Monday, June 26, 2017

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Short stories generally aren't my genre. I like my characters to have the chance to develop. And so, despite having loved Anthony Marra's "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," I was resistant to reading his "The Tsar of Love and Techno." But weeks after finishing this collection, I am still marveling over these intertwined stories. A big thank you to my friend Althea, who put this book in my hands.

The book starts with an intriguing epigraph: "It's a minor work." The quote is attributed to Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets regarding his 1843 painting Empty Pasture in Afternoon. While Zakharov was a real Russian artist of Chechen descent, no such painting ever existed. But the role Empty Pasture plays in story after story made it as real as any painting on the walls of my home. Such is the power of Marra's writing.

Marra's first story -- "The Leopard" -- introduces us to Roman Osipovich Markin, an employee of Russia's Department of Propaganda and Agitation. He is a "correction artist," whose job it is to modify paintings and photographs to remove evidence of those who have fallen out of favor with the State. 

"Last July I had the opportunity to correct one of my own paintings," Roman tells us at one point, "A scene of the October Revolution oiled a decade ago, in 1927. Amid an ardent proletariat uprising, I had mistakenly included the figures of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenv, who couldn't have been there, not after having been proven perfidious in a recent public trial  I replaced our villains with our hero; Stalin was there, is there, is everywhere..."  

Roman is a villain in his own way. When removing evidence of the existence of dissidents, he often inserts an image of his brother in their place. It's a dangerous--and traitorous--action. His brother, you see, was executed after being found guilty of religious radicalism for his belief in the existence of heaven. While this sly act of treason isn't what trips Roman up in the end, it does create a trail of breadcrumbs for another character to follow.

In "The Granddaughters," Marra moves from Leningrad to the Ukrainian city of Kirovsk. We meet Galina, a character whose claim to fame is a grandmother who was a prima ballerina with the Kirov. Sadly, Galina didn't inherit her grandmother's talent. But her great beauty becomes her own passport to another world.

We also meet Kolya, a character about whom Marra says, "If we could we would airbrush him from our story....Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him...In another country, he might have grown up to be an investment banker, but here he grew up to be a murderer..."

The two fall in love, with their lives crossing paths repeatedly in later stories. Trust me when I say this is no ordinary love story.

Anthony Marra
Each story in "The Tsar of Love and Techno" is a gem. But it's the way the stories build on one another that makes this book so extraordinary. I was torn between racing through it and savoring each story. I wanted to read it again as soon as I had finished. I want to read it again now that I've been paging through the stories. In case I've left any question, I loved this book.

For some insights from Marra into the book and his writing process, click here to read a terrific interview. (I particularly enjoyed learning about the epigraph.) If you're still on the fence about the book, this should catapult you right into your nearest bookstore to grab a copy. Don't overlook the mixtape playlist Marra put together that appears after the reader's guide. It's a marvel in and of itself, a bonus story of sorts -- and you can listen to it on Spotify. 

Happy reading!










Monday, June 12, 2017

Is the Whitney Biennial a Bunch of Baloney?

"Claim (Whitney Version) by Pope.L
I couldn't resist this inflammatory question, the genesis of which will shortly be revealed. But I don't think it's a stretch to say it's a reaction many people have to contemporary art. How many times have you heard someone in a gallery say, "My kid could do that?" (Or, admit it, thought it yourself?)  But the art world would be pretty boring if there were only Monets. And so I'm learning to appreciate contemporary artists who push the envelope in their attempts to make meaningful art. 

During my recent trip to New York, a visit to the Whitney Biennial was at the top of my list. Now in its 78th iteration, the biennial exhibit showcased what American artists are doing right now. Most works in the show were created within the last two years.  I was grateful to have docents guide me through the exhibit, which was spread over two floors of the museum. 

Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" (on display
at the Whitney, but not part of the Biennial)
Our docent began her talk with an acknowledgment that the exhibit might not be that accessible to an art lover wandering in off the street. But, she noted, the first Whitney survey in 1932 featured the work of Edward Hopper. At that time, Hopper's paintings were considered strange and controversial. His work is now, of course, an integral part of American art history. It's all a matter of context. She also noted that the works in the show were selected before last November's election. So while many focused on hot topics in today's political dialogue -- income inequality, racial tensions and global warming, to name a few -- they are not a direct response to the policies of the current administration.

"Exodus Evolution" by Jon Kessler
Jon Kessler's "Exodus Evolution" is the latest in a continuum of work he's been doing with found objects for 40 years. The piece was inspired by the Syrian migration crisis. A rotating circular base hosts figures he found on eBay using the search word "travelers." It's an extremely varied collection that includes classic Hummels and Lladros, African wood carvings and tiny figurines. There are so many figures crammed together that it's hard to make them all out (which I think is the point). To the right of this picture, you'll see an iPhone videoing the journey. This component is intended to simulate surveillance, as the video streams onto a screen in the center of the base. 

"Open Casket" by Dana Schutz
"Open Casket" by Dana Schutz wins the award for most controversial work in the Biennial.  Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American boy from Chicago accused of flirting with a white woman during a visit to Mississippi in 1955. A few days later, the woman's relatives kidnapped Till, beating him beyond recognition before shooting him and throwing his body in the river. His mother brought his body back to Chicago, where it was displayed in an open casket for the world to see how her son had been treated. Thousands of people attended his viewing. She also took pictures of his disfigured face and distributed them to the media. Till became an icon of the Civil Rights movement. 

Why, you might ask, is Dana Schutz' portrayal of Till so controversial? Isn't this a moment in history we shouldn't forget? The primary answer is because Ms. Schutz is white. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” one African-American artist wrote in a Facebook post. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others..."  There were protests in front of the painting, with demands that it be taken out back and burned. The Whitney did not comply with these demands, although it did post a response by Ms. Schutz.  Schutz said she approached the work as a mother and that she would never sell the painting. (The protests, however, have surely had the unintended effect of raising Ms. Schutz' profile.)  To read more about the controversy, click here.

"The Times Thay Ain't A-Changing Fast Enough!"
by Henry Taylor
The Biennial featured several works by Henry Taylor, including "The Times Thay Ain't A-Changing Fast Enough!"  The painting depicts the shooting of Philandro Castile, the aftermath of which many of us saw in a video taped by Castile's girlfriend. The immediacy of the image confronts the viewer, demanding our attention.

Our docent explained that the social commentary in all of Taylor's work should be viewed through the lens of his personal history, which includes a grandfather who was lynched.  One commentator suggested that what distinguishes Taylor's paintings from Schutz' "Open Casket" isn't the color of their skin but the seeming departure by Schutz from her typical subject matter.  Click here to read this article.

Detail from PopeL.'s "Claim (Whitney Version)"
And now, as our docent said, on to the meat of the exhibit -- PopeL.'s "Claim (Whitney Version)." In the middle of one gallery was a freestanding open-roofed building of sorts. Both the interior and exterior walls were gridded, with each square inhabited by a slice of bologna (yes, real bologna) with a black and white photograph of a person affixed to it with white latex paint. There were 2,775 squares in all, give or take. The number was intended to represent .25% of the Jewish population of New York City. When the Biennial first opened, there was apparently a distinct bologna smell in the gallery. As the meat cured, its oils and salt streamed down the walls. Troughs were set up to catch the liquid. The walls of the work now glisten.

"This work isn't easily explainable by just looking at it," our docent acknowledged as our group peered at the creation. "Claim" (which is just one in a series of similar works) is intended to question the efficacy of data collection and the resulting categorization of individuals. PopeL. grew up with his own number as part of the welfare system. Today he's an associate professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Chicago. 

