Robert Thompson on the Tango
In November 1998, in the course of researching a book on the art, music, film, literature, and philosophic way of life of the dance called the tango, I met Felipe de la Fuente, a painter of tango scenes. He had been born in 1912, in northeastern Buenos Aires province; he was to die in May 2000. I met him at his studio overlooking Avenida Callao in the Barrio Norte of Buenos Aires. There was a painting on a table and I shyly asked if it might be for sale. It was. I bought it at once. It was a superb document of two couples dancing canyengue, the earliest style of tango dance.
In his youth de la Fuente had tried his hand at impressionism, cubism, and the design of stained glass—appropriate preparation for his eventual metier, painting the denizens of the Argentine night. Blank sketching paper in hand, he used to hang out at the Bar San Fernando (now closed) on the Cortada de Carabelas, one block from the famous obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio. There he met tough guys who reminded him of the original tango hipsters, the compadritos whom Jorge Luis Borges had lauded for the strength of their arms and incapacity for fear. They helped de la Fuente find his own voice.
From 1950 on, he started making small but furious sketches of tango aficionados drinking in bars and improvising tangos before friends. By 1970 he had been sketching their dances for 20 years. His brush was as fast as their moves; he got the darks right, and the smokiness of the bars, and the emphasized curves of the motion.
De la Fuente became a vital resource on tango canyengue, the Afro-Argentine dance style that was born in late-nineteenth-century Buenos Aires. (The smoothed-out tango liso of the salons came later.) The tough and vernacular qualities are clear in de la Fuente’s Tango Canyengue, dated 1984. The painting carries us deeply into tango tradition. The setting is a dark basement club where two couples move, like boxers, in a very strong light. At left a player of the accordion-like bandoneon, the signature instrument of the tango, churns out the beat that makes them all dance. The artist himself saunters in, carrying sheafs of white paper for sketching: de la Fuente, like Alfred Hitchcock, liked to put himself in his pictures.
The two couples dance in the style of canyengue, hands at shoulder level and bottoms thrust out. They streak like strange phantoms. They are larger than the audience whose heads appear silhouetted at their feet. They are giants of Argentine culture.
The Devil Wears Brooks Brothers
Take two earnest young Yale grads on an insider’s tour of the nation’s inner chambers of power: what would they think? What would they learn? Would they want to stay? The American Ruling Class, a satirical, quasi-journalistic expose of American oligarchy, not only asks these questions, but prances out on a limb to answer them.
Directed by John Kirby and hatched by Harper's editor and veteran gadfly Lewis Lapham '56—who wrote the screenplay—The American Ruling Class is equal parts documentary and fiction, with the odd flash of musical. First seen at the TriBeCa Film Festival in April, it is being screened on college campuses (including Yale’s) in December before theatrical release early next year.
Lapham, who for years has both done battle and broken bread with this country’s elite, sets out in his screenplay to take the establishment to task without ever really leaving its crisp, well-furnished interiors. It’s a tactic, the film posits, not so much hypocritical as realistic. “Life proceeds more smoothly on the inside track,” intones Lapham in voiceover. The realm of privilege, in other words, is also the place where things get done.
The film’s inquiry begins when Lapham, who plays himself with aplomb and a dash of irony, meets two graduating seniors (played by Harvard grads Paul Cantagallo and Caton Burwell) at a master’s tea in Calhoun College. With slippery ease, Lapham arranges to serve as their guide for the upcoming year. His tutees—both bland, smart, white, and acquiescent—are nearly identical. But Jack is eager to climb the ranks at Goldman Sachs, while Mike, who aspires to be a writer, would rather get a menial job and live bohemian-style than profit from serving the moneyed elite.
Jack and Mike move to New York, where Lapham networks on their behalf with a wonderful offhandedness. He arranges for Mike to meet New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger for a discussion of how business interests affect the press, and he escorts Jack to a gala at Cipriani so he can ask the guests whether there exists an American ruling class. Kurt Vonnegut snorts at the utter naïvete of the question. “I’m afraid there is,” concedes a less irritable Walter Cronkite.
Jack believes he can join the elite without losing his sense of social responsibility. But then a chorus of minimum-wage earners sings about being “nickeled and dimed” in a musical interlude, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich blasts philanthropy as a pathetic substitute for labor reform, and Jack experiences a creeping new sense of doubt.
