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Fall 2008
Volume 13, Number 1

Jim Shepard Introduction
by Edward Schwarzschild

So, have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time working on-board the 804 foot-long, hydrogen filled Zeppelin Hindenburg, gay and completely in love in the spring of 1937?  Or maybe you're a baseball fan who longs to know what it would be like to stand at the plate in Cuba in 1951 and try to hit a high tight fastball windmilled right at you by Fidel Castro.  You could be a devout rock and roller yearning to better understand the secret, frustrating, lovelorn life of The Who's bassist, John Enwhistle, aka the Ox.  Maybe it's something else entirely.  Maybe you want to know what John Ashcroft really thinks or how you might be treated by the Creature from the Black Lagoon or what it's like to make a classic vampire film or what kind of poem your dog would write or why it might be difficult to be the first female Cosmonaut?  In each of these cases, in nearly every case, please rest assured, our guest tonight can answer all of your questions.

And, even if he doesn't know the answer, I'm absolutely certain he can make something up.

Jim Shepard is, after all, one of the most imaginative, astonishing, accomplished writers working today.  He's published six extraordinary novels, including Paper Doll, Nosferatu and Project X  as well as three fantastic books of stories, most recently the collection called Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the 2008 Story Prize, the pre-eminent award for short fiction.  The author Daniel Handler, whom you might know better as Lemony Snicket, rightly pointed out, on the front page of the NY Times Book Review, that Shepard's exceptional work reminds us of "the power of the short story itself, [how it's] forged from the world with a sharp eye and a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader."

Without a doubt, part of the great delight we feel when we read Shepard's stories and novels comes from how far and wide he lets his imagination roam (though he himself lives right nearby, in pastoral, cosmonaut/zeppelin/vampire-free Williamstown, where he's a distinguished professor at Williams College).  And yet, another extremely powerful part of the delight Shepard offers us comes from his always insightful and moving explorations of love and loss.  No matter what locale or what time period, we find in Shepard's books friends, co-workers, teachers and students, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children struggling to know, understand, and care for each other in a troubled and troubling world.  Early in his third novel, Lights out in the Reptile House, a father is speaking with his recalcitrant 15 year old son.  "Why are you afraid of me?" he asks.  And then, after a time, he adds, "I'm the one who should be afraid of you."  Like so much of Shepard's fiction, such lines suggest the fear and wonder that tend to accompany the powerful, mysterious force we call love.

I've referred a few times already to the Zeppelin, that graceful yet lumbering, lighter than air form of travel--rumored, by the way, to be on the verge of a comeback.  But I'd like to conclude by saying just a few more words about the miracle of flight and how it seems to inspire Shepard.  In his earliest writing and ever since, Shepard repeatedly takes us aloft—as pilots, divers, astronauts, passengers, and more.  In his fifth novel, Nosferatu, it's in flight that a young man is transformed into an artist; from above, as a fighter pilot, he sees the world differently and he returns to earth destined to become one of history's most famous filmmakers.  Here's Shepard's description of that moment of inspiration: "His experience in the Air Corps had exploded his old homogeneity of vision.  From that day onward, he would be free of human immobility…He would approach and draw away from things—rising up as if with aircraft—to fall and fly at one with bodies falling rising through the air.  He would re-create those moments of extraordinary power: the freeze of the dive-wind on their faces; the constant swallowing, at altitude, to stop the deafness; the smell of the varnish; the moonlight shining in their struts; the stars between their wings."

After the experience of reading Shepard's fiction, when we return to the ground of our daily lives, we may not become filmmakers, we may not become artists, but we do, invariably, return more aware of the myriad forms of beauty that surround us; we return from Jim Shepard's pages feeling changed, improved, enlightened, and truly uplifted.  Also, always, eager to read more.

Edward Schwarzschild is a professor in UAlbany’s English Department and the author of the novel Responsible Men and the story collection The Family Diamond.

Desire Doesn't Fade with Age
by Susan Comninos
| Special to the Times Union | First Published Sunday, September 21, 2008

To four-time author Kate Christensen, when one of her novels ceases to be a draft on her computer screen and arrives in bookstores, it feels as if she's sent a kid off to college. "I hope they like him," she says of her recent book, "The Great Man," as if it were an 18-year-old she's just dropped off at the freshmen dorm. She adds, "I hope he gets a nice roommate."

The student analogy is an apt one. Within days, Christensen — author of the previous novels "In the Drink," "Jeremy Thrane" and "The Epicure's Lament" — is to appear at the University at Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute 2008 Visiting Writers Series. On Tuesday, she'll discuss her craft and read from "The Great Man" (Doubleday, 2007), winner of this year's PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction — presumably before a youth-filled audience. She appears on a double-bill with fellow novelist Valerie Martin — author of "Mary Reilly" (1990) and "Trespass" (2007), among others.
What makes the scenario intriguing is that "The Great Man" doesn't treat coeds on the cusp of adulthood. Instead, it turns on four women in their 70s and 80s who've been left adrift by the death of a charismatic and selfish male artist that they all — if grudgingly — admired.

