Red Fern Book Review

A Bright Ray of Darkness

April 16, 2021 Amy Mair Season 1 Episode 11
Red Fern Book Review
A Bright Ray of Darkness
Show Notes Transcript

Amy's husband Geoff drops by the podcast to discuss two contemporary novels or should we call them memoirs? You be the judge.  The Topeka School by Ben Lerner is a literary novel based on the author's own experience growing up in Topeka, Kansas. This complex and satisfying story jumps time periods, tenses and narrators to look at the importance of language and what it means to a white, American male growing up in the late 1990s.  A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke is a page turner that examines the cult of celebrity and the inner workings of the theatre.  Amy professes her love for the musical ensemble Brooklyn Duo and NPR meets true crime podcast Criminal.

Books discussed:
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke


Other resources:
Brooklyn Duo, musical ensemble
Criminal podcast with Phoebe Judge
favourite episodes:
Episode #15 He's Neutral
Episode #84 Masterpiece
Maudie, 2016 movie with Ethan Hawke available on Amazon Prime

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Amy Mair:

Hello, welcome back to the Red Fern Book Review. I'm your host, Amy Mair. And today I'm joined by a very special guest, my husband, Geoff. We're going to talk about two novels, or perhaps two memoirs, you can decide. The first one is the Topeka School by Ben Lerner. And the second book we're going to talk about is A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. But before we get to both those books, I want to talk about a couple of things that I'm listening to. The first thing I want to talk about is music. In my household, I am always outnumbered when it has anything to do with popular culture. Nobody likes my music tastes. And actually, I don't really like theirs. But the problem is, is that there are three of them, and one of me. So I recently discovered a new musical ensemble that I really like called Brooklyn Duo. I found them in my Pilates class. The instructor was playing them. They're just very similar to the kind of music that was available that you heard in Bridgerton. So they take popular songs and do classical crossover covers. They cover Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and then they also do my favorite kind of music, which is '90s and The second thing I wanted to talk about is a favorite 2000s, kind of angsty stuff. I love Coldplay. I love Radiohead, podcast. It's called Criminal with host Phoebe judge. She is a and I don't want to apologize for that anymore, because in my house, I tend to have to. So this is a husband and wife team. bit of an idol for me. I love her interview skills. I love her They're named Marnie and Patrick Laird. She's actually from production and I love her voice. She has one of the best voice in Vancouver. They're both classically trained. She's a pianist, and he's a cello player. And I think you should radio and podcasting. It's deep, calm. And she has a little bit check them out. And I actually played them recently. And Geoff of lisp which gives her a little bit of character. If you're into walked out of the room. And then I went online and saw that they have 46,000 followers, and I have a feeling that you might be true crime I would check this out. She's come up through with me and think they're pretty great. So check them out. public radio. This is true crime meets public radio. And the tagline is, Who's Done Wrong, Been Wrong or Caught Somewhere in the Middle. She tends to take off beat stories. Some of them are historical, some of them are current. They're usually kind of everyman type stories. She's got a wonderful way of interviewing people with respect. And the episodes are usually pretty entertaining. But one of my favorites, I'm going to list this, this podcast has been around since 2014. So you can get overwhelmed by the choices. But I have two real favorites, I will tell you about in the show notes. But the first one has to do with a dog napping case of a famous dog in the 1950s named Masterpiece. This dog was a poodle and was in all kinds of dog shows and magazine spreads and I think had special food and clothes and one day went missing. And so there was a dog hunt across 13 states to find Masterpiece and you'll have to tune in to find out what happens. And then my favorite episode. It's with a guy named Dan Stephenson. The episode is called He's Neutral. He lives in a horrible neighborhood, crime ridden neighborhood outside San Francisco in Oakland. He's lived there for 40 years and he got fed up. There were police around all the time drug dealers, sex workers, and then someone started to put a Buddha in front of his house. He's not Buddhist. What I'll say is it stopped everybody in their tracks. And I'm not going to tell you more, but it was a very positive heartwarming thing that happened. So check those out. And let me know what you think. Now let's move over and talk with Geoff. Hello, Geoff. Welcome to the podcast.

