Seattle Arts & Lectures talk of Laila Lalami. A year or so ago, I ushered for SAL for a couple of seasons. Then I changed my email address, so I didn't get the email for "ushers needed." But now I'm back on the email list again. I didn't know anything about Laila Lalami, but the description said she was from Morocco and she looks pretty glamorous in her author photo: heavy eyeliner, pretty face, black wavy hair. SAL happens at Benaroya Hall, the fancy new symphony building downtown with Chihuli and Starbucks, northwest bigshots, both in the lobby in the forms of a giant chandelier and a coffee stand. I arrived about 10 minutes ahead of the 6 pm scheduled usher arrival time, and bought a small cup of bitter, icky Starbucks coffee, finding no other option nearby. There was a gelato place across the street, but it was closing. Then I went back into the lobby where Elliott Bay Book Company had a table, and a woman I recognized from there who used to work at Red & Black Books Collective (a feminist bookstore that was on 15th Ave. in the eighties and nineties, but closed, followed in that location by another short-lived bookstore, Pages; now it's a funky dollar store full of made -in-China crap), named Karen. She recognized me too, and we re-introduced ourselves. She said she had read Lalami's short stories and her blog and that she was trilingual, speaking French, Arabic, and English. The table had other Moroccan-themed books by other authors, I noticed, but not Paul Bowles. Then, the ushers were called to order, and I went inside the big Benaroya auditorium with the others and we had a logistical meeting while Laila Lalami and the director of SAL practiced using the microphones on stage in front of the giant pipe organ. They sat in some armchairs and Lalami showed her slender stockinged legs. As far as I can tell, ushering at SAL is a piece of cake. There is some bureaucracy: before you begin your career as an usher, you have to attend an orientation run by Seattle Symphony volunteers who can be really uptight; then when you're working, you must sign in, wear a name badge, and deal with usher politics-- there was some whispering about rude emails from the office and mix-ups in scheduling. All I've ever done is stand in an aisle by the wall, which hardly anyone goes down, and keep the peons in the "main" section from venturing into the rows up front reserved for the "patrons." People seem to buy series tickets, so all the patrons have been there many times before and boldly stride to their front-and-center seats with no help from me, yet dutifully flashing their "P" marked tickets as they pass. The tickets are pretty expensive, $30 or thereabouts, I think (I tried to check the website, but now we're between seasons, so the info wasn't there), but the patrons pay even more and they're quite catered to with special receptions and "meet-and-greets". I was noticing how most of the audience literally had gray hair, which I have too. The program started with two school children reading horrendous poems. One was an 11 year-old girl, and the other was a tiny boy and both were quite fearless and cute. Then the SAL director came out and introduced Lalami and thanked a list of sponsors. Lalami's talk was about her experience as a journalist in Morocco right after college in her first job when she learned she was supposed to "keep her integrity" and take bribes as a matter of course. She later went to grad school in the U.S. and meanwhile Morocco got a new king who was supposed to be an improvement over the previous king, his father, but in reality there was a crackdown and imprisonment of journalists under the new monarch. She read a list of names of thirty imprisoned journalists. After the talk, there was a question period involving the armchairs and people asked Lalami how she dressed in Morocco. She said she dressed the same as here (which was very stylish and femme). We had Laila Lalami's novel in stock, Secret Son, so now I'm reading it. I'm enjoying it; it's a pretty character-based, straightforward story involving family drama: the narrator is a bastard "secret" son of a wealthy father and poor lower class woman who raises him, telling him his father is dead. The boy finds out the truth that he's sired by a rich businessman father, who, it turns out, never had a son, only an inferior daughter, and the son confronts him. (That's as far as I've gotten.) I like the scenes of the Casablanca slum; the run-down school full of social/political factions; the movie theatre, tea shops, streets. Plus, the narrator sounds like a hunk: blue eyes, black hair, aquiline nose.
Sean and I also saw Peter Carey read from his new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America at Elliott Bay Books. It was the first reading we've attended in their new space. The readings room is in the basement and noisy water pipes gurgled directly over Carey's head, so he incorporated many glares and exaggerated, but humored, reactions to the noise into his presentation. Carey explained that one of the influences on this book was his reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and that he understood de Tocqueville's concern about anyone being able to rule here. He mentioned the current decline in reading as evidence that "Culture is crap."
I've also finished several complete books! I read Plaintext (University of Arizona Press, 1994), essays by Nancy Mairs. These are a collection of personal essays written by a 40 year-old woman with MS who has been depressed and suicidal for much of her life, and who is a feminist. They were very honest and thoughtful; she admits at times to not liking her husband and child and saying she wouldn't raise her foster son if asked to do it again. The prose is clean and insightful. But much of it is a little too personal; a lot of going over teenage love affairs with excerpts from journals of the time: "I feel so inadequate, so small.... If something doesn't happen, I'll scream. I am so empty, so hungering. I know that deep within me lies something but I see it in comparison with the talents of others & it is so pitifully small." Yow.
Then I read a book of short stories by a young Vancouver writer, Nancy Lee, called Dead Girls (McClelland & Stuart, 2002). The stories were all linked in that they featured a backdrop of serial killings of street women.
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