Volume 4 of the Chronicles arrives: ‘Exhalation,’ Gallery 25’s Michele Sani, Miguel Molinar picks ‘Here Lies Love,’ and more
Welcome to the fourth volume of “The Quarantine Chronicles,” a compendium of items related to our extended relationship with the coronavirus. In this edition, I offer some of my pandemic picks in terms of books, original cast albums and streaming. Plus: I highlight Michele Sani of Gallery 25, whose virtual exhibition is one of my Top 20 cultural picks of the year; and check in with Miguel Molinar, another of my Top 20 picks. And scroll down to the end for a pandemic haircut.
Jump to more ‘Chronicles’ below
Don’t miss the first three volumes of ‘The Chronicles’
PART 2: WE CAN BE THANKFUL FOR BROADWAY, CELLISTS, ART POSTCARDS, MEG CLARK AND FORGETTING THE MUTE BUTTON
PART 3: IN PRAISE OF ‘BAND’S VISIT,’ HANFORD ACTORS GET SPOOKY, AND MY PANDEMIC HAIR AGREES TO A SIT-DOWN INTERVIEW
As always, to start things off, I have a personal report to offer:
From ‘Chernobyl’ to ‘Kim’s Convenience,’ I offer pandemic picks
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One of my favorite things to do is devour year-end “best books” list written by top critics. It always makes me so aware of just how much there is to read out there and how I’d better not waste any time! Rather than talk about books from 2020, however, I’m going to take a cue from the New Yorker, which asked some of its writers about the books — either new or old — they’d recommend. Here’s my list:
‘Midnight in Chernobyl,’ by Adam Higginbotham
In Pripyat, the company city that served the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the populace was low-key in the first hours after the fire and explosion that ended up changing the world. Higginbotham relates the story of an electrical assembly man who “spurned the beach that morning in favor of the roof of his apartment building, where he lay down on a rubber mat to sunbathe. He stayed up there for a while, and noticed that he began to tan right away.” His skin gave off a burning smell. At one point he came down for a break and seemed oddly excited and good humored, as if he’d been drinking. Who knew deadly doses of radiation could give you a buzz?
Higginbotham’s book — the basis for the HBO series, which I have not yet seen — is both a thriller, unfolding in crisp, pounding chapters of chronological detail, and an elegy, for the workers who died on the scene and soon after, and also for the millions across Ukraine and Europe who have grappled with the radioactive aftereffects. It’s also a sort of swan song, too, for the Soviet Union itself, which was already heading into the era of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, but whose decline and fall was no doubt accelerated by the Chernobyl disaster. I was riveted.
Why did the Chernobyl accident occur? Mostly because of design issues. The Soviets cut corners on safety and were so obsessed with meeting production quotas for energy that the fail-safe systems and redundancies that would have protected against disaster weren’t given much importance. (They would also have been much more expensive, which was, of course, a factor.) While the Soviet government tried to shift the blame to operator error, over the years it became generally known that it was the plant itself that caused the accident. Still, it is remarkable through Higginbotham’s reporting to learn of the dedication and sacrifice of the men who worked at the plant, almost all of whom ended up dying agonizing deaths. In a moment of crisis, they came forward, bathing themselves in radiation as they tried to contain the damage.
The overall impact was huge. Not only did Chernobyl help kill nuclear power, it exacerbated the decline of a superpower. The effects still remain today. The area around the plant is weirdly peaceful, like a refuge, but the eerie quality can’t be forgotten. A huge swath of Europe was impacted; Higginbotham notes that “three decades after the accident, half of the wild boar shot by hunters in the forests of the Czech Republic were still too radioactive for human consumption.”
Still, the Earth is resilient. I’m not so sure about the humans on it who are playing with fire in so many ways.
‘All the King’s Men,’ by Robert Penn Warren
We all have books on our Forever List: a title that is acclaimed and, by many accounts, revelatory, but one that you’ve never gotten around to reading. Given my pandemic schedule, I decided now was the time. This a pit bull of a book, one that locks its jaws on you and doesn’t give up. I’d heard for so many years it described as the quintessential American political novel, and I went in expecting something with a “Primary Colors” feeling of gamesmanship — the briskness of the modern campaign, the smell of constituent barbecues and chartered bus exhaust and Hampton Inns by the freeway. Instead, “All the King’s Men” is far more gothic in its sensibilities. It is dark, mystical, secretive. Warren’s prose burns with a hot, deliberate, beautiful intensity.
The King is Willie Stark, an elected governor of an unnamed Southern state in the years before World War II. The man, our narrator, is Jack Burden, a former political journalist who is there for Stark’s rise and is the fixer behind the scenes.