But it is Mike, working unhappily as a waiter, who might actually change course. Hollywood executive Michael Medavoy tells him his gloomy screenplay won’t sell, and high-profile attorney Martin Garbus exhorts him to “get into the struggle.” So when Mike hears from Jack that a spot is opening up at Goldman Sachs, he considers applying.
Lapham’s clubby and smugly pontificating host, with his easy charm and Luciferian tendency to pop up out of nowhere, injects every scene he’s in with sly humor. But when Jack and Mike get scenes to themselves, the film loses its arch spirit: these protagonists have about as much personality as two eggs on toast.
Not so their elders. Kurt Vonnegut, sucking crabbily on a cigarette, leaves an indelible impression, and even Bill Bradley admits to once having had an antiestablishment streak. So why are Mike and Jack so dull? Do the filmmakers think these two polite drones represent the future leaders of America? If so, perhaps they could give them a nudge.
Gatsby, Every Last Word of It, on Stage
A short red-haired employee in a drab anonymous office, discovering a copy of The Great Gatsby by his computer, begins to read the book out loud to himself. His co-workers—frumpy, reserved, or sexed-up—enter and leave the scene, carrying papers and thermoses, pushing office chairs, tapping on keyboards. The reader is soon surprised to find his busybody officemates contributing words spoken by Fitzgerald’s characters to his increasingly impassioned and acrobatic recital, which doesn’t stop until he reaches the novel’s famous closing lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This, in a nutshell, is Gatz (Gatsby), an audacious six-and-one-half-hour theatrical event created by the New York-based ensemble Elevator Repair Service under the direction of John Collins '91. The show, which has been presented both as one single performance and in two three-hour installments, will tour Europe next year before going up at the New York Public Theater next fall, pending final approval by the Fitzgerald estate.
Reading an entire book onstage is but the latest innovation for Collins, who moved to New York and founded ERS after his graduation. At Yale, he once directed an offbeat Alice in Wonderland in a 9-by-100-foot room in the steam tunnels under the Pierson College dining hall. He also became obsessed with the Wooster Group, a legendary New York experimental theater ensemble. “They had people naked on video screens, people talking over each other,” says Collins. “It was all so wonderfully integrated. You had to look at it the way you look at visual art. It was then I realized you didn’t have to build a work for theater directly from a play script.”
Elevator Repair Service created its early pieces by improvising events around physical objects: “a long cardboard tube, random chairs, a wooden box we ended up building a show around, folding partitions we found a way to use in every show we did for five years.” But after producing a body of work that has been praised for its inventiveness and live power (New York magazine called ERS “the best experimental theater group in town”), Collins returned to literature in 2004 with Gatz.
“We had done a piece about Andy Kaufman, and one of his stunts was to take out The Great Gatsby and just read it,” Collins says. At the suggestion of another ERS director, Steve Bodow '89, the company began to discuss making a piece about Gatsby. Gatz was born when they decided to let Fitzgerald’s work speak for itself—verbatim and unabridged. “We wanted to look at the form of the novel,” Collins says. “The greatness of the book is the writing—it’s not great because it’s this tale of the twenties.”
When ERS held private showings of Gatz, Collins says, he was “terrified about people being bored and uncomfortable. For the audience, it was an act of faith—would they let their experience be shaped by the novel rather than their expectations of a theater piece?”
Collins needn’t have feared. Preview audiences have stayed put, riveted by the unfolding story. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, says she admired the way the piece caught her off guard: “I liked that he snuck into it, he came into the material through a side door. The piece was additive, a steady incline up a mountain, constantly adding more ideas. And the acting style went from Jon Stewart-satire mode to deep emotional recall.”
“I’ve always seen live performance as something inherently awkward, and inherently broken in a beautiful way,” Collins says. “Whatever you put through that filter will come out marked up and scarred. Fitzgerald’s writing is challenged by being attached to movement and voices. But by the end, the theater has been blown away by the writing.”
Forget the garret. Today, American writers of fiction and poetry train in graduate creative writing programs. According to Leslie Epstein '60, director of the creative writing program at Boston University, “There are no primitives in fiction or poetry. Every single writer has been taught—if not by a mentor or a school, than by those writers who have come before them.”
