Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart starts off as a hilarious farce, an inventive look at the future gone wrong. All your paranoid fears about the Department of Homeland Security are well-represented as a bureaucratic error throws Lenny, the book’s narrator, into absurdist peril.

But the novel is much deeper than that. It’s not just a farce, it’s an honest and painful look at a nightmare vision of America. In this dystopia, our country is obsessed with sex and shopping, in hock to the Chinese and teetering on the edge of financial collapse (not too different from today).

The book steadily grows darker and darker as history unravels – we feel for the characters who are so clueless about the inevitable reckoning. And we feel for this country, all the values we hold dear – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty – all imperiled by decades of folly.

That’s what this book is about – Lenny’s collapse into middle age is mirrored by the collapse of America. Ultimately, it’s a very upsetting book. You don’t want the country to end up this way. The book is dark and funny but it’s also a warning to us as a nation to get our act together. Otherwise, the future will be very cruel.

The Movie That Gets Washington: Broadcast News

broadcast newsThe Washington Post recently had an article about DC in the movies, highlighting director James L. Brooks for really getting Washington. From All the President’s Men to his latest, How Do You Know?, he displays an excellent understanding of the culture of the city.

We’re not like Chicago or LA or New York. The people here are different, with their own unique challenges and motivations. New Yorkers may think that, just like there are no good bagels in DC, there’s no real “there” in Washington. It’s a transient city, with no realness about it. (Or, as a friend of mine from NYC once said, there’s no “bounty” to it.)

There’s a grain of truth to that assessment – it is a transient city, drawing in and expelling different political classes with each election. But most DC residents don’t work on Capitol Hill. They somehow manage to function without being part of the political class. Continue reading “The Movie That Gets Washington: Broadcast News”

WikiLeaks and Shame by Salman Rushdie

shame coverA good chunk of the recently released WikiLeaks documents deal with the problem of a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the grip of radical Islam. Despite the billions of dollars in US aid they receive, they are unwilling to cut ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

One diplomatic cable on the New York Times site is called Will Extra Aid Persuade Pakistan to Cut Ties to Extremists? American diplomats discuss whether giving Islamabad more money will lead them to cut ties with the Taliban.

The author concludes:

There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups…

Islamic terrorist groups like the Taliban are key element of Pakistani security. They provide a hedge against India by securing Afghanistan and by causing problems for India in Kashmir. Continue reading “WikiLeaks and Shame by Salman Rushdie”

WikiLeaks and Absurdistan

absurdistan_coverOne of my favorite novels of the past few years is Absurdistan. This comic romp by Gary Shteyngart takes place in a degraded post-Soviet world, where all anyone cares about is making money. The book is narrated by Misha Vainberg who dreams of returning to New York, where he was a student. Though a Russian heir to a fortune, he considers himself a lost American, trapped in corrupt country.

To get back to the United States (and the love of his life), he travels to the Caucasus republic of Absurdistan. He hopes to get a visa there. Along the way he joins in epic bouts of drinking and conspicuous consumption, as the nouveau rich show off their wealth with huge bounties of caviar, vodka and prostitutes.

This is fiction, or so I always thought, the invention of a very funny writer. But then I read the WikiLeaks cable on the wild wedding in Dagestan, Russia. It’s like the world of Absurdistan come to life, featuring a rich cast of characters frolicking along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The cable even has the perfect blurb for the back of a paperback:

The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance.

Continue reading “WikiLeaks and Absurdistan”

Fall Fringe: What to See

scene from Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending

Check out the article I wrote for Pink Line on what to see at Fall Fringe. What’s great about Fall Fringe (which ends Nov 21) is that it’s only the best stuff from the Capital Fringe Festival. I saw a lot of theater, good and bad, as one of the official photographers for the festival over the summer.

I loved Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite (it’s brilliant and hilarious) but I have soft spot for accessible Shakespeare which is why Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending was my favorite show of the festival.

Bonus: see a slideshow of photos from the show.

FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?”

libros en madrid

Only three years old, FotoWeek DC has blossomed into a city-wide event encompassing gallery shows, competitions, lectures, workshops, portfolio reviews and parties.

There’s a lot of great free stuff to attend. In addition to gallery shows, there are some interesting lectures and workshops going on this week.

One of them was “To Publish or to Self-Publish” held at the Corcoran over the lunch-hour today. While it was billed as a comparison of traditional photo book publishing against the new on-demand model, the discussion was much broader than this. Continue reading “FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?””

Chris Guillebeau and The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau in DC
Chris Guillebeau speaks at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC.

Last night, I listened to Chris Guillebeau speak at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC. Chris is one of my favorite bloggers, from the Art of Non-Conformity. His message is that you don’t have to live like everyone else, that you should follow your passions while looking to leave something behind.

He lives what he writes about – he’s on a quest to visit every country in the world and has been in 125 of them so far.

Now he has a book, also called The Art of Non-Conformity, and is off on a 5o state tour to support it. His publisher thinks he’s crazy. As a writer myself, I think he’s crazy – North Dakota?

While his DC reading was standing-room only, his next stop in West Virginia will be less attended. Chris emailed the one person signed up for the reading, telling her to make sure to be there.