The Whitney Bienniale took some work to appreciate. And that's fine with me. In the days since my visit, I've found my thoughts returning to the exhibit as I continue to consider works I saw. While I like a pretty painting as much as the next person, I also enjoy art that makes me think. As I said, the art world would be pretty boring if there were only Monets.





Thursday, June 8, 2017

All the Buzz at Book Expo

Each year, Wendi and I kick off Book Expo with a talk by six editors promoting the books they hope will be the year’s hottest read.  I don’t know how the panelists are selected, but the slots must be highly coveted.  After all, the editors have a room filled with hundreds of eager booksellers and librarians waiting to hear why “their” book should be prominently placed on their shelves. 

Jennifer Jackson’s pitch for “Stay with Me” by Ayobami Adebayo grabbed me right away with her evocation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Having now read the book, the comparison is a bit of a stretch. But there is one striking parallel. In both, women are defined by their fertility. In the Nigerian community where “Stay with Me” is set, family is everything. Men take multiple wives whose primary responsibility is to provide them with children. Our protagonist told her husband upfront, “I don’t do polygamy.” He was fine with the proposition until, four years into the marriage, the couple remained childless. The book’s narrative focuses on what happens after the couple reaches this juncture, with numerous plot twists. "Stay with Me" has already been published in the U.K. and was shortlisted for the prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. The novel will be available in the U.S. on August 22 and is being published by Alfred A. Knopf. 

If you’ve ever wondered how you would live your life if you knew the day you would die, “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin is for you. Four young siblings encounter a fortune teller who reveals to them their final days. They take her revelations to heart (without telling their parents, who of course would have laughed the incident off).  The book spans 50 years as each sibling’s story is told in turn, building on what has transpired before. Editor Sally Kim called the book “the love story of a family” and said it “demands to be discussed.”  I'm eager to read this one. "The Immortalists" will be available in January and is being published by Putnam.
"The World of Tomorrow" by Brendan Mathews takes place over the course of one week in June 1939. The New York World's Fair is the backdrop for a story featuring three Irish brothers (two of whom stole a small fortune from the IRA), a retired hitman conscripted into one last job, and a female Jewish photographer whose visa is running out. Editor Ben George compared Matthews' ability to keep his multi-layered story on track to that "a juggler who keeps adding balls without dropping any." George shared that Little Brown acquired "The World of Tomorrow" based on a partial manuscript, which is definitely not the norm. Mathews would periodically send George emails saying how surprised he was by the direction a character had taken. While the process surely caused George some anxiety, he is clearly enthusiastic about the final product, a book he says "captures the vitality of New York."  "The World of Tomorrow" will be available on September 5.
Editor Sarah McGrath opened her presentation of Gabriel Tallent's "My Absolute Darling" by saying the book gave her "faith in the transformative power of reading." McGrath also shared that she received an unsolicited email from Stephen King about the book that read, in part, "The word 'masterpiece' has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one." Clearly, she has no qualms about setting high expectations for this book.  Our protagonist is Turtle, a young girl being raised in an isolated home--complete with a gun range--by her father. He's a charismatic survivalist who exerts absolute control over his daughter. But as Turtle gets a bit older, she does what adolescents do -- she begins seeing the world from her own perspective, making her own friends and choices. This change in Turtle is not well-received. Without revealing any plot points, McGrath said the book made her think about violence in a new way. She also lauded Tallent's use of nature as a character and its exploration of "the intersection between human and physical landscape." I am highly intrigued. "My Absolute Darling" will be available on August 29 and is being published by Riverhead Books.

"I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her." Editor Jackie Cantor began her presentation of "Unraveling Oliver" by Liz Nugent with this opening line from the book. And while this sets us up to hate Oliver, it's a bit more complicated than that. Oliver is a sociopath whom Cantor compared to literary and cinematic characters we all have mixed feelings about -- Dexter, Hannibal Lector and Tom aka "The Talented Mr. Ripley." "Unraveling Oliver" digs into Oliver's past in search of an explanation for his behavior.   Like "Stay With Me," "Unraveling Oliver" has already been published abroad. It won the IBA (Irish Book Award) Crime Fiction Book of the Year in 2014. The book will be available in the U.S. on August 22 and is being published by Scout Press. 

