husband, Tyler Rayburn (Clark Brown) and Owen Turner (Mitchell Davis), a veteran playwright.  There is also a parrot.

Gradually it is revealed that Peter Sloan’s play was written in a spirit of hopeful, “wide-eyed idealism,” a humanistic stance that serves as a barometer for the various characters’ shifting attitudes, depending on whether the play is perceived as a hit or a dud.

“Light Up the Sky” is a minor work, but MPC’s production, seamlessly directed by Gary Bolen, benefits from a handsome stage design and uniformly solid performances.  Hart gives his best lines to Frances and Stella, whose wisecracks are well served by Del Piero and Phyllis Davis.  (Sample: “I wouldn’t let him put on a girdle for me, let alone a play.”)  One delightful moment is when Stella describes posing as a cleaning woman, complete with mop and pail, in order to sneak into the theater to see the show (since the imperious Carleton Fitzgerald has forbidden anyone to watch rehearsals).  Her subsequent advice is to “see the show on an empty stomach.”  Later, Fitzgerald rhapsodizes about having seen an old, decrepit cleaning woman in the balcony, mesmerized by the play.  Davis’s expressions as she listens to the description of herself as a pathetically haggard, falling-apart creature are priceless.

Someone in the play says that theater is a “democracy of fear.”  When a work is a hit, there’s more than enough love to spread around, but when it’s a flop, everyone, from actor to writer, director to producer, suffers the sting of public humiliation, and everyone quickly looks for someone else to blame.  Yet despite the rampant cynicism and bad behavior on view, “Light Up the Sky” is at its heart a valentine to the unique, vibrant, (and increasingly threatened) world of live theater, a world that is affectionately portrayed by MPC’s talented cast and crew.

"Light Up the Sky" runs through Sunday, May 26.  For tickets and information, call 831-646-4213 or visit www.mpctheatreco.com.

Patrice Vecchione at Fandango's

In The Knot Untied (2013), a luminous new collection of poems by Patrice Vecchione, there is a poem entitled “Cabbage.”  I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that not many poems have likely been written about cabbage.  (If you know of any good cabbage poems, please share them in the comments section below.)  Yet amidst all the world’s poems about flowers and trees and berries and wine, why shouldn’t there be a poem about cabbage?  In fact, Vecchione’s poem is about memory: the poet’s eighty-three-year old aunt is incredulous that her niece has forgotten whether a dish prepared decades ago was made with red or green cabbage.  In life, as in literature, the details matter.  Remembering matters.  The poem reminds us of those still-bright sparks of memory that may persist in each of us, despite the passage of time and the inevitable forgetting it leaves in its wake.

“Cabbage” is also one of the poems in The Knot Untied that refers to food, an aspect of Vecchione’s book that will be celebrated at an upcoming event at Fandango restaurant, in Pacific Grove, with proceeds from the event benefiting the Food Bank of Monterey County.

“Poetry resides in the five senses,” Vecchione, who lives in Monterey, tells me in a recent phone interview.  “And hunger is of particular interest to me.  In a wealthy country such as ours, no one should ever have to be hungry.  I don’t like being hungry; it makes me scared.”

At Fandango, appetizers will be created using ingredients that are mentioned in Vecchione’s poems (some possibilities include tomato, basil and mozzarella; apricots and strawberries and peaches; honey and fennel; cake, soda crackers, salt).  The event represents just one of the several creative paths Vecchione has forged to promote her new book.

“I wanted to do events that connect poetry to the community in ways that are not typical,” she says.

That kind of community-based creativity also shaped how Vecchione published her book.  When her agent told her it could take a year or more to find a traditional publisher, Vecchione decided to find another way.  Using Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter, Vecchione raised the money to publish her book in only three months.  She considers everyone who contributed, whether it was $25 or $1500, as equal publishers.

“It’s a new idea,” she says, “to form a collective of people to publish a book.  But the state of publishing is not a pretty picture.  I was glad to take my work out of the hands of New York.”

The Knot Untied explores the variety of ways we are bound to and unbound from one another, how we can become tied up in a relationship or an idea, how it all can come apart.  At the collection’s heart are several poems about the poet’s troubled bond with her mother.  In “My Gordion Knot,” the angry outbursts of the poet’s mother “[spins] the dust of a thousand years,” clotting the child’s throat and robbing her of her voice.

Yet even in the suffering, there is the solace of nature, of the imagination, of language.  In “Land of Sorrow,” there are types of sadness, including a light, present-day kind of sadness that is “bald as a hatchling before feathers.”  And here, in its entirety, is “The Astonishment of Spring”:

 

Though my life is in tatters

and I am afraid, the young deer

shakes the dew from her coat

before slowly crossing the road

and in the field of blackbirds

there is singing.

 

Fandango’s will serve appetizers inspired by The Knot Untied on Thursday, May 9, from 5:30-7:00 p.m.  Vecchione will be there to read from her book and sign copies.  Cost: $40; for reservations, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/event/5527167908#.  For information about Vecchione’s additional upcoming appearances in the Monterey Bay area and beyond, visit her website.

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