The program with greatest name recognition is the Iowa Writers' Workshop, established at the University of Iowa in 1936. Admission is highly competitive: typically, fewer than 5 percent of applicants win a spot. Longtime workshop director Frank Conroy died in April 2005; Lan Samantha Chang '87, a 1993 graduate of the program and author of a story collection and a novel, was appointed to replace him. Chang, who starts her new job in January 2006, spoke with Natalie Danford '88 about educating writers.
Y: Frank Conroy ran the workshop for 18 years. How will your styles compare ?
C: Frank took writing very seriously. As director I plan to continue emphasizing the importance of writers and writing—more than other aspects of a writer’s life that might include commerce or promotion.
Y: You’re the first woman and the first Asian American to serve as director. Do you think that’s significant?
C: I do. It shows that the face of American literature is changing, that the house of American literature is bigger than it used to be. When I began to publish, editors wrote to me asking if I would produce a “Chinese-American mother-daughter story” reminiscent of Amy Tan. At that time, aside from Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, few Asian American writers were known to the general reading public. Today there are scores of them, from all parts of Asia, and they write about anything they want.
Y: Did Yale influence you as a writer?
C: I did not study writing at Yale, but I had a powerful experience at the Yale Daily News, where I was co-managing editor. I became highly aware there that language was very important and that every word counted. I wandered into 202 York Street in October of my freshman year and witnessed an extremely loud, hilarious shouting match between Daniel Froomkin ['85, now at washingtonpost.com] and someone else. I was instantly hooked. I didn’t really leave the building for four years, it seems, except to attend—sometimes sporadically—my classes, or to go out to Mamoun’s at two in the morning after we'd put the paper to bed.
Y: You once planned to become a dermatologist. What was your trajectory from that to writing fiction?
C: I wrote in my Yale application that I wanted to be a dermatologist—I had once had a rash. This presumption was eliminated after a couple weeks of freshman chemistry. My immigrant parents wanted me to pursue a “secure” profession, and so I wandered through economics classes, a law school deferral, and the Kennedy School of Government before I finally acknowledged to myself that I had no particular desire to do anything except write.
Y: What is the purpose of writing school?
C: What people get most out of creative writing programs is the introduction to wonderful peers who become their writing community for the rest of their lives. Also, the world is stacked against writing. We’re encouraged to spend time doing work that produces money instantly, or at least regularly or reliably. As a graduate student in writing, you have two or three years to be with like-minded people and to focus on what you love to do.
Keeping Katherine: A Mother’s Journey to Acceptance
Susan Zimmermann ’76JD
Three Rivers Press, $13
Despite all of the media hype surrounding motherhood and “mommy lit,” considerably less attention has been paid to parents who have raised developmentally delayed or disabled children. Quite a few writers have produced memoirs of this experience, Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic (1998) and Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy (2003) among them. The latest offering in this field, Keeping Katherine, describes a mother’s struggle to love a child who will never feed herself, never grow out of diapers, and never speak. Susan Zimmermann exhibits honesty and compassion as she sorts through the jumble of emotions stirred up by her daughter’s disability. The result is a moving tribute to her daughter and an eloquent testimony to the author’s inner resources.
Katherine’s story is a parent’s worst nightmare. Born a healthy and bright-eyed infant, she develops at a normal rate until she is eleven months old, when she inexplicably begins to regress. She stops speaking and starts chewing her hands; her eyes cross; she becomes listless and unresponsive. Zimmermann fears that her daughter’s mysterious illness was caused by a drink of unfiltered mountain stream water, but medical tests remain inconclusive. (Years later, she will discover that her daughter suffers from Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder found primarily in females.) Confused and desperate, she and her husband seek out physical and speech therapists, special education teachers, nutritionists, and even a faith healer. At last they turn to the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, a Philadelphia organization that works with brain-injured children. They enlist the aid of dozens of friends to help with several daily sessions of “patterning,” an intensive, repetition-based program in which they move Katherine’s limbs through the motions of crawling, again and again, in an attempt to reprogram her brain and jump-start her development.
