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Posts about Books

Karen Armstrong: Study faith, stress Golden Rule

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: November 12, 2014 - 1:23 PM

After decades spent studying, researching and writing books about the history of world religions, British author Karen Armstrong (pictured) appears to have arrived at a stunningly simple resolution: follow the Golden Rule.

Armstrong spoke Tuesday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul as part of Talking Volumes, a series co-presented by Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio, in collaboratiion with The Loft.

In her new book, "Fields of Blood," Armstrong zeros in on myths and reality surrounding the role of religion in the history of warfare and violence.

With ISIS in the news, interviewer Kerri Miller of MPR asked Armstrong about the situation in Syria and Iraq, and the perception in the West that the violent leaders of ISIS are motivated mainly by their Muslim faith.

"First off, it is a mistake to think that all ISIS fighters are devout jihadists," Armstrong said. "Many are secular" militia, including troops left over from Saddam Hussein's armed guard. She said there had been a story about one ISIS leader who had ordered the book "Islam for Dummies" from amazon.com.

The resurgence of radical Islam in parts of the Mideast today, Armstrong said, is in part a response to the violence used to repress religion and impose a secular state in places like Iran and Egypt in the mid-20th-century.

Another factor, she said, "is a perception in many parts of the Middle East that the West is indifferent to human suffering."

While some have labeled Armstrong an apologist for Islam, she said she abhors the ISIS-sponsored aggression and says that it actually defies Islamic law that forbids violence against civilians and prohibits attacking any country where Muslims are allowed to practice their faith freely.

Armstrong has been a leader in the Charter for Compassion, a global effort to involving elected leaders, clergy and laypeople to sign on to this simple notion: "Do not impose on others what you yourself would not desire." She read an elaboration of that Golden Rule, which is available here.

Armstrong, who turns 70 on Nov. 14, lived in a convent, leaving it after six years, when she was 24. Since then, she remained unmarried and without children. She lives alone and spends much time in study, research, reflection and writing, so that her life today "remains very nun-like," she said.

But Armstrong is no stay-at-home. She travels globally to speak and promote her books. She has given TED talks and is a regular TV commentator. She has made numerous trips to Pakistan, where she has helped promote a chain of progressive schools.

While her topic is a serious one, Armstrong frequently displayed flashes of wit and self-deprecating humor. She acknowledged Britain's once-mighty status as a colonial power, but said "we now view ourselves as the poodle of the United States."

Star Tribune writer Graydon Royce recently interviewed Armstrong, here.

Armstrong's full talk is scheduled to be rebroadcast at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, on Minnesota Public Radio.

Speed dating for lit lovers

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson Updated: November 10, 2014 - 3:20 PM
Bookmatch host Heather McElhatton interviews YA author Geoff Herbach Saturday at the Minneapolis Central Library downtown.

As Garth Brooks fans jostled in line cheek by jowl on the other end of downtown Saturday night, an alternative entertainment quietly transpired at the Minneapolis Central Library. Aptly billed as speed dating for book lovers, Bookmatch presents several Minnesota authors reading short excerpts from their latest works and engaging in a brief conversation with host, author and MPR personality Heather McElhatton. In the space of about an hour, McElhatton pleasantly power-chatted her way through six writers -- poet Ray Gonzalez ("Soul Over Lightning"), YA authors Will Alexander ("Ambassador")  and Geoff Herbach ("Fay Boy vs. the Cheerleaders"), memoirist and gravedigger's daughter (really!)  Rachael Hanel ("We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down"), longform journalist Neal Karlen ("Augie's Secrets") and multi-genre creative-writing prof Julie Schmacher, whose novel "Dear Committee Members" is hilariously structured in the form of an academic's letters of recommendation (that does not sound LOL funny on the surface,but it absolutely is,as she proved in her reading). In keeping with the "love match" theme, one attendee per author was chosen to receive a free book based on a short questionnaire. Karlen's 90-year-old father, Dr. Markle Karlen, was in the audience. Told by a fellow attendee that she'd known his son for many years, he retorted drily, "so have I."  Herbach's "Fat Boy" protagonist, a teen named Gabe, shares at least one connection with his creator, the author revealed -- a terrible housekeeper named Doris who is fond of saying "Better laugh than cry." When he was growing up, Herbach said, his family's housecleaner would "spill dirty mop water all over the carpet or fall over and rip down the shower curtain, then say 'better laugh than cry.'" Sounds like a good motto for today's commute home in the "wintry mix" as well.

