Review: ‘By Nightfall’ by Michael Cunningham

There must be a time when you have craved a combination of words that simply did not exist. You look for them — in songs, in books, in blurbs here and there, and movie dialogue. It becomes exhausting. Frustrating. Maybe even lonely. Flipping through more words, more quickly, and no one is saying the goddamn two sentence goose bump inducer that needs to be invented for this exact place in space. You’d write it if you could, but if you could write it you probably wouldn’t need it. If you could write it, you’d know what it looks like.

This is at the crux of Michael Cunningham’s so-beautiful-you-can-feel-your-own-soul-as-it- exfoliates novel By Nightfall.

Peter is in those awkward middle-aged man years, at the fork that bends left toward status quo and right to off the rails, world scorching destruction in a new and exciting way. He owns an art gallery in SoHo. He’s got a nice wife named Rebecca, equally arty, and a standing Sunday date. And they still think it’s interesting to touch each others private parts, as evidenced in an early scene in the book that has them up well past their bedtime.

Rebecca’s much younger brother Mizzy (as in “The Mistake”) comes to stay with them in their funky, no privacy loft. He’s fresh off a stint staring at rocks halfway around the world, and some druggie escapades before that. He’s thinking of a career in the arts, which makes this particular mentorship with these particular adults make sense.

The 24-year-old has the face of a young Rebecca, and a history of oozing potential, all prodigy-like. Peter’s reunion with his brother-in-law is a sudsy mess of awkward: The elder thinks his wife is in the shower, and slips in for some grab ass, only to realize he’s trespassed into dude territory. And, uh oh, damn that boy is fine. See also: Rodin.

Peter has a seven layer dish of disarray: Career-wise, he’s frustrated by the artists that show work in his gallery. He’s looking for some authenticity and beauty, and everything is a cog off for him, including a young wunderkind who designs urns, or rather a caricature of urns, that are breathtaking from a distance and up close, marred with slang for genitalia, and offensive lyrics in a wonderfully fresh and up-and-comery way. His relationship with his daughter is on the fritz. The college student-turned-hotel bartender is still gathering steam over a series of perceived adolescent slightings, which Peter remembers differently than the angry voice on the other end of the infrequent phone calls. He’s still struggling with the loss of his HIV positive older brother, who died years ago, and some unresolved feelings about their relationship. His own aging process is eating away at him. It’s in the graying of his hair, and the softening of his wife. And there is the ongoing struggle between potential and actuality. Anticipation versus fruition.

We are right there inside Peter’s head as he takes all of this discontent and channels it into a heady lust fest starring Mizzy, a young charmer and seducer. The kind of guy who walks around naked, flashes winning smiles, always presents the right response, and seems comfortable in any environment. All of a sudden Peter, aged 40 something, wonders if he is “gay for one man.”

When Peter discovers that Mizzy is still using, they become tangled in the secret they are keeping from Rebecca, the sort of thing that only fuels the tug of Peter’s bone dog.

This novel is just beautiful. There are passages where the hair on my arms stood. Peter’s head is both a comfortable and uncomfortable place to spend 200 plus pages of introspection. The scenes and the navel gazing both have that artistic sensibility of a person who knows how the subtle addition of an urn can change the flow of a space. Peter unfolds, first gradually, then manically, and the transition is totally organic. All the while, this character has a foot in reality, can actually see himself and knows the potential for world-changing destruction and yet can’t stop himself. An entire row of Oreos at the ready, followed by no Oreos left, black chalky dust caked into lips.

And, um, I’d be lying through omission if I didn’t mention that there are some super hot scenes. Not just the aforementioned husband-wife rodeo, but also places where the suggestion of what might be is hot-hot-hot.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on December 19, 2010.

Review: ‘Anansi Boys’ by Neil Gaiman

One of the best things in the future will be brain internet. And one of the best things about brain internet will be making vacation plans to spend a week in Neil Gaiman’s melon. Cruising the crooks and coves of his limitless lobes. Talking animals, super powers, world-trotting adventures. His one-foot-in-realism, where text messaging and heart break exist, his one-foot-in-supernatural where one can have his tongue severed, lost, returned, and live to talk again.

The sci/fi heartthrob with one of the most enviable messes of hair on earth is the definition of clever.

Gaiman’s strangely non-classifiable novel Anansi Boys is totally, totally fun. He has this great way of eschewing the cloak-wearing seriousness of talking robots, neon green thises and thats, and planets with a lot of Xs, Ys, and Zs in their names, but he still takes the boundaries of IRL and erases all the lines to allow his characters infinite leg room. It’s a nice combination for someone who has never identified a friend as a “Dungeon Master” or Googled “homemade Yoda ears.”