Last, but not least, was "The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn.  This one has a particularly interesting backstory. Unbeknownst to his colleagues at William Morrow, editor Daniel Mallory was writing a book in his spare time. It wasn't until his own publishing house had agreed to publish the book that he revealed the author's true identity. (Editor Jennifer Brehl said she was shocked the book was written by a man, much less her colleague.) Being an editor doesn't, of course, automatically translate into being a good writer. But it sounds as if Mallory has hit one out of the ball park. "The Woman in the Window" will be published in 37 countries, and the film rights have already been picked up. In case you're wondering, the book tells the story of an alcoholic, drug-dependent, agoraphobic woman who witnesses a crime from her window. As I'm sure you recall, the police didn't trust Jimmy Stewart's reports of a crime, and his only disability was a broken leg. I'm already anticipating seeing this book at airports after it comes out next January. 







 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Visiting Storm King Art Center

"Gui (Mistletoe)"
 by Alexander Calder
The hills are alive at Storm King Art Center -- not with music, but with more than 100 sculptures sited around its grounds.  And what grounds they are. Storm King boasts more than 500 acres of rolling hills, meadows and trees woven with paths for walkers, bikers and the occasional tram.  But who wants to stay on the paths when you can get up close and personal with the sculptures? 

As Andrea and I set off to explore, I declared my intention to see every sculpture, checking each off the brochure as we encountered it.  "I like a woman with a sense of purpose," Andrea commented. But my plan quickly fell by the wayside as I realized the enormity of the task. (The lack of signage for some sculptures didn't help any.)  So instead we adopted Andrea's approach.  "It's kind of like shopping," she analogized. "We don't have to check out every rack -- just the ones we're attracted to." 

Andrea in Armajani's
"Gabezo for Two Anarchists"
And so we wandered, meandering within each area before moving on.  The North Woods was our starting point, and the initial sculpture we encountered was Siah Armajani's "Gazebo for Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini."  The name plate gave some background on this work, which memorializes the imprisonment of Alberto in the early 20th century for the transportation of explosives. The wrought iron of the gazebo signifies prison bars, and the chair in which Andrea sits is a nod to the electric chair.  (The gnats were so heavy in the wooded area that subjecting Antolini to them alone would have been sufficient punishment.) 

Smith's "Primo Piano III")
Museum Hill was jam-packed with sculptures of all varieties, including a special exhibit of David Smith's white sculptures. Smith lived on what had been a fox farm in Bolton Landing, New York. He transformed the property into a "sculpture farm" as he planted his works in rows reminiscent of a crop. The medium for much of his work is bronze or rusted steel in its natural state. But he did paint some of his sculptures. When Smith died, eight white sculptures were installed on his property, presumably to be painted once he decided on the appropriate color. A debate ensued as to what should be done with the "unfinished" works.  It was ultimately decided they would be left as they were and viewed as a part of Smith's exploration of the potential of the color white. They are incredibly striking sitting atop the hillside outside Storm King's Visitor Center.

Kadisman's "Suspended"
The aptly named "Suspended" by Menashe Kadisman might have been my favorite sculpture. The engineering behind this work is mind-boggling.  I was so enamored of the floating rectangle of weathered steel that I barely took in the fact the base balances on one narrow side. Needless to say, I couldn't resist a photo in which I attempted to hold up the floating rectangle. The work is so large that my extended arms came no where near touching the sculpture. Next time I visit, I'll bring a step ladder.