Oscar Feldman was a celebrated painter of women's portraits and a lightening rod for the longings of those closest to him: Teddy, his mistress; Abigail, his wife; Maxine, his sister; and Lila, Teddy's best friend. As an unfettered lover, a straying husband, a self-immersed sibling and a successful artist, Oscar represented to each a version of herself that wasn't thwarted, but instead got the rewards and recognition she wanted.

It's only after Oscar's death that Teddy and Lila find equitable romances, Maxine receives full acclaim as a painter, and Abigail creates an identity for herself that's independent from Oscar.
But why have the four been so stymied?

That part of the tale rests on their coming of age in the pre-1970s, before the women's movement and the push for equal rights. But the author lavishes less time on reasons for their collective frustration than she does on showing them moving forward to realize their dreams — however late in life.

The theme of her novel is that the most passionate needs, feelings and desires don't have to fade with age, even if society fails to acknowledge it. The idea for a book that would show that arose in two ways, the author says.

"I hadn't really read about a lot of older women who had libidos and unfulfilled yearnings and took center stage in a novel," Christensen, 46, explains. And that gap in fiction about older women, and their inner workings, ran counter to what she knew of her own grandmother.

"At 93, she didn't see her life as tied up with a bow; she was still very much living," she says. "So many older women in novels, they're looking back, and it's as if there's some sort of moat separating them from life."

Christensen's mother, Lizzie — to whom the book is dedicated — also inspired her to write "The Great Man."

"My mother, who's now in her 70s, fell madly in love, at 65. We're very close, so I got to hear all about it. In the process, I realized that she, in her romantic passion, was not so different from me, when I was 25," the author says. "It gave me hope for the aging process. Your body may age, but your emotions and yearning remain the same."

Susan Comninos is a freelance writer living in Niskayuna. She regularly covers books and authors for a number of national newspapers.
Author appearances

Who: Novelists Kate Christensen and Valerie Martin
Where: University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany
When: Tuesday
Seminar: 4:15 p.m., Standish Room, Science Library
Reading: 8 p.m., Assembly Hall, Campus Center
Info: New York State Writers Institute, 442-5620; https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/

Andre Dubus Introduction

Most of us know tonight’s guest from his wildly successful 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog, which not only garnered a huge readership with a richly deserved boost from Oprah’s Book Club but also had the good fortune to emerge from Hollywood in the form of a stunning film with Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.  In praising that film, Roger Ebert noted its rare quality of not taking sides, its distribution of sympathy in equal measure to its warring characters—and also made the point that in Hollywood the pressure to cheapen and simplify for commercial reasons is fierce and usually mitigates in favor of the audience-pleasing sentimental ending  over honesty and balance.  Ebert exulted that the film stands, in his words, “with integrity and breaks our hearts.”   The odds do tend to be stacked against novels that become grist for the Hollywood mill so it is certainly a cause for celebration when artists like Vadim Perelman and Andre Dubus actively collaborate to preserve and enhance the complexity, story-telling vigor, vivid characterizations, and the full impact of a brilliant story arc—all original properties of the writing that so often evaporate.  In House of Sand and Fog, these qualities are as apparent to the filmgoer as they were to the reader.  The distinctiveness of our guest’s storytelling, it seems to me, is in the territory Ebert touched on:  balance, an honest portrayal of conflict, or to put it another way, Mr. Dubus’s willingness look into the abyss and tell stories that gaze unflinchingly on a world whose denizens face bleakly impossible choices.  To make things worse, they are distracted from productive consideration of their choices by economic necessity, corporal desire, and tantalizingly ambiguous societal values.   In masterfully-crafted and relentlessly escalating plots that keep us turning pages compulsively, these characters struggle, s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e, capital “S” boldfaced and underlined.   They are heroic in these struggles despite the circumstances that make them as unlikely to grasp the carrot of the American dream that dangles in front of them as they are to wind up on dinner invitation lists on the upper East-side.  And we cannot resist them because they are loved by their author and their struggle is in some measure also our own.  In a culture that smoothly preaches and postures about diversity they remind us just how narrow our daily interactions with our fellow humans really are and in so doing give readers the great gift of a changed and more humane perspective. 

