I find myself actually trying to dampen the exhilaration I feel, but really, I’m walking on air from all the pre-publication comments my comic novel, Problems of Translation, due out early this year, is getting. I keep having to pinch myself.

Consider this: Gary Shteyngart called my book, “An insanely funny adventure that has a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core.”

Those words are especially pleasing, of course, coming from a man who not only wrote the hilarious, best-selling Little Failure and the wonderful, heartbreaking Super Sad True Love Story, as well as The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan!

And consider the comments of Robert Roth, Health Proxy author and co-creator and editor of the litmag, And Then. Roth wrote, in part: “The greatest comedians by the slightest of gestures—maybe an arching of an eyebrow or a pregnant pause—can send an audience falling off their seats in laughter. There are moments in Problems of Translation, where even a ‘The’ at the beginning of a sentence would have me laughing out loud. For I knew something wild, uproarious and totally unexpected was about to happen next.” He goes on to call Problems a “…comic masterpiece, an adventure, a mystery story of intrigue, betrayal and total absurdity….”

Or how about the words of Hilary Orbach? Orbach (Transgressions and Other Stories) enjoyed my character’s “ lively and sometimes disastrous romp. . ., ” and my “engaging style, … turbulent imagination,” “seemingly inexhaustible fund of cultural and literary lore,” and “passion—indeed, as he calls it, a ‘reverence’—for language.” And Edith Grossman, the award-winning translator of Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, found my novel “A fascinating look at the issues of translation, publishing, and an unglamorous middle-age.”

And there’s Ron Story (no relation), to cite another example. Story is Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love, among other fine titles. He wrote that Problems has “…touches of true poignancy that don’t, however, delay the progress of the story toward its delectable conclusion. It’s pretty much perfectly done.”

All of which seems to justify the subtitle I recently conferred on my book: Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.

The book is due out in a few months, and when that happens, I hope that others of you out there will enjoy the book as much as these folks have! Meanwhile, have a Happy, Merry, Prosperous, Peaceful and Exhilarating New Year!

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A few days ago I wrote the following lines:

So where would I move? Ames asks himself as the first cold snap in New York City bares its teeth in the middle of November, 21 degrees with the wind chill. I could move to Florida and get swept away by a hurricane, he thinks. I could move to Oklahoma and get sucked up by a tornado. I could move to California and be consumed by a wildfire. To Washington, and get buried in a mudslide. Or maybe Arizona?  Only to be slaughtered by some crazy in a movie theater, right? I mean really, where would I move?

“Ames turns the corner onto West 90th Street, trudging homeward with the wind off the Hudson in his face.”

And today? What would I write today?  The weather outside is a balmy 70 degrees. Seventy degrees! My mood has totally altered. Who can keep up?

Now. To seemingly change the subject as dramatically as the weather has shifted over the past few days, how about listening to my latest story on the crap shoot the literary marketplace has become? And no, this story isn’t about me or my efforts to get published. (Though it may be an appropriate place to remind my readers that my novel, Problems of Translation, will be published early next year, and that on December 10, at 6 pm at the Cornelia Street Cafe, I’m giving a reading from it. Ahem. Subtle, hey?)

But back to that story. A writer (I won’t mention his name but he’s someone who has already won awards) writes a short story. He sends it to a particular literary magazine. It gets rejected. He decides he still likes it, so he continues to send it, over a period of two years, to every literary magazine he can think of, without success. Then he notices that the magazine he sent it to first has a new editor, so once again he sends it there and, this time, it’s accepted. Mission accomplished, you might think.  But is that the end of the story? No. After appearing in that magazine and becoming noticed, it gets included, along with hundreds of others, in a group that gets winnowed down and winnowed down and it finally appears as one of twenty in the Best American Short Stories of 2012.  What’s the moral?  Persistence pays?  Or Serendipity rules?

Sometimes it’s bitter cold; sometimes it’s balmy; you never know.

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Problems of Translation Strikes Again at Cornelia Street Cafe

PostcardImage_240Hello there!  My apologies for the long silence!  Someone has recently complained to me that he doesn’t know what to read anymore because I stopped recommending!