Berryman, rebooted

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson Updated: October 23, 2014 - 2:17 PM

Poet John Berryman taught at the University of Minnesota from 1955 until his death in 1972. A centenary conference celebrating his work is being held there this weekend. Undated Star Tribune file photo by Pete Hohn.

To his fans, the work of John Berryman has never faded. Many an indie rocker has been inspired by the  idiosyncratic poet famous for his "Dream Songs" and other works like his groundbreaking "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."

“Each poem trembles with a terrible, furious beauty that lies somewhere beneath the surface of his often perplexing words,” opined Nick Cave. The Hold Steady and Okkervil River have written songs about him.

But now Berryman, a Pulitzer winner and former University of Minnesota professor who notoriously leapt off the Washington Ave. Bridge in 1972, seems poised for revival, with several new books coming out this month and a centenary conference -- Berryman was born 100 years ago Saturday -- at the U this weekend.

After Berryman’s suicide, says conference participant Peter Campion, a poet and U of M professor, “there was an attack on him, because of his alcoholism, that went along with this sort of puritanical  ‘80s vibe. But people are coming out of the woodwork for this conference, we’re expecting standing room only.”

Berryman remained highly influential in the world of American poetry despite his reputation "going underground" after his death, Campion said: "He had such tremendous range. He was a tried and true Shakespeare scholar who also wrote like a quicksilver improvisational blues musician. No one could imitate him, to try would be silly, but he set a model that was so freeing, giving other poets permission to use other voices,including different ethnic voices, in their work.” 

Four new books from Farrar, Straus and Giroux include re-issues of Berryman's Dream Songs (foreword by Michael Hofmann) and his Sonnets (foreword by April Bernard). "The Heart Is Strange," is a New Selected Poems including three previously uncollected poems. The memoir "Poets In Their Youth" by his wife, writer and psychologist Eileen Simpson, has also been re-issued. 

As Hofmann notes in his foreword, young readers in particular are drawn to Berryman's fearless, freewheeling style:"no one writes like that, no one dares, no one would have the wild imagination or the obsession. Who knew English could encompass that flux; that whinny; those initially baffling, then canny and eventually unforgettable rearrangements of words; that irresistible flow of thoughts and nonthoughts of that degree of informed privateness?

He also quotes poet Adrienne Rich, who singled out Berryman and one other famous Minnesota artist for praise when she said, "The English (American) language. Who knows entirely what it is? Maybe two men in this decade, Bob Dylan, John Berryman."

Running Friday afternoon through midday Sunday at the  Elmer L. Andersen Library on campus, the conference features readings by local poets including Jim Moore and Michael Dennis Browne, panel discussions on his influences, memories of his students (several of whom became prominent poets in their own right) and a screening of a short documentary by local filmmaker and Berryman contemporary Al Milgrom. It's free but advance registration is requested: http://www.continuum.umn.edu/reg/berryman  The conference schedule is here.

Dream Song 14

by John Berryman

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. 
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, 
we ourselves flash and yearn, 
and moreover my mother told me as a boy 
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored 
means you have no

Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no 
inner resources, because I am heavy bored. 
Peoples bore me, 
literature bores me, especially great literature, 
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes 
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me. 
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag 
and somehow a dog 
has taken itself & its tail considerably away 
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving 
behind: me, wag.

