Saturday, March 15, 2014

"the night, and the rain, and the river" - the cover

Here we are again in one of those posts where I show off! Today's edition: my book cover design for Forest Avenue Press' first fiction anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, edited by Liz Prato.

One of the things I love about book cover design is how different every project is. For my recent design of The Gods of Second Chances (just out now), I simply mulled the story, themes and setting and then ran with what popped into my brain. With The Night, and the Rain, and the River, though, the project was all about collaboration.

Laura Stanfill, publisher of FAP, thought it would be fun to commission a local artist to come up with a piece of art, which I could then build the cover around. The idea came to her, actually, when she saw and was completely charmed by the work of Portland letterpress artist Clare Carpenter of Tiger Food Press. Not knowing where it would lead us, we sent Clare a copy of the manuscript and gave her some time to read and ruminate and then get on her letterpress and create.

When I took my first look at the piece she produced for The Night, and the Rain, and the River, what I saw was the night. Funny, because now when I see the completed cover, what I find in the art is the river - but that first time, I saw the night. Upside-down sky. Stars. Maybe even the rain. What I also saw was mood - that thread of loss and longing that runs through this collection of stories.

I knew that the visual aesthetic of the editor of the anthology, Liz Prato, is modern and minimalist, so, in tinkering with my layout, I wanted to marry Clare's art to that aesthetic. To work using brevity. I have to admit, when Laura and I first started talking about collaborating with an artist, I worried that my part in the design would be small. Insignificant. What I found was that my contribution was as much about what I didn't add to the layout as what I did. Space as an element as real as the title, the blurb text, or the art itself.

Check out that amazing bit of a blurb, there (just part of a more extensive blurb for the book), written by the incomparable Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase.

The Night and the Rain and the River will be out in May and includes stories by:

Jan Baross, Gail Bartley, Victoria Blake, Alisha Churbe, Sage Cohen, Ellen Davidson Levine, Steve Denniston, Trevor Dodge, Gregg Kleiner, Christi Krug, Kathleen Lane, Dylan Lee, Margaret Malone, Matthew Robinson, Joanna Rose, Lois Rosen, Jackie Shannon Hollis, Domi Shoemaker, Scott Sparling, Tammy Lynne Stoner, Jennifer Williams, and Cindy Williams Gutiérrez.

Publication of the anthology is supported by a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

a moment in the day: communicate

Eight o'clock in the kitchen, I'm pulling out the coffee beans, and Stephen steps in, his mouth full of coconut oil so he can't talk. It's a new ayurvedic treatment called oil pulling that's supposed to pull toxins from your system, and you have to stand there with your mouth full of coconut oil for twenty minutes. Wow.

There in the doorway, he looks at me, then looks across to the counter and makes a big T with one arm straight up and one arm horizontal across the top.

"Time out?" I say.

Shakes his head. Makes the T again. Looks at the counter. There's a tea pot there, and a tea cup with a tea bag hanging out of it, and I finally get it, and I am a genius.

"Tea?" I say.

Nods his head. He makes himself tea every morning, special tea that's made in St. Petersburg and originated in Paris, or maybe it's the other way around.

"Tea!" I say, and start to pull the top off the coffee can.

He shakes his head, bigger, and makes the T again. Looks at the counter.

The tea pot and the tea cup with the tea bag hanging out of it.

"Tea," I say, but only because it's the appropriate response to his hand signals and pointed looks, but then I realize it - if you're making yourself your special French and Russian tea in your tea pot, you don't need a tea bag hanging out of your cup; the tea bag's the way your wife makes her own, more pedestrian tea, from the U. S. of A.

"My tea!" I say.

"Did you make it?" I say.

"Wait, did I make it?" I say.

He shakes his head again, again, but I think this time it's only because he's incredulous. He goes over to the garbage can and spits the coconut oil out, then smacks his mouth and says, "I made it for you."

Whew, I'm glad for that, at least. That's one shred of dignity I've got leftover to me. "This was a pretty good example," I say, "of why it's good for people to be able to clearly..." [forgetting the word] "what do you call that thing? Communicate."

I walk out of the kitchen and go in the back to get on the computer, leaving the forgotten cup of tea behind.


OK, update. Stephen reminds me that after this exchange, I laughed and wanted to comment on how much pleasure we periodically get out of my stupidity, and it came out, "Sometimes, I sure do enjoy my humidity."

Monday, March 3, 2014

a small fire at portland center stage

Friday night, Stephen and I went to the Gerding Theater to see A Small Fire on their main stage, and after a
play I always want to write about it, but I don't know how to write about this.

