Monthly Archives: January 2017

Jim Jarmusch On Iggy Pop, Hip-Hop And Finding Poetry In Mundane Things




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new movie “Paterson” stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, N.J., and is inspired by William Carlos Williams and his epic poem “Paterson.” The poems Paterson writes in the film are inspired by what he observes in the daily routines of his life. Almost all the poems used in the film were actually written by poet Ron Padgett. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody wrote (reading) Jarmusch has made a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself.

We’re going to talk about movies, poetry and music – three of Jarmusch’s passions. The rapper Method Man has a cameo in the new film. Jarmusch recently made a documentary about the punk band Iggy and the Stooges. His other films include “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law,” “Coffee And Cigarettes,” “Dead Man,” “Ghost Dog” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Let’s start with a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PATERSON”)

ADAM DRIVER: (As Paterson) Another one when you’re a child, you learn there are three dimensions – height, width and depth, like a shoebox. Then later, you hear there’s a fourth dimension – time. Then some say there could be five, six, seven. I knock off work, have a beer at the bar. I look down at the glass and feel glad.

GROSS: That’s Adam Driver and Jim Jarmusch’s new movie. Jim Jarmusch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So…

JIM JARMUSCH: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: …Why did you want to make a film about a poet who drives a bus – or a bus driver who writes poetry depending on how you want to look at it (laughter)?

JARMUSCH: Well, I visited Paterson many years ago – 20 some years ago as a kind of day trip because of William Carlos Williams, because of Allen Ginsberg having lived there. And I went to the Great Falls and sat really in the exact same spot as Adam Driver does as Paterson. And I walked around the factory buildings, and I was rereading – I was reading at the time the epic length poem “Paterson” by Williams.

And it just really just stayed with me, and I had this idea for a long time to make a film about a poet in Paterson named Patterson. I wanted him to be working class. Eventually I thought a bus was a perfect visual way to move him, to drift him through the city, to have a measured kind of routine lifestyle. And all these things kind of congealed into the film “Paterson” eventually.

GROSS: I love that your movie is so much about a poet and poetry since, you know, it’s not a typical subject for movies, and you wanted to be a poet before you became a filmmaker. So when you were studying poetry with Kenneth Koch, what were some of the things he taught you about language and about observation?

JARMUSCH: Well, he taught us so many things. He taught us to be playful, to be very appreciative of other poets, to appreciate all forms of expression. He taught us to be experimental. And Kenneth Koch taught – there’s a great book called “Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?” a collection of poems that comes from a poem that a child wrote. He taught children in public schools in New York City to write poems and told them down worry about rhyming, don’t worry about any of that stuff. You know, write a poem where you mention three colors and make it five lines – or he would just give them, you know, little strategies. And, man, they wrote some great poems.

GROSS: Well there’s a scene in “Paterson” where Adam Driver’s character, the poet and bus driver, is walking home from the bus depot, and he sees sitting on this kind of concrete ledge a 10-year-old girl who’s all alone. It’s not a great neighborhood, and so he’s concerned about her safety. So he sits down next to her, and it turns out her mother and her sister will be back in a couple of minutes. But in the meantime, he sees that she has one of those like pink little girl journals with a little lock on it. (Laughter) And he says what do you write in it?

JARMUSCH: Right.

GROSS: And it turns out she writes poetry, so I want to play that scene. And it includes a poem that she wrote, and I’ll mention this is actually a poem that you wrote for the film. So I want our listeners to listen to it, and then I’m going to ask you about writing it.

JARMUSCH: OK.

GROSS: So this is Adam Driver and the girl is played by Sterling Jerins, and this is a scene from “Paterson.”

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PATERSON”)

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Are you interested in poetry?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Actually I am kind of.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Really?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) I write poetry. I keep it all in this notebook – secret notebook.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Oh, you’re a poet?

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Yeah.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That’s great.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Would you like to hear one?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Sure, sure.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) It doesn’t really rhyme though.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That’s OK. I kind of like them better when they don’t.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Yeah. Me, too. OK. This one’s called “Water Falls” – two words, though.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) “Water Falls” OK.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) OK. (Reading) Water falls. Water falls from bright air. It falls like hair, falling across a young girl’s shoulders. Water falls making pools in the asphalt, dirty mirrors with clouds and buildings inside. It falls on the roof of my house. It falls on my mother and on my hair. Most people call it rain.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That’s a beautiful poem.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) You really liked it?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah. I really do. I think it’s beautiful, “Water Falls.” Thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter) What a nice scene. So, Jim Jarmusch, you wrote the poem that the little girl reads. What did you try to do when you were writing the poem and was it liberating at all to be writing in the voice of somebody very different from you?

JARMUSCH: Yeah. It was. Really what I was trying to do was imitate in a way the poems that Kenneth Koch got kids to write. So I was remembering those and those kinds of strategies, so I was just trying to be her for a minute. And I wasn’t really satisfied with the poem. And I – when Ron Padgett did agree to write the poems for the film in Paterson’s voice, I did ask him – I said now, do you want to write one for the girl? I wrote one in there, but I think you might want to write a better poem for her. And he said no, no, no, I like that one. That’s perfect for her. So I kept that in. It’s not my poem, but it’s me sort of channeling her and writing a poem for her.

GROSS: So she writes her poems in a secret notebook. Paterson writes his poems in a secret notebook that he shows to no one, not even his wife. Did you have a notebook like that, too? Were you very reticent about showing poems to anybody?

JARMUSCH: Yes. I still do have my secret notebook.

GROSS: Why do you keep them secret? I mean, you have a public body of work – your movies.

JARMUSCH: Well. I don’t know. I feel – I’m not really that confident in them. I will do a reading later this year in April at Princeton with John Ashbury because he asked me to, and I’m a big – I love John Ashbery. He’s the – really the poet laureate of English language poetry, whether he’s given that or not, he is to me. But I’m just a little shy of – I don’t know.

GROSS: The poems in your movie – in the movie “Paterson” are the poems of somebody who has a daily routine. And the poems of the – are the poems of somebody who is observing things while living a life of routine. You know, he wakes up at 6:15 every morning – 6:15-ish – has a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of coffee, walks to work with his lunch box, goes to the bus depot, drives the bus, overhears interesting conversations from his passengers, returns the bus, goes home, has dinner, walks the dog. And this is what a typical day is like.

But, you know, in that typical day he finds either beautiful things or interesting things to write poems about or to be the kind of jumping off point, the point of departure for a larger reflection. And is that the kind of poetry you find yourself especially interested in, like, the poetry that reflects something of daily life?

JARMUSCH: Yes, for me certainly, but I like that also in cinema as well. I mean, I like all forms of movies. I’m a movie geek, so I watch all kinds of films, but – and I read all kinds of things, too. But the poetry that speaks to me the most directly will contain mundane things, will contain details. But there’s also a great thing in the film – well, great, I will say it’s great – that Method Man – Cliff Smith – plays a rapper in a laundromat who is working out some lyrics sort of to the rhythm of a washing machine. And something about hip-hop culture and hip-hop is the ability to use current language and slang and reference details of life is very, very strong for me.

I’m a big Wu-Tang fan, and I love the Wu-Tang Clan, the GZA and RZA and Method Man and Ghostface Killer (ph) and Raekwon and Old Dirty Bastard. Man, they were writing incredible stuff. Now, I know – I think we need to sort of broaden our definition of poetry, which maybe it’s a good thing that they just gave this Nobel Prize to Dylan because blurring the lines of song lyrics and also hip-hop for me is like some of the greatest uses – most innovative uses of language in my lifetime.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jim Jarmusch, and his new movie “Paterson” is about a bus driver and poet named Patterson who drives a bus in Paterson, N.J. And we’re going to take a short break and then talk more about poetry and about movies with Jim Jarmusch. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Jim Jarmusch. He wrote and directed the new film “Paterson” starring Adam Driver as a poet and bus driver living in Paterson, N.J. Most of Paterson’s poems in the film were actually written by poet Ron Padgett. When you were auditioning Adam Driver, did you have him read poems?

