The Year in Arts and Books
Beggers Can Be Choosers
The Top 10 Arts and Books of 2003
By Steven Robert Allen
Drum roll, please.
After much strained thought and ruthless self-flagellation (smacking myself with a stick helps me think), I've narrowed my favorite arts and literature experiences of 2003 down to this brief list. It hasn't been easy, friends. A lot has happened in 2003. I've seen lots of great plays and exhibits. I've read lots of great books. In the end, though, these are the 10 artsy-litsy thing-a-ma-jing-a-ma-bobs that I felt were truly unforgettable. I present them to you now in no particular order.
1) The Guaymas Chronicles: La Mandadera David E. Stuart
I won't soon forget this gut-wrenching memoir by UNM anthropology professor David E. Stuart about the time he spent in the Mexican Pacific coast village of Guaymas in the early '70s. The book tells the story of the friendships Stuart made with various locals. In particular, The Guaymas Chronicles describes his relationship with a tragic street urchin named Lupita.
The book is fast-paced, funny, horrifying and a joy to read from the first page to the last. Somebody should make this book into a movie. It would work great on the screen as well.
2) Passenger at Rodey Theatre
Outside the theater, men in giant hats and fascistic uniforms ordered us into a queue. A woman shouted orders at us in a foreign language through a bullhorn. We stepped through a metal detector. We were scanned, prodded, sniffed, humiliated. Finally, we entered the theater.
We had boarded a performance of Passenger, a piece by the Czech Republic's Jednotka (Unit) presented during the final weekend of the Revolutions International Theatre Festival 2003. This funny, disturbing look at post-9-11 international travel was definitely one of the most inventive pieces of theater I saw all year, and it was just one example of the kind of top-notch experimental theater those talented Tricklock Company wünderkind brought to Albuquerque as part of their festival. Amazing stuff.
3) Chicano Now at the National Hispanic Cultural Center
This major exhibit culled work from the collection of famous '70s doper Cheech Marin. After Marin hit it big with his Cheech and Chong movies, he invested his newfound wealth in Chicano art. Twenty years later, Marin's collection is acknowledged to be one of the best in the world. Anyone who went to see this exhibit knows how unbelievable it was. Filled with vibrant, original, unpretentious art from some of the best Chicano artists of the last few decades, Chicano Now was an unmissable show. The National Hispanic Cultural Center has taken a lot of guff since it opened, but if it keeps presenting exhibits like this one, I'm sure the nay-sayers will soon be converted.
4) Waiting for Godot at the Tricklock Performance Space
All right, I'll admit I'm a sucker for Samuel Beckett. Sue me. I enjoy laughing at other people's misery and that's exactly what I did for the duration of this production. Directed by Joe Feldman and starring Joe Pesce, John LaFree, William Sterchi and John Baugh, this play manipulated Beckett's bizarre word games better than I could have imagined. In Beckett's universe, humanity is wretched and pathetic, but this cast and crew still managed to make the audience laugh at every turn.
5) The Cosmology and Sexuality of Spent Rocket Ship Parts at the New Fisher Gallery
In this tiny photography show at the New Fisher Gallery, Bruce Shortz presented a series of arresting images of V2 and V4 rocket parts housed at the Space Hall of Fame down in Alamogordo. The Cosmology and Sexuality of Spent Rocket Ship Parts was an intriguing, if somewhat peculiar, examination of the eroticism of heavy machinery. I doubt everyone would like it. Personally, I loved it.
6) Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians
This collection of nine stories about Indians, big and little, probably received more attention than any other book of short stories released this year. Deservedly so. Over the years, Alexie has tried his hand at filmmaking, novels, poetry, even stand-up comedy, but it's his skills as a short story writer that set him apart. Mixing humor with bathos, these tales focus primarily on successful urban Indians trying to cope, just like the rest of us, in the post-9-11 world. He is undoubtedly one of the best short fiction writers currently at work in America.
7) Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism
This book was despised by both liberals and conservatives, therefore it would be natural to assume that it sucked, right? Wrong. Berman makes a powerful argument that liberals need to stand up to the threat posed by Islamic totalitarian terrorists because it's liberal democracy that is most threatened by the likes of Osama bin Laden. Erudite but readable, providing lots of compact, useful historical context, Berman gives liberals an intellectual framework for fighting the war on terror that's worlds apart from the neo-conservative vision of the Bush administration.
8) A Streetcar Named Desire at the Cell Theatre
Fusion Theatre Company's pitch-perfect production of A Streetcar Named Desire was a sweaty, drunken masterpiece. Arron Shiver, who stepped in at the last minute to play Stanley Kowalski, did a fantastic job stomping around the stage like an abusive gorilla. Jacqueline Reid was equally accomplished in the role of his long-suffering wife, Stella. Laurie Thomas, though, as the neurotic belle Blanche, stole the show. A classic bit of classic American theater by one of the classiest theater groups in town.
9) Alfredo Arreguin: Patterns of Dreams and Nature at the National Hispanic Cultural Center
All right. I thought long and hard about this one, but I really have to give credit to a second National Hispanic Cultural Center exhibit from 2003. Gazing into Arreguin's psychoactive depictions of Mexico, the Pacific Northwest and other subjects is like engaging in risk-free drug use. They're so packed with radical patterns and color schemes that I stumbled out of the museum dizzy, clutching my aching skull. It hurt soooo good. This was definitely one of the best shows of the year.
10) Love by Toni Morrison
Last but not least, the grand master of modern American letters returned with a brief but ambitious novel centering around a swanky Blacks-only resort on the East Coast. I hadn't read a Morrison novel in at least 10 years. In the interim, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature and became a target for sniping, envious critics. If Love is any indication, though, Morrison deserves to be praised as one of our greatest novelists of the last 30 years. Her latest novel is emotionally complex and sometimes even funny.
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