Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Vonnegut foresee Donald Trump's false-idol campaign way back in 1961?

I devoured about a dozen Kurt Vonnegut books when I was a teenager, and they were worldview forming towards my lifelong love of science fiction, political commentary, international relations, and just plain sociology.

Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Slapstick are just a few of the best books ever written, and two of Vonnegut's books, Welcome to the Monkey House and Breakfast of Champions, even made my all-time top 60 novels list. And don't forget Harrison Bergeron, easily one of the greatest short stories, period.

Somehow I had missed his 1961 novel Mother Night, written in a very fertile part of his early career, and it stands up very well amongst both his greatest works as well as the test of time.

The layered tale is all about American Howard W. Campbell Jr., who begins the story from an Israeli prison and ends it there as well. He is recruited to be a Nazi spy and goes on to great infamy as a major radio voice in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. Because he is a spy, he is able to escape the post-war Nazi trials and live the rest of his days in anonymity in New York City. He is visited by white supremecists who idolize him, and there isn't a ton of humor in this book, by Vonnegut standards, but the story of the supremacist dentist is among the funniest moments in Mother Night.

Howard had lived a rich love life before the collapse of Germany as well, and a woman calling herself his former wife Helga also visits New York to give him a brief respite of happiness in his old age. Then all goes wrong and he ends up turning himself in. Spoiler alert: the novel does not end well for Howard in that Israeli jail.

Even though Howard is a surprisingly sympathetic character through much of the tale, the moral is that who you pretend to be is who you actually are. Howard tried to hide behind his American spy status, but he truly said horrendous things over the air during the war that make it difficult to forgive him.

Mother Night is a quick read and pretty perfect for these times, when it remains too early to tell, before Donald Trump assumes the American throne, whether certain groups of people will be rounded up and deported or worse. Even if Trump never does all the ruthless and mean things he promised during his campaign, he will never be able to fully run away from who he pretended to be simply for the sake of beating his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Syria gets a much-needed closer look in Woolly Mammoth's Kiss

The first thing I loved about Woolly Mammoth's recent production of Kiss was the fact that I didn't read the playbill before watching the show.

That kept me guessing for several minutes in the middle of playwright Guillermo Calderon's play that the actors really were Skyping Syria to find out how life was going for the alleged writer of the play. When the translator left the screen, I caught on, but it made things about as current-event-y as could possibly be.

I feel like the world doesn't know nearly enough about the absolute destruction happening in a place I remember friends and family having told me about enjoying traveling throughout - beautiful plains, deserts, and mountains - in the past. Dictator Bashar Al-Assad has laid waste to the place in just a few short years, and the play does its best to help us understand just how awful life has turned there.

The story begins with a group of fairly average and superficial friends who are in the process of falling out of love with their chosen mates and into love with others in their tight circle. It's a funny and entertaining story, and something the audience would not expect from a night at the theater about Syria.

But then the play breaks and the excellent Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (as a Faye Dunaway-like soap-opera star) quickly informs the audience that she's the director (she isn't) and the cast Skypes Syria to speak for the "first time" with the writer, who is holed up in a very sad and scary situation. The rest of Kiss brilliantly redoes the play as life very well could actually be in today's Syria. They blaze through the soapy elements with a focus on death and sniping and the all-out destructiveness that we all hear about in the news each day.

We've been so numbed by all the bad news from Damascus and Aleppo and many points in between that we can't even digest how this might be the worst of all wars on the planet right now and at least partially a result of our country's confused and directionless war against terrorism.

Tim Getman, Shannon Dorsey, and Joe Mallon are the other key players in this masterpiece collision of the arts and current events. Let's hope it continues to be performed in places throughout the country and has some effect on the ways we can all help our fellow humans in a place that truly needs it now more than ever.

What the theater should be in the 2010s.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 25, 2016

Best Magazine Reads: Rhinos all but extinct, will have to rely on the Ted Williams method

In my various trips in the past on safari in Africa, I tend to get very emotional and attached to the magnificent animals we come across. I could watch any animals, from hyenas to elephants, for hours on end if my friends, family, and tour guides would let me.

One of those obviously on the most amazing end is the northern white rhino. I'm not sure if I've ever actually seen one in the wild, but as a GQ article in the November 2016 issue details, it's unlikely. There are now three left in the world. They live in a protected reserve in Congo and are led by a grandfather who's too old and frail to reproduce.

And even if he could, he would have to do so with his daughter or his granddaughter, the only other two white rhinos in existence. The article, by Zack Baron, offers a slim hope that extinction doesn't have to be forever. There's a facility, dubbed "the resurrection zoo," outside of San Diego that stores frozen strains of endangered animals, including the white rhino. The article outlines the somewhat murky plans of the operators for bringing dozens of animals back to life after they've disappeared from the planet.

It all sounds a lot like the animal version of baseball legend Ted Williams at his cryogenic facility, but at least there's a little hope. And, for the people who continue to kill Africa's glorious animals in the name of commerce, just stop it already!