Andre Dubus’s new novel, The Garden of Last Days, exhibits all of these felicities and more as it cleverly uses the backdrop of the 9/11 catastrophe to frame a complex tale of intertwined lives that seems at once both familiar and mysterious.  In the last seven years we have as a society grieved the victims, pondered the source of this catastrophe, analyzed the participants, thought about the engineering of the twin towers, agonized over our own hubris, demonized some who resemble the perpetrators, in short, have behaved the way we are programmed to behave in the face of incomprehensible and threatening events.  We are uneasy in our inability to resolve these events into an acceptable narrative.  This uneasy feeling of the proximity of mysterious danger pervades the novel and creates an eerie correlative between our experience of the story and the experience of living in the post-9/11 world.  The honesty of the story-telling in refusing us easy answers likewise makes the reading an extension and enhancement of living in our world rather than a comfortable escape from it.  Like us, Mr. Dubus’s deeply troubled and afflicted characters try to balance the distracting claims of daily life with their hopes and dreams of a better future.  They attempt to simultaneously confront the present need to pay the rent and their need to imagine and grasp a future life better than that they know.  Like us, their knowledge is limited and they make mistakes.  Unlike us, their story has a perceivable beginning and end that we as readers can use as a measure of the maddening proximity of our lives to incomprehensible events of staggering magnitude, and the fragile human fabric that in an instant of choice condemns us or blesses us or both.   We can only hope that there is a force in the universe with as much compassion for us as our guest shows for his characters, cut off as they are from sustaining value, nurturing relationships, economic prosperity and social justice.  In a world of despair they manufacture hope.  His ability to inhabit these characters and inspire our sympathetic interest is a feat of writing skill worthy of the highest praise.  Given the precise and specific craft that informs his characters I was not surprised to learn that he is an accomplished actor in another part of his varied and rich experience.

Mr. Dubus is also the author of the fine novel Bluesman, and The Cage Keeper and Other Stories.  House of Sand and Fog was a National Book Award finalist and his stories have been winners of the Pushcart Prize and the National Magazine Award for Fiction.  They have also received the distinction of placement in many yearly collections of the best short stories.    Please welcome the Writers Institute’s first guest of the 2008 season, Andre Dubus, III.

Langdon Brown
September 16, 2008

Paul J. Stekler: Political Filmmaking
By John Warren

Paul J. Stekler PhD is a nationally recognized documentary filmmaker and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Communication where he heads the production program in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. Although known primarily in filmmaking circles for his grassroots oriented political films, he is perhaps best known by the under thirty general public as the on-camera film adviser to the cast of "The Real World Austin" during their attempt to create a documentary about the South by Southwest Music Festival (2005-2006). The winner of two Peabody and three national Emmy awards, his more recent work has taken a musical turn with films about Townes Van Zandt and Woody Guthrie. He is currently working on a look at the historic 2008 presidential campaign for PBS's "Frontline."

Stekler's 1997 PBS Democracy Project film "Vote for Me: Politics in America" (winner of a Peabody) explores what it really takes to run for public office in the United States by chronicling the nation's political scene, including veterans of the Chicago machine, consultants creating negative ads in Alabama, and legislative arm-twisting on the floor of the Texas Statehouse. The film also follows Maggie Lauterer, a folksinger turned TV reporter as she learns the ropes of running her own campaign for congress. The Peabody committee called the documentary "a glimpse of our system that ultimately turns the surprising trick of making viewers more appreciative of and less cynical about the political process."

In 2000, Stekler received the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for the three-hour documentary for PBS's "American Experience" titled "George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire" which the New York Times called "a full-blown Shakespearean saga."  "Settin' the Woods on Fire" tracks the career of the four-time Alabama governor, four-time presidential candidate who served as a lighting rod for controversy over race issues for more than four decades. Stekler's film traces the rise of the firebrand politician from his roots in rural Alabama to the assassination attempt that suddenly transformed him.

Paul Stekler was nominated by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in 2004 for outstanding achievement in television writing for his work on the documentary film "Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style" which aired nationally on the PBS series "P.O.V." The film takes another behind-the-scenes look at politics - this time in Texas during the 2002 elections, which pitted President Bush's Lone Star state Republican Party against a historic multi-cultural Democratic ticket. The film received widespread acclaim from the Dallas Morning News, indieWIRE, New York Magazine, Variety, and the Washington Post.

Stekler's other award winning work for PBS includes "Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics"; two segments of the 1990 "Eyes on the Prize II" series about the history of civil rights; and the historical documentary "Last Stand at Little Big Horn."  Recently Stekler has served as host and executive producer of the statewide PBS television series, "Special Session," which covered issues and politics confronting the Texas State Legislature. His most recent films include "Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt" (2004) and "Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home" (2006). Stekler's latest film returns to his political roots. "The Choice 2008," which is scheduled to air on PBS in October, examines the rich personal and political biographies of Barack Obama and John McCain.

John Warren is a graduate student in UAlbany’s History Department. He blogs at www.newyorkhistoryblog.com.

