Saturday, June 18, 2016

Something Old and Something New

The theater scene in Southwest Florida definitely quiets down over the summer. But there is some still some theater to be had. Urbanite Theatre is opening "Dry Land" next week, and Florida Studio Theatre has an entire summer series.  And, of course, there's the upcoming season to get busy scheduling.

Playwright Lillian Hellman
Asolo Repertory Theatre is heading into the fifth and final year of its exploration of the American Character.  While most of the season sounds great, I was on the fence about "The Little Foxes," a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1939. My lack of enthusiasm wasn't for any reason other than the fact that I'm not a huge fan of revivals. There are so many worthy contemporary plays available for production, why look to the past?  (FYI, Asolo Rep isn't the only theater that believes "The Little Foxes" warrants further attention. Manhattan Theatre Club is also mounting a revival this fall, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternately taking on the role of Regina.)

While Asolo Rep is dark for much of the summer, its Guild gives its members a chance to get their theater fix with get-togethers to discuss plays being produced in the upcoming season. Next week's meeting will focus on "The Little Foxes." Always eager for an opportunity to talk about theater, I signed up, ordered a copy of the script, and got reading.  For those of you who haven't seen the play (or the movie), I won't give too much away. Suffice it to say that the Hubbard family is not warm and fuzzy. In fact, Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" took his cue from the Hubbard siblings when he declared that "Greed is good." Though the Hubbards have money, they want more. When a lucrative business opportunity presents itself, the siblings are willing to go to great lengths to line their (individual) pockets. Regina sums up the family attitude when she says. "You know what I've always said when people told me we were rich? I said I think you should either be a [Negro] or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?"

Taylor as Regina
The play is melodramatic, and I can understand why the character of Regina would be appealing to play. The role, first performed by Tallulah Bankhead, has been taken on by Bette Davis, Anne Bancroft, and Stockard Channing.  Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut as Regina in a 1981 revival.  Interestingly--and sadly--Hellman based the story on her own family, with Regina being modeled on her grandmother.

I typically like to go into a play cold and let the plot unfold before me. In the case of "The Little Foxes," though, reading the play and thinking about its themes in advance has made me more interested in seeing it. All things being equal, I prefer to experience new writing. But classics have earned their stature for a reason, and I have no doubt that Asolo Rep's take on the show will be well-done.

Playwright Mark St. Germain
And now for something brand spanking new -- "Relativity" by Mark St. Germain at Florida Studio Theatre.  FST is a core member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theaters that "champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays."

One way NNPN accomplishes its mission is through its Rolling World Premieres. Each new play in the program is mounted by at least three theaters within a 12-month period. This provides the playwright the opportunity to collaborate with different creative teams to bring his work to the stage. Participating theaters receive $7500 towards the costs of the production. Since its inception in 1998, NNPN has introduced theatergoers to more than 50 new plays.

St. Germain's "Relativity" is part of this year's Rolling World Premiere program and will be produced as well at theaters in Skokie, Illinois, Seattle and Iowa City. I jumped at the chance to sit in on a rehearsal of the show and can now count myself among the handful of people comprising the play's very first audience. (How cool is that?)

The foundation for the show is a little known fact about Albert Einstein and first wife Mileva Maric. In 1902, before the couple married, they had a daughter Lieserl. No mention of the child can be found after 1903. In "Relativity," St. Germain envisions one possible explanation of what happened to Lieserl. The scenario enables him to explore the differences between Einstein's public and private personas.

Actors Robert Zukerman, Ginger Lee McDermott and Sally Bondi made the play come alive without costumes or a real set. Their performance was engrossing, and I found myself wondering which parts were fact and which were derived from St. Germain's imagination. I was particularly interested in a reference to a contract written by Einstein outlining the conditions on which he would stay married to Mileva. The agreement included mandates that she would expect no affection from him and that she would stop talking to him upon request.  (A Google search revealed that such a contract did in fact exist. Click here to read the agreement in its entirety. The document, along with a motherlode of other Einstein correspondence, was auctioned off at Christies in 1996.)

