Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Orlean's 'Rin Tin Tin' and Bell's 'Dead Man' face off

Originally printed Oct. 20, 2011.

Today in the City of Literature, there will be a literary face-off between the long-lived legend of the world's favorite German Shepherd and the musings of a living Dead Man.

A legendary dog

Prairie Lights Books and the Engert Theatre have combined forces to bring Susan Orlean — staff writer at The New Yorker — to Iowa City to read from her new book, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend."

As with all of Orlean's long-form journalism, "Rin Tin Tin" doesn't just tell a simple story; it provides extensive background information on nearly every topic tangentially connected to the main tale.

In this case, readers will be treated to a wealth of detail about the development of the German Shepherd breed, the French battlefields of World War One, the early days of Hollywood and the transformations of radio and television. And that's all in addition to learning about the personal history of Lee Duncan, owner of the first Rin Tin Tin, and the many similarly-named descendants of that original dog.

And as with Orlean's best-known book, "The Orchid Thief" — which was made into the film "Adaptation" — the author herself becomes an essential part of the story. It's Orlean's nostalgic memories of the Rin Tin Tin toys and other memorabilia of her childhood that makes her seek after such a "mysterious and eternal" canine figure.

The reading will begin at 8 p.m. in the Englert. Single tickets are $15 each ($10 for students), but the bookstore and theater are offering the special deal of two tickets and a copy of the book for $27.

The living dead

There's nothing really strange about the pop-cultural resurgence of zombies in everything from recent remakes of George A. Romero movies; to the AMC television series, "The Walking Dead"; to Colson Whitehead's new novel, "Zone One"; to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control posting "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" to the CDC Public Health Matters Blog.

After all, depictions of the undead have long stood symbolically for the soul-sucking effect that society and institutions has on individuals.

But if the zombie apocalypse really does occur, we can only hope that a few of those walking corpses eventually will stumble upon "Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems," the newest collection by former Iowa Poet Laureate and Iowa Writers' Workshop professor emeritus Marvin Bell.

If the right neurons continue to fire in those zombies' decomposing brain — and if they can retain some memory of what written words are meant convey — the living dead readers may discover their non-existent souls rekindled by Bell's poetic ruminations on the repeated Zen admonition, "Live as if you were already dead."

Bell's Dead Man, of course, is not a zombie. He's a Whitmanian everyman who ruminates on all phases of uman history, from the ancient Sumerians to Leno and Letterman. And in the past two decades, he has turned the Dead Man poem into a new literary form.

Bell — alive and well — will be on hand today to read for free from his new collection at 7 p.m. in Prairie Lights. And if you run as if a dead man is chasing you, you'll have just enough time afterward to make it to the Englert to hear Orlean.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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