Three years later, Zimmermann reluctantly faces a difficult truth: despite all their work, Katherine has not improved. Zimmermann is overwhelmed by feelings of failure. What ensues is a mother’s struggle to accept her daughter as she is, to let go of any hope that her child will somehow come back. The author discovers that she does not know how to do this: “Once the fixing stopped, I didn’t know how to have a relationship with her. I could care for her, but I couldn’t simply be with her.” What should she do with a child who doesn’t fit into the “normal” world of school and after-school activities, who cannot play with her younger siblings, who cannot even answer her mother?
Slowly, Zimmermann acknowledges her deep grief and despair. Writing enables her to view her sorrow as “a story, one story among billions"; physical challenges in the outdoors enable her to reflect on the challenges presented by her daughter as well as her own process of growth. She learns from close friends who unstintingly give love to Katherine, many of whom feel grateful for the time they spend with her. The author feels her own center of gravity shifting. Gradually, she learns how to hold her daughter and “ask nothing more of her, to hear her silent speech and love her for it.” It is a love disentangled from her own desires, a love “not based on the fulfillment of dreams.”
Notwithstanding its elements of horror, Keeping Katherine is ultimately a book about “writing through grief.” Toward this end, the author tells her story simply and gracefully. Interspersing the chronological narrative with passages of meditation and pictures of her family, she crafts an account that reflects the “silent speech” of her daughter and of her own interior transformation. Any attempt to find meaning in a life such as Katherine’s runs the risk of straying into false sentimentality and easy cliché, but Zimmermann manages to steer clear of those rocky shoals. By refusing to ignore her pain, she learns to embrace what she could not have seen, much less understood, before Katherine.
Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story
Said Hyder Akbar ’07 and Susan Burton ’95
The first thing that you’ve got to understand about Said Hyder Akbar, author of Come Back to Afghanistan, is that he is a junior at Yale. While most of his classmates were worrying about the challenges of writing a senior essay, or perhaps just going out for pizza at Naples, Akbar, with his co-author, was busy completing a 320-page nonfiction book that chronicles his adventures through war-torn Afghanistan. Wrap your head around that.
Akbar comes from a family of Afghani refugees who fled their homeland shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The family escaped to Peshawar, Pakistan, but eventually moved on to the United States and settled down in the suburbs of San Francisco, where Akbar spent his youth playing video games, eating Domino’s pizza, and listening to U2. Akbar claims that, deep down, he never felt completely at ease in this life—as if some core part of him was better suited for another time or place. “I often feel as if I was born a generation too late,” he writes early in the book. “I missed both the jihad and the Joshua Tree tour.”
More than anything else, Akbar felt a yearning to return to his ancestral homeland, and ultimately the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan paved the way. Not long after the Taliban’s fall from power, Akbar’s father, Said Fazel Akbar, telephoned an old friend by the name of Hamid Karzai and inquired about the possibility of moving back to help form a new government. This proved to be a fateful phone call. Karzai went on to become the new president of Afghanistan, and Said Fazel Akbar became his chief spokesman.
Meanwhile, back in California, the younger Akbar was busy trying to lose weight. The future Yalie was on the chubby side, and his father had offered him the following deal: Lose some weight and you can spend the summer with me in Afghanistan. Akbar shed 65 pounds and then caught an arduous series of flights to Kabul.
All told, the young Akbar spent three consecutive summer “vacations” living with his father in Afghanistan, and his book is a recounting of their adventures together. By sticking close to his father, Akbar got a first-hand glimpse into the inner workings of Afghani politics. He walked freely about the Presidential Palace, attended the loya jirga -- the grand council convened to select a new government—and mingled casually with warlords, mullahs, and heavily armed body guards. He captured many of these encounters on a tape recorder, which he took with him almost everywhere he went. Before leaving on his trip, Akbar had befriended Susan Burton, a former editor at Harper's and a producer at the radio show This American Life, which aired several of Akbar’s on-the-scene commentaries. Akbar established himself as Kabul’s premier teenage correspondent, and together, Akbar and Burton have now produced this book.
Akbar’s classically Californian Hey dude! demeanor is often comical and entertaining within the incongruous setting of Afghanistan’s halls of power. Upon visiting the Presidential Palace for the first time, he writes: “This is like Lollapalooza, I decide—like going backstage and getting to meet all of the rock stars. Lollapalooza." To his credit, he knows how odd the juxtaposition is. On another occasion he writes: “My perspective is all askew. I actually catch myself thinking: Kabul’s tight, man."