JARMUSCH: No, and I didn’t audition him in any traditional sense. I just had lunch with him basically. I had seen a few films he was in. I had seen maybe one episode of “Girls.” I loved his presence, his face, his physical present, you know, being, but I just wanted to meet him. And then he was so kind of humble and had a really nice sense of humor, but he was kind of self-effacing and I just loved him so I – we just talked for a while. And then when I left that lunch I – Ellen Lewis, who helps me cast my films always had hooked up this lunch. So as soon as I left I was on my phone like, Ellen, I’m in love with this guy, he’s got to be Paterson. So I was just so happy to work with Adam.

And Adam is great to work with for me especially because – well, I can only speak for myself, but I’m completely intuitive and I don’t like to analyze things. And I like actors who just become that person and then react, and Adam is completely reactive in that way. So every day working with him was really a pleasure. And he’s in almost every scene in the film, so the poor guy had to work the – almost the entire 30 days of our film shoot. But, yeah, he was really a pleasure, and I really love what he – how he embodied this character.

GROSS: So because Adam Driver plays a bus driver, and there is a lot of scenes of him driving the bus and we see things from his point of view as he’s driving the bus, did you spend a lot of time driving around in a bus in Paterson to get a feel of what it looks like through a bus window?

JARMUSCH: No. I spent a lot of time driving around in cars. We would just go almost three, four days a week in pre-production. But then, yes, I rode on the bus quite a bit to get that feeling of elevation. I love riding on a bus now because you’re looking down on the world from not too high of an angle, but people on the street rarely look up into the bus. They’re sort of oblivious to this big giant machine, you know, passing by. So there’s something very beautiful about the angle that you look at the world through. So we try to capture that and give that feeling with a lot of point of views from the side windows of the bus and from the front windows.

GROSS: Did Adam Driver have to learn how to drive a bus?

JARMUSCH: Yes. Adam Driver – it’s funny, we were – the producers, they were preparing so that Adam could get a bus license and go to bus driving school. So we called Adam to say, OK, we set this up so you can you can go to bus driving school, to which Adam replied, oh, no, I’ve been doing that on my own. I’ve been in bus driving school. I’ve passed the written test. I have my driving test next week.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: I think it’s going really well. So Adam is amazing. This is the same when I got the 700-page “Collected Poems” of Ron Pagett or however big it is. I got a copy for Adam and I called him saying, oh, I got the Ron Padgett book, I’m going to send it over to you. He said, oh, no, I’ve had that for several weeks. I’ve been immersed in Ron Pagett, I love this guy. So, you know, Adam Driver, he thinks ahead.

GROSS: That’s really great.

JARMUSCH: But he did drive the boss at times in the film, and I must say very confidently. It was very stable. He’s a good bus driver. He’s got a – if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him…

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: …He could drive a bus in New Jersey.

GROSS: So, you know, the Adam Driver character as he’s preparing to begin his shift or ending his shift, he’s always kind of like taking notes and writing lines of poetry or thinking about a poem. And then usually that ends with him opening the door of the bus so he can talk to the dispatcher who’s telling him it’s time to start, and the dispatcher always has, like, a tale of woe. So I thought I’d play the first version of this scene between Adam Driver and the dispatcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PATERSON”)

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Good morning, Donny.

RIZWAN MANJI: (As Donny) Ready to roll, Paterson?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah. Everything OK?

MANJI: (As Donny) Well, now that you ask, no, not really. My kid needs braces on her teeth. My car needs a transmission job. My wife wants me to take her to Florida, but I’m behind on the mortgage payments. My uncle called from Indiana, and he needs money for my niece’s wedding. And I got this strange rash on my back. You name it, brother. How about you?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) I’m OK.

GROSS: That was Adam Driver and Rizwan Manji in a scene from “Paterson,” which was written and directed by my guest Jim Jarmusch. I saw that scene on the trailer for the movie and I thought, I am definitely going to this film. Once he said, and I have a strange rash on my back, I thought, this is great.

(LAUGHTER)

JARMUSCH: Well, he’s a lovely – a wonderful actor.

GROSS: So there’s a great English bulldog in the film who’s named Marvin in the film. But it was actually played by a female dog named Nellie. And Nellie won the Palm Dog at the Cannes Film Festival for the Best Dog Performance. So why did you want to have a dog in the film? And how did you cast the dog, who’s terrific?

JARMUSCH: Well, the dog was part of the film from the beginning because that was the kind of one silly, I mean, it’s a ridiculous plot point. I won’t give it all away now, but the dog was very important. In my first original script, the dog was a Jack Russell because I’ve had friends that have Jack Russells that are very mischievous and energized. I was talking with the trainer that we eventually worked with, a fantastic trainer, and he said, listen, I don’t have a trained Jack Russell. I can train you one in time. This was some months before shooting.

He said, it’s not a problem, I can get a Jack Russell to do the things in the script. However, I wanted to just bring to your attention this wonderful dog that’s an English bulldog that is a rescue dog, like most of their dogs are. And he said, she is incredibly smart and funny. And there are two reasons why I think she fits your script very well. He said, I don’t want to impose on you, I’m not – you know, I will get you a Jack Russell. But just two things – in the film, the dog pulls Adam Driver, his character around, and he’s quite a big guy.

Now, a Jack Russell weighs about 20 pounds, an English bulldog about 40. And I think it would just be funnier and more believable to have rather than the dog bouncing along on a leash, like, really pulling him along like a little machine. And number two, you have this scene where these guys, maybe they’re Bloods that pull up in a car and talk about dog jacking. And he said, just so you know, a Jack Russell is worth about half as much on the street as an English bulldog currently.

So I just wanted to plant those two things. And then I wanted to ask you to see a video or meet this dog. And then I saw videos of Nellie and I – and with these two comments he made, which I thought were fantastic and helpful, I was like, no, all right, we found our dog. And she was wonderful. All the vocalizations are her. Everything came from her. She’s not dubbed with other dogs. There wasn’t a second double dog, as there usually is. It’s all Nellie doing all that stuff. And with respect to these incredible trainers, she was an amazing dog and very easy to work with.

We didn’t have to shoot for hours and hours to get her to do things, even the – well, there’s a very specific gag – well, I won’t give it away if people haven’t seen it. But, yeah, really a remarkable dog, fantastic.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new film is called “Paterson.” After a short break, we’ll talk about his documentary, “Gimme Danger,” about the punk band Iggy and the Stooges. An LA Times film critic Justin Chang will talk with us about the films he saw at the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new film “Paterson” stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet named Paterson living in Paterson, N.J. Jarmusch also directed a recent documentary about the punk group Iggy and the Stooges that’s named after their song “Gimme Danger.” The documentary had a theatrical release and is now available for streaming on Amazon. You’ve known Iggy Pop for a long time. You came to New York in – what? – the ’70s or late-’60s to study…

JARMUSCH: No, I came in the mid-’70s.

GROSS: Mid-’70s, OK. So what did punk rock mean to you when it was starting?

JARMUSCH: It meant a kind of real liberation of expression. It embraced amateurism in a way that I still am inspired by. It was not about trying to get, you know, stadium gigs or even commercial radio play or even record deals for that matter. It was about saying something ’cause you meant it, and expressing something that you felt. And that was primary for that – whatever the scene, whatever punk rock means, it was very, very important to me, very formative. And I still consider myself to be an amateur filmmaker. And I say that because in the Latin origin of the word amateur is the word love, and it’s love of a form, whereas professional implies something you do for money or for work.