Noguchi's "Momo Taro"


I loved the story behind Isamu Noguchi's "Momo Taro."  When Noguchi was invited to create a sculpture for Storm King, his concept was a sculpture devised from two split stones. But when the boulder shown here was split, it reminded Noguchi's assistants of the Japanese folk story of Momotaro. In the tale, a child emerges from a giant peach and becomes the son of an elderly couple. Noguchi immediately revised his design. The sculpture in its entirety is comprised of nine granite pieces weighing in at 40 tons. 

Showing the love
to an Easter Island Head

After three hours of exploration, we decided to call it a day. I suspect we saw 75 or so sculptures during our visit, so a return trip is definitely in order. But an outing to Storm King really isn't about checking off the sculptures you've seen. It's about enjoying time with friends and family in an idyllic setting sculpted into an incredible outdoor gallery. Just remember to bring the bug spray. 

For information about Storm King, including images of all of the works in the collection, click here






Thursday, May 25, 2017

Loveland Players present "Las Vegas...Under the Neon Lights"

Time surely flies. Back in the summer of 2014, I took in all 15 shows presented at Venice Theatre at the American Association of Community Theatre's WorldFest. It was a blast to see shows created by theater groups from around the world. "Our Daily Bread" by Argentina's La Compasiva Teatro was a silent movie style show that had me in tears. Australia's Lieder Theater Company brought a hilarious production of "The Servant of Two Masters." And "Pop" by Denmark's Black Box Pangea left me gasping for breath.

In the midst of this international creativity came a moving production by Venice Theatre's own Loveland Players. The show, entitled "The Century of Music," told the story of four generations of music in an American family. While the story was fun to follow, it was the actors who held my attention. The Loveland Players, you see, are a group comprised of developmentally disabled adults. Most actors come from Loveland Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to help these adults live their lives to the fullest. The Center's programs include a collaboration with Venice Theatre in which the students meet weekly to develop their stage skills. For the past 22 years, the annual program has included a full-length production with a short run at Venice Theatre.

Loveland Center student rehearsing
As Dave Bise and I were thinking about people and programs to highlight in our Partnership for the Arts podcast, this collaboration was a natural inclusion. Not only is it a great program, but the Loveland Players' annual show is coming right up. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal of "Las Vegas...Under the Neon Lights" and talk with Julie Kostelec, activities coordinator at Loveland Center, and Becky Holahan, writer and director of the show.  It was an amazing morning.

We arrived at the same time as the students, many of whom were curious to see new faces in the rehearsal studio. Debbie, a woman with a streak of purple in her hair, introduced herself and proudly told me she would be a showgirl in the production. Mark told me he had a solo -- "Razzle Dazzle" from the show "Chicago." The accompanist worked with a performer on his song. The students hugged Becky and the volunteers working on the show and took their seats. This would be the first complete run-through, with the next rehearsal taking place on the stage.

Just to back up a bit, this particular production has been in the works since last fall. The program begins with a tour of the theater, a meet-and-greet with the volunteers, and screenings of past performances. Students interested in participating prepare an audition piece, which might be a poem, a song or a short narrative piece. Becky, who's directed the show for the last 19 years, slots the students based on these auditions with input from others involved with the program. Then the show really begins to take shape.

Controlled chaos?
This year's production offers all the glitz you would expect from a Las Vegas themed show. There will be slot machines and a magic act and a Cirque du Soleil-inspired number that Becky optimistically characterizes as controlled chaos. No Vegas show would be complete without Wayne Newton, and Donnie and Marie and the "Blue Dude Group" will also make appearances. Some of the "shadows" were on-hand as well. These volunteers will make sure the 50 actors hit their marks, remember their lines and get their costumes changed. While we didn't get a chance to see the costumes or set, the show will have similar production values to any other Venice Theatre performance.

Dave and I grinned from ear to ear throughout the rehearsal. How could we not? The joy and enthusiasm in the room was contagious. We particularly got a kick out of Mark's "Razzle Dazzle." Throughout the rehearsal, the performers had faced the blank wall behind the accompanist while running through their paces. Mark angled himself towards the corner where Dave and I were sitting. When Becky asked him why he was facing that way, he said, "They're my audience." The room erupted with laughter. (You might not be surprised to hear that Mark is a bit of a showman who has performed in most--if not all--of the Loveland Players productions.) 