There were times that Warren’s writing is so gorgeously thick and titillating that it made just stop and gawk. Sometimes it’s a bit of pure description: Describing a hungover Stark attempting to rouse himself the next morning, Warren writes: “There was some kind of a sound inside, like an oboe blatting once deep inside a barrel of feathers.” Other times he purposefully lards up his word count in an excess of verbiage. (At one point he describes a character leaning far back in her chair: “sinking back like somebody who has fallen into deep water and clutches for a rope and seizes it and hangs on for a moment and loses the grip and tries again and doesn’t make it and knows it’s no use to try again.”) But there is method in his exuberance. The earnestness of his metaphors rescues and elevates them.
I can’t believe I waited this long to read this book.
‘Exhalation,’ by Ted Chiang
One thing I know I will take away from the pandemic is that I became a Ted Chiang groupie. I read two collections of his short stories — this one and “Arrival (Stories of Your Life)” — in the past two months and have been gobsmacked by Chiang’s fierce imagination, controlled writing style, scientific prowess (or at least the ability to make us think he has it) and ability to capture the tone and setting of a piece in just a few pages. This work has a sci-fi bent, but it isn’t all tales of the future. (In fact, one of his most powerful stories comes during the time of the Tower of Babel from the Bible. Another of it is set in the Victorian Era.) Some of it seems as if it could happen tomorrow in our own world.
Mostly, Chiang revels in the thorny issues that any kind of “progress” — or accepted societal norms — can invoke. One of my favorite stories is titled “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.” It posits a near-future world in which all our memories can be recorded and instantly accessed. It sounds, on the surface, a great leap forward. Just what towns did we visit on that Midwest trip we took five years ago? It’s all searchable.
But what happens when we realize we’ve been remembering things wrong? What will it do to grandpa’s fond stories of the past when he realizes he’s been embellishing them all these years? How about the effect on couples when arguments can be fact-checked?
The narrator tells of one of his earliest memories — playing on the living room rug, pushing toy cars around, while his grandmother worked at her sewing machine. She turned and smiled warmly. No photo or footage exists. He has long cherished that memory. It’s how his grandmother lives on for him, really. What if he could go back and discovered that her smile was perfunctory, that she was preoccupied? How would people be able to assign emotional weight to certain memories? How could one be truly nostalgic?
By the way: The story titled “Arrival” is, indeed, the basis of the popular 2015 film. Needless to say, it is so much deeper and brilliant than the original film that I almost gasped.
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ORIGINAL CAST ALBUMS
I’ve listened to a lot, that’s for sure. (Thanks, Apple Music.) I’m just going to give you my Top 3 discoveries from recent months:
‘Catch Me If You Can’
Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz are great in this snappy adaptation of the movie, but my greatest esteem is reserved for Kerry Butler’s aeronautically stunning performance of “Fly, Fly Away.” She’s always been one of my Broadway favorites, and with this song, she soars.
Once again, Aaron Tveit makes magic. (Notice a theme here?) The new Broadway musical is so fun to listen to while I write that sometimes I just want to stop and dance. My favorite song: Tveit scooping into the lyrics of “Shut Up and Raise Your Glass.” Music becomes motion.
‘Sunshine on Leith’
I’ve had this album by The Proclaimers forever, back from so many years ago when “500 Miles” captured the popular imagination. This cast recording reimagines the songs in lush, golden arrangements. (The thick Scottish brogues are still there. Come to think about it, this album is how I first learned there was such a thing as a Scottish separatist movement.) The title song is achingly beautiful, and the arrangement of “500 Miles” differs from the original enough to make it seem fresh and new.
. . . . . .
• Hurrah! A new season of “The Expanse” on Amazon Prime! Now if I can just keep my protomolecule plot lines straight.
• “Kim’s Convenience” on Netflix. This gentle-giant Canadian sitcom is a gem. I looked up yeobo. It’s Korean for “honey,” as in a term of endearment. That’s how I feel about this series.
• “Home” on Apple TV. It’s like a gape-at-the-beautiful-houses TV show meets a non-profit environmental organization’s glossy annual report. Each episode highlights not only a specific dwelling but a story of ambition, fortitude, connection to the land and most likely a very high heating bill. (Except for the India house, which is mostly outside.)
Michele Sani, painter and thinker, has faith in God, education and Gallery 25
It’s time for another installment of The Shelter Diaries, in which we check in with various Fresno-area arts folks (and former ones, too) and ask how they’re sheltering-and-placing.
Teacher and administrator. Painter and narrator. Michele Sani, the voice of Gallery 25’s virtual exhibition, “In the Cloud,” bridges different worlds. She does it with a decidedly artistic — and spiritual — flair.
Sani, the assistant head of school for academics at San Joaquin Memorial High School, infuses her art with her Catholic faith. In her painting “Caritas,” one of the highlights of the exhibition, you can make out the head and arms of the crucified Christ, complete with crown of thorns, visible under a scattering of shattered red glass. It is somber and plaintive. Yet there is a sense of a spiritual journey here. You can sense the exuberance with which she is traversing that road.