And I’m not putting down anyone that does look at their work in that way, but for me I am a hardcore amateur. And really that came to me through the music scene, through – you know, I kind of grew up in my early 20s in Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, and these bands and that whole approach and all the artists inspired me. The filmmaker Amos Poe was a huge inspiration for me by making guerrilla-style punk films on the streets of New York and – well, it’s just a lot of painters and artists and filmmakers all within that scene, and it’s very, very important to me.

GROSS: So did that amateur aesthetic give you permission to make movies before you felt accomplished enough to actually make them?

JARMUSCH: Yes, completely. My first film I made, “Permanent Vacation,” we shot in 1979 for like $12,000, part of which I got a fake car loan for that Amos Poe told me you could do that. And, yeah, I had no idea what I was doing. It was just like, well, we’re going to try and do this. Partly because I had been following Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell around for about a year, and I worked on some of Eric’s films as a sound recordist and stuff. And they were always saying, well, Jim, when are you going to make your film? When are you going to do it? So I was like, oh, I’m going to do it soon, and so I made “Permanent Vacation.” And I’m still trying to learn how to do it, I’m still trying to figure out how to make films, but, yeah, it started then.

GROSS: One of the really interesting things that Iggy Pop says in your documentary is when he was a kid he loved Soupy Sales, the kid’s show host who was kind of part hipster and part vaudevillian. He was really funny and kind of transgressive for a kid’s show of his time. And Iggy Pop remembers Soupy telling the kids to write to him but to keep their letters to 25 words or less. And then Iggy Pop tells you that he decided to apply that to his lyrics (laughter), so can you hear that in his lyrics?

JARMUSCH: Yes, I mean – no fun, my babe, no fun. That’s four words he makes into a whole chorus. So his reductive ability to be reductive with language is very much, you know, he’s very open and sincere about that coming from Soupy.

GROSS: Yeah, ’cause the funny thing is, I mean, he’s so well-spoken and so smart and so kind of aware of the arts and the avant-garde, so people who don’t know better might think that he wasn’t as intellectual as he is (laughter).

JARMUSCH: Well, he’s one of those remarkable people that is – you know, he has an incredible mind. He is very intellectual, but it’s not refined by academics or school.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly, exactly.

JARMUSCH: I find this too in members of the Wu-Tang Clan that are amazingly intellectual, but they come from, like, the streets of Staten Island. And they don’t – they didn’t go to Harvard or whatever, but their mental abilities are staggering and remarkable. And Iggy’s seems like that too, and he’s very self-taught, self-educated, but, man, that guy knows about so many things.

And what’s really beautiful about him – and other are people like that like the Wu-Tang people too – is that he never stands on his laurels about his knowledge. Like, every day is what can I learn, what don’t I know? And if something comes up people are talking about it and he doesn’t know about it, his curiosity is like an antenna. He’s like, well, what’s that? You know, he wants to – he’s just absorbing things. So, yeah, he’s a remarkable – I think he’s an aberrant mutation because of his physical being and his mind. That’s just not fair that…

(LAUGHTER)

JARMUSCH: …He has that body and that mind. Come on.

GROSS: Well, why don’t we hear one of Iggy Pop or Iggy and the Stooges’ most famous songs? And this is the song that gave you a documentary its title, “Gimme Danger.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GIMME DANGER”)

IGGY POP: (Singing) Give me danger, little stranger. And I feel you at ease. Give me danger, little stranger. And I feel your disease. There’s nothing in my dreams, just some ugly memories, hits me like the ocean breeze. Now, if you will be my lover, I will shiver and sing. But if you can be my master, I will do anything. There’s nothing left alive but a pair of glassy eyes. Raise my feelings one more time.

GROSS: That’s Iggy and the Stooges doing “Gimme Danger,” it’s the song that gives Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about The Stooges its title. And Jim Jarmusch is my guest, he also directed the new film “Paterson” which stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams in Paterson, N.J.

So I’m interested in your early movie life. Your mother reviewed films for the local Akron newspaper. Was that a weekly or a daily?

JARMUSCH: No, it was a daily, the Akron Beacon Journal.

GROSS: Did she take you to the movies a lot?

JARMUSCH: No, not so much. She mostly – she used to drop me off at the State Road theater near Akron in Cuyahoga Falls, or maybe it was in Akron, it was right on the edge. I grew up in a suburb of Akron. And she used to drop me there on Saturdays sometimes when she had things to do, and they had double and triple features of really monster movies, Sci-Fi movies, horror movies. So this was my first real experience of movies, so it was “Attack Of The Giant Crab Monsters” and that kind of stuff. But she later was very – she always would talk to me about movies. She had quite – still has a quite good sense of memory, of knowledge of Hollywood actors and directors, and, you know, we still – we talk about movies still.

GROSS: So when you were alone in movie theaters ’cause your mother dropped you off while she did errands or whatever…

JARMUSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: …Did any strangers ever approach you?

JARMUSCH: No, never. It was more like a lot of wild kids. Like, you had to kind of learn the ropes of the theater so that if you – you didn’t want to sit – I learned the hard way, you don’t want to sit under the balcony because projectiles are going to come down…

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: …Including, like, half chewed milk duds and popcorn and stuff. So you kind of learned where to position yourself, where the best seats were. I still kind of prefer being, like, two-thirds of the way back in the center of a theater, depending on the screen size. But that became a bit problematic with its positioning under the balcony. So I had to kind of learn these things. But, no, I never had, you know, there were a lot of wild kids. It was our – we were kind of in a kind of lockdown where we got to go crazy. And it was very enjoyable.

But I never quite knew what was going to happen in there. There were a few fights that broke out, but we’re talking – these are fights among 10-year-olds. So it wasn’t (laughter) – it wasn’t, like, gang violence or anything. And – but, yeah, often she’d leave me there alone. So I would – I wasn’t with friends. But nothing really weird ever happened to me.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch, thank you so much for talking with us.

JARMUSCH: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed the new film “Paterson” and directed the recent documentary “Gimme Danger” about Iggy and the Stooges. The documentary is now available for streaming on Amazon. Coming up, LA Times film critic Justin Chang talks about the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. This is FRESH AIR.

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‘Six Wakes’ Is A Nerve-Tingling Interstellar Murder Mystery


Imagine waking up on a malfunctioning spaceship: The artificial gravity is disabled. Blood floats through the air. And the corpse that blood is coming from is … your own. Kind of. You’re a clone — and your original self, along with most of your crewmates, are dead. As your ship plummets through interstellar space, off course and carrying thousands of hibernating colonists to the planet Artemis, you and your fellow clones take on a daunting task: solving the mystery of what happened to the six people from whom you were cloned. Was it mass murder? Mass suicide? Or something far more complicated and sinister?

This is the predicament facing Maria Arena and the other five crewmembers of the Dormire at the start of Six Wakes, the new novel by Mur Lafferty. It’s the 25th century, and Earth is a mess. Wracked by climate change, wars over dwindling water, and clone uprisings, civilization is disintegrating — and those wealthy enough to afford a life raft book passage on the Dormire, setting out for a fresh start among the stars. Maria and company not only have to confront their terrifying new reality — that a killer may float among them — they have to deal with the submerged memories of their prior incarnations. As it turns out, each of these clones has secrets that not even they are fully aware of — and a conspiracy that’s centuries old lurks behind them.

Lafferty is best known for her groundbreaking working as a geek-culture podcaster, but over the last couple years she’s come into her own as a novelist — and Six Wakes drives that point home. With pitch-perfect pacing and dialogue, she unfolds the investigation aboard the Dormire with chilling grace. Flashbacks to the clones’ prior lives heighten the accelerating tension, suspicions, and peril aboard the ship. And the climax comes together like a Rube Goldberg device, a beautifully constructed, circular firing squad of guilt, regret, and haunting memory that leaves no character unchanged. While forcefully character-driven, the book also digs into the hard sci-fi of gene hacking, clone politics, and the inner workings of the Dormire itself, a three-mile-long “giant metal jelly roll” inhabited by an artificial intelligence named IAN who has his own part to play in the drama.

