Cassie Sheets reviews The Marrow

This Father’s Day a new reading series, The Marrow, debuted in Chicago. I was there for two reasons: I’m a terrible daughter; and this new series is organized by Naomi Huffman, managing editor at Curbside Splendor (a press you may recognize from their consistently superb list), and Leah Pickett, a brilliant up-and-coming Chicago writer. This talented duo have been planning the series “since it was still really cold out,” and last night that planning came to fruition.

The reading was held at Punch House, the basement level bar in Thalia Hall, in a back room with a secret bookcase doorway, low ceilings, and floral wallpaper reminiscent of your grandmother’s 70s bungalow. It was either an adorable, quaint venue, or if you’re a paranoid mess like me, a claustrophobic death trap (but, hey, good turnout) where you spent the moments leading up to the reading planning how you would escape in the event of an earthquake or fire.

Huffman and Pickett took the stage to introduce the event, the organization they were sponsoring, Free Books (they provide no-cost literature to prisons across the United States), and then announced that Samantha Irby, author of Meaty, would not be able to make it because of a “medical emergency involving a cat,” which is in no way kind of funny and we should all send her our best thoughts. I think the audience showed real restraint in not throwing themselves on the ground and wailing at the absence of Irby.

Nevertheless, the reading got off to a strong start. Jeff Miller, who recently published his first middle grade book, The Nerdy Dozen, read a story about a road trip with his still best friend from childhood, comparing his friend and himself to Lewis and Clark (parts they’d also played in a 5th grade production). The survival of their friendship despite the separate paths they’d taken (for example, Miller, after packing up all of his belongings and putting them in storage, had recently taken a shower with a garden hose; his friend was attending a baby shower—two very different showers) made for a solid, humorous piece, amplified by his relatable presence on stage.

Naomi Huffman followed with an emotional story about grieving for someone who was sick and just never got better. Her examination of her own grief and the grief of others through social media was an interesting framing device for the story, but the true power of the piece came through when she started probing questions about life rather than death—how do we get to know other people, how well can we really know them, and how do we irrevocably change in small or large ways because of our relationships with others?

In a nod to the holiday, Jen Richards read a piece about her encounter with a promising hot dad with no ring on a Southwest flight. They flirt, they land, he gives her his e-mail under the pretense of sending her some Internet video they’d been talking about—and this is where things get tricky. Richards now has to worry about not only the anxiety of whether or not the flirting will lead to a date, but whether this man will fall into one of two categories she finds men fall into: the ones who fetishize her because she’s a trans woman, or the ones who don’t know and don’t react well when they find out. He falls into the latter category, despite her hopes that a comment about liking Joe Biden meant he’d be cool, and through this rejection she explores the transmisogynistic tropes and messages our culture projects onto her, and how she holds onto her power. It’s a short piece, but a big piece, and was the standout story of the night.

Appropriately for the debut night of The Marrow, Leah Pickett read for the first time to an audience, about a friend, a pathological liar, she met in inpatient and the realization she has about herself and others—the way we all want to put forth our best selves, the way we all put on a face and lie sometimes. Her presence on stage was vulnerable, confessional, and likable which served the story. The real revelation came when she realized that all these lies, the ways we close ourselves off, prevent us from being in the moment, being with each other, and that is what’s really beautiful about this life.

The final reader was Nico Lang, who read a piece that (he confessed) “didn’t really get any laughs the first time.” Clearly a brave soul. The second time was a charm, because his piece about listening to “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne on repeat for seven days straight got some laughs this time around. His slow descent into Stacy-madness began with an in-depth analysis and appreciation of the song, morphed into him dreaming as Stacy, then a brief flirtation with the idea of starting a Twitter as Stacy, measuring the days in Stacys, and the realization that he was not, in fact, Stacy’s mom, but poor rejected Stacy. Despite feeling pretty down about being the “Dr. Jean Grey of getting dumped” he ultimately takes comfort in the fact that at least when he has kids he’ll definitely be a better parent than Stacy’s mom.

The Marrow is a series to watch. They had a few small hiccups the first night (the standard occasionally faulty microphone at a reading series—are we all using the same one?—and the absence of Samantha Irby), but Pickett and Huffman pulled together a fantastic group of writers, and gave some strong performances of their own.

In an interview with Abigail Sheaffer, Pickett described an exquisite reading series as one where, “you can actually feel the sparks: tiny lightning strikes of recognition, pulsing like heartbeats … you can feel the empathy radiating from your fingertips.” By Pickett’s own definition, many moments of The Marrow’s opening night were indeed exquisite.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The second event will be held at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park on Sunday, July 20 before returning to the Punch House every 3rd Sunday thereafter.

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