Friday, October 22, 2010

City of Tranquil Light

Bo Caldwell is a novelist whose work was not familiar to me before I read "City of Tranquil Light." It is based on the experiences of her grandparents, who were Mennonite missionaries in China in the early part of the last century. I think that the subject matter itself is a hard row to hoe. I write about God a lot myself, but not about devout people. It's extremely difficult to make them come to life.
Caldwell draws full, believable characters of the two missionaries, Will Kiehn and Katherine Freisen, and sets them in an initially unknown land, China. The novel is eminently readable. I wish that I felt that more of the emotional scenes landed with as much weight as they should. There are two that do. Will has a difficult time adjusting to his posting, so much so that he becomes ill. When his superior comes to see him "he had only to look at me before murmuring the German word that had been in my mind for many days: 'Heimweh,' he said. Homesick." That passage landed on me like a punch in the stomach.
The other scene also involves Will. He is traveling on foot, alone, having left Katherine at home at their mission. He finds a tree to rest under; which is no small feat, trees being rare in China. There is a pond by the tree, and he sees objects that look like bundles of clothes scattered around. They are the bodies of girl babies that were more impact on me that most of the rest of the novel. It's truly arresting, and Caldwell's style serves the scene perfectly. She is a talented writer.
Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book from Henry Holt & Co.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Long Day's Journey into Night

I've seen plenty of productions of "Long Day's Journey into Night," but I just watched Sidney Lumet's 1962 film. If it wasn't shot at the Monte Cristo cottage in Waterford, Connecticut, it certainly looks like it was. The stage version starred Frederic March and Florence Eldridge; the only carry-over from Broadway is Jason Robards (still Jason Robards, Jr., at that point). Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson play the parents, Dean Stockwell (who knew he could really act?) plays the tubercular brother. Andre Previn did the score. It's fantastic.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Coming Elections

Far be it from me to tell you how to vote, but I am opposed to the Unincorporated Business Tax. If you're a writer or do much freelance work, you know what I mean. The Freelancers Union just sent me an email with a list of candidates in New York State (and some nationwide) that oppose this tax. There are plenty of problems with being a freelancer- in particular, people who don't pay (I've got a long list, in New York City and elsewhere, of people who owe me money who I can't afford to sue). Getting rid of this tax would help even out the playing field, at least a little.
Here's the url to the list:

Monday, October 18, 2010


On our trip to New Orleans, we hit several bookstores, among them Peaches Records on Decatur Street. They always have a nice selection of books about New Orleans culture, music and food. They had Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong in paperback, which I'd been waiting for. Because we'd just been in Armstrong's home town, I spent some time Googling addresses from the book and looking at maps to find out what we had been anywhere near. There is not much left of Armstrong's New Orleans, other than North Rampart Street (the north border of the French Quarter), where in his youth black families were welcome to patronize the Jewish and Sicilian merchants. There is a sign or two left over long-closed stores. The house where Armstrong was born, and the Colored Waifs Home where he learned to play the coronet are gone. The neighborhood where his family lived after Storyville appears to be Treme. He was baptized at the Church of the Sacred Heart on Canal Street.
That said, I don't remember a time when I wasn't a fan of Armstrong's music. Teachout's book is the first definitive biography of him; Teachout was able to use the archives from the Armstrong Museum on Corona, Queens. I only have more respect for Armstrong as a man and his artistry having read this book. He had aspects of his life which must have given him much pain, but he brought his listeners such joy.
Photo credit: Philippe Halsman/Magnum

Dead Writers' Houses

There's an interesting essay by Anne Trubek in yesterday's Times Book Review (link above) about preserving the homes of dead writers. She was a Norman Mailer Writer Fellow last summer, and it seems she was singularly unimpressed with the great man's museum study.
I started thinking about dead writer's homes that I'd visited. In this country, it's not a long list. Edith Wharton's Massachusetts home, The Mount, stands out in my mind. I remember when the tour reached her bedroom, the guide said that Wharton wrote in bed. As she finished a page, she'd toss it on the floor, and her maid would pick it up. This seems to me the height of writer luxury. I did live in William Inge's boyhood home for two months (I still have a key to the front door somewhere) when I was Playwright in Residence at the Inge Center for the Arts. It is a beautiful old house, which hasn't been too horribly altered by time. Some misguided soul ripped off part of the front porch before the Foundation got a hold of it. Inge's mother took in boarders for a time (something he used in "Picnic"), so that there was a rabbit warren quality to the second floor back then. It is the only house that I know of in the US that's the home of a playwright preserved as a museum (the front part of the first floor). The Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx has been on my to-do list for decades, but I haven't made it there yet.
I tried to come up with any writers' homes in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic or Austria that I've been to, and got three. The last house where Brecht lived in Berlin was being renovated when I was there, but the ground floor was a pretty nice restaurant, just down the street from where he and his second wife Helen Weigel are buried. The next is the house where Kafka grew up in Prague. The third is the house where Thomas Mann grew up in Luebeck. Not so much at all. While I can think of more than four preserved composers' homes in Vienna (Beethoven's a ringer, he moved so much), and there are plenty of so-and-so-lived-here plaques (my personal favorite is the plaque to the house where Mozart died is in a department store on the Kaertnerstrasse because that's where the house used to be), I don't remember many writer homes at all.
I wonder if there are conclusions to be drawn from this. The German-speaking countries value music more than prose? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. When I went to England with my parents as a teenage, I remember we saw Dickens' house in London, Samuel Johnson's house, Anne Hathaway's house in Stratford, the Sherlock Holmes museum (well, it kind of counts) and in Ireland we saw W.B. Yeats' tower (must have been miserably cold to work in- it was cold on a sunny day in August). Maybe it's that American's aren't so interested in preserving that kind of history (as opposed to Graceland or architectural history or Route 66). If you want to know the writer, as Trubek suggests, read a book.

Friday, October 15, 2010


I never thought I'd review a bar, but we just spent five days in New Orleans. We went back to a little place on Decatur Street we'd been before, Pravda. Low-key, charming barkeeps, more kinds of vodka than I knew existed, lovely outdoor space. Should you sit at the bar, the eyes of the painting of Rasputin will watch you!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Learn to Write Plays With Me

I'm teaching a playwriting class this fall as part of the Chelsea Rep Lab at The Acting Studio (link to their website above). Our first class was yesterday, and it is undersubscribed. We could easily take four more students. The class meets for ten weeks (not this coming weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, a chunk of December and the weekend of New Year's) on Sundays, 1-4. For various reasons, it is really cheap. The remaining classes would cost you $180. It is held at Shetler Studios, near 54th and Broadway in Manhattan. Though you don't have to be an actor to take it, it is geared toward teaching actors to write.
The Acting Studio Director is James Price, whom I've known for decades, and the Associate Director is John Grabowski, who directed my first reading in New York, at Chelsea Rep when I was playwright-in-residence there. This is the second class I've taught for James and John. It's a treat to work with them, and with such engaged students. Actors you know of like Julianne Margulies and Lauren Velez (we watch "Dexter" devotedly) have studied there.
If you're interested in the class, please email me at anne at annephelan dot com, or leave a comment here.
Photo is from Chelsea Rep's production of "The Plough and the Stars."