Six Wakes is prefaced by a list of seven laws governing the existence of clones, established in the year 2282. They’re reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics — and the similarity feels wholly intentional. Like Asimov’s work, Six Wakes offers a set of science-fictional rules that, of course, are going to be bent, broken, and tested throughout the story. Ethical and philosophical dilemmas abound, from the definition of the individual to the nature of identity. Rather than posing them abstractly, Lafferty tethers these big quandaries to an exquisitely wound plot, one that shifts from whodunit to howdunit to whydunit with a breathless sense of escalation.

Along the way, the very notions of causality and culpability are flipped around, poked, and interrogated. If people can be cloned and imprinted with a copy of their psyches — or mindmaps, as they’re called — how does that alter the parameters of personal responsibility and moral truth? As much depth as these intellectual conundrums bring to the story, Lafferty never lets them overpower what Six Wakes, at its core, truly is: a taut, nerve-tingling, interstellar murder mystery with a deeply human heart.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Critic Says This Year’s Sundance Was The ‘Most Fraught’ He Can Recall




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This year’s Sundance Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend. It’s held every January in Park City, Utah and is attended by filmmakers, film executives, distributors, journalists, critics and film fans. Our producer Ann Marie Baldonado went to the festival to scout films for us to cover on our show in the coming months. She invited LA Times film critic Justin Chang to talk with us about this year’s festival. Justin has been attending for 12 years.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Justin Chang, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JUSTIN CHANG: Thank you.

BALDONADO: Now, the Sundance Film Festival just ended this past weekend. But when the festival opened, it was still the Obama administration. And when the festival started, I think there was this effort to kind of keep politics on the sideline. That’s something that Robert Redford, you know, the founder of the festival kind of said when he opened the festival, even though it did open with an Al Gore documentary. But then politics still ended up finding a way of becoming a constant undercurrent of the whole festival.

Can you talk about how it sort of started that way and kind of slowly maybe changed over?

CHANG: Yes, I would say that’s right. I think that the festival found itself in a tricky position and wanting to support the political protest but without kind of making a direct show of its support, perhaps. But, you know, it’s complicated because, of course, Robert Redford, I was there when he introduced “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power,” you know, Al Gore’s latest climate change documentary. And he was very warm and introduced Al Gore as, you know, a very good friend of his.

And of course, you know, the festival has shown any number of climate change documentaries over the years and has in general just shown a lot of films that promote the kinds of progressive causes that, I think, motivate people to stand against what the Trump administration represents. And you’re right, it was funny how you kind of went up the mountain in one regime and (laughter) came down the mountain in another regime. And so that kind of – there’s something kind of surreal about that. And on top of that, the inauguration, the Women’s March and then we had Oscar nominations on Tuesday (laughter) right after the first weekend.

BALDONADO: Right.

CHANG: So it was kind of the craziest, most fraught Sundance I can remember and so far as the festival was just so sort of kind of bedeviled by all these outside things going on. And even though there were very good films at Sundance, I think all of that extra noise sort of overshadowed the films a bit. And, you know, I think many good ones still got recognized and still got seen, still got reviewed, still got purchased. But overall, there was – it seemed to be, like, film is important, but it’s not all about film.

There seemed to be this kind of humility, I think, in terms of how the festival regarded itself.

BALDONADO: Let’s talk about some of the films that you saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Can you talk about what your favorite film is that you saw?

CHANG: My favorite film of the festival was “Call Me By Your Name,” which is the latest film from the Italian director Luca Guadagnino. He previously directed “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash.” This is an adaptation of a novel by Andre Aciman, which was published in 2007. It’s about an American Jewish 17-year-old boy who’s living in Northern Italy with his family, who are academics. And it’s about the love affair that he has with someone who’s staying as an academic houseguest with them over the summer.

And the boy is played by Timothee Chalamet, and the older man that he falls in love with is played by Armie Hammer. And this is just such an exquisitely sensual film that is kind of a revelation to encounter in a place like Park City, Utah. It’s like you walk into a theater out of the freezing cold and suddenly you’re plunged into this sun-drenched Italian paradise where people are drinking fresh fruit juice and wine. And you just – you just kind of lean back and sigh. And you just want to go to that place (laughter), you know? And for a little more than two hours, you are in that place.

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about another movie, “Beatriz At Dinner,” which is…

CHANG: Yes.

BALDONADO: …Written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Arteta. They together have worked on different films, including “Chuck And Buck,” “The Good Girl” and the TV show “Enlightened.” And it stars Salma Hayek and also John Lithgow. And of the films, perhaps it’s the one that hits kind of most directly. There’s kind of a Trump-like figure, like, a real estate mogul in this movie. Can you describe the movie? And by the way, it is a great turn by Salma Hayek. She’s great in this film.

CHANG: It’s a terrific performance by Salma Hayek. Possibly her best, I would say. And it’s so controlled. And she plays this Mexican-born masseuse or therapist. And she is visiting a client in this Newport Beach estate and her car breaks down, and so she has to stay for dinner. And dinner is with this, as you say, Trumpian kind of figure played wonderfully by John Lithgow. And so it was so interesting to walk into this movie and be confronted with the first kind of real cinematic allegory of the Trump era.

I mean, it feels like it went into production on November 9 (laughter), you know, and somehow miraculously was finished by then. I mean, I think, you know, during the Q and A afterward Mike White, the screenwriter, did say of course he meant it to be timely, but he did not realize just how timely it would become.

BALDONADO: Right.

CHANG: And that’s an interesting phenomenon with Sundance in general because, you know, the programmers, you know, who were selecting the films were doing so at a time when it was assumed that even though it was not necessarily a slam dunk, but that Hillary Clinton would win the election. And so in a way, the films that were selected have a different kind of resonance now, now that we’re living in a different reality. But “Beatriz At Dinner” is a really, really good film. It’s really absorbing. At first it seems a little bit like the satire – the kind of class satire, you know, the haves and have-nots – is a little forced and over-calculated. But I think it really takes it into a really interesting place.

BALDONADO: One of the things that usually gets reported coming out of Sundance is how much certain movies went for, who buys a movie in order to release it in theaters. And last year was the first time that screening services like Netflix and Amazon Studios started to buy films in a big way. For example, last year, Amazon paid $10 million for “Manchester By The Sea,” which, you know, is still in the news right now because it’s – has a lot of Oscar nominations.

And, of course, the other big story from last year was how Fox Searchlight paid over $17 million for the film “The Birth Of A Nation,” which was the biggest Sundance buy in history and for various reasons, one of them being the resurfacing of a rape trial of the writer, director and star, Nate Parker, that sort of got in the way of that film. Do you see any similar stories this year?

CHANG: Yeah. It’s interesting because one of the films at Sundance, “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees, sort of, I think, drew some early comparisons to “Birth Of A Nation,” which is a bit unfair just because they happen to be largely about black people and black subjects. You know, and “Mudbound” is a very good film which is set during the 1940s, during World War II. And it’s kind of focused on two Mississippi families, one black and one white, kind of in the shadow of World War II. And so it’s a study of racial discord during that period. So – and I think that there was a bit of a bidding war over this film. It eventually sold to Netflix, I believe. I was not privy to the negotiations or anything, of course.

But I – you know, I believe that, you know, a film like “The Birth Of A Nation,” fairly or not, was probably in their minds as they were trying to figure out the right price. And, you know, distributors wondering how much they – how enthusiastically they wanted to bid on this. You know, another film, “The Big Sick,” sold to Amazon for $12 million. And I think this film is going to be a real hit. And I certainly hope it is.

This is Kumail Nanjiani’s film, or he co-wrote it and stars in it. It’s directed by Michael Showalter. And it’s a semi-autobiographical film about the early days of his relationship with his now-wife, Emily V. Gordon, who’s played in the film by Zoe Kazan, and Mr. Nanjiani plays himself. And it’s a wonderful film. And it’s very stealthily radical, I think, because on the surface it’s just this, you know, very sweet and funny crowd-pleasing comedy with a sort of dramatic, borderline tear-jerking element.

