Review: Louie Anderson, comedian

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Louie Anderson’s mom was a hoarder. He tried to throw away a paper bag once and she said “What’re we, the Rockefellers?” Then once he was digging in that magic space between the cupboard and refrigerator, the universal spot for housing old brown paper sacks, and he pulled out a bag from Red Owl.

That grocery store had been closed for a decade.

Here Anderson stopped to bust out an impersonation of the infamous owl logo. His elbows jutted up around his ears, a sort of pinched, evil, scrunched face and toothy rodent look. He posed like this for at least 10 fantastic seconds while the 500 plus in the audience at Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica roared.

“I’ve never even seen what that looks like,” Anderson chuckled after he dismounted from the impersonation. It’s a doozy alright, and part of Anderson’s amazing arsenal of looks.

The blond-haired, round-bodied Minnesota native might not be an athlete, but in more than 20 years of contorting his face into slack-jawed wonder and wide-eyed confusion, Anderson remains one of the best at the art of physical comedy. On Friday night he morphed into an antagonistic feline, dissing its owner with a tail and misanthropic eye rolls, and mimed a traveler shuffling through the security maze at the airport in Minneapolis.

Anderson performed an 80-minute show for a crowd comprised mostly of people who understood what it is like to try to read small print and mistake digits in a phone number.

“Is that a W?” he asked. Then: “I can’t read anything smaller than that ‘Egypt’ sign over there,” he said, gesturing in the direction of a neon Exit sign over the door.

Anderson’s show was the clean personal narrative that has earned him comparisons to Bill Cosby — or maybe the favorite uncle you call dibs to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. Stories about his mother’s love for butter and the time his father used a charcoal grill to heat up the car so he could start it in the winter. The time young Louie broke the driver’s side door off the family car trying to parallel park — a blunder that his dad fixed by snaking rope between the steering wheel console and the door.

“My mom ate every piece of butter in the Midwest,” and lived

into her 70s. “My dad smoked, he drank, we finally had to kill him when he was 79,” Anderson said.

There was a bit of audience interaction, where he riffed on the feedback. He tossed out questions to Jay, a 50-something in the front row, and expressed amazement at Eric, a 34-year-old also in the front row.

“When I was 34 I could pee from my bed all the way to the toilet,” he said. “The arc on it …”

He got big love from the audience — a standing ovation — passed out a free DVD to an audience member and headed to the lobby for a meet-’n’-greet, touching shoulders and greeting raving fans who had gathered to get pictures with him.

Minneapolis comedian Jason Schommer opened the show with a 15-minute rapid-fire set that he kicked off with a story about how he met Cher in Las Vegas. Embarrassing, he said. She mistook this short-haired curvy dude for her daughter Chastity. He set just the right tone for Anderson’s set with a similar style of humor.

This review was in the March 19 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: ‘The Night Bookmobile’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger has a good thing going on with her lobes. In her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile — which walks like a children’s book, but certainly doesn’t talk like one, Alexandra goes out for a stroll in the streets of Chicago in the middle of the night. She has recently fought with her boyfriend Richard, a ponytailed lover with no time for make believe. She finds a bookmobile blasting Bob Marley and gives the driver a little peek as she walks past.

Robert Openshaw greets her, invites her inside. So many books and she’s read all of them. Paul Auster and Betty Crocker and, gasp, her own diary from childhood. Openshaw hustles her out the door when the sun comes up.

Back home with Richard, she is distracted. He doesn’t believe her story. He breaks the fourth wall with a snarky look at the reader and says “See what I have to deal with here?” She continues to spend her nights searching for the bookmobile — to the point where Richard thinks she is carrying on with another dude. She doesn’t quite dispute that. This magical camper and its rock and roll soundtrack get her full attention.

She returns to the bookmobile a couple more times, more aisles and more books with each visit, always reluctant to leave and damn-near clawing at Openshaw’s pant leg and begging for a job that he can’t give her.