So I promise to start writing more frequently again, about the variety of topics that intrigue me–chiefly books– but, at the moment, this column is to let you know that I’ll soon be on the boards again, giving one of my twice-yearly readings.  December 10, as a matter of fact, and you are all cordially invited.

What will you get when you come to the Cornelia Street Cafe on that evening and slap down your $8 admission fee ? First of all, a glass of wine or other beverage of your choice but, more importantly, me! I’ll be reading from my own fiction, as I’ve done for the last seven years, but this particular evening will feature the novel you’ve been getting snippets of every now and then and will soon (yes! early next year) be published so that you can read the whole thing. Really! Problems of Translation is finally being published, in both paperback and kindle editions. I’ll keep you posted as to the progress–and the Book Party!–but on Wednesday, December 10, at 6 pm, please come and hear yet another excerpt, plus whatever new stuff I have time to read.

Problems of Translation, as some of you know, is a comic adventure, or as my newly created subtitle has it, Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy, Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.

And that ain’t all!  In addition to me and your glass of wine, you’ll get another award-winning author and reader of fiction, Eva Lesko Natiello, who will be reading from and signing copies of her recently published novel, The Memory Box. Her debut novel has already attracted its own fan club on Amazon, but I’m assured that Eva will have paperback copies to purchase, if that’s your preference. The Memory Box is a psychological suspense thriller: You won’t guess where it’s going and, later, you won’t believe where you’ve been!

As an additional bonus, you might even get to hear the great Ringmaster, Angelo Verga, introduce us!

PostcardImage Side 2_240So that’s what you get for your $8, kiddos, and I think it’s plenty. Please come and enjoy yourself!  Dissipate that December gloom! It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season!

If you want to know more about both Eva and myself, here’s a link to the Events Page of the Cornelia Street Cafe that explains it all:  http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com/downstairs/Performances.asp?sdate=12/10/2014&from_cal=0.

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If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you hope to have along for entertainment/bodhisattva enlightenment?

Well, assuming you’d arranged to wash up with one or more of your digital devices intact, let me suggest a film, Michael Maren’s sparkling, funny, wistful family drama, A Short History of Decay. It has a cast headed by such seasoned performers as Linda Lavin and Harris Yulin, and includes a remarkable cluster of younger actors like Ben Greenberg, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Benjamin King. Like many films that don’t enjoy a budget of several million dollars to produce and promote, it had only a limited run in theatres, but is eminently downloadable through Amazon, YouTube or Vudo, take your pick.

What do critics think? “I love this movie,” says David Edelstein, critic for New York Magazine. And another reviewer describes it thus: “A quietly elegant little movie (because it refuses to push anything) about family and the finale of the older generation, A SHORT HISTORY OF DECAY, written and directed by first-timer Michael Maren, is a beautifully rendered piece of Americana as it exists today, mid economic (and most every other kind of) decline. And yet this movie is not actually depressing. Oddly enough, it is simply too plain and too real for that. It accepts what is and must be (even if its characters have some difficulty doing so) and therefore liberates us, the audience, to look upon reality and understand it.”

If you’d like to see a trailer, some interesting outtakes (Yes!), or just want more info, go to http://ashorthistoryofdecay.com or http://bigfanfilms.com/a-short-history-of-decay/.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess that I know Michael Maren, who was part of that wonderfully creative bunch of people I met three years ago at a writers’ conference in Positano, Italy called Sirenland. Ex-war correspondent Michael, who’s also a photographer, videographer, scriptwriter and – now – director, is married to the novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, who taught at Sirenland.

Because I live in New York City and know Michael, I was privileged to attend the theatrical opening of the movie in mid-May and to meet cast members Yulin and King, as well as to renew my acquaintance with several fellow-Sirenlanders. It was all quite thrilling. But never mind. I think you’ll be thrilled by the movie.

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Spring is Story-Time! Another reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe!