Loveland Center's Julie Kostelec
It was also a treat to talk with Julie about Loveland Center more generally and Becky about her and Venice Theatre's commitment to this program. While Julie has been involved with the theater program for four years, this is the first year she has participated from start to finish. She admitted to a bit of apprehension about appearing as a "shadow" onstage. (Having watched her in rehearsal, I'm sure she'll do just fine.)

Director Becky Holahan


Becky shared that her first involvement with the show was as an audience member nearly 20 years ago. The show was much simpler then, with students sitting on chairs onstage and singing or doing a scene. She immediately wanted to get involved and has grown the production to the musical extravaganza it is today. She analogized the program to a seed that was planted 20+ years ago and has now grown into a flowering tree. 

The Loveland Players' production of "Las Vegas...Under the Neon Lights" runs from June 1-4. It's a theater experience you will remember for the rest of your life.

To hear Partnership for the Arts' podcast with Julie and Becky, click here. For more about Loveland Center, click here. And for info about Venice Theatre (or to purchase tickets), click here




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Visiting Boston's Museum of Fine Arts


"Purple Robe and Anemones" (1937)
With all the family and graduation activities during my recent trip to Boston, there wasn't nearly enough time to enjoy the city's cultural offerings. But I did sneak in a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a real treat.

The featured exhibit was Matisse in the Studio (with the catchphrase "inspiration is everywhere.")  It's a wonderful show featuring objects Matisse incorporated into his paintings side by side with the artwork. He described his objects as "a working library," a set of reference tools akin to the dusty tomes a scholar would have on her shelves. 

The pewter pitcher shown in the foreground of "Purple Robe and Anemones" was one item on display. Its undulating lines are repeated throughout the painting in what the MFA refers to as a "call and response."  The exhibit also included an elaborately painted table with intertwining lines similar to the one shown in this work.

Egyptian Curtain
To the extent I had given the matter any thought, I assumed Matisse created his elaborate patterns from his imagination. Wrong. Matisse loved textiles and hung them throughout his studio. This Egyptian tent curtain with its bold appliques graced his walls. It is thought the creative impulse behind these appliques inspired the striking cut-outs Matisse created later in his life.

No supposition is required as to the more direct inspiration of this curtain. In his "Interior with Egyptian Curtain," painted in 1948, Matisse showcases the wall hanging. The movement feels reminiscent of his "Dance" paintings created nearly 40 years earlier.

"Interior with Egyptian Curtain"
When Matisse found an object that spoke to him, it often found its way into multiple works of art. "The object is an actor," he said. "A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures." Needless to say, I loved the theatrical analogy.

While I could have spent all my allotted time enjoying the Matisse exhibit, there was much more to see at the MFA.  It was fun to explore the Museum's somewhat convoluted space, popping into rooms that piqued my interest.

These ramblings introduced me to several artists with whom I was not familiar.  I was drawn to the work of American artist Charles Sheeler.  The clean, crisp lines of his paintings gave them a graphic feel. He was part of the Precisionist school of art, a movement I'd never heard of before.  The style, which came into being post-World War I, is considered the first contribution to Modernism by American artists.

Sheeler's "View of New York"

I enjoyed learning the story behind Sheeler's "View of New York." Before turning to painting, Sheeler was a commercial photographer of some renown. This work bridges the two worlds with its painted images of the life he's left behind. His camera is draped, and the light is off. The chair in which a model might sit is turned away from the camera. Its stillness captures the artist's contemplative mood.

Marshall's "Superstar" (1994)
I fell in love with Kerry James Marshall's "Supermodel." The contrast between the obsidian of the man's skin and the pale pink flowery background grabbed my attention and pulled me in. I found myself circling back to the work multiple times before leaving the Museum.