Everything I want to say is one big spoiler. How can I tell you that in this play was the most beautiful and most satisfying BLANK I've ever seen?

I can't. But there's so much about this BLANK I want to talk about. And I know that when I see plays, I like to read the reviews afterward so I can see what different people got out of it. So, I guess I'll do this in two parts. The first part you can read before you see A Small Fire, but the second you've got to save until after.

What can I say up front? First, that it was not what I expected. Plays put on by Portland Center Stage are always good, but I kind of expected this one to also be enough of a downer that we'd need a pick-me-up afterward. Don't get me wrong - I love a good downer, but I did say to Stephen (or did he say to me?) that we'd definitely need to watch an I Love Lucy later in the evening. Then, surprisingly, this play about a woman who, because of a ghastly unknown disease, starts to lose, one by one, each of her senses, was really funny. As the disease progresses and the world of the victim, Emily Bridges, her husband John, their daughter Jenny and their work colleague and friend Billy falls more and more apart, this play gets deeper and darker - but no less funny.

Peggy J. Scott as Emily, Tom Bloom as John.
Photo by Patrick Weishampel

It's also pretty terrifying. You can't help but squirm in your seat a little as you internalize the experience of having your contact and way of interacting with the world taken from you. I thought Peggy J. Scott did a great job of imparting the terror of this while also remaining a fresh and real and, yes, funny character. I loved the mix of her vulnerability and anger. I also really enjoyed Tom Bloom as husband John. He has a particular, slightly Jimmy Stewartesque delivery and the ability to pull off a kind of weak, wishy-washy character without coming off stereotypical.

Those two and their relationship are at the heart of the play. He's a mild-mannered, diplomatic man, she's a brusque, eff-bomb-dropping head of a construction crew. Both keep the world and each other at a bit of a distance, she with her bluff and he with his diplomacy. Both are afraid, in their own way, to completely touch the world. A further complication as their world erodes.

There are moments where you can see the writer in the writing, a slight self-consciousness in the piece - but no more than a lot of plays out there, and definitely not enough to distract from the experience. A revelation in a scene with John and Billy on a rooftop felt a bit convenient - but that scene also contained a moment, a turning point, that was really wonderful.

Overall, A Small Fire is a strong play with great dialogue delivered by a great cast, a whole lot of humor and a whole lot of heartbreak, along with a whole lot to think about after you leave the theater. If the writing is slightly self-conscious in parts, it's also incredibly deft and smart and gives you way more to think about than just the expected horror of the situation. As unique and isolating as is Emily's illness, where it takes her is somewhere incredibly universal.

OK, let me give the info before the spoilers start spurting out of me. Portland Center Stage's production of A Small Fire is now playing at the Gerding Theater. It runs through March 23, and more info is here.

Alright, let's get down to it.

The ending. I've taken a moment and have looked at some other reviews, many for a New York run, of A Small Fire, and I'm intrigued by how mixed they are about the ending. Some reviewers find it abrupt and say the play feels unfinished. My reaction to A Small Fire was exactly the opposite. The end felt perfect to me, entirely surprising but entirely fitting. Can I say it now? A sex scene. I'm pretty squeamish about sex scenes in plays and movies - and more so when I'm with my husband, who's even more squeamish than I am. Generally I think to myself, why do I need this? But at the end of A Small Fire, when Emily is at her most defeated, feeling the most isolated and disconsolate, she and John fall into an embrace that turns into kissing, that turns into lovemaking, and it is, as I said at the beginning of this post, the most beautiful and most satisfying sex scene I've ever seen.

For one thing, it's beautifully executed. The bed and John and Emily are lit in a golden light while the rest of the vast stage is in darkness, alluding to the darkness of Emily's world and the intimacy and magic of the moment. We watch from the end of the bed so that what we see are backs, first John's and then Emily's as, during their elegantly and tastefully choreographed lovemaking, she moves from being on the bottom (the position of submission) to the top (the position of power). Everything about the rendering of this scene is skillful and smart and gorgeous.

We don't know where they will go from here. Because Emily's ailment has been kept a mystery - from the audience and from the victims - there's no way to know if Emily will go on in her current state forever, if that last sense - touch - will finally drop off too, if Emily will die. In this moment, it doesn't matter. Not only has Emily found the path to joy in that one remaining sense, not only have Emily and John found their way back to each other, but, most important of all, I think, these two people who, in their own ways, have always kept the world and each other at a certain distance, completely come together. OK, they're married; they've had sex before. But now all the barriers have come down. The crisis in their lives has stripped away their defenses and left them able, and willing, finally, to share the most authentic intimacy they've ever had.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

fifteen facts about noni

She used to sing on the tops of pianos while my grandfather played. Her songs of choice were about philandering house cats and houses of ill repute. 