Geoff Mair:

Thanks for having me on, Amy. So there's a lot of special things about today. For those of you who don't know, Geoff is my husband. And the second thing is, this is my first in studio, a.k.a. dining table interview. So, just one more thing we can do together. Oh, yes, yes, that's right. Together time. Can't get enough of that.

Amy Mair:

And the other thing that's kind of momentous is that you actually finished two books to come here today.

Geoff Mair:

And I'm on my third now.

Amy Mair:

So what's going on? Why are you reading so much?

Geoff Mair:

I'm reading so much because you're doing a podcast. And we're talking about books all the time. And, and actually, I want to come on the show, because I thought it would be really fun.

Amy Mair:

So, you wanted to get in on it.

Geoff Mair:

I want to get in on the action. So I read some books, and actually, I loved it. I didn't actually read the books. I did Audible for the very first time, which was quite, you know, it's super interesting for me and how it transformed reading because it's just so great.

Amy Mair:

I really like it. I agree. I started to use Audible too. I think the thing is, y u have to make sure you like t e narrator.

Geoff Mair:

My experience with Audible between the two books was very different because one narrated by Ethan Hawke is amazing. And the other one is not narrated by the author, but it was still really good.

Amy Mair:

did the other author narrate that book? No. Okay. Okay, so let's get into the books because there's there's a lot to talk about. The first book that we both read is called the Topeka School. It's by Ben Lerner. And it was written in 2019. And it was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and also the finalist for the National Book Award. And Ben Lerner. This is not his first novel, he's written a few and he's also a poet. What this book is about is a character named Adam Gordon who's a senior at Topeka High School. And in 1997, his mom Jane is a famous psychologist and feminist author. His father Jonathan is also a psychologist. The reason why they're in Topeka is they are both both parents work at this famous institute that in the book they call the Foundation. Adam is also a championship national debater. He's planning on attending an Ivy League school. He's a popular boy, so he's kind of dealing with a lot of the social pressure from that. This book shifts time periods. It is set in the present, future and past. It's told from four different narrators. It alternates between Adam, his mom, his dad, and another boy, another peer. It's also example of autofiction. Both these books that we're talking about today are examples of autofiction. What that is, is a fancy way of just saying, it's a biography, but it's not. So this term was coined in 1977. But it's become quite popular in the last decade. This way of writing has been associated with a number of good American novelists such as Ben Lerner, Jenny Offil, Philip Roth. So with that said, What did you think of this book?

Geoff Mair:

At first when I was reading it, I found it quite difficult to get through because it is, as you're saying, it shifts time and it shifts perspective. And it does that even within a sentence or within a paragraph. So it can be very difficult to tell where you are. And yeah, it's a complicated book to read. It takes a lot to think about. And so at times, I was like, I don't know, but by about three quarters of the way through it, all of the themes started to tie together and you could see how the history of this family relates to history that's happening right now. And then I was like, Oh, I was fully bought in. And by the end of the book, he ties it all together so well, but it's a book I just can't stop thinking about. I couldn't stop thinking about it afterwards, which is the sign of a really good book.

Amy Mair:

Now talk to me a bit about language because you brought this up to me early on the way, language is used literally and symbolically in this book.

Geoff Mair:

He uses this word twice in the book, The word is glossolalia. And I had never heard it before. So first I had to look it up. And what it means is speaking in tongues, or speaking in language that's so voluminous, that it's mostly about the language and not about what's actually being said, not about the content of what's being said. And that's to me the most pertinent theme in the book, because it's actually a theme about what's going on right. It's about dialogue that's going on in the political U.S. And it's also a mirror of how the writer writes. The book is largely about the language, you can actually almost just read his words, and not really think that much about what's in them, and they're beautiful, just on their own. And you can see again, how it all ties into his background of debate. In debate, they use the word, the spread. And the spread is, you know, putting down so many different arguments and using so much language, that it's hard for the competitor in the debate, to actually address them all. And every not addressed, argument is a dropped argument and debate. And that's actually what's going on right now in the U.S., you know, politics, that was really interesting.