The super nondescript Fat Charlie is inches away from marrying the super virginal Rosie and just when he’s explaining how embarrassing it will be to invite his father to the wedding, he gets word that the enigmatic prankster dropped dead during an unfortunate karaoke incident. Phew. Fat Charlie busts a move to his father’s resting place, and things get a little wiggy with the former next-door neighbor who crazy talks something about Fat Charlie’s brother.

Wait. Fat Charlie doesn’t have a brother — oh wait, he does. Spider was sent packing by a neighborhood witch when he was young after some tomfoolery in her back yard. Fat Charlie summons Spider from the ether and whoa. This guy is intense: Handsome, charming, and hot damn does he smell good. Rosie can’t tell the boys apart, and sheds her virginity on impact with this cool cucumber. Spider mixes up some havoc at Fat Charlie’s place of employment, too. And under Spider’s influence, Fat Charlie wakes one morning hung over and sharing a bed surface with a young hottie he met the previous night at a bar. And it surely isn’t Rosie, his betrothed.

Fat Charlie tries to get rid of his brother, who has decided he likes “fixing” Fat Charlie’s life and especially Fat Charlie’s fiancee. Fat Charlie’s boss tries to get Fat Charlie arrested. That little minx in his bed turns out to be a member of the local PD. Ghosts, chatty animals, and spells happen.

And every single page is LOLsville. Okay, there is one dud scene in the beginning where it seems this might lean hokey. And maybe it does stay a little hokey. But damn if it isn’t a stone-cold delight. Spider is this dynamo caricature who oozes awesome, an awesome that Fat Charlie absorbs as the going gets tough.

This review was originally posted on December 16, 2010, at Minnesota Reads.

Review: Renegade Theater Company’s ‘Fezziwig’s Feast’

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Fezziwig is a jolly old gent in a Welsh wig, and his wife is one “vast substantial smile.”

They are the consummate hosts of an annual dinner party at the warehouse where a pre-bah humbug Ebenezer Scrooge is one of two apprentices. On Christmas Eve, Fezziwig’s employees shut down the shop, and a parade of guests file in for eating, drinking and dancing.

Renegade Theater Company’s foray into dinner theater uses this feast as the backdrop for the classic holiday tale in the entertainment space at Clyde Iron Works. You play the role of a dinner guest. Actors in top hats or bonnets, in capes and floor-length dresses, mingle and chat, and steal nibbles from your bread basket.

Mr. Fezziwig, played by the always jolly Jody Kujawa, sets the scene: There will be food. And then the Fezziwig family and their staff will act out a story written by Mr. Fezziwig’s friend, a poor young writer named Charles Dickens, who unfortunately couldn’t make the soiree.

“Fezziwig’s Feast” is an adaptation created by the Actors Theater of Minnesota, a Twin Cities-based group that landed on Duluth stages at least twice in the early 2000s.

The best moments of this show, which runs just more than two hours, are the ghoulish introductions to the ghosts: the shimmery and ethereal Past (Jenna Kase), the hearty and hippie-like Present wearing a wreath-sized head ornament (Zachary Stofer), and the looming and reaper-ish Future with his long, twiggy bone hands.

The best of the best of this otherworldly cast is Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former partner who has been “dead as a door nail” for seven years. He comes to Scrooge accessorized in chains to warn him that he can change his dour fate. Blue and purple lights and a manipulated monster growl gave Stofer something that could easily double as a Halloween-themed cult classic. Kudos to director Anika Thompson, who took advantage of Clyde’s upper level as a stage for moaning and groaning ghost-like figures. It was a scene from a Marilyn Manson video.

Paul Waterman, as both Fezziwig’s accountant and Scrooge, is a terrific grouch in his opening scenes at the office with Bob Cratchit. And he fades perfectly into the backdrop while on his tour with the ghosts while subtly maintaining his game face. As he watches a younger version of himself dancing with a woman at a Fezziwig’s Feast of the past, he mimes his own dance in synch with young Scrooge.

Opening night included some timing issues between on-stage action and food service that I expect will get worked out within a few runs. There also was a varying level of commitment to character when the actors milled during the food breaks and before the show.

If Renegade is looking to build its fan base with something different than their traditional blue holiday comedy, they’ve done it. The audience of about 60 people was an eclectic mix.

Of the five shows that opened this weekend, this is the biggest ticket price at $49.95. But you won’t get the English feast at those other shows: potato and leek soup with smoked salmon crème fraiche; hearth-cooked turkey over field greens with poached pear, raisins, candied walnuts and roasted acorn squash vinaigrette; pork tenderloin with apple butter sauce; ginger mashed sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts; wood-fired peasant bread with whipped honey butter; and bread pudding with crème anglaise and brandy caramel sauce.