She was a great lover of food. I remember she'd be in my mom and dad's kitchen, visiting, Noni at one end of the counter and Mom at the other. As they chatted, Noni would idly eat six or seven chocolates out of a box there on the counter and then complain that, "I don't know why I don't lose weight. I'm never hungry."

We share first names. Whereas my nickname is Gigi, hers is Jeanie. Genie? I never knew how she spelled it, actually. Coco called her Euge. Which always sounded to me like he was calling her Huge.

When I was a kid, we'd fly to Virginia where Noni and Coco lived on a lake. Coco and we kids would be in the water all the time, skiing, floating, swimming. When we tried to get Noni to swim, she'd say, "Oh no, I don't go in the water." Then at some point during the month-long visit (we all knew it would happen and were waiting for it) we'd be on the boat and whoosh, Noni would go over the side, into the water, and come up laughing.

A consummate story-teller, always a great holder of court at any party, she was the best teller of jokes that I know of. Especially dirty ones.

She made homemade peach ice cream and blackberry pie.

In the hospital on the last day she was feeling chipper, she said she'd been sitting with her memories and told us the story of how my grandfather proposed to her. I'll try to remember and paraphrase. He said, "Eugenia? I think I'm in love with you. What do you think of that?" She said, "I think I'm in love with you, too." He said, "Well, then! I think we should get married." Then stood up and fell down the porch steps.

She lived all over the world, from Holland to Japan, and she loved to travel, particularly to France, where she and Coco would rent a house and shop for local ingredients and Noni would cook gourmet meals. She and Coco both spoke French. When we were kids, visiting them at Lake Holiday, they'd go into French anytime they wanted to say something children shouldn't hear.

For ten years, she lived in a retirement community called Park Plaza. She was so friendly and energetic that she was pretty much the poster child for the place. In fact, pretty much literally. -->

That's a vanilla shake she's drinking there. On one of her last days, the director of Park Plaza offered to go get her one, but she wasn't much interested in food anymore. She was just interested in lying peacefully with her memories, with her loved ones holding her hand, and waiting to go join Coco.

Her dogs, Lady Sassafrass and Elsa, were the start of our family's short-lived tradition of owning miniature dachshunds. Elsa was larger and loved sleeping in the sunshine, often on the floor of their float boat. Because of the resemblance, Noni and Coco lovingly called her the Fat Pig in the Sun. Sassy lived a very long time and was the kind of lap dog who would jump up and down, chairside to Noni, scratching at Noni's leg with her front paws until Noni let her up onto her lap. Noni was a doggy pushover almost as much as I am. I remember evenings at Lake Holiday, Noni, Coco and us kids having vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, and when she was done, Noni always put her dish down for them to lick. 

Friendly to a fault, always wanting to talk to everyone, she was known to chat with folks in stores and casually explain to them (and reveal) the password to all her bank accounts.

I said she was a great lover of food - I really think of her as a great lover of life. Equal parts spunk and refined lady of the world. Summers at Lake Holiday were some of the most wonderful days of my childhood. Highlights were the so-named Moonlight Cruises on the boat with Pavarotti playing on the tape deck. And the one night each year when we'd sleep on the boat. Crabs for dinner, packed by Noni into a picnic basket. The bucket on the bow for if you needed to pee in the middle of the night. We'd anchor in the Beaver Finger, where the beaver house was, so that, early in the morning, we could wake up in the chill and watch the smooth water for signs of beavers. Usually Edina would see one first. I'd look and look but only catch the slap of a beaver's tail hitting the water as he warned us to keep away from his house, and then he was gone.

Highlights of family parties were always when Coco sat down at the piano and played our family songs, by ear, with everyone singing along. "Egyptian Ella." "Rickety Tickety Tin." "With Her Head Tucked Underneath her Arm." Noni's solo came late in the proceedings. You always knew she'd have to be coaxed to get up there and perform, but you always knew that, in the end, she'd do it.

On the last day of Noni's life, I was already back in Portland, having said my goodbyes. She went as she'd wanted to. At home and at peace. And on that last day, when she was asked if she wanted anything to eat, she said, "Chocolate."