"Relativity" will run at FST from June 22 - July 2. If you want an immersive Mark St. Germain theater experience, you can see a matinee of "Relativity" and an evening performance of his "The Fabulous Lipitones" on June 25 only. Thanks to FST for providing a place for theatergoers who brave the Florida summers to sit back and enjoy the show. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

All Florida Juried Exhibition at Alliance for the Arts

Harry Messersmith
Last week-end, I ventured down to Fort Myers' Alliance for the Arts for a multi-faceted morning. After a free outdoor yoga class and a whirl through the Green Market (where I scored some delicious ceviche), I headed inside to catch a portion of a "walk and talk" about the Alliance's 30th Annual All Florida Juried Exhibit. I always love a docent tour, but this one was particularly special since it was led by juror Harry Messersmith.

At first glance, Messersmith might be an odd choice as a juror for this show. While the exhibit was open to all mediums, most of the 49 works in the show (and I assume most of the 305 submissions) were paintings. These days Messersmith is primarily a sculptor (with his own bronze foundry no less). While talking people through the show, though, it became clear that he's an expert in all fields of art. He's served as juror for dozens of art fairs and exhibitions and worked himself in most mediums.  His thoughtfulness about and appreciation for the artwork made it clear why he's such a frequent choice.

Dareau's "Everything Has to Go"
 The Best in Show award went to Laurent Dareau for his "Everything Has to Go." To Messersmith, this work excelled in all criteria required of a prize winner -- strong composition and drawing, excellent craftsmanship/execution, interesting concept and effective storytelling. I will admit to being confused by Dareau's inclusion of cartoon characters. To Messersmith, though, this choice helped convey the tension between childhood and adulthood. He also noted the way Dareau "layered life" in the work and used both strong lines and soft lines in different parts of the painting. I was fascinated by how different this work was from Dareau's "Camille" that was juried into the Visual Arts Center's National Art Exhibition. (For those who saw the show, "Camille" was the portrait of a woman naked from the waist up with angel wings that flowed into the top of the divan. It can be found on his website by clicking here.) I would love to chat with the artist about his different styles of work and how he decides which painting to enter into a particular show.

Hull's "Elevation No. 7, Altitude Series"
 Sarah Hull is another artist whose name I am familiar with from the National Art Exhibition. (Her 2014 painting of glazed donuts entitled "Nice Rack" was a crowd pleaser - and one of the first works to sell.)  Hull's "Elevation No. 7, Altitude Series" bears little resemblance to her donut work (for lack of a better term) other than the strong use of color. To many viewers, Hull's work is a nice Florida painting of an outing to the beach. To Messersmith, there's a lot more going on. "Art has the ability to change the world by showing there's a different way of thinking available," he commented with reference to Hull's work. He liked the way the view from above reminded him of living life on the edge and noted the tension between the dark hues of the ocean against the cool tones of the beach.  I love this painting and enjoyed seeing how Hull's work has progressed. (Her earlier work can be seen on her website by clicking here.)

Venditti "Woman in Bath"
Daniel Venditti's "Woman in Bath" prompted another interesting discussion. Messersmith noted that Venditti drilled holes in the canvas and hung it using steel wires. To him, the way the painting was hung was a part of the artwork. Was the artist's intention to negate the piece as "art"? Was he saying something else entirely? The work also led viewers to raise questions about primitive/outsider/naif art. (While Venditti is clearly a trained artist, the work does have something of a primitive feel to it.)  Messersmith shared his view that this genre of painting is powerful because of the truth of the experience.

Viewing the show with Messersmith was a real treat. While I would have enjoyed the show on its own, hearing the juror talk about what struck him in the works was educational and interesting.  Kudos to the Alliance for hosting a great show and selecting such a dynamic and generous juror.

The 30th Annual All Florida Juried Exhibition runs through June 30.  Make sure to stop by the Alliance and check it out if you're in the area.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Beaching It at Hermitage Artist Retreat

The Hermitage Artist Retreat provides grants that allow mid-career artists of all disciplines to spend time at the beach retreat working on their craft. In exchange, participants are asked only to share their work at an event that's free and open to the public. Weather permitting, all or a portion of the presentations take place on the beach. It's quite magical, and I was happy to finally make it to an event on a lovely late May evening .

