Tuesday, April 30, 2013


"Of all the roles the economist ascribes to us, 'consumer' is surely the least ennobling. It suggests a taking rather than a giving. It assumes dependence and, in a global economy, a measure of ignorance about the origins of everything that we consume. Who makes this stuff? Where in the world does it come from? What's in it and how was it made? The economic and ecological lines that connect us to the distant others we now rely on for our sustenance have grown so long and attenuated as to render both the products and their connections to us and the world utterly opaque. You would be forgiven for thinking - indeed, you are encouraged to think! - there is nothing more behind a bottle of beer than a corporation and a factory, somewhere. It is simply a 'product.'

To brew beer, to make cheese, to bake a loaf of bread, to braise a pork shoulder, is to be forcibly reminded that all these things are not just products, in fact are not even really things. Most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships, between people, yes, but also between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget. The beer in that bottle, I'm reminded as soon as I brew it myself, ultimately comes not from a factory but from nature - from a field of barley snapping in the wind, from a hops vine clambering over a trellis, from a host of invisible microbes feasting on sugars. It took the carefully orchestrated collaboration of three far-flung taxonomic kingdoms - plants, animals, and fungi - to produce that ale. To make it yourself once in a while, to handle the barley and inhale the aroma of hops and yeast, becomes, among other things, a form of observance, a weekend ritual of remembrance.

Michael Pollan

Food for thought, no?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Literary Connections: Haiti and the DR

"What scenarios have I absorbed from the media or books {...} that have led me to assume that poverty and misfortune will always bring out the worst in people?"

-Julia Alvarez

The first in my series of literary connections goes all the way back to the beginning of my 100 book goal in 2012.

I frankly have no clue why I added Create Dangerously, by the wonderful Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, to my reading list, but it was one of the first things I read towards my 100 book goal. Perhaps it was my subconscious fantasies of becoming a painter, or my fascination with the way third world countries are presented in literature - either way, it wasn't what I expected when I read it.

Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the US when she was 12. Her work spans a wide range of subjects and genres - you can find essays, non-fiction, fiction, and all sorts of different things.

Create Dangerously is much more than a memoir or essay collection or a treatise on art. It includes many details of Haiti's dynamic history, the conditions in which Haitian citizens exist - in short, an educational, art focused, real life phoenix from the ashes tale. The most powerful passages tend to be those in which Danticat describes her family and experiences, but the entire book inspired me with its richness, especially because I am so poorly educated about Haitian culture and history. After finishing, I added more books about Haiti and the Caribbean region to my list and moved on.

A few months later, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was the book I passed out for World Book Day (which just celebrated again last week!). I had never read Junot Diaz before, and while I must admit that the book itself was not my cup of tea, it did present a style of contemporary writing that I was totally unfamiliar with, and also managed to sneakily impart a thorough overview of mid-20th century history in the Dominican Republic (DR) (read your footnotes, kids!). Again, I knew very little of the DR and particularly Trujillo. Trujillo's regime has popped up since in multiple texts and films I've watched, and I can definitely trace my knowledge of him to Diaz. 


Over a year later, I am in the process of reading A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez. A Wedding in Haiti is the perfect (if unexpected) bridge between Danticat and Diaz, and it inspired me so much that I decided to begin a literary connections series on Compendium. 

I added this to my list months ago (likely after reading Danticat), and had forgotten about it until I decided to read something that could make me feel like I was not participating in Minnesnowta's second winter this year.

A Wedding in Haiti is technically a memoir (somewhat like Create Dangerously), but it has the same kind of tangential Carribean history presented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Alvarez is of DR descent and married to an American citizen. The Alvarez's have a coffee farm in the DR which happens to have several Haitian employees, one of whom is Piti. Early on, Alvarez promises Piti she will attend his wedding, and later has to fulfill her promise.

The rest of the book details her passage to, through, and from Haiti (twice) as she transports Piti and his family. This book puts into stark relief what scholars of Carribean history already know; that the DR and Haiti, although different, are thoroughly unable to be extricated from each other. What happens in Haiti happens again, in a different way, in the DR, and any solution to either's problems must occur in tandem.