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger has again blurred the lines between natural and supernatural. Her authorial “what ifs” aren’t subject to gravity, which is a pleasure to read. Art-wise, she is more grounded in realism. No dreamy swirls or puffs or anything else to suggest that this is fantastical.

This book is totally a treat and undoubtedly has readers considering their own night bookmobiles: The Judy Blume and Christopher Pike. Veganomicon and issues of Sassy magazine. A barely freshly cracked copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the complete works of Chuck Palahniuk, Japanese crime fiction and even this book.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on March 19, 2011.

Review: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver

Consider a scab. Picture the raw pink steak-ish part beneath it. Now go down another couple of layers. This is where Lionel Shriver went to write the super-gripping, super honest novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.

This is set in the aftermath of a teen massacre. Eva Khatchadourian is an entrepreneur, a world-ophile, deeply in love with her husband Franklin, independently wealthy, and the mother of a Kevin Khatchadourian, the barely-not legal who took out seven of his classmates in a well-executed execution.

He’s locked up. She’s still running into parents of victims at the grocery store and trying to stay steady when she tells people her infamous last name. A couple times a week she pens a letter to Franklin, with whom she is estranged, and the story unfolds in these journal-style waxing. She rehashes their past and admits to the daily struggles: The time some anonymous faces soiled her porch with dark red paint; The woman who smashed every egg in the carton Eva had left in her unattended grocery cart. Visiting their snarky asshole of a son in kiddie prison.

Eva is hardly a candidate for a STFU Parents post. She’s a reluctant incubator who agrees to drink the baby batter with the idea of collecting another person to love. To mixing life up from its predictable forward trajectory. To re-celebrate things like first words and first steps. But before he is even born, and especially after he’s born, she resents this change in lifestyle and this silent dullard who seemingly likes nothing.

By the time Kevin is school-aged, he has revealed a host of anti-social behaviors: Chucking rocks off bridges at passing cars, convincing a classmate with eczema to itch herself into a collection of blood flecks, fiddling with a neighbor’s bike and causing an accident.

Where Eva sees pure evil, Franklin is pantomiming an episode of “Happy Days”: Sports, staged battle re-enactments, a hardy boys-will-be-boys chuckle. This, obviously, is making things a little stressy on the home front.

And just when it looks like Franklin is obviously the biggest freakin’ idiot in the world to not notice that young Kevin is a sociopath, Shriver does a wordy strip tease and slowly reveals Eva as a bit of a pretentious dick. This leads the reader to a nugget of doubt:

Maybe Eva is a little loco and things aren’t as bad as she thinks.

At the same time, post-killing Eva is a metaphorical cutter, whose guilt over what has happened and how much of the burden of blame falls on her is what drives her to continue visiting Kevin and continue living in a place where she can’t dissolve into anonymity.

Genius much, Shriver?

This story is unique in both its complicated dueling leads — Eva and Kevin — and its not-so rosy portrayal of motherhood. There is a depth of honesty to Eva’s pattern of thought regarding to breed or not to breed. Franklin’s foray into the land of make believe was harder to swallow. The gruesome part of the plot seemed less sharp than all that proceeded it, but the development of the characters was the best kind of wrenching gut punch.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on March 20, 2011.

Review: ‘Gryphon’ by Charles Baxter

I believe that Charles Baxter is one of the best writers on Earth. If I had to pick which one should sit at the head of the table during a gathering of my top ten, I’d probably just say “Screw it” and make him arm wrestle Haruki Murakami for honors. Let the loser carve the bird.

I also believe that Charles Baxter is the trickiest writer to write about. I decided this even before he wrote a state-of-the-reviewers address about “owl criticism,” in which a book is critiqued like this:
“This book has an owl in it and I don’t like owls.”

This designation isn’t just for the rookies.

See also: Nationally renowned publications’ coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
See also: Citizen reviewers on Amazon.
See also: Me. Right now. On his book.

