Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Evening with Richard Russo

Expectations are hard to live up to.... the new book that is over-hyped, the party you've been planning for six months, the prom. You understand where I'm going with this. Richard Russo was in town Tuesday night for the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series. I'd been anticipating this one since September. Richard Russo was the name that tipped the scales toward becoming season ticket holders - no more single lectures for us! My book club took the plunge, subscribed to the series, and at long last, the evening arrived.

The Sunday paper forewarned us that Russo would deliver one of his prepared talks on humor. That sounded good to me. Russo has written some very funny stuff! He has the ability to blend the tragic and comic to produce characters and scenes that will live in my mind for years.

The talk was titled "The Gravestone and The Commode". The gravestone, engraved Nimon, born in Syria 1899, leaned against an apple tree in the backyard of his old Maine home. The commode was temporarily placed on the nearby deck during a bathroom renovation. Russo never really "saw" the gravestone until it was humorously paired in his mind with the commode.

He wondered why the stone didn’t mention where Nimon died. He could picture the stone master yelling at his apprentice. “Simon with an S! Who’s named Nimon?” He wondered why the stone didn’t mark a grave. “How many reasons could there be for not using a gravestone?” Russo asked. “It turned out to only be a head cold?” When we see something unusual, we assign an explanation to make it seem plausible.

Russo believes it's nearly impossible to grow up in this world without a sense of humor, yet humor cannot be taught. It's all in the way you look at something. He spoke of striving to see the world with the wonder of a child's eye.

He believes that in order to be a writer, it is necessary to grow up with at least one voracious reader in the family - for him it was his mother. He told us several other funny stories, including an instance where his own humor ran unbridled at a dinner party (this seemed to particularly delight the crowd) and how humor lightened the mood at his father's wake.

What I had not anticipated was that the entire talk would be read, word for word, with frequent correction of phrases not in the script. I supposed the disappointment to be solely my own, but later learned several others had felt it, too.

The evening concluded with a question and answer period. Finally, Russo seemed to really talk to us! He touched on growing up in Gloversville, NY (where his grandfather actually cut gloves by hand), the article he's working on for Granta magazine, how teaching helped his own writing, and whether he misses the classroom (he doesn't, nor does he miss English department meetings - he does miss the students). If only this segment had lasted a bit longer...

*Photo by Mike Greenlar/Post-Standard


  1. Color me green with envy. I love Russo's books and would have loved to been there.

  2. This sounds hilarious! Glad you enjoyed


  3. I love his thoughts on humour, and I fully agree about the importance of reading, of course. I'm glad you had such a good time :)

  4. I wonder why he doesn't feel comfortable with just running with his ideas and speaking spontaneously???? Glad that you did like the Q&A part!

  5. Well, he probably does two million of these things and it is easier to prepare if he reads versus speaks off-the-cuff. Unfortunately, reading from a script is not all the charming. I'm actually still stuck on the fact that your book club subscribed to this series. I think that is WAY cool.

  6. Sorry you were disappointed in part with the lecture. But I still envy your opportunity.

  7. Diane - Russo is one of my favorites, too!

    Hannah Stoneham - We all had some good laughs that evening!

    Nymeth - His thoughts on the importance of reading struck a chord with me, too.

    Staci - I realize that speaking requires an entirely different skill set from writing, and I fully expected a prepared talk - was just surprised it was read word for word. *sigh*

    Sandy - Like I said to Staci, I was expecting a prepared talk... but with notes, not a script. We love this series, and are finally at a place (kids older, etc) where we can do this.

    Margot - This is such a great series... don't know how they manage to get such great authors to come to a city this size.

  8. '...humor cannot be taught'. I loved that bit. Sounds like an evening that will produce lots of discussion at the next book group!

  9. I wonder if he has trouble speaking 'off the cuff?' Certainly reading your post made it sound fascinating. I've only read one of his books - not sure why.

  10. sounds great - I love Richard Russo's books. I am glad that at least the Q&A was unscripted!

  11. Perhaps he just feels more comfortable with a piece of paper in his hand, though I like what he had to say. Glad he loosened up for the Q&A portion...

  12. I love Russo's writing and I can totally understand your disappointment with his reading instead of speaking for so long. But wow!!! what an evening.

    I love your changing header!

  13. Oh that is too wonderful! And I am still chuckling about your post :)

  14. Darlene - Just looked at my calendar and realized the next meeting is Thursday! I'm sure we'll be talking about this (in addition to The Help).

    Nan - He may very well be uncomfortable speaking 'off the cuff', but you sure couldn't tell from the question and answer period!

    Booksnyc - I just love Russo's books, too. He said even the ones set in Maine are "really in Upstate NY".

    DS - I suspect many writers are more comfortable with paper in their hands! I've always hated public speaking and admire people that are comfortable with it.

    Beth F - Russo has been one of my favorites for years! You're very observant - I just put that header up a couple of days ago. The ice is getting thin - maybe another week until it starts breaking up.

    Sheila (Bookjourney) - Russo is a very funny man. I have a feeling his humor can have a very sarcastic edge at times, too.

  15. I've enjoyed several of Russo's books (Straight Man, Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls) and have The Bridge of Sighs in my stacks. He is very funny, but I think I would've been disappointed in this lecture. At least you had the Q&A segment.

  16. Les - I think Bridge of Sighs may be my favorite Russo yet! I did enjoy the talk - just had my expectations set too high. The Q&A gave a much better opportunity to really hear him though.

  17. That's so good to know since it's been on my nightstand for a couple of years now! You've given me the motivation to get to it sooner than later.


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