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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Talking Volumes at the Fitzgerald Theater (Tuesday, April 20th, 2004)

Tuesday evening I took a break from the rock shows in Minneapolis and headed to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The Fitzgerald, long time Twin Cities stomping grounds of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, has more recently become home to the Rhubarb Show , a music showcase which features veteran as well as up and coming local musicians. Recent musical guests have included some of my favorite musicians like Ben Connelly, Mike Gunther and Coach Said Not To and Heiruspecs. (Check out one of the archived shows here.)

On Tuesday’s agenda at the Fitzgerald, was Talking Volumes, a joint project of the Star Tribune, the Loft Literary Center and Minnesota Public Radio. The program is a kind of live book club in which authors read from their books and field questions from the host and the audience. The program is taped, edited and broadcast the following day on MPR’s Midmorning.

This month’s featured author was Anchee Min, in the Twin Cities to discuss her 2004 Houghton Mifflin book Empress Orchid, an historical novel re-telling the story of Empress Orchid in the final days of the Chinese Empire. It was Anchee Min’s intent to help revise accepted history and present a more human side of a woman who Chinese schoolchildren had been taught for decades was a “mastermind of pure evil and intrigue.”

Tonight’s show marked the move of MPR’s Heather McElhatton, who has produced Talking Volumes for the past four years, from producer of the program to its host. McElhatton did a great job of keeping an uncommonly exuberant author in check and trying to keep the focus of discussion on the actual book during the hour-long interview. Ms. Min has a tendency toward grandstanding, not something that you might expect to see or hear in an author interview. Her dramatic, sometimes melodramatic performance featured her leaping from her chair at one point to demonstrate how she was taught to bayonet American soldiers during the Chinese Cultural Revolution complete with sound effects.

There were times during the program I was taken aback by the unexpected directions the show was taking. Excerpts I have read of Ms. Min’s work contain brilliant and often graphic images--like one of moths being pulled apart during coupling to watch them bleed to death as a form of entertainment--but at times I found the additional images she described in the interview to be a bit too graphic. Example: her story of her poverty-riddled childhood in which a tapeworm she acquired from eating out of the garbage crawled out of her anus. "TMI," as they say in the parlance of the times. Not that Ms. Minn was without her moments of humor. When asked by McElhatton about her dreams when growing up as a child in China she responded that it was "to save the starving children in America."

The show also featured Dr. Hua Chen from the Minnesota Chinese Music Ensemble playing one of several Er-Hu he had brought along. The Er Hu is a beautiful two-stringed sort of violin that sounds like a cross between a violin and an oboe. One highlight was when Dr. Chen accompanied Ms. Min as she read a poetic passage from her book.

Overall, the show added additional insight to the previous interviews and articles I had read and listened to with Ms. Min . And if part of the success of her appearance on the program is to be judged by book sales, I’m not surprised to learn that at the time of writing Empress Orchid has shot to the top of the Minnesota Best Seller List.

You can listen to the entire show here: Or even choose to watch selected video highlights.