1. I attended an outstanding group reading last night at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho. The theme was Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and the event was sponsored by a group called Seeds of Peace. The event began with a bang when Leora Skolkin-Smith read a surprising personal document, a passionate love letter an anonymous Muslim teenager in Beirut had written to her Jerusalemite Jewish mother in the 1930’s. These readers were intent on breaking down the idea that Jews and Muslims cannot co-exist, and one touching, revealing story after another was offered by Diana Abu-Jaber, Edith Chavet, David Gates, Nathalie Handal, Bernice L. McFadden, Evelyn Shakir, Cathy Sultan and many others. Two moments stand out in my memory: first, a mild-mannered woman named Helen Englehardt told us of her husband’s death in a terrorist hijacking, which resulted in a moving friendship with an angry Palestinian neighbor who found in her story a metaphor for his own crisis. Ms. Englehardt began embodying the voice and body language of this neighbor, captivating the audience with her improbable and persuasive tale.
And, Katharine Weber, author of the superb novel Triangle, held down the evening’s anchor spot with a stunning rendition of the last pages of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Weber is a powerful reader, and the large crowd at the bookstore was ready to storm some barricades and find some walls to tear down by the time she slammed the Trumbo book shut. But this was Soho, so we had wine and cheese instead. This was an inspiring event, and a damn good idea.
2. The supersonically satiric George Saunders has won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Once again, moans of “why not me” are now rising into the nighttime sky of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Brooklyn Heights. (By the way, why the hell not me?).
The Macarthur Grant is an unusual prize in that one cannot apply for it. One is simply “chosen”, which lends the award a certain aura of majestic inevitability. Our opinion on Saunders’ apotheosis? Well, Genius is a big word, but Saunders is just original enough to make the cut. If I could award this prize to anybody, Nicholson Baker would be living large very soon.
3. Lev Grossman and Ed Champion are finally duking it out on the back page of this week’s Time Magazine. I’m happy to say I know both men (though I haven’t run into Lev for years) and it happens they’re really just two swell guys.