The gathering began in the Palm House with an introduction to Rob Tarbell's smoke art. About ten years ago, Tarbell came up with the idea of using the smoke created by burning his own credit and reward cards to "paint" an image. (In an interview with Sarasota Herald Tribune reporter Marty Fugate, Tarbell said the concept came to him while thinking about the smoky residue cleaned away from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.) Over time, his debris of choice has expanded to include other everyday household items such as 9 mm slides and old photos.
From Tarbell's"Smoke Rings" series

Even having heard Tarbell speak about his process, I don't begin to understand how it actually works. Here are the basics, though.Tarbell's first step is to design the subject to be depicted and consider how best to achieve the desired effect. An outline of the image is drawn on a piece of paper which is hoisted up so that it hovers horizontally just below the ceiling. The items to be burned are attached to forceps at the end of a wand.  Tarbell dons fire retardant gloves and a mask, turns on the air filtration system, and starts the fire. He then "paints" with the smoke. The closer the wand is to the paper, the darker the residue. Three works from Tarbell's "Smoke Rings" series were on display, and they are whimsical, mysterious and creative beyond belief. (Ironically, the "Smoke Rings" series, which features circus animals and their human companions engaging in tricks, was completed before Tarbell moved to John Ringling's Sarasota.) To read an interview with Tarbell in "My Modern Met," click here. To watch a video of Tarbell at work, click here.

Carmen Gimenez Smith and Kiki Petrosino

From there we moved to the beach to listen to poets Carmen Gimenez Smith and Kiki Petrosino read some of their work.  Their styles could not have been more different.

While Gimenez Smith captures a range of emotion in her poetry, it was her work inspired by her mother, who suffers from early onset Alzheimers, that hit me the hardest. Referring to the poems as "living elegies," Gimenez Smith said these poems are about "a very specific kind of loss." I was torn between listening and writing down phrases that broke my heart, like "the center of her is only depiction."  Her "Beasts" begins:

"My siblings and I archive the blanks in my mother's memory,
diagnose her in text messages. And so it begins, I write although

her disease has no true beginning, only a gradual peeling away
until she was left a live wire of disquiet....."

To read the poem in its entirety, click here. To hear Gimenez Smith read her poem inspired by the death of Robin Gibb (yes, the Bee Gee) that she wrote on the spot for NPR's NewsPoet, click here.

Audience members
Kiki Petrosino's work is more difficult to characterize, and excerpts don't capture the uniqueness of her voice. The cadence of Petrosino's poems was entirely different from that of Giminez Smith's work. Where Giminez Smith's words were lyrical and quiet, Petroino's felt urban and a bit angry. Her poems were harder to grasp after a single reading, but I could tell they would be worth the work required to consider their meaning.

Several of Petrosino's poems have been inspired by the work of poet Anne Sexton, with whom I am not familiar.  Here is an excerpt from her "Young," which she calls "after Anne Sexton."

"A thousand pilot lights ago
when I'm a teenager half-gone to flab
in a low ranch house crammed
with ribboned handicrafts in January
I go pulling all the false candy canes
from the stale mulch out front
clown-sun blinking whitely over me
my bedroom window an ear
painted shut to keep the calliope of dreams
from sounding....."

Unfortunately, you have to google "Petrosino" and "a thousand pilot lights" to find the rest of the poem online. To hear Petrosino read one of her own poems on PBS' Newshour, click here.

If the Hermitage sounds like a place you want to check out, the next beach reading is slated for July 8, at 7:30.  If you can't make it then, add a tickler to your calendar to check out the schedule during the season. It's a wonderful way to be introduced to talented artists while enjoying a sunset Southwest Florida style.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reading Round-Up

With the season coming to an end, I've had more time to read. Sadly, there are lots of books that just aren't that interesting or memorable (or, even worse, are poorly written). On the plus side, it does make finding a book that engages me all the more enjoyable. Read on for three quite different books that have recently captured my attention.

 In "The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos," Dominic Smith creates a story in which a painting links three lives on three continents over three centuries.The fictional Sarah de Vos is one of the few female members of the Guild of St. Luke in 17th century Amsterdam, a union of sorts whose ranks included Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. (The ways in which the Guild regulated its members' artistic lives plays an important role in Sarah's story.)  De Vos' best known painting, "At the Edge of the Wood," has been in Marty de Groot's family for many generations. During a charity event at the de Groot home in 1957, the painting is switched out for an expert forgery painted by art student Ellie Shipley. De Groot's search for the original painting leads to an interesting relationship between the collector and the forger. Their paths cross again in the year 2000 when Shipley, now a well-known art historian and curator, mounts an exhibit of Dutch Golden Age art at a gallery in Australia. Smith deftly alternates among characters, eras and settings as he builds a story that's both engrossing and satisfying.

