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Interview with Gail Godwin about Grief Cottage

Started by Rob Neufeld in AC-T Book Reviews Aug 3, 2017.

Ellington in Asheville--a survey

Started by Rob Neufeld in Local History Oct 6, 2017.

Dave Minneman, heroic portrait

Started by Rob Neufeld in Local History Aug 25, 2017.

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"Soulfully beautiful."
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Act 5, Scene 1: Irene's Twilight Zone

Act 5, Scene 1: Irene’s Twilight Zone See whole poem, "The Main Show," and index of scenes.  (Spotlight opens on the lobby of the theater.  Characters who remain in the lobby enter the theater, which remains dark.  Joan the nurse tells the tour guide to also go in, and the narrator hangs back awhile.) Joan: Go ahead in. I’ll stay with my patient.Anyway, this is a family…See More
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Julia Nunnally Duncan at Little Switzerland Books and Beans

August 30, 2019 from 3pm to 6pm
Julia Nunnally Duncan will be a featured author at Little Switzerland Books and Beans on Friday, August 30, from 3-5. A book signing will follow. Julia will read from her latest books A Neighborhood Changes, A Part of Me, and A Place That Was Home.See More
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Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock

"The introduction of my new publication, Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock will be launched on Sept 14 2019 at 1:30 PM at the Henderson County Court House 500 Main Street. A talk and a brief slide show follows with refreshments afterward. …"
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Nancy Werking Poling at Black Mountain Library

June 15, 2019 from 3pm to 4pm
Can women rescue the planet from ecological disaster?Nancy Werking Poling will launch her new novel, WHILE EARTH STILL SPEAKS, set in WNC. She'll tell the stories behind the story: How did Mary (more crone than virgin) get into the narrative? And Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth?See More
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Flat Rock history via a road

Travelling back in time on a Flat Rock roadby Rob Neufeld             If you walk the one mile length of North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock, you step nearly 200 years into the past.            At the east end, the 21st century reigns.  Fronting six-lane Spartanburg Highway, a super-Ingles sits above a bog; and a CVS store faces an Octopus Garden smoke shop, a chiropractor, a cell phone provider, and a six-lane avenue to I-26 a mile away .            Neither Ingles nor CVS carries the big…See More
Apr 8

Great American Novel puts ad office under microscope

by Rob Neufeld

 

            Nearly 40% of American adults work in office complexes, where they spend a third of their lives.  Yet, when you look at how fiction holds up a mirror to reality, you have to wonder about the don’t-bring-your-work-home blind spot.

            Where, in literature, is our “Moby Clerk,” “House of the Seven Staples,” and “To Cancel a Mockingbird”?

            In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published “Babbitt,” a bleak novel about a man going through the motions of dutifulness in a real estate office; and in 1974, Joseph Heller published “Something Happened,” a hilarious novel about a man seeking a promotion.

            Now, add to the list, “Then We Came to the End,” Joshua Ferris’ 385-page cock-eyed look at an ad agency being down-sized.

            One book discussion group took up the novel as food for thought, and had a good meal.  I recommend others do, too.  See about discussions in the area.

 

Wisecrackers

 

            “I had to slog through the first hundred pages, but then came that middle section, and it was all worth it,” one reader reported about “Then We Came.”

            He was referring to the breakthrough of humanity that revealed the ad agency’s endemic cynicism to have been part of a process. 

            The workers themselves knew they were jaded.  Ha-ha, old Brizz had cancer and was put on a “Celebrity Death Watch.”   Office mates bet on when he would die, and he knew about the hard-shelled game.  That’s pretty rough satire.

            Meanwhile, staff members fretted over being caught with a chair with a different serial number than what they’d been given; made great efforts to find meaning in life, as when Benny inherited a totem pole from old Brizz; and felt euphoric when they were transferred to a better office space. 

How much of corporate and bureaucratic life is like this, even a little?  Does one get caught up in one’s culture, except for when there are disquieting moments of truth?

            “Might it be true,” the narrator (a collective “we”) says, “that we were callous, unfeeling individuals...We had these sudden revelations that employment, the daily nine-to-five, was driving us far from out better selves.”

 

Reality test

 

            I remember when, early in my career, I was working in an office to earn money to pay for school; and a veteran of that workplace said to me, “People never make it out of here.  They think they’re going to, but they never do.”

            You can see how mythic that had sounded to me.

            There were two workers there, a Russian Jewish woman and a Persian woman (it had been dangerous to identify as an Iranian at that time), who had radically different temperature needs, and spent each day pushing up and pushing down windows.

            That was pretty absurd.

            In book discussions, I encourage people to bring up their personal experiences in order to apply reality tests to the book at hand, and to question and learn from its approach.

            Sure, “Then We Came” takes place in a Chicago ad agency, and that brings in themes that might not apply to other jobs: the psychology of consumer society; the nature of being creative within a corporation; and the feeling of being part of an elite.  Still, those in less privileged environments have to ask, “Are our workplaces sick?  Are they performing below potential?  Are workers often deprived of purpose and pride?”

            In 1972, Studs Terkel published “Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and how They Feel about What They Do.”  It’s a good companion volume to the novel at hand.

 

The fool

 

            The desk jockeys who people Ferris’ world eventually come to their senses; or rather, come to know their hearts.  You can’t say, “come to their senses,” because one of the most feeling characters goes coo-coo. 

            The first sign that Tom Mota is rebelling against the establishment is when he shows up wearing multiple corporate-logo Polo shirts, out of fierce loyalty, he indicates.  Then he gets on someone else’s computer and sends an all-agency email that reads, “My name is Shaw-NEE!  You are captured, Ha!  I poopie I poopie I poopie.”

            His “insanity” rises heroically to the occasion when a billboard image of a co-worker’s lost daughter stays up weeks after the girl has been found dead.  The billboard company has no new contract and it costs money to take an old ad down.  Tom takes things into his own hands, irritating the media buyers.

            He’s let go from the company.  His role in a stunning climactic scene is one example of Ferris’ ability to create an original, suspenseful plot, full of irony, truth, and pathos.

 

The ah moment

 

            The previously noted humanity that breaks through midway in the book is both an emotional plot development and a brilliant stylistic coup.

            Lynn Mason, the ad agency’s co-founder, has cancer.  She’s denying it publicly because she knows her staff.  They’ll make it the grit of their rumor mill—actually, they’ll do that anyway, based on apprehensions, and leavened by pangs of concern.

            Lynn has kept the office occupied with a perhaps made-up assignment to create a PSA that would make a cancer patient laugh about his or her condition. 

            Ferris then shifts from the office view of life to Lynn’s view, told in the third person.  Lynn’s lover, a man we suspect might be a commitment-avoider, helps Lynn overcome her childhood-rooted fear of hospitals, and turns in one of the great compassionate scenes in fiction.

            We then return to the office, and of course, everything has changed, only partly and gradually in the minds of the employees, but totally in the minds of us readers.

 

Follow Rob Neufeld @WNC_chronicler.

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