But because it’s about an interracial relationship, that kind of radicalizes it for me in some ways. And I think we’re just so not used to seeing a relationship between a white woman and a Pakistani-American man who happens to be a struggling stand-up comedian as well. And this movie just gets into so many different layers of cross-generational conflict, cross-cultural conflict, the generation gap between, you know, immigrant parents and their children. I think it’s really a really deft film that walks that line between all those tensions and also the tension between comedy and drama with enormous grace and flair. And I really hope that people will see this movie.

GROSS: Justin Chang spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Justin is a film critic for The LA Times.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee – oops – I think we’re taking a break here and then getting back to more of the interview with Justin Chang. So we’ll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the conversation our producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with LA Times film critic Justin Chang about the Sundance Film Festival which they both attended. It wrapped up over the weekend.

BALDONADO: Now, another thing we haven’t touched on that much is the documentaries that premiered at Sundance, and there were a lot of them that were very well received and also that were purchased and – which means that people will either see them in theaters or on a streaming service. Were there any documentaries that you’d like to highlight?

CHANG: Yeah. One documentary that I really liked was “Icarus” in which the filmmaker, Brian Fogleman – you know, it starts off as kind of a Morgan Spurlock “Super Size Me” kind of premise where he’s trying to see if he can get away with doping for a bicycle race, you know, kind of this is sort of happening in the shadow of Lance Armstrong’s downfall. And so he’s trying to – while being very transparent about it, of course, with the camera to see if he can, you know, get away with it what is – and to kind of get a sense of just how extensive, you know, doping is in cycling.

And he calls on this Russian doctor, and the film takes just an extraordinary turn where it effectively becomes an expose of the Russian doping scandal that caused such an uproar at the past Olympics. And, you know, it’s a really compelling documentary, a little bit long, perhaps. I think there – you know, there’s some room for some restructuring partly because I think they’re trying to prepare this twist and even – and I haven’t given anything away. It’s just fascinating the twists and turns that this movie takes. And, again, another documentary that’s very hard to watch without thinking about our current situation and kind of the rumors of, you know, Russian involvement elsewhere on the international stage.

Another documentary that I liked which is, perhaps, about a much more frivolous subject, but just goes to show that there is no subject too frivolous to be made into a documentary. And that was “78/52″ which is Alexandre O. Philippe’s film completely devoted to the shower scene in “Psycho,” and this movie is sort of catnip for critics, I think, who, you know – as I – you know, Hitchcock and “Psycho” in particular – really formative experiences for me. And so to have a film that is devoted just to minute by minute, second to second analysis of, perhaps, the most famous scene in movie history and one of the most kind of significant, it’s just a joy.

And he interviews so many people like Peter Bogdanovich, the filmmaker, Elijah Wood, Walter Murch, people who just analyze and pick apart the scene and all of its meanings and implications. It’s just a really, really wonderful piece of film scholarship, and it’s shot completely in black and white which is very appropriate, of course.

BALDONADO: So one of the big prizes at Sundance is the U.S. Grand Jury Prize Dramatic, so that’s for dramatic fictional films. And over the past couple of years, some of the winners have included “Whiplash” which is Damien Chazelle’s movie, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,” “Fruitvale Station.” Last year’s was “The Birth Of A Nation.” Can you talk about this year’s winner?

CHANG: The Grand Jury Prize went to a very good film that I liked – “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore,” directed by Macon Blair. And it stars Melanie Lynskey, who’s terrific as this woman who is robbed, her home is burglarized, and she is just so beaten down by life. And the movie is just the story of how she takes control and just decides to not take it lying down anymore. And it takes some extremely funny, extremely violent turns – very risky.

It was kind of a surprising pick, I think, for the Grand Jury Prize-winner, not only because it’s such a dark and funny and tonally kind of, you know, weird movie, but also because it screened on the very first day of the festival. But then again, so did “Whiplash” two years ago. So sometimes they just like what they like best.

BALDONADO: Justin Chang, thanks for coming to talk about Sundance.

CHANG: Thank you, Ann Marie. It’s been a pleasure.

GROSS: Justin Chang spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Justin is film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, as well as constitutional and legal questions raised by actions of the Trump administration with legal journalist Jeffrey Rosen who is now the president of the National Constitution Center. I hope you’ll join us.

FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Therese Madden directed today’s show. I’m Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Fact Or Fiction? Even When It Comes To Food, It’s Hard To Tell With Rasputin


Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


hide caption

toggle caption

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

He was Russia’s Mad Monk. A pale, bearded, wiry, horny, green-eyed debauch who was the preeminent power broker of the Romanov dynasty in its waning years. A party fiend, a drinker, a healer and a prophet who was poisoned, shot, drowned, and burned by his enemies.

But was he really?

The answer is, we will never know. The life of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant who, through a charismatic combination of spiritual and sexual power, rose to become chief mentor to Alexandra, the last czarina of Russia, is such a thick borscht of fact and fiction that it’s hard to distinguish the truth from the lies.

But historian Douglas Smith, in his magnificently researched new book, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs, attempts to do precisely that. It’s a herculean task, for as we soon learn, even when it comes to something as seemingly uncontroversial as food, there are competing versions of the truth.

Did Rasputin have a sweet tooth? Was he a glutton who feasted on champagne, ice-cream, expensive fish, and caviar? Did he really lick his fingers at the dinner table and hold them out for the grand dames of Saint Petersburg’s salons to kiss?

As Rasputin’s notoriety spread and his hold over the lonely and impressionable empress tightened – she fervently believed he could soothe and protect her hemophilic son and heir to the throne, Alexei – whispers about him being a wicked, orgiastic cultist began to grow, as did his list of enemies. It was put about that the rube who once slurped on cabbage soup and raw garlic now glutted himself on the finest fruit, fish, caviar and champagne. It turns out that while Rasputin’s love of fresh fruit – oranges, strawberries – was real enough, the rest of the menu was made up.

Rasputin

Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

by Douglas Smith

Hardcover, 817 pages |

purchase

“He did not eat too much or rich, heavy foods,” says Smith. “He kept a simple table. It may have at times been loaded with fancy foods and drink, but these were gifts from admirers and petitioners trying to curry favor. He liked ukha —fish soup — and dark bread, radishes, onions and other plain vegetables. He drank tea, like nearly every Russian. Also, note that Rasputin never became fat or really even portly. His body remained trim his whole life.”

His table manners, it is true, were alarming. His beard was flecked with food, he licked the spoon before using it to serve others, tore the bread and fish apart with his fingers and wiped them on the table cloth. Some were revolted by his crudeness, others saw it as part of his charm, and it’s quite possible that he exaggerated his gaucherie to set himself apart from the effete and mannered aristocracy. He cast such a spell on his worshipful female followers that they were known to kiss his freshly licked fingers, and vie for the leftover crusts of bread on his plate.

It was Rasputin’s rootedness, however, that made him sensitive to the hunger pangs of ordinary Russians. He immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg – the food transportation system had broken down as a result of the First World War – were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution.

Rasputin driving his carriage. Of peasant stock himself, this close adviser to the czarina immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution. His warnings went unheeded.

Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Genuinely stricken to learn that corn was rotting in the imperial warehouses while the people starved, he sent telegrams to Czar Nicholas II, who was away fighting the Germans on the front line, begging him to increase food supplies. But Nicholas – despite Rasputin’s missives, the labor strikes, the 300 percent inflation, and simmering anger in Moscow and Petrograd (the city ‘s new name that replaced the German-sounding Saint Petersburg) – did nothing.