COURTNEY HUNT: Courtney Hunt and Frozen River,
by John Warren

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Frozen River tells a riveting story of the smuggling culture near a Mohawk Indian Reservation on the border between the New York State and Quebec. Time magazine critic Richard Shickel has said "Frozen River gives about as truthful a picture of American bleakness as it's possible for a movie to present."

Facing minimum wage work, cash strapped working class single mom Ray (Melissa Leo; 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Homicide: Life on the Street) reluctantly teams with widowed Mohawk Indian mom (Misty Upham; Edge of America, Skins) to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States. Ray braves treacherous journeys in her Dodge Spirit across the frozen St. Lawrence River while eluding local police and border agents from both sides. While they both declare that each trip will be their last, one final run leads to a dramatic showdown.

Frozen River was shot in sub-zero weather in an active smuggling region of Northern New York in and around Plattsburgh, on Lake Champlain. The film's writer and director Courtney Hunt was recently awarded the Lena Sharpe Audience Award for Best Female Director, at the Seattle Film Festival.  Hunt is a graduate of the Columbia Film School (MFA); her thesis, Althea Faught, was a short film set during the American Civil War about a woman trapped in her house with her dying husband and the deadly swap she makes to fend off a rogue confederate. It was purchased by PBS and aired on American Playhouse. Hunt also holds a law degree from Northeastern University, where she studied civil rights and constitutional law. Frozen River is Hunt's feature directorial debut.

The film also features Charlie McDermott (The Ten), Oscar nominee Michael O'Keefe (The Great Santini, Michael Clayton, The Pledge), and Mark Boone, Jr. (Tree's Lounge, Batman Returns).  Frozen River was edited by Emmy nominee Kate Williams (Tree's Lounge, Interview, Empire Falls).

Since it's release in early August 2008, the film as so far found wide acclaim.  In addition to the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the film was selected for opening night of the New Directors / New Films program at New York's  Museum of Modern Art. It also won the Audience Award for Best Picture in the Provincetown Film Festival. Steve Ramos of indieWIRE called the film "independent moviemaking at its best; telling real-life, off the grid stories with compassion, skill and honesty."

John Warren is a graduate student in UAlbany’s History Department. He blogs at www.newyorkhistoryblog.com.

MUFFIE MYER and RONALD BLUMER: Documentary Filmmaking Team,
by John Warren

Middlemarch Films was founded in 1978 by Ellen Hovde (now retired) and Muffie Meyer. Over the past thirty years Middlemarch has produced more than one hundred films, many of them highly acclaimed. The company is now headed by Meyer and her husband Ronald Blumer, an award winning scriptwriter in his own right. Both Blumer and Meyer's work have won Emmy and Peabody awards.

Meyer's early credits include The Lords of Flatbush, starring Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler, and Groove Tube, starring Chevy Chase, a film precursor to Saturday Night Live. Meyer co-directed and co-edited Grey Gardens with the pioneering cinema verite documentarians David and Albert Maysles, and Ellen Hovde. Blumer's early work included a stint as John Grierson's assistant (Grierson coined the word "documentary film") and in 1975 he ran a workshop on Baffin Island in Canada's Northwest Territories teaching Inuit the techniques of television production. In 1978, as part of a Canadian Government aid project, he set up and trained film makers in video production techniques in Tunisia. Since then he has written/produced/or co-produced eighty documentary films and has served as Contributing Editor to the film magazines Take One, and Cinema Canada; he has also been film critic for the CBC.
Meyer (who usually produces and directs the team's films) and Blumer (who generally serves as writer and co-producer) have combined their extensive filmmaking experience to create a number of historical documentaries for PBS including The Crash of '29 and the six part Liberty! The American Revolution (winner of a 1998 Peabody Award), Benjamin Franklin (which won the Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Special in 2003), and most recently Alexander Hamilton, which premiered in 2007.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton use a mix of actor recreations and expert interviews to tell engaging stories about two of America's most intriguing early statesmen. The New York Times said that Benjamin Franklin "elevates itself above most television biographies by mixing the usual experts with actors who portray the central characters. The actors do nothing more than recite passages from letters and other documents of Franklin's day, but they do it with an ease that…feels completely natural."

The duos most recent work for PBS, Alexander Hamilton, is a two-hour portrait of one of America's most controversial founding fathers. A leading forces behind the Constitution and chief advocate for a strong central government, Hamilton helped rescue the federal government from insolvency after the Revolutionary War, created the first national bank, established the first national currency, and laid the ground work for Wall Street. The film explores how  Hamilton's fatal flaws of stubbornness, extreme candor, and arrogance led to scandal and his tragic death in the famous duel with Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton tells his remarkable story by switching between dramatic re-enactments and conversations with scholars; the role of Hamilton is played by Tony Award-winning actor Brian F. O'Byrne.

John Warren is a graduate student in UAlbany’s History Department. He blogs at www.newyorkhistoryblog.com.