This review ran in the December 4, 2010, edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: Rubber Chicken Theater’s ‘Rubber Chicken Christmas Tea …’

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Brian Matuszak has been doing these sketch comedy revues for more than

20 years, and seems to relish the silliness involved with taking a topic like airport pat downs or a name like Cravaack and walloping it senseless.

The troupe, with it’s typical mouthful of a title, “Rubber Chicken’s Christmas Tea Party, or, Is That a Chip in Your Cravaack or Are You Just Happy to See Me,” put together a show with about 20 songs and sketches, featuring local political satire and holiday-themed hijinks.

There are plenty of genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the two-hour show, usually at the hands of Nathan St. Germain, an actor who is able to manipulate himself into a caricature whether he is playing Chip Cravaack having a meltdown as he considers the responsibilities of his new gig, or just Snoopy dashing across the stage with a box of ornaments.

The opening musical number is about 15 minutes long, using re-worded Christmas carols to poke at the TSA, road construction on I-35, Dennis Anderson’s pending retirement from WDIO-TV, elections, Brett Favre’s cell phone and the oil spill.

As is the general rule of sketch comedy, some scenes succeed and some sputter. Rubber Chicken Theater had more hits than misses in this six-actor, fairly well-edited revue.

The best piece is a post-fourth wall bit featuring St. Germain and Minden Hultstrom trapped in the audience. It’s a take on the Chilean miners, and is packed with clever digs at the people in the seats — how they are dressed and how they smell — and physical humor when Taylor Martin-Romme attempts a rescue.

But a close second is the closing number, “Minnesota Voters” to the theme of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” that has the entire cast dancing, singing and rapping.

Matuszak, who has never had a problem pimping one of his productions, even manages to incorporate the Oeuvre Award he won for his part in the production of “American Buffalo.”

Matuszak dug into the video archives for a vintage piece starring Dennis Anderson of WDIO-TV, and Pat Kelly, the retired anchor from KBJR. The quick skit from probably around the early 1990s has Kelly coming clean to Anderson about stealing his hair piece. Kelly stands before his mentor, doffed with a mess of brown fluff, and Anderson explains that doing the job well isn’t about “what’s up here,” he says, pointing to his head.

This show has seen plenty of venues before landing at The Venue, a multi-purpose space in the West End that has served them well for their annual “Evil Dead” productions. In the case of “Rubber Chicken Christmas Tea Party, etc.,” — at least on Friday night — the troupe was subject to the whims of the VFW’s karaoke contingent nearby.

If you can’t beat it, join it.

Rubber Chicken incorporated the interruption with a version of “Name That Tune,” in which audience members were invited to call out the song title. Friday’s winner received candy canes and a T-shirt from “Evil Dead.”

This is the only sketch comedy show in town right now. Renegade Theater Company, opted for something different with “Fezziwig’s Feast,” a dinner theater based on “A Christmas Carol.”

This review ran in the December 11, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: ‘The Extra Man’ by Jonathan Ames

An obsession with a figure from the lit world does not necessarily mean that I like the object of interest. It just means I’ll consider following him on Twitter, but change my mind. Delve into his canon with a cocked eyebrow. Sometimes I develop such a fixation that even I don’t know if I hate the object of interest, or if I want to tie the object of interest to my bed for optimal hobbling.

Right now I’m interested in Jonathan Ames. I think I kind of hate him, I probably hate him. But I’ve added two of his books to my Wish List so who the hell knows what I really think. It’s such a fine line for me.

Exhibit A: The show “Bored to Death” slays me. A lot of that has to do with Zach Galifianakis, but ultimately it is the creation of Jonathan Ames. It is that kind of funny that is too funny to laugh at every time it deserves a laugh, so I just have to rest my face in an amused position and let it go at that. But deep down I’m squealing.

Exhibit B: An excerpt from The Alcoholic, as seen in Best American Comics 2010 is dynamite. I’d totally read that in its entirety.

Which brings us to The Extra Man, a decade-old novel that is equally as good as it is bad. Louis Ives is a sort of pseudo pretentious fuck who moves to New York City after a shame-filled misadventure with a coworker’s bra. He finds a roommate, Henry, a character of indiscernible age and a walking, talking, dancing fountain of one-liners and life philosophies. Henry is a teacher, but supplements the lifestyle he can’t afford by hanging out with rich old ladies who feed him fancy food and take him to awesome parties and let him crash in their guest rooms in Florida. He is similarly skilled at needling his way into free theater performances.