That time of year again!  I’ll be reading on May 7 (a Wednesday) at the Cornelia Street Cafe at 6 pm.  Please come and enjoy my presentation of pieces from my recent short stories and my comic novel, Problems of Translation, where my hero traipses around the world seeking to get his short story translated successively into ten different languages before returning it to English to find out what resemblance (if any!) it bears to what he originally wrote.  Along the way, he finds plenty of hair-raising trouble to get into, as well as an unexpected romance!  With help from former stalwarts of the CIA . . . but never mind.  Come and enjoy the ride! Cornelia Street Cafe is located at 29 Cornelia Street in the Village, just west of Sixth Avenue between Bleecker & West 4th.  The tariff is $8 but includes a free glass of wine.  I’ll be reading with a French poet whom I’m eager to hear as well. This is my fourteenth straight reading at Cornelia Street, whose impresario, Angelo Verga, has been very good to me.  The folks are friendly and the atmosphere relaxed, so come and enjoy!
Jim Story - May 7, Side 1 Jim Story - May 7, Side 2

(Click the near-left image for info on traveling to 29 Cornelia St.)

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While researching a story whose plot points I’ll keep to myself at this moment, I was gob-smacked by the following notion:  the nature of history is bipolar.

You may of course object:  Let’s be rational about this; what you’re suggesting applies to the writing of history, or the analysis of history.  Surely you don’t mean history itself?

Maybe.  But if I did?

No, no! you shout.  Heaven forfend!  History itself, the unfolding of events in time, “what actually happened in the past,” is itself incapable of structure.  History is just . . . history.  Structure is imposed on it by its principal observers, those peepers, those educated voyeurs:  historians.  History simply happens:  let the historians sort it out.

But that’s just it, I maintain.  Historians aren’t sorting it out.  Maybe they can’t sort it out, try as they may.  Nothing they’ve written seems to overcome the bipolarity I’m talking about.

So what in tarnation is this bipolarity you speak of?

Well, from where I sit, I see micro-historians and macro-historians.  Some (the macros) paint on a grand canvas, laying out a sweeping narrative of events, which they organize into patterns or trends.  Perfectly reasonable.  Without pattern, events are un-coalesced microdots floating around the canvas (or the page).  Without pattern there’s no meaning.  The drawback of the macro approach, however, is that, once brought forth, these trends begin to seem inevitable.

Consider what one might remark after the breakup of a marriage:  I knew this would happen!  Those two should never have met!  Different values, different social classes, different ethnicities. Not to mention incompatible goals.  He wanted to raise a large family in a quiet suburb.  She wanted to star on Broadway!  Their personalities were destined to rub against one another until nerves were so raw that being in the same room was impossible.  Doomed from the start.

But that’s not how it looked to the parties involved:  the stars aligned, the earth moved, they fell in love.

Hey! you demur crossly.  Are we talking about love or history?

Well, I’ve read historical accounts suggesting the certainty of a particular outcome that I found persuasive.  Hey, it had to turn out that way!  When you look deeply, the conflicts between those two countries – divergent economies, conflicting political systems, different faiths, clashing cultures, and the fact that they both desperately needed the same river to water their crops and slake the thirst of their citizens – it was perfectly clear that it would end in the bloody conflict that you saw.  No other course possible.

But!  When you examine things the way micro-historians do – day-to-day, blow-by-blow – you discover all kinds of chancy things.  You see history as resulting from tiny individual decisions made during the course of an individual day.  And you realize many things could have happened that would have led to a different outcome.  The crucial decision-maker might have had an argument with his wife and arrived at the pivotal meeting an hour late, by which time the others had decided on a different course without him.  Or perhaps he had a troubling dream that changed his mind?  To take a different example – the assassin might have found his gun jamming at the crucial moment.  Or someone had convinced the victim to wear a bulletproof vest?  Or. . . well, the sun was in the perpetrator’s eyes.  Etc.  When what-ifs multiply geometrically, what happens to the notion of inevitability?

Question is, are the bipolar narratives gleaned from these different perspectives – the long and the short of it – merely a function of how historians assemble the facts?  Or is it something inherent in history itself?

Let’s not forget the other meaning of the term bipolar.  Are the historians emotionally disturbed?  Or is history itself?

As the novelist Pursewarden wrote in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandrian Quartet:  “God is a humorist.”

I think I’ll leave it at that.

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I’m writing about two books in this post.  Two  l – o –o – n – n – g   novels:  The Son by Phillip Meyer (841 pages) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (775 pages).