Two Graywolf Press titles are NBA finalists

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson Updated: October 15, 2014 - 4:03 PM

Graywolf Press poets Claudia Rankine (above, photo by John Lucas) and Fanny Howe, below, photo by Lynn Christoffers) were named two of five finalists for the National Book Award on Wednesday.

Two poetry collections published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press have been named 2014 National Book Award finalists."Second Childhood" by Fanny Howe and "Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine are two of the five short-listed titles announced Wednesday, with the winner to be announced in November.

Executive editor Jeff Shotts of Graywolf, who edited both collections, said  the book by Howe, who spends every summer at an Irish monastery, "comes out of a strong sense of Catholic faith, its role in the faimly and what it means to be a part of that community."

The themes of Rankine's collection, a multi-genre mix of poetry, essays and visual artwork, is particularly timely, Shotts said: "It's about race in this country, the sort of racially motivated micro-aggression that can become macro, like what happened in Ferguson," he said referring to the prolonged unrest in the St. Louis suburb following the shooitng of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer.

Authors published by Graywolf have been tallying up an impressive list of awards over the past few years. Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011, and Pultizer prizes for poetry were issued to Tracy K. Smith in 2012 and Vijay Seshadri in 2014. Last year's National Book Award winner for poetry was Mary Szybist's "Incarnadine," also a Graywolf title. 

"Topless Cellist" biographer to tell all at Walker Art Center

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: September 30, 2014 - 5:54 PM

Joan Rothfuss, author of "Topless Cellist: the Improbable Life of Chralotte Moorman."

Forget Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma. Sure they were, and are, brilliant cellists, but those guys kept their clothes on. For sheer spectacle, madcap antics,exhibitionism and a generous dollop of cello skills, you want Julliard-trained Charlotte Moorman, a gal from Little Rock, AK who grabbed the avant garde by the scruff of its self-absorbed neck and -- in the 1960s and '70 -- dragged it onto the public glare of television variety and talk shows (Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin), shopping malls and prisons, and to New York City's Central Park, Shea Stadium and Grand Central Terminal.

In former Walker Art Center curator Joan Rothfuss, Moorman has found her perfect biographer. Rothfuss's "Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman," (MIT Press, $34.95) is fast paced, thoroughly researched, amusing, witty, compassionate, deeply informed and filled with jaw-dropping stories. Rothfuss will talk about Moorman and sign copies of the book at 2 p.m. October 5 in the Walker Cinema, 1750 Hennepin Av., Minneapolis. Free. 612-375-7600 or www.walkerart.org

Moorman played the cello while suspended from balloons floating over Australia's Sydney Opera House, performed on a cello made of ice, and often did her shows topless, in the buff, wrapped in cellophane, or wearing the "TV Bra," a contraption that sported two mini-televisions, one for each breast, in plexiglass boxes attached to transparent straps.

In February 1967 she was arrested (during a topless performance), tried and, in a sensationalized trial that generated huge publicity, convicted for violating "community standards of decency." Though humiliated by the incident, she embraced the "Topless Cellist" nickname that it spawned.

"TV Bra," was designed and built by Moorman's longtime companion and fellow avant-gardist Nam June Paik and is sometimes blamed for the breast cancer from which she died in 1991, age 57. To test that assumption, Rothfuss had the bra checked by a physicist who measured the radiation it emitted and concluded that it was highly unlikely that Moorman would have gotten cancer as a result of her performances while wearing it. "TV Bra" is now in the collection of Walker Art Center along with Paik's "TV Cello" and other Moorman/Paik memorabilia.

As a friend, colleague, pal and sometimes irritant to many contemporary artists, Moorman is remembered in Rothfuss' book by Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, and others too numerous to mention.

"Topless Cellist" is a brilliant portrait of a true original and the chaotic, confrontational, destructive, absurd era in which she lived. It's also a must read for anyone who was flirting with Artland back then, or wishes they'd been on the scene. A portrait of the times as much as the woman, "Topless Cellist," gives a full measure of a life lived with "extreme passion, extreme sex, extreme beauty." 

RIP Charlotte Moorman, 1933-1991

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