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Talk to Me: Old Friends and New Friends at Happy Ending

Monday, January 10, 2011

Two is a famously bad age for toddlers, but it seems to be a prime number for a reading series marking a rite of passage—in this case, the celebration this past Wednesday of the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series’ two-year anniversary at Joe’s Pub. 

Host and curator Amanda Stern called the evening “Old Friends/New Friends” and invited as readers Nelly Reifler and A.M. Homes—her first two guests when she started the series at a Chinatown bar seven years ago. Both women read stories that might be called modern fables. Reifler’s “Formica Dinette” was written for the Web site Underwater New York, which collects writing and art inspired by the waterways around New York City (take that, James Cameron). In this darkly comic piece (the actual dinette is somewhere in the East River) the Formica company somehow joins with a survivalist family gearing up for the final battle, and kitchen redesign is linked to the rehabilitation of a possessed parent.

A.M. Homes’ untitled piece, written for her friend, the English painter Rachel Whiteread, shares some characteristics with its protagonist, a shapeshifter who treats sick buildings. It is a protean, lyrical work in which the woman moves through her day adapting her body to each circumstance she encounters. And she’s given to randomly sprouting feathers, which I take to be a metaphor for writing itself—the sharp feathery thing that makes its way to the surface and lets the possessor take wing.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham, who represented “New Friends” on the program, and whose work is often as lyrical and complex as a Beethoven sonata, seemed to be channeling Norman Mailer, who he later cited, in a passage from his new novel “By Nightfall.”  In a glimpse of the early courtship of the married couple whose story the novel tells, Pete Harris is dazzled by the opulent gentility of his girlfriend Rebecca’s Virginia home, and is equally titillated by tales of the sexual adventures of her sister. (Click on the link above to hear selections from the evening’s readings.)

Happy Ending’s trademark (other than good literature read in good company) is host Stern’s insistence that her authors take a risk on stage. This trio met the challenge inventively. Reifler translated randomly selected passages of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” into an imaginary language, Idiga. A.M. Homes courted four volunteers from the audience using “speed dating” techniques from various Internet sites. (Hint, ask outrageous questions designed to reveal your candidate’s personality: “Do you think of chocolate as part of the food triangle?”; “Do you have a flat side?”; If you were a stalker, would you be a good one?”). 

Cunningham, whose novel “The Hours” drew on the life of Virginia Woolf, offered a five-minute (all right, eight minute) history of the novel, concluding that rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated, and quoting Mailer, who once told a panel audience, with characteristic brio, that “The novel will be at your funeral.” Listen to Cunningham’s own version of “Cliff’s Notes” here:

The musical guests for the evening were Thomas Bartlett and Sam Amidon, who offered up an eclectic mix of folk tunes, original songs, and pop standards, distinguished by fragile vocals that almost seemed to morph into the accompanying instruments. Hear their first set here:    

Bon Mots

"Mother may be disoriented mentally and spatially. This is just one more reason we suggest timing Mother’s emergence with the kitchen re-do."—Nelly Reifler, “Formica Dinette”. 

"She’s a navigator, a mover, a shifter. She’s flown as a gull over the ocean, she’s dived deep as a whale, she spent an afternoon as a jellyfish, floating, as an evergreen with the breeze tickling her skin…She’s in constant motion, trying to figure out what comes next."—Reader A.M. Homes

"If you were young Pete Harris, you felt the modesty of it eroding you, depopulating you. All those little satisfactions, and no big dangerous ones."—Michael Cunningham, “By Nightfall.”

"The novel is born as a sort of lower form of entertainment, not unlike 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.'”—Michael Cunningham’s history of the novel in five minutes.

Produced by:

Sarah Montague

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Talk to Me brings you downloadable readings and conversations with writers, artists, and scholars – from author Joshua Ferris to choreographer Mark Morris to poet Sharon Olds – recorded at cultural institutions in New York City and beyond. Stream, download, or subscribe to the full-length podcasts here.

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