Louis immediately becomes enamored with Henry and his lifestyle: hobnobbing with the biggies, but doing his laundry in the shower as he bathes, in something akin to the art of grape squishing with the intent to make wine.

At the same time, Louis is going through a super sexual identity crisis. He has always wanted to dress in women’s clothing, look in the mirror and see something beautiful. He starts frequenting a tranny bar near Times Square where he occasionally hooks up with pretty ladies adept at the old tuck-eroo. Afterward, he is a mess of self-loathing, and AIDS paranoia. His curiosity eventually leads him to an extreme tranny makeover, which increases his ugly feelings toward himself. Henry continues to be this peripheral mysterious shouter of one-liners.

This is a case where the main character is an exhausting hot mess of confusion and loathsome personality ticks. How can we like you when you don’t like yourself? He’s technically a well-done character with a strong, albeit annoying and emotionally stunted voice. But spending time with him is brutal. The sideline character is a co-star who outshines everyone else. I guess keeping him in the background lends to his mystique. Is he gay or straight? What was his life like before all of this? What would he say if he knew Louis was catting around the sexual underworld?

As an almost psychology minor, I suspect that Jonathan Ames has known, and has been hugely influenced by an elderly man of a refined taste and snobdom that is not consistent with his home life. I suspect that Jonathan Ames began jotting down this man’s whack daddy musings in a sort of pre-Twitter Shit My Dad Says way. And then I think this old man character creeps into everything that Ames makes. (See also: Ted Danson character on “Bored to Death.”) Some of the best lines from the show are first tested in this novel and Wake Up, Sir.

I’m all for mining your life story for characters and scenes and misadventures. Once. You get one story loosely based on your own life, then you have to be done with it. Purge. Start anew. Otherwise you are just a person with an eye for story potential and and ear for clever dialogue, and the wherewithal to record these and have these pages cinched together with book glue. Unless you call it nonfiction. Then, according to my rule book, you can do this forever and ever as much as you want. Next up: I read Jonathan Ames’ nonfiction collections to get a better sense of my feelings toward him.

This review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on December 11, 2010.

Review: ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ by Truman Capote

I stopped reading. Well, I was still reading, but I was retaining little and caring even less about one of those National Book Award noms that I took for granted I would love because of a previous experience with the writer.

But I was really hating on this thing. It was so much exposition, it was starting to feel like I was trapped at the bar with a gin-soaked acquaintance who sighs and starts the night out with: “Well, it’s a sort of long story. Let me start at the beginning. When I was seven …” Then I segued into a rock bio that starts out real kicky, cleverly written and super heavy on voice but gets bogged down with names and same old same old. Perfect for super fans. A little blah blah blah-sy for the people looking for shredded hotel rooms and what was snorted off groupies’ whats.

I’m still working on the latter, the former goes in the special place where I put books I believe deserve a second chance. I collapsed into graphic novels and Words with Friends, drawing, laundry and two work-shift length marathons of “Criminal Minds.”

But a reader needs to read, yo. You find yourself looking in closets for something, only to realize it is the plot of the novel you aren’t reading. And it’s not on the high shelf. There is a panic: So many books in the world you want to read, no interest in reading any of them. Clock’s ticking. At this point you’ll never clean out the Amazon Wish List before you’re 70. And then you think: What if I never read anything else ever again? What if I’m done reading?What if my favorite hobby in the world is suddenly, inexplicably, no longer my favorite thing in the world and I have to, like, learn Spanish or figure out what the hell a Sudoku is

So I eased in slowly. An old lady in a shower cap who plans to swim laps at the Y without getting her hair wet slow. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Reason for the season: Reading it gives me one more oft-referenced story in my arsenal. (I’m that one person in the world who hasn’t seen the movie). And it’s real short. A perfect practice book.

Readers, I read it in its entirety. Chuckled a few times. Shook my head over the antics of that whacky Holly Golightly, and thanked goodness that I hadn’t read it when I was 19 and wholly prone to lit girl crushes. (It took me more than a decade to get over Lady Brett Ashley. If those two had tag-teamed me, I’d probably be in Spain right now drinking my lunch, smoking dinner, while an intervention team tracked me by following the breadcrumb trail of discarded pet cats).

So did I love this story of a young sassafrass in New York City, charming the dinero out of bunches and bunches of men? It was fine. It was cute. I’m glad I read it. But most importantly, it got me in the habit of reading again. And that is what is important. I’m proud to say I’m now more than 250 pages into a serious bunch of crap and I don’t even mind.

This review was posted at Minnesota Reads on December 6, 2010.