While the painting captured my interest without any commentary, it does carry a political message. "The whole history of representation is built on the representation of white folks," Marshall has said. "I call attention to the absence of black presence."  It's kind of hard to argue with his point. 

"I Dreamed I Could
Fly" by Borofsky
And then there were the flying figures of Jonathan Borofsky. It was a bit startling to turn a corner into an open corridor and find several bodies that looked as if they might crash right in front of me. The MFA commissioned these works from Brofsky specifically for the space. According to the wall card, the figures "are able to rise up and look down upon the whole planet...[they] see and feel that human beings are all connected together and that we are all one--no divisions and no walls."  Hmm.  I didn't really get that from the figures, but I did appreciate their whimsy. 

All too soon, my visit came to an end. Since 30 years has passed since I last found myself in Boston, I suspect I won't be back any time soon.  But if I do, you can be assured that I'll make a beeline straight for the MFA. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dennis Lehane's Emerson Commencement Address

Dennis Lehane (photo credit to Paul Marotta)
"I dropped out of Emerson after one and a third semesters."  So began author Dennis Lehane's address to the Emerson graduating class of 2017. "I suspect the people who invited me to give this address didn't know that," he continued. "It's kind of like swiping left but ending up hooking up anyway."  With this hip intro, Lehane had the graduates--many of whom were not familiar with his work--and the audience in the palm of his hand.

Lehane's address was personal, political and aspirational. He talked about growing up in a working class Dorchester neighborhood with a father whose greatest hope was that his son would find a steady job working for a utility. (It wasn't until Lehane's fifth book was published that his dad stopped sending him info about upcoming post office exams.) He shared that his father worked for 35 years for a national company and retired with a pension and health benefits. His dad was bewildered as his former employee chipped away at the benefits he'd worked so long and hard to earn. Lehane's offer to finance a lawsuit against the company was a wake-up call to his father that "the system is rigged in favor of people of means."  What about all those retirees who didn't have a rich and famous son to help them?

Lehane urged the graduates to think about who benefits from government policies. He told a story about a man diagnosed with lung cancer whose doctor told him his only hope of survival was to immediately stop smoking. The man protested; he had a vacation coming up and couldn't imagine going without his beloved cigarettes. Cancel the vacation and stop smoking, the doctor told him. The man consulted 98 other doctors, all of whom told him the same thing. Finally, he found a doctor who told him it was fine to keep smoking. In fact, he should switch to unfiltered cigarettes. And enjoy his vacation. Within a month, the man's cancer had advanced to a debilitating stage as he bemoaned that nobody had told him this would happen.

This story, Lehane said, is a metaphor for climate change, with the deniers starring in the role of the smoker. "It's not my issue," Lehane said. (He has a long history as a counselor for intellectually disabled and abused children.) "But it's so cut and dried. Ask yourself who benefits from denying climate change. Nobody benefits from fighting the deniers. The side without the benefits is fighting from a purer place."

Lehane talked about the "myths and narratives of the glorious past" that some politicians are trying to resurrect. In Lehane's experience, although that past did have its good points, racism and sexism were the norm. He fears this longing for the past is leading us to become a nation without empathy. He shared a comment he overheard walking down the street recently when a couple passed a homeless man asking for change. "He should die or get a job," the passerby said to his companion.

Lehane exhorted the Class of 2017 to fight to make the world a better place. "I'm not the hope. Your professors aren't. I'm Ned Stark. YOU are the hope." 

"The world can change," Lehane said, "But not without you. Love who you want. Drink clean water and breathe clean air. Fight for free speech and a free press. Embrace the best of ideals over the worst of your fears. Most of all, get off your asses and vote. YOU can change the world." 

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Short stories generally aren't my genre. I like my characters to have the chance to develop. And so, despite having loved Anthony Marr...