Amy Mair:

I loved really getting deep into the whole debating world. And that's true. They were saying that the spread, it isn't the best argument.

Geoff Mair:

It's almost a loophole to making arguments that can't get picked up. It confuses the other debater because there's so many arguments. And that's really what's going on in in Trump America.

Amy Mair:

The thing I wanted to note as well. I actually grew up in Kansas City, which is referred to in this book, which is the big city, not far from Topeka. And the sense of place in this book really resonated with me. There's a big image of a tornado on the cover of the book. But what I also thought was really kind of interesting, growing up in the Midwest and a conservative town. This Institute is actually a real Institute called Menningers. It's very famous. It's the most famous psychiatric clinic and school in the country. I heard the schools has since moved to Texas. It's bringing all these kind of intellectual people from New York and Eastern Europe and blending them with more conservative people that have grown up there. That's kind of interesting to me that these two very different groups all living in one town. These people wouldn't be there if it wasn't for this institute. The other thing that was interesting was that, and I'm wondering if you can address this, they talk a lot about toxic masculinity. It's interesting that these boys that are being raised by their parents that are these psychologists and psychiatrists and are supposed to be quite enlightened. And the parents have all kinds of talks with them and are in touch with things. But these children seem just as toxic to me as the regular kids in the town.

Geoff Mair:

They are all just more so because, you know, they're all taught to communicate, but the things they're communicating don't tend to be the things that are actu lly facing throughout the story You know, there's all these ex mples of the sort of male tox city and males butting heads. I talks about essentially ho society, you know, creates this dichotomy for men. And so i largely a statement about wha 's going on, you know, for w ite males in America right now

Amy Mair:

Yeah, I would agree with that. So I recommend this book, I would say it's not for everybody. It's for somebody that's looking for a challenge.

Geoff Mair:

I loved it. I thought it was Yeah, no, it took me a while to get through it.

Amy Mair:

It's not a page turner.

Geoff Mair:

No, it's not a page derveer, but it's, uh, you know, it's a deep thinking book.

Amy Mair:

Okay, so now we're gonna move over to a book that's kind of it's just like this book, but a lot lighter and a lot of fun. And it's called a Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. It was published just this year. And it is about a 32-year-old movie star William Harding. And the year is 2003. He's had a highly publicized affair on his rock star wife. His marriage is completely falling apart. He's moved into a hotel apartment. He's got two young kids. He's just decided to do Henry IV on Broadway. And he's playing this character that's quick tempered and impatient and his name is Hotspur. And so this is a very thinly veiled portrait of Ethan himself. This is not Ethan's first book, this is actually his fifth book. And I bet you didn't know this, Geoff, but his first book published in 1996, had a similar premise, and the character was also named William Harding.

Geoff Mair:

Oh, there you go. So that was kind of interesting.

Amy Mair:

So, Geoff, what did you think about this book?

Geoff Mair:

Well, I listened to it on Audible. And it was totally infectious, like listening, because Ethan Hawke narrated it, it's, you know, largely a story that, if it isn't about Ethan Hawke directly is very closely related to things that he went through. And so listening to him tell this story on Audible, was awesome, because it felt so deeply personal. And he's just such a great orator and actor, and the book, you know, the book is all about, you know, this guy's personal tragedy that's going on in his life, and how he gets saved through art. And so it's ultimately a book about artists making art. And you know, how art can save people and actually, you know, ultimately sort of save society, I guess. And it's just a, it's a really interesting, pertinent portrait of a male going through a problem and a really deep cris s and how he kind of can't get ut of the out of the way of his wn ego, his ego just keeps sort of getting in the way. And it's because he's a big actor. And t's also a commentary abou , you know, the public live of, of actors and famous peop e and how they get consumed and ort of twisted in media and how hat's a very difficult thin for people to live thro gh. So I thought it was just super fun. I loved it. I love listening to it.