"Florence Gordon" by Brian Morton had me from its opening page. "Florence Gorden was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual...Maybe it was three strikes, because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist...If you're an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill..."  And while I wouldn't characterize Florence as strident or shrill, she is definitely blunt. A well-known essayist, she's perfectly happy in her own life, thank you very much, and isn't thrilled about the overtures her friends and family are making to get her out more into the world. They throw a surprise birthday party for her at a restaurant, telling her, "We wanted to get you out of your apartment so you could have some fun."  "I was having fun, Florence thought. I was having fun sitting in my apartment and trying to understand our life, our collective life. I was having fun trying to make the sentences come right. I was having fun trying to keep a little moment in time alive."  When she goes to the ladies' room, she contemplates climbing out a window but decides it would be too undignified. Instead, she goes back to her friends and family, tells them she has work to do at home, and leaves them to the festivities. As you can probably gather, Florence is a challenge. But her family and friends keep at it, both for her sake and their own.  I loved Florence's spirit and often found myself laughing at her crotchety nature while appreciating her desire to lead her life in her own way. A quick fun read that's perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. 

I'll tell you upfront:  reading "The Son" by Philipp Meyer is a commitment. The paperback version weighs in at 592 pages. The audio book (which was my version of choice) goes on for 18 hours. In this age of tweet-length attention spans, an author has to be at the top of his game to hold a reader's interest for that long. Happily, Meyer is a terrific storyteller. "The Son" relays the saga of five generations of the Texas McCullough family through the eyes of family patriarch Eli McCullough (aka the "Colonel"), Eli's son and family conscience Peter, and Eli's great-granddaughter and oil baroness Jeannie. As a child, Eli was captured in a raid by a band of Comanches. The sheer brutality of the wild west gave me pause, as did the way Eli became part of the Comanches' world. While Eli eventually returns to "civilization," he never wholly transitions back to the white man's world.  Jeannie is an equally fascinating character, a strong and capable woman in a man's world at a time when most girls were worried about their coming out parties. Peter's hand-wringing, though warranted, becomes a bit tedious over time. His perspective brings balance to the story, though, and his role as chronicler of the family's exploits during the early 20th century bridges the gap between Eli's and Jeannie's lives. "The Son" pulled me immediately into its rough and tumble world, and there was never any question that I would see the tale through to its conclusion. I'm far from alone in enjoying this book. It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (but lost out to the even heftier "Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt). 

Let me know what's on your own bookshelf.  I'm always looking for my next favorite read.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

You may have seen on the news recently that Kim Jong-un was named the Party Chairman of North Korea's Workers' Party. There were clips of military personnel goose stepping in a celebratory march and citizens proclaiming their undying support for their leader. Kim Jong-un took the occasion to applaud the success of North Korea's fourth underground nuclear test in January. (The United Nations responded to the test with tighter sanctions against the country.) 

Why, you might wonder, am I mentioning this? I'm not a person who talks--or thinks--much about world politics. Historically, while I knew North Korea was on the "bad" list, I had no concept of what life is like for its citizens or how truly frightening a concept it is for North Korea to have nuclear capabilities. That changed when I read Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Orphan Master's Son," which has a ripped from the headlines quality to it.

 We meet Jun Do, the novel's protagonist, at Long Tomorrows orphanage for boys. His father is the Orphan Master there. The facility is quite full, as parents drop their sons off on their way to the 9-27 (prison/concentration) camps that house political dissidents. (Yodok is the largest of these camps and plays a role in the book.)  Jun Do's mother is long gone; he has seen her only in a single picture treasured by his father. He assumes that she, like all beautiful women from the provinces, was shipped to the capital of Pyongyang to be married off to a favored party official.

As the oldest child at the orphanage, Jun Do "had responsibilities--portioning the food, assigning bunks, renaming the boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. Even so, the Orphan Master was serious about showing no favoritism to his son...When the rabbit warren was dirty, it was Jun Do who spent the night locked in it. When boys wet their bunks, it was Jun Do who chipped the frozen piss off the floor...  The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel."  

Adam Johnson catapults the reader into this world in the first three paragraphs of the book. Needless to say, this is a story that's not always easy to read. But it is always compelling and sadly educational. (I found myself doing a lot of googling to find out whether certain aspects were fiction or fact. Take for instance, the North Korean calendar, which as of 1997 is based in Juche rather than Gregorian years. Kim II-sung, Kim Jong-un's grandfather, was born in 1912, which is Juche year 1. The current year is Juche 105, which is sometimes modified with 2016 in parentheses. It's a simple example of the ways in which North Korea's totalitarian regime elevates its leaders and dictates all aspects of its citizens' lives.)