I put “In the Cloud” on my list of Top 20 cultural events of the year, and decided that Sani was a good artist to get to know.
Q: Back in the first days of the pandemic, was there a place in your home where you felt most comfortable — somewhere you could nest and feel safe? Describe it for me.
A: Because I work in a high school, and my husband works in a hospital, the beginning of the pandemic was less about nesting and more about feeling safe in our professional environments. We would “escape” to our cabin at Shaver Lake, and marvel at the folks gathering together, without masks, at The Hungry Hut, The Trading Post, and our other favorite places there.
Q: I’m intrigued that for many years you were a full-time English teacher with a robust artistic occupation on the side. How do you think the two complemented each other?
A: Literature, in all its forms, informs my art. As an English teacher, I am immersed in literature; as a teacher of written an oral rhetoric, I am forced to examine the economy of my own expression – written, spoken, and painted. My profession and my art have a perfectly symbiotic relationship. The challenge was always in making time to paint. All my nights, weekends, holidays, plane, train and car trips, family home and hotel stays were occupied with correcting essays. Bodies of work – paintings and multi-media – would be completed under the pressure to fulfill a commitment to a show at Gallery 25. This occurred about every four years.
Q: “In the Cloud” is a virtual exhibition. It’s set up a little differently from most online exhibitions: The gallery chose to make it as a video, which you narrate. Why?
A: Gallery 25 chose to have a narrated video to preserve our tradition of interaction with the viewing community. As a brick and mortar space, we hosted beautiful receptions in which guests could ask questions of the artists while enjoying wine and snacks. We hosted classes and lectures. Our mission has always been to educate and inspire, and who is really educated and inspired by a Power Point presentation? The narration and music encourage the viewer to slow down, hear and see, and think, as if she were conversing with one of the artists, wine in hand.
Q: Gallery 25 is so important to Fresno, yet it’s facing many challenges. The gallery closed its physical location (in the M Street Arts Complex) during the pandemic, but it wants to reopen. Why do you worry about its survival?
A: I worry about the survival of Gallery 25 because we have not been able to recruit young artists into our cooperative. As a cooperative gallery, each member has to be a handyman, docent, institutional officer, orator, historian, and diplomat. That’s on top of being an outstanding fine artist. Oh, and we pay dues. It’s harder than one might think to get such a commitment from a young artist in this tech driven world of immediate sensory gratification and fleeting allegiances. It takes true grit. Our members, in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, represent an endangered species: artists who sacrifice personal time and resources to maintain a legacy of fine art creation, education, and inspiration. Gallery 25 must survive in some form. You can testify to its significance.
Q: Let’s talk more about you and the creative process. How has your faith influenced your art?
A: My Catholic faith is the core of both the content and form of my art. There is nothing more worthy of representation than the history of western civilization as it is influenced by the fall and salvation of humanity. The intellectual tradition – the marriage of faith and reason – and the emotional conflict born of the violence of Christ’s Passion demands a balance of rhetorical precision and gut punch visuals that evade sentimentality. The Gospel message calls us to love God as He loves us, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This is a tall order, especially in this virus infected, politically fraught, racially tense and economically polarized society. I hope my work reflects the words of my modern literary hero, Flannery O’Connor: “…you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Q: At first glance, “Caritas” feels quite abstract, but then the figurative elements start to jump out at the viewer: the face of Jesus, the crown of thorns, the raised arms. Tell me about the title and what the piece means to you.
A: “Caritas” was the piece I contributed to our February 2020 show, “Love Is…” For many years, our February shows have embraced themes of love and eroticism. The term “caritas” literally means Christian love for mankind – charity. Christ’s passion is the ultimate act of caritas. Considering my limitations – space and time – the piece has that rhetorical and visual brevity that can either confuse or cut to the quick. Working in my freezing garage, late nights, with a previously used canvas forced me to choose the head and arms of the crucified Christ to fill the visual space. I was actually pleased with the details, especially the crown of thorns, and was hesitant to add the shattered red glass. But, the glass was necessary; it symbolizes the often painful journey to salvation – admitting our sins – and, of course, the blood of the Lamb.
Q: Some people have had a relaxing, or even boring, pandemic. Others, like you, have been stressed out. What are some of the challenges of being in a leadership position at San Joaquin Memorial?
A: The challenge of leadership at San Joaquin Memorial High School lies in the ability to gain the trust of my peers so that they are open to my academic vision. Being open to my academic vision, for some teachers, means re-evaluating how they’ve operated for anywhere between 1 and 30 years, and considering the value of changing their philosophies and practices. About 20 years ago, a student told me that he was considering a career in education, but he couldn’t decide if he should go into teaching or administration. I was quick to say, “Teachers are teachers and administrators are administrators. Figure out who you are so you can do the greatest good.”
