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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 BAM Holiday Reading List

Here we are as in olden days: in a vortex of yule, clamoring for nog and listening to Bing and Mariah, with so many holiday-related things to read, do, see. On the reading front, we suggest consolidation. Get your literary fix during the downtime while covering subjects that will resonate with BAM productions coming up in the winter/spring. Below are a few recommendations, dealing with everything from director John Carpenter to venereal diseases to rodeos in prison.

Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal
Recommended reading for: Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts
In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (at BAM in April), a character learns—spoiler alert—that he has contracted hereditary syphilis from his philandering father, a disease that ultimately kills him. For a reviewer in 1891, that plot point helped to make the work “the most loathsome of all Ibsen’s plays […] illustrat[ing] freely enough the baneful result of the abolition of the Contagious Diseases Act.” What’s clear today is that the C.D.A.—a draconian measure passed in 1864 and intended to shield men from disease by imprisoning infected prostitutes—was unabashedly sexist, punishing women while protecting men who could just as easily spread venereal unseemliness. It was due to the tireless efforts of women like Josephine Butler, the important early feminist profiled in this fascinating book, that the C.D.A. was eventually repealed. —Robert Wood

Valery Gergiev and the Kirov: A Story of Survival | By John Ardoin
Recommended reading for: The Mariinsky at BAM
First off, a clarification: Kirov—the Kirov Theatre—essentially means the Mariinsky Theatre, as in the indispensible St. Petersburg ballet, orchestra, and opera coming to BAM for two weeks in January. That it was named the Kirov during its Soviet period before being switched back to Mariinsky gives some inkling of the survival referenced in this fascinating book’s title; as author and Dallas Morning News critic John Ardoin astutely chronicles, few theaters have endured such political turmoil. Read this book for an engaging summary of that turbulent and storied history, as well as for a knight-in-shining-armor account of the valiant Valery Gergiev, who, since taking over in 1988, has led the Mariinsky into its current period of innovative efflorescence.  —Robert Wood

Not That Kind of Girl | By Lena Dunham
Recommended reading for: Miranda July In Conversation With Host Lena Dunham 
Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl begins: "I am 20 years old and I hate myself." If you've seen Girls on HBO, it may be difficult to reconcile the exhibitionistic Hannah Horvath with the purportedly self-loathing writer of this collection of essays. Therein lies the intrigue that Dunham, who hosts an "In Conversation" with fellow polymath Miranda July on Jan 28, seems to generate no matter what genre she's working in. She writes smartly and fluidly about banal things. "I boarded a Greyhound to Ithaca to see a college friend, the kind of purposeless trip you will never take again after age 25. We spent the weekend walking in fields, taking pictures of old-fashioned neon signs with a disposable camera, and watching carp spawn in a river. We ate nothing but hummus and drank nothing but beer. We went to his neighbor's funeral and sat in the back row and got the giggles, sprinted out. We walked around his mother's garden, crushing living things with our boots." There's a rhythm to her prose that carries you along like a leaf on a burbling stream; a fleetingness to the way she goes through life, despite dealing with a serious case of OCD. For her honesty, she has been strafed by controversies: of sexually abusing her sister, and revealing her own rapist. In the end, it fulfills the maxim "There's no bad publicity." —Susan Yung

On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker Recommended reading for: John Carpenter: Master of Fear
Veteran rock, movie, and TV photographer Gottlieb-Walker was on set for many of John Carpenter’s films in the 70s and 80s, beginning with the one that started it all, Halloween. She also shot The Fog, Escape from New York (she was admitted to the Cinematographers Guild for her work on it), and Christine. On Set With John Carpenter chronicles those times with stunning photos in glorious black and white, while also showcasing the fantastic sartorial predilections of simpler times. (Read David Ehrlich’s interview with her in Little White Lies). In the 70s, Gottlieb-Walker also took classic photos of all the three “Wailing Wailers”—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingstone—but for the record, it should be noted that my love of reggae was not the reason I picked this book. —Gabriele Caroti

Black Prophetic Fire | By Cornel West
Recommended reading for: BAM Annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
“Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?” In light of the buildings burnt and burning in the wake of unrest surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Dr. West’s question might seem ill timed. But isolated protests do not social movements make, West insists, movements without which the white-hot speech of his heroes—Frederic Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcom X, and Ida B. Wells—could have never gained its indelible traction. West’s message—which he’ll elaborate upon when he speaks at BAM’s annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—is this: our civil rights icons were never the self-made men and women of the frontier mythos, but rather, products of the collective mobilizations that allowed their impassioned voices to carry. We must abandon our self-interested “I-consciousness” and return to the “we-consciousness” of previous generations, he writes, in order to provide the milieu in which prophetic rhetorical traditions—the “leaven in the American democratic loaf”—can again burn brightly.  —Robert Wood