Rasputin tried to get Alexandra to distribute food in the streets to show that she felt the people’s pain, and though she seemed agreeable, it never happened. He even wrote to senior government officials appealing for action – short, unpunctuated notes that testify to the sincerity of his pleas:

kind dear apologies forgive me much meat is needed, let Piter [Petrograd] eat, listen help rosputin

kind dear apologies allow oats taken, much woe in zlaenburg province, lots of oats, Petrograd cart drivers are worried, that’s not good, Siberia is full of lard please feed Petrograd and Moscow

“His notes were often scribbled and hard to decipher. His grammar and spelling were atrocious. His meaning was often hard to make out,” says Smith. “But yes, Rasputin was very serious about the food problems in Petrograd. The czar did not heed his advice, regrettably.”

Rasputin proved fatally prophetic. The February 1917 Russian Revolution was ignited by food riots, when hungry marchers stormed the legendary Filipov Bakery, whose delectable black breads, piroshky, kopeck buns, and chocolate cakes were daily delivered to the czar’s palace. The Cossacks, called out to quell the riot, refused to open fire. A petulant Alexandra, sounding like Marie Antoinette, relayed it all in a letter to her husband: “They smashed Filipov’s bakery completely. … A hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite…”

By then, Rasputin, whom Alexandra lovingly called “our dear Friend,” had been dead for two months — murdered in the early hours of Dec. 30, 1916 (Dec. 17, according to the Russian calendar then in use).

Which brings us to his sweet tooth.

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Several biographies state that Rasputin was exceedingly fond of sugar – with one even citing his black teeth as proof. But his daughter Maria flatly states that her father disliked sweets. A trivial point of discrepancy — except that it has a bearing on how he died. The standard version is that Rasputin’s murderers, a group of monarchists led by Prince Yusupov, knowing of his supposed weakness for sweets, laced cakes and wine with cyanide and served them to him, and, when he miraculously survived the poison, shot him dead.

So whom do we believe? Smith is unequivocal. “I believe his daughter,” he says. “The stories that he loved sweets come from less-than-reliable sources. Black teeth? Hard to say. I’ve never seen a single photograph of him with his mouth open. The love of sweets belongs, I would say, to the realm of myth.”

And while it’s true that the 48-year-old Rasputin was lured to a cellar and served cake and wine on his last night (perhaps Yusupov & Co. bought into the sweet-tooth myth as well) while Yankee Doodle played on the gramophone, neither contained any poison. The autopsy report said as much.

“As I write in the book, either no poison (real or fake) was used, or it was substituted for something else — maybe ground-up aspirin,” says Smith. “The entire description of the murder, which comes to us from the memoirs of Prince Yusupov, is highly unreliable, if entertaining.”

Rasputin’s excessive fondness for Madeira is undisputed. “Go on, drink, God will forgive you,” he would urge his dinner companions. “I love wine,” he declared in 1916, by which time he had become a functioning alcoholic.

His daughter Maria, while admitting that her father’s drinking was out of control, said he was far from a typical booze-hard. “She noticed,” writes Smith, “how he never spoke so beautifully about God as when he was drunk.”

Nor dance so well. After a few glasses, Rasputin was known to leap to his feet in his tall, patent leather boots and dance with ecstatic abandon to the music of three minstrel gypsies who accompanied him to his evening parties.

What comes as a surprise then, is to learn that the Madeira Monk supported the temperance movement, speaking out against the scourge of vodka and endorsing the Sobriety Society in his village. Smith spotlights this paradoxical nugget:

“I would not say I’m the first to write about this, but no previous biographer has explored it in such depth,” he says. “It is a definite puzzle, given his own troubles with the bottle in his latter years. I’m still not fully certain how much of the press coverage about his support for the temperance movement was genuine or ‘fake news.’ It’s difficult to say for certain.”

Smith’s comprehensive biography portrays an intriguingly multifaceted figure who enjoyed power and had a seductive vitality, but who was also an earthy and compassionate family man. It’s a far cry from the demonic Rasputin of the irresistibly catchy 1978 Boney-M song, with its fantastical claim that Ra-Ra Rasputin was a “lover of the Russian queen” and “Russia’s greatest love machine.” The former is salacious gossip. The latter is hard to prove, but in the succinct words of another historian, Robert K. Massie, “He would send out for prostitutes late at night as people might send out for pizza.”

Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

‘Six Wakes’ Is A Nerve-Tingling Interstellar Murder Mystery


Imagine waking up on a malfunctioning spaceship: The artificial gravity is disabled. Blood floats through the air. And the corpse that blood is coming from is … your own. Kind of. You’re a clone — and your original self, along with most of your crewmates, are dead. As your ship plummets through interstellar space, off course and carrying thousands of hibernating colonists to the planet Artemis, you and your fellow clones take on a daunting task: solving the mystery of what happened to the six people from whom you were cloned. Was it mass murder? Mass suicide? Or something far more complicated and sinister?

This is the predicament facing Maria Arena and the other five crewmembers of the Dormire at the start of Six Wakes, the new novel by Mur Lafferty. It’s the 25th century, and Earth is a mess. Wracked by climate change, wars over dwindling water, and clone uprisings, civilization is disintegrating — and those wealthy enough to afford a life raft book passage on the Dormire, setting out for a fresh start among the stars. Maria and company not only have to confront their terrifying new reality — that a killer may float among them — they have to deal with the submerged memories of their prior incarnations. As it turns out, each of these clones has secrets that not even they are fully aware of — and a conspiracy that’s centuries old lurks behind them.

Lafferty is best known for her groundbreaking working as a geek-culture podcaster, but over the last couple years she’s come into her own as a novelist — and Six Wakes drives that point home. With pitch-perfect pacing and dialogue, she unfolds the investigation aboard the Dormire with chilling grace. Flashbacks to the clones’ prior lives heighten the accelerating tension, suspicions, and peril aboard the ship. And the climax comes together like a Rube Goldberg device, a beautifully constructed, circular firing squad of guilt, regret, and haunting memory that leaves no character unchanged. While forcefully character-driven, the book also digs into the hard sci-fi of gene hacking, clone politics, and the inner workings of the Dormire itself, a three-mile-long “giant metal jelly roll” inhabited by an artificial intelligence named IAN who has his own part to play in the drama.

Six Wakes is prefaced by a list of seven laws governing the existence of clones, established in the year 2282. They’re reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics — and the similarity feels wholly intentional. Like Asimov’s work, Six Wakes offers a set of science-fictional rules that, of course, are going to be bent, broken, and tested throughout the story. Ethical and philosophical dilemmas abound, from the definition of the individual to the nature of identity. Rather than posing them abstractly, Lafferty tethers these big quandaries to an exquisitely wound plot, one that shifts from whodunit to howdunit to whydunit with a breathless sense of escalation.

Along the way, the very notions of causality and culpability are flipped around, poked, and interrogated. If people can be cloned and imprinted with a copy of their psyches — or mindmaps, as they’re called — how does that alter the parameters of personal responsibility and moral truth? As much depth as these intellectual conundrums bring to the story, Lafferty never lets them overpower what Six Wakes, at its core, truly is: a taut, nerve-tingling, interstellar murder mystery with a deeply human heart.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Fact Or Fiction? Even When It Comes To Food, It’s Hard To Tell With Rasputin


Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


hide caption

toggle caption

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk’s leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s czarina whisperer, still swirl.

RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

He was Russia’s Mad Monk. A pale, bearded, wiry, horny, green-eyed debauch who was the preeminent power broker of the Romanov dynasty in its waning years. A party fiend, a drinker, a healer and a prophet who was poisoned, shot, drowned, and burned by his enemies.

But was he really?

The answer is, we will never know. The life of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant who, through a charismatic combination of spiritual and sexual power, rose to become chief mentor to Alexandra, the last czarina of Russia, is such a thick borscht of fact and fiction that it’s hard to distinguish the truth from the lies.

