One 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
Here’s another mini-review of one of the many great films that were a part of the DC Shorts Film Festival.
Despite our affluence, Americans suffer from record levels of depression. People feel disconnected from life, even in the midst of busy urban environments.
What’s missing? Jen McGowan examines this problem in her film, Touch. It’s a simple setup – two women on a train platform. Lily Knight’s performance in this short is amazing. The camera is close on her face for nearly the entire film and she communicates incredible suffering, nearly wordlessly.
We never learn why she is in pain. But, following a chance encounter with a stranger, we discover what she has come to the train platform to do.
In the Q&A session following the screening of Touch, director McGowan explained that finding her lead actor was the hardest part in making this movie. She looked for months until she saw Knight, who had a bit part in another film.
Touch is a beautiful short that demonstrates the power a simple act of kindness can have on someone’s life.
By no means did I see all 97 films at the DC Shorts Film Festival. But I saw a lot and got to meet to some of the filmmakers as well.
I’ll be posting “mini-reviews” of what I liked, from what I saw.
One of my favorite films was Enter the Beard. Audiences enjoyed it too – this documentary won Filmmaker’s Favorite and Audience Choice awards.
Enter the Beard is a very funny look at an odd American subculture – men who grow elaborate and enormous beards and then compete against other men in the World Beard and Mustache Championships. (One of the few women in the film pointed out how odd it was that men would groom themselves and then walk down catwalks, like hirsute supermodels.)
It would be easy to just present these men and their oversized facial hair as freaks yet the documentary is empathetic and amusing. Much of this humor comes from Charles Parker Newton, our guide to this world of beards and mustaches. He’s engaging and funny, with the charisma of a cult leader.
I talked to him for a bit at DC Shorts, outlining my inability to grow the Grizzly Adams beard of my dreams. He faulted my lack of commitment and, with a roaring speech, convinced me that I should spend the next six months growing a kickass beard. It made sense at the time.
After all, what’s more American than following your dream? Even if your dream involves doing nothing, of just deciding not to shave anymore.
I attended Showcase 1 of the DC Shorts Film Festival last night. For the festival, the films are divided into nine different showcases, including a ribald late-night collection of shorts as well as a family-appropriate slate. Each showcase contains around ten short films.
Here’s my take on the films in Showcase 1:
Sunday Punch – It’s a film noir that’s a little predictable but sexy and gorgeously shot.
Shovel Ready – A darkly comic 48 Hour Film about getting rid of the troublesome people in your life.
Prayers for Peace – Heartbreaking, beautiful and personal. Probably the film I’ll remember most.
Somewhere Never Traveled – One of those mysterious films that you’re entranced by, but don’t know what’s going on – like something by Sofia Coppola.
Hipster Job – A retelling of the story of Job, but with hipsters. Deliberately crude and stupid.
Quartering Act – A WWII drama that’s a little too long. Tries to get the historical details right but feels awfully American for a story set in France.
Just About Famous – A wry, funny and sympathetic look at the bizarre world of celebrity impersonators.
El Cortejo (The Cortege) – A Spanish film about finding love in the most unlikely of places.
Banana Bread – Hyper-violent and you can see the punchline coming from a mile away.
Gayby – My favorite. It’s like a modern Woody Allen movie, with a neurotic woman who wants to make a baby the old-fashioned way with her gay best friend.
They’re all interesting and entertaining films. See Showcase 1:
Saturday, September 11 @ 9:00pm @ U.S. Navy Memorial Heritage Center (followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers)
Sunday, September 12 @ 1:00pm @ Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Tuesday, September 14 @ 9:00pm @ Landmark’s E Street Cinema