The book picks up a lot towards the end, and I appreciated Alvarez's emphasis on the problems with first world solutions to third world problems. How much can one person even accomplish in the face of such staggering problems? Do we get to decide what kind of help is more beneficial to the citizens of Haiti (and similarly situated nations)? Or should we ask them? What if we disagree? How much should we sacrifice?

My friends and I have often discussed the disconnect between being a wealthy Western citizen who wants to help others and the real needs of people around the world who receive Western aid. Reading a book like A Wedding in Haiti throws that disconnect into immediate focus. One can't help reading books about Haiti, or places like it, without wanting to help 'improve' it somehow. We want Haitains to cure/prevent malaria, have driveable roads, available food at any time, both for our sake and theirs. But how can anyone accomplish this? And is it our job? Where is our line drawn?

"We should be held accountable for our fears, be forced to journey to the hearts of darkness of our own imaginings. We might find ourselves surprised, uttering not 'The Horror! The Horror!' with Joseph Conrad, but 'The Beauty! The Beauty!' with Junot Diaz."                           -Julia Alvarez

Alvarez, Danticat and Diaz all choose to bluntly describe devastating situations in the third world both past and present - poverty, illness, lack of infrastructure, sexual abuse, political persecution - and portray it as beauty through a lense of hope and joy and goodness. I can't think of any other part of the world in similar straights that I've seen described so hopefully. It's a testament to each of them (and perhaps an indictment of ourselves) that they are able to focus on the good and find ways to leverage it into better futures. I'd love to see more of this perspective, of finding the 'ugly pretty' in bad situations and building it into 'beautiful'. It's a testament to the people of Haiti and the DR that their indomitable spirits have made such impressions on us, and I hope we can do that spirit justice.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Literary Connections

The journey all started with a goal of reading 100 books in a year.

After graduating from college and finding my first full-time desk job, I felt the need to continue some sort of study outside of work. As taxing as the 9 to 5 can be, it felt important to stretch my mind in other pursuits, particularly those that fulfilled my love of literature and reading.

So, I established the goal of reading 100 books on my own time. Goodreads, where I had had an account for a while, was an enormously helpful tool in listing the books I wanted to read as well as the books I had. It counts pages, authors, books, and more, and I became more and more excited as I saw my goal tangibly increasing with each checked-off book.

As I progressed, I realized that the missing link in my initial goal was communicating my thoughts about the things I read and the act of reading itself. As my goal had been to simply read 100 books, I found that there were interesting things I could say about each book but that I was not utilizing any forum to do so.

Something that I don't often find expressed about reading is the importance of discussing it. Reading 100 books is all well and good, but what is the point if you can't find connections between your literary choices and learn from others views as well? I missed the community of readers that I found in my classes in college and the occasional book group.

Another observation that startled me somewhat was how connected all literature is. I tend to add books on my 'to-read' list very randomly. I have no procedure for deciding what books I like to read; I run across them in 'best of' lists, recommendations from friends and authors I respect, and more, and I add them knowing that at some point I will revisit them whether I will remember why or not. It amazed me how many seemingly unconnected texts from authors of all locales and time periods were sharing similar styles, ideas, and more.

This year, in addition to continuing to read more (the goal is page based instead of book based, in the hopes that I will take the time to tackle more difficult and longer works instead of simply tallying books) I am hoping to create a space where I can connect the books I'm reading and the ideas they present and begin to parse out my logic in reading them and the ideas/connections between them that I glean along the way. I hope you will join me in exploring the incredibly vast world of literature out there, and perhaps even to participate in a conversation about it. If anyone has recommendations or thoughts, please feel free to comment - I am always looking for new texts to explore!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Surprisingly Vibrant "Coat"

One of the best parts of being a reviewer is pleasant surprises.

After learning the newest Chanhassen Dinner Theater (CDT) show was going to be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (JATD) I couldn’t help but wonder - “What are they thinking?! There are so many better musicals they could show that they never have – why return to this campy story?”

I’m so pleased to tell you how wrong I was.

I've seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat before, and I have never liked it. Never. But somehow, the actors at CDT managed to make this one of the most engaging and vibrant performances I’ve seen anywhere in quite a while.

