PEN World Voices: Reading the World, again

If Resonances rambled like an old jalopy, Reading the World clicked along with all the professionalism and friendliness of a Volvo.

I don’t have much of an ethnicity nor a lot of ethnic pride, but what little I have lies in being half Scandinavian by heritage. And the sleek, modern room, the friendly manner of the staff (the first of four events where I just entered, got smiled at by volunteers, and sat down), and the handsomely friendly old lion in charge of Scandinavia House who welcomed us reminded me of why it’s not nuts to take some tiny pride in having ancestors from Norway and Denmark.

In any case, the readings were a delight: three powerful, professional readings of intense familial stress, ably and cheerfully introduced by NYT Book Review editor Rachel Donadio (wearing a really cool Mondrian-y skirt, appropriate to the Scandinavian design ethos).

I haven’t read Peter Carey, but I was so interested in what he said about His Illegal Self on WNYC a couple months ago, that I gave it to my mother-in-law for her birthday. She returned with a positive report. And Carey got up, joked about the intimidating podium (with only a slender stalk, there was no place to hide one’s legs), and said “All right. I’ll just start at the beginning and read for twelve minutes.” And so he did. He read from this story of a boy whose hippie mom is on the run, being raised not on the Upper East Side, where his grandma feels most at home, but, for safety’s sake, in “ a town of 400 people where no one lived.”

A brilliant phrase, “ a town of 400 people where no one lived,” capturing the anger, fear, and isolation of that woman, so at home in Bloomingdale’s and Zabar’s and luncheons with the ladies who give to the Met.

Hafdan Freihof’s reading from Dear Gabriel was an excruciatingly patient account of a dinner party interrupted by the temper tantrum (is that even a fair term) of an autistic son. Like Geoff, whose experience of the event seems to have been markedly similar to mine, I was under the very strong impression that this is memoir. For me, the great moment in this riveting story was of the father, wandering the rural neighborhood, in the dark, looking for his hiding son, “wherever you are you want to be found like a treasure,” he wrote.

That brought all the desires and pains of girlhood running away flooding back: wanting to be found “like a treasure” and reconciled with mommy and daddy, needing to be reassured that you are treasure, even when naughty. Gorgeous.

Like Geoff, Janet Malcolm’s reading from Two Lives was the highlight for me--for just the reasons he states.

It was nice to end with the reading from the hunky Catalan author Francesc Seres, but I longed to hear him read in Catalan and to have the chance to read a screen or handout in English: his accent was so strong, that too much passed me by.