In person, he’s much like his blog – more curious about the audience than himself, non-judgemental, cognizant of how lucky we in the West are to have the “problem” of following our dreams. After speaking for a bit (and filling in DC on his 50 state map), he took questions from the audience.

Why did he write a book? Blog posts don’t change lives, was his answer. His goal in writing the Art of Non-Conformity was to get people to positively change and to share his and others stories of how to do it.

One goal of his book has been to bring people together. In the Q&A session, he let the audience answer each other’s questions, covering such diverse topics as entrepreneurship and conflict-free diamonds.

What I like about Chris is that he doesn’t say that there is one magic answer for everyone – it’s not Scientology or the 4-Hour Work Week. Your quest to change yourself, and the world, can involve very small steps – life experiments, where you get away from your desk and visit an art gallery. Or start learning a new language during your commute.

Unlike other so-called “life hackers”, he believes that the quest for efficiency is overrated. A new method of burning through your email is meaningless. It’s better to figure out how you can pursue adventure while helping others.

In his view, the core questions to think about are:

What do you want out of life?

What can you offer the world that no one else can?

In a city filled with well-paid people trapped in bureaucracy, these questions have enormous resonance. The Art of Non-Conformity aims to guide people in finding their own answers.

In Praise of Mario Vargas Llosa

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s a brilliant choice. Unlike some of the Nobel committee’s more dubious awards, Vargas Llosa is a storyteller with an important message to share. Moreover, he is not some stuffy academic – he’s been actively engaged in the world, a voice for moderation in fanatical times.

And most importantly, his books are a joy to read. He’s frequently compared to another South American, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in 1982. Both writers are part of the Latin American Boom. While many American writers retreated into the minimalism of Raymond Carver, the Boom authors wrote sprawling, worldly, intensely entertaining works that hovered on the edge of reality. The multi-generational saga of the doomed Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude is an excellent example of Boom fiction.

Two great books show the incredibly range of Vargas Llosa.

Aunt Julia and the Script Writer is a deranged masterpiece, a comic coming of age story about young Mario, who has fallen in love with his sexy aunt. Interleaved with this story are the tales of a Bolivian script writer, who has enthralled Lima with his radio soap operas. The book grows progressively more absurd and surreal, as the comic inventions of the script writer lead to real-world chaos.

A reviewer on Amazon referred to The War of the End of the World as “Macondo meets Jonestown”. That’s an apt description of this epic novel, based upon real events. Set in Brazil in the 19th century, the book is centered on Canudos, a religious cult that essentially secedes from the rest of the country. It becomes a safe haven from oppression, until the army decides to wipe them out.

What makes Vargas Llosa’s work so appealing to me is his concern for individuals, not mass movements. He’s been an a foe of dictators, whether they be Fidel Castro or Alberto Fujimori (who he ran against in 1990). Suspicious of ideology, he was lauded by the Nobel committee for:

“his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.

Vargas Llosa demonstrates that writers can do more than just tell stories – they can influence their times by actively participating in society.

Elements of Publicity Workshop

Last night, I attended the Elements of Publicity Workshop put on by Amanda Miller Littlejohn and Jacqueline Lara of Mopwater PR. These two charming and knowledgeable ladies covered a lot of ground in just a two-hour session:

  • How to develop your message
  • How to create a “news hook” for your story
  • How to pitch to local, national and social media.

What I liked about the workshop was that Amanda and Jacqueline have a lot of practical experience in real-world PR. Their talk was spiced with useful examples and anecdotes from their work. They didn’t just tell you how to pitch a story to a reporter, they shared what should be in the email subject line and the best time to make a follow-up phone call.

This is a good workshop for people who don’t want theory but want to know tactics – the practical steps they can take to get media coverage for their product or cause. Want to know what should be in a press kit? Should a backgrounder be in print or electronic format? Should you do a social media release? How do you deal with a TV producer? All of this was covered in the workshop.

Workshop attendees consisted of small business owners, entrepreneurs and managers of small nonprofits – exactly the type of people who will do PR themselves, lacking the budget to hire a firm. The workshop was a really good fit for their needs and Amanda and Jacqueline tailored the class toward them. It was a very interactive session, with lots of Q&A and idea-sharing.

As someone who’s promoting his own book (Murder in Ocean Hall), I left with a lot of useful ideas to pursue, including things I had never thought of before (people still listen to radio?).

Elements of Publicity is just one of a series of low-cost workshops that Mopwater PR is teaching on blogging, social media and publicity.

DC Shorts Mini-Review: Corner Plot

For anyone who lives in the sprawling metropolis of Washington, Corner Plot is a fascinating documentary.  Would you believe that someone owns a one-acre farm in the middle of Silver Spring? Charlie Koiner does. He’s 89-years-old and produces a cornucopia of produce from his tiny plot of land, just blocks from the Metro.

Corner Plot is a really effective short work because the filmmakers paid attention to the story of Koiner, showing how farming has kept him young and engaged with the community. More strident documentarians would’ve taken the occasion to lecture the audience on environmental themes but Ian Cook and Andrew Dahlman are smart enough to let their subject do most of the talking. They allow they audience to come to the conclusion that local farms are critical to community life, vital to people like Koiner and the people of Silver Spring.

Corner Plot won for Outstanding Local Film at the DC Shorts Film Festival. You can see it for free on September 23 at Little Miss Whiskey’s. Look for more screenings throughout the year.