But historian Douglas Smith, in his magnificently researched new book, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs, attempts to do precisely that. It’s a herculean task, for as we soon learn, even when it comes to something as seemingly uncontroversial as food, there are competing versions of the truth.

Did Rasputin have a sweet tooth? Was he a glutton who feasted on champagne, ice-cream, expensive fish, and caviar? Did he really lick his fingers at the dinner table and hold them out for the grand dames of Saint Petersburg’s salons to kiss?

As Rasputin’s notoriety spread and his hold over the lonely and impressionable empress tightened – she fervently believed he could soothe and protect her hemophilic son and heir to the throne, Alexei – whispers about him being a wicked, orgiastic cultist began to grow, as did his list of enemies. It was put about that the rube who once slurped on cabbage soup and raw garlic now glutted himself on the finest fruit, fish, caviar and champagne. It turns out that while Rasputin’s love of fresh fruit – oranges, strawberries – was real enough, the rest of the menu was made up.

Rasputin

Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

by Douglas Smith

Hardcover, 817 pages |

purchase

“He did not eat too much or rich, heavy foods,” says Smith. “He kept a simple table. It may have at times been loaded with fancy foods and drink, but these were gifts from admirers and petitioners trying to curry favor. He liked ukha —fish soup — and dark bread, radishes, onions and other plain vegetables. He drank tea, like nearly every Russian. Also, note that Rasputin never became fat or really even portly. His body remained trim his whole life.”

His table manners, it is true, were alarming. His beard was flecked with food, he licked the spoon before using it to serve others, tore the bread and fish apart with his fingers and wiped them on the table cloth. Some were revolted by his crudeness, others saw it as part of his charm, and it’s quite possible that he exaggerated his gaucherie to set himself apart from the effete and mannered aristocracy. He cast such a spell on his worshipful female followers that they were known to kiss his freshly licked fingers, and vie for the leftover crusts of bread on his plate.

It was Rasputin’s rootedness, however, that made him sensitive to the hunger pangs of ordinary Russians. He immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg – the food transportation system had broken down as a result of the First World War – were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution.

Rasputin driving his carriage. Of peasant stock himself, this close adviser to the czarina immediately recognized that the serpentine bread lines in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were dangerous and contained the seeds of revolution. His warnings went unheeded.

Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


hide caption

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Fülöp-Miller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Genuinely stricken to learn that corn was rotting in the imperial warehouses while the people starved, he sent telegrams to Czar Nicholas II, who was away fighting the Germans on the front line, begging him to increase food supplies. But Nicholas – despite Rasputin’s missives, the labor strikes, the 300 percent inflation, and simmering anger in Moscow and Petrograd (the city ‘s new name that replaced the German-sounding Saint Petersburg) – did nothing.

Rasputin tried to get Alexandra to distribute food in the streets to show that she felt the people’s pain, and though she seemed agreeable, it never happened. He even wrote to senior government officials appealing for action – short, unpunctuated notes that testify to the sincerity of his pleas:

kind dear apologies forgive me much meat is needed, let Piter [Petrograd] eat, listen help rosputin

kind dear apologies allow oats taken, much woe in zlaenburg province, lots of oats, Petrograd cart drivers are worried, that’s not good, Siberia is full of lard please feed Petrograd and Moscow

“His notes were often scribbled and hard to decipher. His grammar and spelling were atrocious. His meaning was often hard to make out,” says Smith. “But yes, Rasputin was very serious about the food problems in Petrograd. The czar did not heed his advice, regrettably.”

Rasputin proved fatally prophetic. The February 1917 Russian Revolution was ignited by food riots, when hungry marchers stormed the legendary Filipov Bakery, whose delectable black breads, piroshky, kopeck buns, and chocolate cakes were daily delivered to the czar’s palace. The Cossacks, called out to quell the riot, refused to open fire. A petulant Alexandra, sounding like Marie Antoinette, relayed it all in a letter to her husband: “They smashed Filipov’s bakery completely. … A hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite…”

By then, Rasputin, whom Alexandra lovingly called “our dear Friend,” had been dead for two months — murdered in the early hours of Dec. 30, 1916 (Dec. 17, according to the Russian calendar then in use).

Which brings us to his sweet tooth.

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This portrait of Rasputin, looking very much like a Mad Monk, was painted by Alexander Raevsky and commissioned by a female acolyte. Exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1912, the portrait was lost during the Russian Revolution, but photographs survived.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Several biographies state that Rasputin was exceedingly fond of sugar – with one even citing his black teeth as proof. But his daughter Maria flatly states that her father disliked sweets. A trivial point of discrepancy — except that it has a bearing on how he died. The standard version is that Rasputin’s murderers, a group of monarchists led by Prince Yusupov, knowing of his supposed weakness for sweets, laced cakes and wine with cyanide and served them to him, and, when he miraculously survived the poison, shot him dead.

So whom do we believe? Smith is unequivocal. “I believe his daughter,” he says. “The stories that he loved sweets come from less-than-reliable sources. Black teeth? Hard to say. I’ve never seen a single photograph of him with his mouth open. The love of sweets belongs, I would say, to the realm of myth.”

And while it’s true that the 48-year-old Rasputin was lured to a cellar and served cake and wine on his last night (perhaps Yusupov & Co. bought into the sweet-tooth myth as well) while Yankee Doodle played on the gramophone, neither contained any poison. The autopsy report said as much.

“As I write in the book, either no poison (real or fake) was used, or it was substituted for something else — maybe ground-up aspirin,” says Smith. “The entire description of the murder, which comes to us from the memoirs of Prince Yusupov, is highly unreliable, if entertaining.”

Rasputin’s excessive fondness for Madeira is undisputed. “Go on, drink, God will forgive you,” he would urge his dinner companions. “I love wine,” he declared in 1916, by which time he had become a functioning alcoholic.

His daughter Maria, while admitting that her father’s drinking was out of control, said he was far from a typical booze-hard. “She noticed,” writes Smith, “how he never spoke so beautifully about God as when he was drunk.”

Nor dance so well. After a few glasses, Rasputin was known to leap to his feet in his tall, patent leather boots and dance with ecstatic abandon to the music of three minstrel gypsies who accompanied him to his evening parties.

What comes as a surprise then, is to learn that the Madeira Monk supported the temperance movement, speaking out against the scourge of vodka and endorsing the Sobriety Society in his village. Smith spotlights this paradoxical nugget:

“I would not say I’m the first to write about this, but no previous biographer has explored it in such depth,” he says. “It is a definite puzzle, given his own troubles with the bottle in his latter years. I’m still not fully certain how much of the press coverage about his support for the temperance movement was genuine or ‘fake news.’ It’s difficult to say for certain.”

Smith’s comprehensive biography portrays an intriguingly multifaceted figure who enjoyed power and had a seductive vitality, but who was also an earthy and compassionate family man. It’s a far cry from the demonic Rasputin of the irresistibly catchy 1978 Boney-M song, with its fantastical claim that Ra-Ra Rasputin was a “lover of the Russian queen” and “Russia’s greatest love machine.” The former is salacious gossip. The latter is hard to prove, but in the succinct words of another historian, Robert K. Massie, “He would send out for prostitutes late at night as people might send out for pizza.”

Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

‘Breaking News’ Artists Use Mass Media As Their Medium


An exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles features some 200 works of news-inspired art, dating back to the 1960s. Above, The Air Power of the World from Masao Mochizuki’s 1976 “Television” series.

Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris


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Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris

An exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles features some 200 works of news-inspired art, dating back to the 1960s. Above, The Air Power of the World from Masao Mochizuki’s 1976 “Television” series.

Wilson Centre for Photography/Masao Mochizuki, courtesy of Osiris

Breaking news is everywhere, 24 hours a day. And now, it’s made its way into an art gallery as well — in an exhibit called “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media.” In Los Angeles, a Getty Museum show examines artists’ reactions to mass media in decades past.