I loved teaching and I was good at it. I was often advised to apply for an administrative position at San Joaquin Memorial High School, but I resisted because I believed my statement to that young man; I felt more like a teacher than an administrator. I knew that I would work more with adults than kids as an administrator, and I was stubborn in my notion that the greater good could be served by teaching generations of students how to think critically and communicate effectively rather than manage a faculty.
My first year as an administrator was immediately affected by the COVID pandemic. My plans for professional development went from incorporating the true Catholic intellectual tradition across the curriculum, to creating protocol for distance learning. I’ve had to master technology; I want to play with paint and broken glass. I want to teach John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. I want to hold Socratic seminars. I want to know the kids. The face in that “I’m So Cool” self-portrait represents the confident teacher I used to be.
Q: What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?
A: Sensitive; intuitive; loyal.
Q: What person in the entire world would you be most excited to find out had just rang your doorbell to say hi?
A: OMG – really???? OK, if we’re talking about people who are alive, Madeleine Albright. I hope she would go beyond “hi” and come in for a great meal, wine, and a looooooooong conversation. She should spend the night and resume answering my million questions over perfect coffee and pastry in the morning.
Q: I know you have no extra time, but if you could develop a skill, start a new hobby, learn something new or improve yourself in some other way during quarantine, what would you accomplish?
A: I am trying to improve my Italian. The awesome Italian teacher at SJM says my spoken language is perfect, but I’m her boss.
A musical ‘Love’ for Miguel Molinar
The listener: Miguel Molinar, standout local actor who most recently impressed audiences as Sancho Panza in Good Company Players’ “Man of La Mancha” and Shine! Theatre’s “Songs for a New World.”
Cast album he’s hooked on right now: “Here Lies Love” by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. This album won a drama desk award for best music in 2013.
What the show is about: The show is about the First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and her historic rise into power. This musical follows the journey leading up to her exile of the Philippines.
Have you been in the show? Or gotten to see it? I was fortunate enough to see this show at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 2017. My very talented friend from college, Geena Quintos, was in the cast so I made a special trip to see her. The theater was set up like a club with moving stages and platforms all around the space, making the audience a part of the show.
Favorite songs: A lot of these songs, as the kids say these days, slap hard. The beats are infectious. The song “Opposite Attraction” is so good. It’s a great pop/disco duet. The title song “Here Lies Love” has a beautiful melody. Imelda Marcos was quoted saying she wanted the phrase “Here Lies Love” on her tombstone, so it was a beautiful tribute to open the show. When my friend told me that I would be standing for the whole show I was nervous but all of the songs made it so easy to forget I was standing or even watching a musical.
How this album makes him feel:This album makes me really hopeful for the future of musical theatre. More opportunities are being created for actors in the Asian community. I enjoy this genre of disco style musical, especially with fierce belting. Ruthie Ann Miles and “How To Get Away With Murder’s” Conrad Ricamora are a few to name who give wonderful performances on this cast album. Having done more research I found that Imelda loved going to discos and even had a disco ball installed in her New York townhouse so it was a cool way to tell her story.
If we could sneak a peek at your Apple Music / Spotify / Amazon Music playlist, what would be the top-played song these days?
Tamela Mann’s “God Provides” from her One Way album. It’s a powerful message with an amazing vocal performance. For me it’s a very tranquil song, as dramatic as it is, in this crazy zeitgeist we are living in.
Think about all the musical-theater titles out there. Which of the “worlds” that they create would you most like to live in?
I really struggle with this question because I don’t think that musical has been created yet. I’d have to combine the world or worlds of Rocky Horror Picture Show with a mix of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Tell us what these pandemic times have been like for you. How do you get your theater/performing fix?
Well my family and I have been trying to quarantine as best as possible. Listening to science. There are lots of concerts and taped musicals that have been streaming on different platforms so that’s been awesome to watch. I appreciated the Fool’s Collaborative virtual reading they did for George Floyd.
My main outlet for performing since the pandemic has been taking Professor Hannah York’s advanced voice class at Fresno City College. I’ve grown so much in the short period I’ve been taking her classes. She offers a lot of in class/online workshopping and performing. I’m very grateful I’ve had the opportunity to experience and observe her teachings. I feel like I’m back in NYC studying when I’m in her class.
Hair today, hair tomorrow
Remember, back in late July, when I interviewed my massive, curly-ish mop of out-of-control pandemic hair? It just kept growing. I didn’t end up getting it cut until October during one of the dips in the coronavirus crisis. And it felt so good. Here I am with Mikhaila Thomas of Preen salon doing the honors in a 32-second time-lapse video. However, my hair is having the last laugh. I don’t even want to show you what it looks like today.