Saturday, February 09, 2008

Writing Out Loud

Last night, before coming home and discovering the travesty that is the BPL list save functionality (which they call your Book Bag, but only when they're telling you you've filled it up and can't fit any more books in it; are they trying to cheer me up with imagery? Anyway, I digress), Mike and I went to see Sarah Vowell and David Rackoff reading at the Sanders Theater in Harvard Square.

We went for the love of Sarah Vowell--you may have read some of rhapsodic descriptions of her historical essays, and how I love people who wade through all the dry parts of a field to deliver unto me the fun bits. She talked about that a little, during the Q&A (oh, the Q&A. More on that in a minute), about how she started writing history because so much history is written in a stilted, unnatural voice, and there's no reason for it to be. There's no reason these stories can't be told well, conversationally, normally.

And that's what she did--she read excerpts, whether from other things she's done or articles or her new book, I'm not sure, but she described the brash, bold explorer who led the expedition to map the Oregon Trail, and the gifted, bookish cartographer who went with him and mostly, in his journal, complained about the bugs, and the food, and the cold. It was interesting and hilarious and kind of touching, really. I love the way she thinks about these historical figures as people, and really imagines or even believes them back into existence.

David Rackoff is someone I'm less familiar with, but I've heard his pieces on This American Life, a couple of which I've really loved and a couple of which I found to be somewhat...umm, indulgent? precious? Anyway, he was, for me, not the reason to show up, but he really surprised me by being great. He reads very well, with a lot of inflection and humor--the man is very funny. While it's really past time, in my opinion, to be done with jokes about how George W. Bush really lost the election of '04 (you should either be agitating about this or letting it go; as humor, it's passé), it's long past time that someone pointed out that Rent is, maybe, not the greatest, truest depiction of vibrant youth and creativity that ever graced the stage. And did I mention, he was damned funny?

After two short readings from each of them, we were told that there would be a 15-minute question and answer period. Ah, the Q&A. This was, I believe, the single worst Q&A I've ever experienced; possibly the most uncomfortable I've been in a theater--and I've had front row seats for a nude scene in a space that seated 45 people. There was no structure; people were shouting out questions. But most of them weren't actually questions, they were invitations to joke around with the person shouting. I think, because you hear these people on the radio and you read their books and they're both so casual and conversational, you think that you can make them laugh and then you'll be friends. The woman in front of us just kept shouting "witty" comments (apropos of nothing she called Rackoff "pork chop," after the affectionate nickname for the Oregon Trail cartographer in Vowell's story). One guy shouted, "Grover Cleveland: compare and contrast," and I don't think he was kidding. The first question perhaps sums it all up: the woman began with a long explanation about how the two big white marble statues that stand on either side of the stage had been distracting her all night, and then asked the writers, "If you could choose any two people to have big white statues of flanking your stage, who would it be?"

Sarah Vowell answered, "Don Rickles and the Marquis de Lafayette," David Rackoff added, "I can't improve on that," and a wonderful evening came to a close for me. We'll pretend the last ten minutes never happened.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great summary! I was at the same show with husband, and I'm glad to see confirmation that we weren't the only ones who thought the Q&A was one of the most uncomfortable performance moments we'd ever seen. For my money, the worst question was the one shouted out to Sarah as to whether it was harder to write about "history" or "currency".

It seemed many folks there cared little about the answers and more about hearing their own voice. I was fighting a cold and losing my voice that night, else I would have asked a question I truly wanted the answer to: what writers works did they enjoy and/or whose writing makes them chuckle.

Found your blog while searching for a review about the above show, incidentally.