Baxter is tricky because I understand thematically what he does. I see the way he rips a slice out of a normal life and hip-checks it to just an inch from absurd, but toeing the line and swinging its arms to balance at the line where realism ends. I see that he is a clean writer. I see that he writes characters with layers that aren’t even hinted at, and that if you hung out with them a bit longer you might be surprised by the contents of a refrigerator or the smell their socks have trapped at the end of the day. He pits squares versus circles and tries to make them communicate.

But I’m not sure exactly how what he does results in the chemical response it leads to. Specifically: Why do I always forget what he wrote about and only remember that it was brilliant?

Charles Baxter’s writing has this way of absorbing into your skin. Setting up shop. Making a memory where you’re like: Wait. Was that me making out with my boyfriend on a football field that one night, or is that something that happens in one of Charles Baxter’s novels? And even when I can pinpoint it, say, “Oh, that was Feast of Love, not the summer of ’94,” I cannot attribute any more plot points to the novel that I would actually call one of my favorites of all time.

I’ve never found this to not be the case with Charles Baxter, and it rings just as true in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, a mix of 23 stories. Not a dud in a bunch, but flipping through the collection I finished yesterday I’m all “Oh! Yes! The one about the young couple living in what seems to be Dinkytown. The warning from the exgirlfriend. The homeless man who grants three wishes! I love that story!”

I love owls.

Faves include “Harmony of the World,” in which a good musician who is not quite good enough works accompanies a singer who is good, but not quite good enough and it all ends in a very Edgar Allan Poe-ian crescendo, minus the beating heart in the wall; “Surprised by Joy,” in which a couple suffers when the pace of their grief isn’t in step; “Snow,” about a forever student drunk drives to help out his ex-fiance; the aforementioned “Kiss Away,”; and “Royal Blue,” which I loved so much that I can’t remember a lick of it; “The Old Murderer,” is the beginning of a friendly relationship between neighbors with dueling demons; “The Winner,” in which a freelance writer is thrown into “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on March 6, 2011.

Essay: A little something to get off my chest

A few weeks ago I became incensed with the bra industry with very little provocation. I was at Target browsing the unmentionables and could only find one boulder holder that matched my personal specifications and so I decided it was a conspiracy:

“EVERYONE HATES A 36B!” I screamed in my head.

I didn’t research this theory. I was basing it solely on what this store had in stock. Plenty of bras in the 36B tier, but only one that didn’t have cups padded to resemble hockey equipment. I don’t want that. Water bras. Gel bras. I like to be able to feel if a hard boiled egg has affixed itself to my chest as I lean over a salad bar. I want my bras unpadded, demi cup with an underwire. This appears to be a lot to ask.

As you would assume from my B-level ranking, I do not have large breasts. My rib cage, however, has a decent girth. An aesthetic comparison: The whole set up is a bit like decorating a dining room table with tea candles. Adding a padded bra just makes me feel bulky and transexual.

“BRA MAKERS WANT ME TO BE ASHAMED THAT I WOULDN’T PASS THE PENCIL TEST!” I screamed in my head. “THEY WANT TO EMBARRASS ME BECAUSE I WOULDN’T FILL A CHAMPAGNE GLASS!”

Now this has become a thing. Every time I’m at Target, I wander around looking for 36Bs, nodding self-righteously when I encounter bra after bra that could easily be mistaken for knee pads.

I remember getting my first bra. I had noticed my friend Gina’s telltale straps one day at school, and went home to tell my mom the news. “Gina is wearing a training bra,” I told her. She humored my elementary school envy and took me bra shopping that weekend, picking up three trainers that looked especially cool when I wore a Polo shirt. That line across my back like a single guitar string. Turns out Gina had been wearing a slip, so the whole thing was a little premature. I remember writing in my diary a few weeks later something like: “Dear Diary, By now I have been wearing a bra for so long that I don’t even wear it anymore.”

Last weekend I was at Target, picking through the leftover Valentine’s Day lingerie and poking through lacy displays. Once again, I found just one unpadded 36B with an underwire, in black. I bought it.