A familiar story to anyone who faithfully attended Sunday school, JATD chronicles the story about Joseph, son of Jacob, and his 11 treacherous brothers. Long story short: Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, even though he’s the youngest. His brothers are jealous and get rid of him. Jacob hits the bottom of the well – literally – ending up in jail and as a slave. He climbs back out through his supernatural gift at interpreting dreams, leads Egypt out of famine, becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man, and is reunited with his family after saving them from starvation.

As the name might imply, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat features an extremely vibrant ‘technicolor’ set. Costumes, props, and everything in between are all doused with most saturated hues imaginable, the blockiest fonts, the gaudiest fabrics. Somehow, it works, perfectly fitting the deliciously mac-and-cheesy-ness of the acting...

...Which is equally notable. CDT is one of the few theaters I can think of with a truly regular rotation of
actors, and having seen many of them in multiple shows, I can easily affirm that this is some of their most solid work. Veteran Keith Rice is particularly spectacular as an Elvis themed Pharaoh, and although he’s only on stage for ten minutes (Doing the splits! Pinching nipples!) he easily steals the second act.

Jared Oxborough perfectly fits the role of Joseph, with a satiny, strong voice and the physique to match. Jody Carmelli brings some of her Xanadu creamsicle persona to the role of the Narrator, which also fits her well. Together, Oxborough and Carmelli head up a delightful ensemble cast that matches their springy steps and ringing voices with aplomb.

JATD is weeknight-date friendly, running along at a clippy pace that finishes in under two hours including intermission. The bright colors and songs are great for people of all ages, and particularly kids – two from the audience have the opportunity to be actors in the show. As a side note, it is also well worth mentioning that CDT has been tweaking their menu gradually for some time now, and the food is definitely performing at a higher level than the past.

With tickets topping out at $81 for two courses and the play, CDT is the only theater around able to provide dinner and a great show in the same location for a very reasonable price. Chanhassen has done a great job with JATD, and I highly encourage readers to check it out – it’s a great way to find some sunshine indoors in the midst of our snowy spring.

JATD runs from April 5 to August 31. Tickets and pricing for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat can be found here.

Monday, April 1, 2013

To die or not to die?

The Jungle's Deathtrap is a Caper with Ketchup on the Side

Five characters. Two acts. Three deaths. One script.

Countdown to murder commence - Deathtrap, the Jungle's latest dip into intrigue and laughs, is open.

Somewhat reminiscent of the slicked up slasher Scream films, the plot follows a man who fakes one murder in order to commit a real one. Sidney Bruhl (Steve Hendrickson), a murder mystery writer and closet homosexual, purposely fake grad student Clifford Anderson's (Michael Booth) death in order to induce a heart attack in his wife Myra (Cheryl Willis). With Myra dead, Sidney and Clifford are free to move in together and continue working on their plays.

The plot runs smoothly with the exception of the appearance of Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who predicts the evening's future events down to the clothing each character wears. Although this shakes Sidney and Clifford, they continue as planned and appear to escape without a hitch.

The trouble is, Clifford decides to use the real story of Myra's murder as his next manuscript. Terrified that others will discover his misdeeds and latent homosexuality, Sidney decides to plan another caper to kill Clifford before the news gets out. Clifford does the same, only to serve his own purposes.

Once again, the foibles are interrupted by ten Dorp and Sidney's lawyer Porter Milgrim. Each set of events and interruptions carries a twist that I won't spoil for you, but suffice it to say it keeps you relatively on your toes.

I have seen each of the cast members in various other shows before, and while I can say that they do a good job of moving Deathtrap's plot forward, they are not as inspiring as they have been in other productions. The Jungle seems to be producing a fair amount of mid-modern British murder mystery comedies of late, and while they are fun and provide a nice break from the 'dr-AHma of the-AT-er' that so many plays can often exude, they do begin to feel a bit repetitive after a while.

The set, as is always the case at the Jungle, is luxurious and almost ludicrously detailed, down to moving shadows behind window panes and working fireplaces. The sets at the Jungle are so magical and alive; I've often wished that some of their magic could be sparked into the performances as well.

While Deathtrap may not be the most innovative or terrifying murder mystery around, it is the ketchup and meatloaf of the genre - filling, solidly produced and tasty enough to enjoy anytime. Check it out as a way to fill time on the upcoming messy spring days with a cozy beer or three. Deathtrap runs through May 19, and tickets and more information can be found here.