Zhang Huan Retrospective 
Recommended reading for: Semele
For director and renowned visual artist Zhang Huan’s upcoming production of Handel’s opera Semele, a 17-ton, 450-year-old Ming Dynasty temple will be imported in its entirety from China and reassembled on the stage. If that act of spare-no-expense spectacle speaks to an artist obsessed with size and scale, consider a work like To Add One Meter To An Anonymous Mountain, which involved nine naked people laying on top of one another on said mountain outside of Beijing. Or 12 Square Meters, which involved Zhang sitting in a public toilet covered in honey, fish, and flies to draw attention to unsanitary conditions in the provinces. The grandiose vies with the humbly and elegantly provocative in Zhang’s work, in other words, and this book—the first major retrospective of his career to date, with an introduction by the Performa festival's RoseLee Goldberg—is a great way to familiarize yourself with the lot of it.  —Robert Wood

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man | By Jordan Goodman
Recommended reading for: The Tallest Tree in the Forest
“It would be foolish, wrong, of me,” Paul Robeson once stated, “to be a propagandist and make speeches and write articles about what they call the Colour Question while I can still sing.” “Having been given [a musical gift], I must give.”  Give he did, not only as a singer but as an actor,  a lawyer, an All-American football star, and in many other capacities impressively showcased in Daniel Beaty’s probing upcoming portrait of the multi-dimensional man. But Robeson surely gave his opinions as well, decrying American racial injustice while openly, and controversially, praising the Soviet Union as the only place in which he’d ever felt like a “full human being.” The House Committee on Un-American Activities took full notice, of course, and it is with the resulting fallout that Jordan Goodman’s engrossing book concerns itself, using archival material from the FBI, the State Department, and other secret agencies to explore just how much this revered giver was thought to be taking. —Robert Wood

Widescreen Cinema | By John Belton
Recommended reading for: Black & White ’Scope (coming BAMcinĂ©matek in February 2015)
“Ladies and gentlemen: THIS IS CINERAMA." With these words, on September 30, 1952, the heavy red curtains in New York's Broadway Theatre opened on a panoramic Technicolor image of the Rockaways Playland Atom-Smasher Roller Coaster—and moviegoers were abruptly plunged into a new and revolutionary experience. Although now only available either second-hand, as an e-book, or as POD (print on demand), John Belton’s work is the ne plus ultra of the history of widescreen, from early processes in the 1890s and Abel Gance’s triptych Napoleon to the film industry’s competition with the small screen by way of 20th Century Fox’s first CinemaScope picture, 1953’s The Robe. All in all, the book offers an incredible history of the industry and art—all of the processes are covered, including Cinerama, Paramount’s VistaVision, Todd-AO, and more—while revealing the way the history of the motion picture industry has repeated itself to try and change the collective theatrical experience. (Sobering for these times.) —Gabriele Caroti

God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison | By Daniel Bergner
Recommended reading for: Round-Up and A Human Being Died That Night
Every year, the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana hosts a rodeo and puts its inmates in the saddle.  Murderers, con men, and other ne’er-do-wells seek redemption on the backs of bulls before returning to their cells to count the hours. Two of those subjects—prison and the rodeo—will be explored in BAM shows this spring: Nicholas Wright’s moving play A Human Being Died That Night, about incarcerated South African assassin Eugene de Koch, and Sufjan Stevens’ Round-Up, a cinematic and musical love letter to the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon. While Daniel Bergner’s book is in some ways only superficially related, it resonates nonetheless, providing an affecting account of seven men who’ve made big mistakes, the place where they’re paying for them, and the rough-and-tumble sport that, for a few moments at least, makes it all a distant memory. —Robert Wood

How Music Works | By David Byrne
Recommended reading for: David Byrne's awesome bike racks
It takes no shortage of confidence to write a book with a title like How Music Works. But it’s tough not to give the benefit of the doubt to a guy with such disarmingly fantastic white hair. Besides, Byrne’s book trades less in definitive demystification than it does in the endearingly wide-eyed, open-minded, intelligent ruminations you’d expect from a guy who designs modular bike racks as a hobby and isn’t above finding profundity in a collection of Barry Manilow duets. Byrne’s theses are many: architecture has dictated musical content throughout the ages at least as much as romantic genius; streaming and other music technology have ironically increased the value of live musical experiences; music lets us vicariously live in alternate social worlds that we’d never be able to inhabit otherwise; and on and on. There are also plenty of candid revelations about Byrne’s Talking Heads days and his creative process in general. Read for those as much as anything. —Robert Wood

Can't and Won't | By Lydia Davis
Recommended reading for: Lydia Davis at Eat, Drink & Be Literary 
"I don't have time to read." This classic excuse to avoid embarking on a 1000-page novel does not apply to Lydia Davis' story anthologies, of which Can't and Won't is the latest. Sure, there are a handful of stories over 10 pages, but many are a page, a paragraph, or even a sentence—each a savory morsel. They may be perfect for subway reading, but if you're like me, you will not be able to stop until the final page arrives. A sample story, titled "Bloomington":
Now that I have been here awhile, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.
In Can't and Won't, she has assimilated a number of Flaubert's stories, as well as unpacked a quantity of (presumably her) dreams. Her observation is microscopic, her logic is mind-blowing, her prose as neat as a pin with not one extra word, and the meter leads you along thrillingly. Davis' release dates should be celebrated as we do Thanksgiving—by sitting down, consuming, and declaring everlasting gratitude. Davis comes to BAM as part of Eat, Drink & Be Literary. —Susan Yung

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