I wore it for the first time on Tuesday, and on Wednesday noticed that it looked strange, broken, laying on the bedroom floor. I picked it up, fingered a flap of material that had come loose, and gasped:

A nursing bra?!

I dug the tag out of the garbage, and sure enough in fine print:
“One-hand easy release nursing closure.”

Of all the extraneous features. Of all the bizarre things for me to own. A nursing bra! I slipped it on and showed Chuck the magic trick. “And then,” I said, “Viola!”

He covered his mouth and backed away, a giant laugh about to burst to the surface.

Everyone hates a 36B.

Feature: The Acceleratii, band

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

While Day 5 of last year’s Homegrown Music Festival was winding down, The Acceleratii was winding up. The microphone seemed like it would have to be surgically removed from frontman Chad Lyons’ clutch. The fans seemed like they would have be surgically removed from Norm’s Beer & Brats in Superior. 

Lyons negotiated 10 more minutes out of the guy working the sound board, then the band went on to play about five more songs.

This foursome started as a fun-time band. A band for beer drinkers. A band to play car shows. No banjos, no washboards. No folk influences. No Journey covers.

“I wanted it to be about partying and cars,” Lyons said Tuesday night in The Acceleratii’s practice space, a rented room on East Third Street in a building shared with other local musicians.

For the first time, that party can spin in your Sony Discman. The Acceleratii, which took its name from an advertisement for a 1968 Road Runner, is releasing its debut album five years after they joined the local music scene by opening a Black Labels/Retribution Gospel Choir show. The self-titled album is a 14-song mix, equal parts covers and originals, and includes plenty of fan favorites.

The players

Lyons is a blend of voice, comedy improv and theater, a frontman who went to stuntman school. Ben Marsen uses technical terms to define where a song went off-track (Lyons calls him the group’s “Lawrence Welk”). Scott Millis is the newest member and The Acceleratii’s third drummer in five years. Gomez is a super-skilled guitar player and sort of band mascot. He goes by just Gomez — no more, no less, like Banksy or Cher.

This is not your grandpa’s rockabilly.

“People expect ’50s and ’60s music, oldies,” Marsen said. “We speed it up, with inappropriate stuff strewn throughout.”

Sure, the rockabilly fans might technically dig the sound that defined an era, but if they get close enough to extract the lyrics, they are in for a surprise.

“You’re not going to like ‘Poop Fight,’ ” Lyons said of one of the band’s more popular songs.

There isn’t a pompadour in the bunch. Just Gomez dresses the rockabilly role with his black and white wingtips, a shirt with “Gomez” stitched on the upper left side. Lyons has performed wearing a deputy sheriff’s tan uniform, complete with the official star.

The Acceleratii plays plenty of originals in a sort of raunch-abilly style. The band also re-imagines punk music as swing and messes with the speed on obscure tracks influenced by the more than 5,000 45s Gomez has collected. They have a term for how they treat covers:

“Accelerat-omize it,” Millis said.

At rehearsal

The Acceleratii shifted gears on Tuesday night. Lately practices have centered on mastering the music of The Animals for an Ides of March show at Pizza Luce. Now it was back to picking through the more than six hours of 2-minute songs they’ve accumulated.

There is a small refrigerator filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon. The walls are papered with women in various states of undress, posters featuring old cars, “Easy Rider” and Johnny Cash. Pink flamingos poke out of a tire. There are bills announcing past shows and a banner for a gig at the Loading Dock in which the band’s name is misspelled to include three Ts, one I. Someone is always spelling The Acceleratii wrong.

Off to a corner is a lounge area. There is a coffee table. The couches are the red benches from their first band van.

This is a DIY band that has finally made enough money playing shows locally to put out a CD. And with the money they make from the CD, they hope to make more CDs. Maybe T-shirts. Maybe play shows farther away without pooling the cash they make at day jobs to pay for gas.

Maybe, for instance, Moscow.

“We’re setting our sights on Europe,” Marsen said. “They’re still into this (stuff) there.”

This story was in the March 3, 2011, edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.