Some of the prose and keen observations in the book rival Jon Lee Anderson’s The Lion’s Grave or Tony Horwitz’s Baghdad without a Map. In Kabul, for example, Akbar notices that rookie policemen, fresh from the Afghani countryside, are directing traffic as they mutter, "Usha, Usha." This, he explains, is what a farmer would typically say to an ox to slow it down. These policemen have no idea how to direct cars: “Imagine an old-time cowboy trying to make the merging cars on the Los Angeles freeway do his bidding with whoops and hollers.”
Akbar has a keen reporter’s ear for Afghani culture. Here he is on the vague manner in which Afghanis keep track of time and age: “If you ask someone his age, you’re in line for an exchange like: Hmm, let’s see—well, my beard started growing just as I began fighting the Soviets. And when was that? Well, right around the time we got the Stinger [missiles]. So then you calculate: the Stingers arrived in 1986, at which time his beard was coming in, making him, let’s say 16 then, so 33 now.”
During Akbar’s second summer in Afghanistan, his father becomes the governor of a province called Kunar, and he travels there to join his dad. The book’s most disturbing and riveting accounts of life in Afghanistan are set in Kunar. At one point, Akbar interviews the survivors of a brutal massacre in which more than a thousand people were killed.
At another point, he becomes embroiled in a dicey affair on a U.S. military base where several intelligence officers use him as translator as they interrogate a suspected insurgent. As the situation becomes more and more heated, one of the interrogators begins to lose his temper, and Akbar refuses to go on translating. Days later, the insurgent, still in captivity, dies under suspicious circumstances. When the U.S. Department of Justice gets involved, Akbar ends up helping them in their investigation. Akbar reflects on this episode with such sobriety and maturity that I often found myself forgetting that he was just a teenager, in way over his head.
Overall, Come Back to Afghanistan is a very gripping read. The book’s one rather irksome flaw is that it’s about a hundred pages too long. Interspersed with all of Akbar’s fascinating anecdotes and colorful insights are far too many comparatively banal descriptions of days spent with obscure acquaintances at hotels, in airplanes, and on bumpy car rides. On this count, I don’t even blame Akbar and Burton; this is something that the editors at Bloomsbury should have fixed.
This small criticism aside, it has to be said that the courage, reporting skill, and sheer drive that it must have taken to write this book would be noteworthy under any circumstances. Akbar seems unaware of what he has accomplished. In fact, throughout his book, he expresses the hope that someday he will make a significant contribution to his beloved homeland. Little does he know: he already has.
The Essence of Style
Joan DeJean ’74PhD
Free Press, $25
Champagne for a celebration? Spike-heeled mules for sex appeal? Creme brulee for a fancy dessert? These and other time-honored customs had their beginnings in 17th-century France. DeJean, an expert in the literature, history, and culture of the reign of Louis XIV, chronicles with elan the origins of “living luxe” during a time that gave rise to styles we continue to find compelling.
Attention Deficit Disorder
Thomas E. Brown '68BD, '76PhD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine
Yale University Press, $27.50
For seven to nine percent of the world’s population—adults as well as children—the critical act of paying attention is often impossible. Dr. Brown, who has treated sufferers of attention deficit disorder for more than 20 years, separates myth from reality in this thorough account of the biology and treatment of ADD.
Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington
Vivian Perlis, director, Oral History, American Music; and Libby Van Cleve '87MusM, '92MusAD, associate director
Yale University Press, $50
Eubie Blake, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and others recall their careers in this history of early twentieth-century music. Many of the stories, now part of Yale’s OHAM archive, are on the CDs that accompany the book.
Yoga in Bed
Edward Vilga ’85
Running Press, $14.95
“Each morning and every night, you’re already exactly where you need to be to practice yoga,” says Edward Vilga, who teaches courses in the ancient Eastern philosophy of meditation in motion. The book demonstrates gentle ways to invigorate the day and wind down at bedtime, including the “alarm clock rock” and the “nighttime goddess stretch.” (For the perplexed, a companion DVD provides further training.)
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New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing
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Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith
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A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
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