Part I of the book is titled "The Biography of Jun Do." Jun Do has no choice but to do what the government instructs him. He becomes a kidnapper, venturing into Japan to take whomever the state has targeted.  His superior, who has lost count of how many people he's kidnapped, tells him it gets easier. "Catch somebody with your hands, then let them go with your mind. Do the opposite of keeping count."

Jun Do goes to language school. He goes through pain training. He becomes a spy. In a pivotal segment of the book, he goes to Texas with a North Korean contingent. On the trip over, a colleague explains the difference between North Korea and the United States."Where we are from," Dr. Song tells him, "Stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters."

While there, a member of the Texan delegation asks Jun Do if he knows what it feels like to be free. "Are there labor camps here?" he asks. "No." "Mandatory marriages, forced criticism sessions, loudspeakers?" She shook her head. "Then I'm not sure I could ever feel free here," he said...."When you're in my country, everything makes simple, clear sense. It's the most straightforward place on earth."  And yet a seed has been planted that there is another way to live, a world in which individuals make their own choices.

Part II of the book is titled "The Confessions of Commander Ga." The reader is introduced to North Korean interrogation practices. A professor has been accused of "counterrevolutionary teaching, specifically using an illegal radio to play South Korean pop songs to his students." The team members are distracted when they learn that Commander Ga, a North Korean legend who has been declared an enemy of the state, has been captured and will be questioned. The story goes on from there and is told from various points of view. The action doesn't let up until the final page.

"The Orphan Master's Son" is an incredible book that tops my list of best all-time reads. Whenever I write about a book, I look back at passages I flagged to recapture what struck me. While doing so, I found myself drawn once again into Jun Do's world and had to resist putting all else aside and starting the book over. Such is the storytelling skill of Adam Johnson. I couldn't encourage you more strongly to put "The Orphan Master's Son" on your own "must read" list. 

Postscript: Johnson made a trip to North Korea while writing "The Orphan Master's Son." The book includes a fascinating interview with him about his journey. BookPage also did a wonderful interview with Johnson that you can read by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Who & the What at Gulfshore Playhouse

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar. It's an incredibly powerful play with its themes of identity, assimilation and cultural appropriation. And so I jumped at the chance to see Akhtar's "The Who & the What" at Gulfshore Playhouse. While the play didn't strike as deep a chord as "Disgraced" did, it was another thought-provoking afternoon of theater.

Rasha Zamamiri as Zarina and Rajesh Bose as Afzal
The characters in the show are Afzal, his daughters Zarina and Mahwish, and Zarina's suitor Eli (whom her father found for her on The primary plotline revolves around a book Zarina is writing about how Muslim women came to wear hijabs, a practice she feels "erases" them.  She believes the genesis of the tradition can be found in an encounter between Mohamad and Zaynab, his daughter-in-law who later became his wife. According to the story (which is disputed by some Islamic scholars), Mohamad came upon Zaynab in a state of undress and told her how beautiful she was. When Zaynab relayed his comments to her husband, Zayd offered to divorce Zaynab in order to permit his father to marry her. Mohamad accepted his offer, and Zaynab became his seventh wife. At their wedding feast, Allah conveyed to Mohamad a new verse for the Qaran that stated,"When you ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a screen." From then on, Muslim women wore veils (which took the place of screens). To Zarina, it was Mohamad's lust for Zaynad (which her book describes in great detail) rather than the word of Allah that resulted in the offending tradition.

The book and its blasphemous ideas have significant repercussions for the characters. (Although a fatwa was not issued, it called to mind the controversy over Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" that kept Rushdie in hiding for nearly a decade.) Akhtar makes it clear that Zarina understood the potential for the book's explosive impact by her reluctance to tell people about what she was writing. 

The 90-minute play was very involving, and all of the actors were topnotch. I did, however, wonder why Zarina was so obsessed with the hajib since the females in her family (including her mother) did not wear a veil. Even more significantly, why didn't she publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid subjecting her family to the consequences of her actions?  

Professor Mohamad Al-Hakim
The performance was followed by a discussion with FGCU philosophy professor Mohamad Al-Hakim, which would have been worth the price of admission on its own. To Al-Hakim, the play was about the dangers of patriarchy, which of course is not unique to Islam.  He talked about the role of skepticism in religion and politics and, well, life, and its power to actually deepen one's beliefs. He argued against use of the word "tolerance" as it implies both a power differential and a negative moral judgment. (He advocated instead for "recognition" of different views and lifestyles.) And he raised the question of whether absolute truths really matter.  Janice and I were ready to sign up for his class.