The exhibit includes more than 200 photos and videos, from 17 different artists. They’re not photojournalists — these artists take the work of photojournalists, and turn it into something else.

They appropriate images of terrorism, war, natural disasters. For two of the artists, the Vietnam War is a major theme; They lifted deeply disturbing images from magazines, newspapers, TV screens, and collaged or manipulated them to reflect their horror at the war. (Caution: As you scroll down further, you’ll come to some of those disturbing images.)

Balloons is a part of Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series.

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY


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The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Balloons is a part of Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” series.

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Martha Rosler clipped a Life magazine color photograph of a handsome 1960s living room, and on top of it, pasted a shot of a devastated, Vietnamese man carrying his blood-spattered child. The sobering juxtaposition brings the war into the American living room.

“Often these images from Vietnam were appearing in the exact same issues as these interior scenes,” explains Arpad Kovacs, who curated the show.

A reader could easily flip through the magazine and miss one or the other. But the artist intervenes. “What it does is it makes America confront two different realities. …” says Kovacs. “It’s very political, it’s very aggressive. But it’s meant to be. You know, a lot of these pictures initially circulated in underground magazines. These are pictures that are not on the fence. They really stake a claim and stand for something.”

Rosler was a student of John Baldessari — the 85-year-old artist is an iconic figure in the Los Angeles art world, with works in major American museums. He, too, manipulates photographs, adding text, and lettering. He once had students in his Conceptual Art class react to undated, uncaptioned news photos he pinned to a bulletin board. In one news picture, a uniformed man kneels, bending his face to the ground. He could be kissing the ground, or smelling the grass.

“You don’t know,” Baldessari says. Which is exactly the artist’s point — he wanted his students to ponder what was going on in the photo.

Meaning is slippery, Baldessari says.

Donald R. Blumberg’s Untitled work from his series “Daily Photographs, 1969-1970.”

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


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The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Donald R. Blumberg’s Untitled work from his series “Daily Photographs, 1969-1970.”

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

There’s clear meaning, though, in the newspaper photographs Donald Blumberg uses in his art. During the Vietnam years, he had a photo show at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Police occupied the campus during an anti-war student protest. A flying wedge of cops ran by, chasing the students.

“They were trapped in the stairwell of the campus and beaten with clubs,” Blumberg says. And for him, that was the last straw “in thinking I was going to be a decorative, fine art photographer, doing beautiful photographs for people to look at.”

He started clipping news photographs that captured the disaster in Vietnam. He enlarged, and then photographed page one of the New York Daily News — a photo of the massacre in the town of My Lai, with the headline, “GI Shot Child, Walked Away.” Another headline reads “Grenade Is Cut From Prisoner’s Face,” with the X-ray of that face, and the lieutenant who dug out the live grenade with his pocket knife. Around each story, Blumberg shows a thick dark black frame — the black is in memoriam, like the black ribbon worn after a death in the family.

“I like to be as political as I can,” Blumberg says. “One of the ways of being political is through my photography.”

Every day we are bombarded by photographs — more images than we can possibly absorb. For Donald Blumberg and other photographers in this exhibition the magic of still photography is that it stops time. It gives viewers the chance to really look and think about what’s happening in our world.

“I think good art is always about something difficult. Art is more than a pretty picture,” Kovacs says. “Good art is about sort of challenging the status quo and making a statement.”

Through their photographs, these artists are bearing witness for future generations — those who weren’t there when the news actually broke.

Attention Must Be Paid To What ‘The Salesman’ Is Selling


Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group


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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad’s (Shahab Hosseini) marriage is shattered in A Separation.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The first images on screen in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated Iranian drama, The Salesman, look like a spread in House Beautiful — a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite, all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier.

In the next shot, high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini), and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who’ve been rehearsing Death of a Salesman on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls, gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it’s a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment he can rent them. As it happens, it’s not entirely vacated. A woman’s cat and belongings are still there — a woman who neighbors tell them, had many male visitors.

Still, Emad and Rana are desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on. As do their lives. About a week later Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

It’s at this point that the film starts to become morally complicated, something you’ll be expecting if you’ve seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s other films — his Oscar-winning marital drama A Separation, say, or his missing-person conundrum About Elly, both of which put characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations, then settle back to watch what they do.

Farhadi, had been planning to attend the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26, but told the New York Times he changed his plans after President Trump signed an executive order banning visas for 90 days for anyone from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. The director explained in a statement that the “unjust conditions” of the executive order, even if he were to be granted an exception, would be “accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me.” He went on to articulate the hope that “the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”

That faith in the similarities that connect us is inherent in the way he constructed The Salesman, using everything from a construction-site accident to a classic of the American stage to illuminate fault lines in a marriage in Tehran.

The Salesman is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as that apartment was shattered at the film’s beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that — invasions of privacy in Emad’s classroom and his home, judgments about prostitution among actors and among neighbors.

And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it’s also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality. How the formal beats of tragedy in Death of a Salesman, contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing Death of a Salesman, to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury on stage at the man who rented them the apartment.

In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family; Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family — connections that tell you attention has been paid, and that there’s what you might call universal value to what Farhadi’s The Salesman is selling.

‘Perfect Little World’ Imagines Family Drama Inside A Utopian Compound


Utopian communities don’t fare much better in fiction than they do in real life. As the plot usually unfolds, a brave new world loses its luster fast when the failings of its founder are exposed, or when the community itself begins to morph into a cult. Think of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia or Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, two recent novels that have imagined alternative communities and their inevitable crack-up.

How could it be otherwise in fiction? As the Talking Heads told us, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” A novel about heaven, about a successful utopia without sin or tension, would be pretty dull, indeed.

Fortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception.

Wilson broke out with his 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, about two married, avant-garde artists who deploy their children as props in their performance pieces. That novel was ingenious — a whirlwind of screwball comedy, art and sad realizations about the limitations of family.

Wilson is still thinking hard about the idea of family in Perfect Little World. This is in some ways a calmer, less quirky novel, but what Perfect Little World loses in eccentricity, it gains in emotional depth.

Wilson’s story focuses on Isabel “Izzy” Poole, a smart, self-contained, high school senior in Tennessee who falls in love with her depressed art teacher and becomes pregnant. Izzy’s mom is dead, her alcoholic dad is just barely scraping by, and her teacher-lover is too entangled with his own demons to be of any use. Izzy, who’s a quietly compelling character, has decided to keep her baby.

She comes to the attention of something called The Infinite Family Project. Cooked up by a child psychologist named Dr. Grind and funded by a billionaire who cherishes happy memories of being raised in a caring orphanage, the project aims to place 10 infants and their parents in a state-of-the-art commune for 10 years. The children will be raised by all the adults, and for a long stretch, they won’t know who their biological parents are.

The aim is to see if both adults and children are happier and healthier when the pressures of child rearing are widely distributed. Young as she is, Izzy knows this mega blended family is probably doomed, but single motherhood isn’t looking like a walk in the park either. Here’s her rationale for taking a chance on the project:

[Izzy] thought, for the millionth time, of her future as it lay before her without the aid of this project, working two jobs to make ends meet, her son in the cheapest day care she could find, so tired at the end of the day that her baby felt like an unbreakable curse, failing each and every day until the bottom fell out of the world.

Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled.

A year in, a research assistant to Dr. Grind declares: “The kids are going to be great; the parents are the unstable element.” That’s partly because the adults have trouble figuring out what they are to one another: “Brothers and sisters?” “Second cousins?”

One night, as Izzy and some of the other parents are sitting around drinking whiskey smashes, another mom suggests that they’re all “like the cast of Gilligan’s Island.” One of the fathers points out: “There was a lot of sexual tension on that show.” Uh huh. The snake has been let into this nursery-land Eden, which is soon rocked by illicit hook-ups, the likes of which Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann dared not even dream of.

Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged.

The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s “perfect little world” of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.