Amy Mair:

In all the publicity around this book, it talks a lot about celebrity and you know, this is really autofiction about Ethan Hawke. But really at its heart, this is a movie, a book about the theater and inner workings of the theater. So if you've ever been in a play, I haven't been in a lot of plays. I was a rock in a play in grade four. I've been in some plays, but if you're a theatre person in any way, or want to learn about it this is a great book for you. What I thought was really interesting, as you can imagine. I would think I'd be panicking going on stage and going on Broadway. And I think it's normal to completely panic every night. It shows him having these meltdowns.

Geoff Mair:

Watching all these characters backstage at this production of Henry IV and Ethan Hawke's character development of all the other players in that production is awesome. They're super fun and colorful. They all have egos, and they're all sort of coaching each other. And it's actually yeah, a lot about this sort of camaraderie and drama that goes on behind stage for drama to be put on onstage.

Amy Mair:

And I did have to look up who was the play he was really in because he was in a play. So get this, I looked up to find out who are these people because there's a couple people that don't come across that great. Falstaff who's supposed to be this asshole or not nice is movie star Kevin Kline. And so I'm wondering because like, I love Kevin Kline. And is this really supposed to be him? This is the thing about autofiction you don't know if it is true? Or is it not true? Kevin Kline was the lead and then Lady Percy who had this thing with Ethan Hawke in the play is played by Audra McDonald. I would not suspect that of her either so but that's the whole thing is you're kind of left wondering?

Unknown:

That's the thing. I thought it was funny that I listened to him speak for you know, the Vancouver's writer Writers Festival event that was put on. Nobody really talked about what was truth versus what was fiction.

Amy Mair:

I think he wants to not answer those questions,

Geoff Mair:

He said one measure of a good society is the art because I think that's about art, right? Because then, and then you're left wondering and guessing. But we do have to they produce. And if you look back at high functioning mention this. So what Geoff's referring to is the Vancouver Writers Festival has events throughout the year that actually anyone can attend virtually now. And you don't have to live here. So my listeners in the United States and other places you can log on. But they did a Winter Book Club societies, they always produce great art. And the ones that here he talked about his boo . People were just going cra y. And I have to say, at the en of his talk, he's gave this impassioned speech about the v lue of fine arts, and b sically how, essentially aft r medicine, and housing it's like, the top thing that w should care about and and e convinced me. didn't, like in the dark ages, didn't produce great art. And it's really true. And he actually talked a lot about, you know, the gutting of funding for the arts in the U.S. And, you know, he was quite upset about it. And I think he's right.

Amy Mair:

He was great. My friend Myriam who was actually on the Zoom call said you got to check out the this movie called Maudie. So I don't know if you've seen that. But talk about an art house film. It is set in Nova Scotia where he actually has a place. You and I are the same age as Ethan Hawke. We actually named her child Ethan, which I don't think was conscious but anyway he is very just full on artistic guy.

Geoff Mair:

The movie could not be further off Hollywood. And it just speaks to the fact that he just loves art for art's sake, he thinks it is the important thing in the world. He's an inspiring, inspiring dude.

Amy Mair:

So I will say, this is my favorite book that I've read this year, for sure. I would say so I really recommend it.

Geoff Mair:

Me too.

Amy Mair:

Of course, you're not going to choose the Topeka School. Whatever. Okay. All right. Well, I think that's good. And I just want to thank you so much. Maybe now you will read some more books and come back?

Geoff Mair:

I will definitely come back.

Amy Mair:

Thank you very much and I'll talk to you later. Bye. Well, I thought that actually went pretty well. I have to say I was a little bit nervous about doing this podcast with Geoff but I've decided he can come back. So he says he already has some plans. And actually, he's already told me he wants to do an episode around music. So that should be interesting. To review today, we talked about Brooklyn Duo, the podcast Criminal with Phoebe Judge. Then we reviewed the Topeka School by Ben Lerner and A Bright Ray Of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. And I wanted to let you know, we'll be back on April 26 with Whistler librarian Jeanette Bruce. And we're going to get into short story and fantasy. In the meantime, if you're enjoying this podcast, I'd love it If you went on and gave a good review and/or shared with others. That would mean a lot. Thank you so much for your support, and I'll talk to you later. Bye.