I applaud Gulfshore Playhouse for presenting topical plays like "The Who & the What," which runs through this week-end. And I note that the theater will take on Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" next season. I saw the show at last year's Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and it definitely got under my skin.  It's worth keeping on your theatrical radar screen.    

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Heartbreaking. Horrifying. Compelling. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Anthony Marra's "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."

While the novel technically relates to five days in the life of a Chechnyan village, the story spans a ten-year period. It's 2004, and the Second War between Russia and Chechnya is at its mid-point. Events that occurred during the First War (which took place from December 1994-August 1996) play an important role in what's happening in the characters' lives.  The author includes a timeline at the beginning of each chapter to indicate when the action occurs.

Chapter 1 opens, "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." We quickly learn that eight year old Havaa is alive only because her father Dokka knew what the rumble of the truck in the middle of the night meant and sent the child--with her suitcase packed just for this occasion--out the back door and into the forest. We also learn that the house was burned in case she was hiding beneath a floorboard or in a cupboard.  Havaa, it seems, is a target of the Feds as well. 

When Havaa wakes up, she's in the home of her neighbor Akhmed. He bundles her up to take her to the city hospital where he's heard of a doctor he hopes will take her in. "He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. "I don't think so," Akhmed replies. "But what if he does?" the girl worries. "If he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"  "My father is a good idea," Havaa says.

Over the course of the book, we learn about the lives of Dokka and his dead wife Esiila and the birth of Havaa. We get to know Akhmed, the self-proclaimed worst doctor in all of Chechnya, and his invalid wife Ula. We meet Sonja, the doctor in whose care Akhmed intends to place Havaa, and her lost sister Natasha. And then there's Ramzan, the village informer, and his father Khassan, a writer who chronicled the history of Chechnya.  The characters' lives are interwoven in complicated and unexpected ways.

Marra during a research trip to Chechnya
The world captured by Marra is a place where people can be taken to the Landfill for the most ridiculous of reasons. The specified reason for the arrest of an iman was that he was "too short." (The Feds were looking for a mastermind who had a beard and was less than two meters tall. Everyone in the village fitting this description was taken away.)  Some who are taken are returned, although their existence will never be the same.  The others become part of the disappeared. 

It's a world where intense periods of bombing lead everyone to seek shelter outside, finding it easier to sleep in the cold than with the fear of falling rubble.  "The homeless, insane and alcoholic reigned in this world...The city pariahs were inundated by professors and lawyers and accountants whose degrees were worth the five seconds of warmth they could fuel."

It's a world where the bombed out hospital treats only war victims and expectant mothers and has a guard with only one arm. Land mine victims are the most common patients. "Leg amputations are normal business here," Sonja tells Akhmed.  The amputated legs are wrapped and saved for burial.

This is the world in which Havaa is growing up. Not surprisingly, she grasps onto the people whose lives touch hers. Her suitcase contains one change of clothing and the souvenirs she's collected from the refugees her parents have sheltered. When Akhmed leaves her at the hospital each night, she worries that she'll never see him again. He has instantly become her new father figure. And while Havaa doesn't view Sonja as a new mother, she is intrigued by her. Sonja is different from the women Havaa has known. "Women weren't supposed to be doctors; they weren't capable of the work, the schooling, the time and commitment, not when they had houses to clean, and children to care for, and dinners to prepare, and husbands to please. But Sonja was more freakish, more wondrously confounding than the one-armed guard; rather than limbs she had, somehow, amputated expectations. She didn't have a husband, or children, or a house to clean and care for.  She was capable of the work, school, time, commitment, and everything else it took to run a hospital. So even if Sonja was curt and short-tempered, Havaa could forgive her these shortcomings, which were shortcomings only in that they were the opposite of what a woman was supposed to be.  The thick, stern shell hid the defiance that was Sonja's life.  Havaa liked that."

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is an incredibly hard read. Marra's impeccable storytelling skills and beautiful use of language make the torture and sorrow all too easy to envision.  But the way he weaves the stories together is nothing less than remarkable. And he somehow leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope for better days.  It's a book that will stay with you long after you've finished the last page.  Read it.