They’re both pretty amazing.  Tons of research, funneled into the creation of characters who felt as if they could step off the page and talk to you.  (Though whether you would want to is another question.) Still, the books are very different.  Phillip Meyer’s model might be said to be Hemmingway or – forgive the Russian historian in me – Sholokov (as in Quiet Flows the Don/The Don Flows Home to the Sea).  Donna Tartt’s model is unquestionably Dickens.  Meyer’s prose is taut, flat, crisp, devoid of flourish or complexity, while Tartt’s is lush and complicated, convoluted even, yet nudging you so close to her characters you can feel their breath on your face.  Each style can in its own way be poetic, and each author is firmly in control of his or her material.  Myer is painting on a vast canvas, striding across some three hundred years of Southwest history; Tartt’s canvas, while not so restricted as the tiny masterpiece painting that is the sine qua non of her tale, is nonetheless smaller and more focused, the interactions of her characters spanning less than two decades.

The tale that Meyer tells is, frankly, devastating.  Read “depressing.”  The broad sweep of time from when Texas belonged to Mexico until today.  Mexicans, Indians, Whites.  How they clashed, fought, slaughtered, pillaged, chiseled – and sued – one another in their separate efforts to achieve power and supremacy.  Told through the device of a single family through time.  Land, sheep, horses, cattle, oil.  How some won and some lost and yet all – in the final analysis – lost.  It’s our story.  (Certainly I, as someone who is part Indian and from Oklahoma, felt this way, but I suspect even New Yorkers might recognize the horror of their heritage in these pages.)

The tale that Tartt tells is quite different, of course.  And in some ways it is equally saddening, however much it tries to provide some hope for a kind of rescue through art, through the love that we come to feel for certain kinds of perfections of effort to create beautiful things, from brushstrokes that capture the eye to sentences that dazzle the mind.  It is a tale of our times, for sure, from terrorist bombs to widespread drug use, to frauds at every level of society; sometimes it seems almost an homage to the anomie and weakness of character which seems to afflict Americans in the twenty-first century.  Be warned:  the novel’s addictive.  Once you start reading it, you can’t stop.  You’ll think it’s not only the characters in her book who are hooked (on drugs, in their case), but yourself.

What these novels have in common is the amazing degree of totally credible detail they each provide about their separate concerns.  From Tartt, about painting, I might have expected it.  About the repair and re-creation of period furniture, perhaps.  But I can’t even imagine how she knows so much about the drug culture, on an individual level or on the level of international transactions and crooks, but she does and she shows it.  How can she deal so comfortably in the lingo?  So much slangy Russian and Polish and Ukrainian!  Is it accurate?  The Russian that I know suggests it is, which gives me the confidence to trust everything else.  And Myer!  When he talks about Indian tribes!  The names of things, the techniques!  How they made their bows and their arrows.  Exactly how.  How they shot them, whether at rest or from horseback!  Exactly how.  So credible and detailed that you feel, with practice, you could have done this stuff yourself.  Or:  the savagery and variety of the tribes’ tortures; their customs of sex and war and love, adherence to and violation of; the individual animosities and struggles of particular tribesmen with each other; how a captive can become a full-fledged member of the tribe, and the cost of this.  The cost.  Always the cost.

Let me be clear.  I’m not saying that the reader knows in some kind of proven, evidentiary way, that the details offered by both of these authors are absolutely smack-dab correct.  I’m saying that each writes with an authority that is convincing, which is vital to the success of their stories.  As Elizabeth Strout, editor of the Best American Short Stories of 2012, writes, explaining her choices, “. . . it had a great deal to do with voice.  That sound – if it is working well – has authority, probably the most important dimension of voice.  We really hope that the author knows what he or she is doing.”

Another thing that both novels share is that, structurally, they each move back and forth in time, though the shifts Myer makes are more radical and, while sometimes tricky to follow, completely germane to his purpose.

If I’ve made these novels sound like surveys or treatises or even histories, I apologize.  They’re not.  They are well-plotted stories, deftly and compellingly told, in ways that excite both the mind and the heart.  Be prepared.  Each is a big commitment, but well worth it.

BY THE WAY, if you weren’t able to attend my last reading – on Dec. 12 – both video and audio recordings of my performances are accessible from my website, jimcstory.com.  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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December 12th at the Cornelia Street Cafe will, if memory serves, mark my thirteenth appearance there in the last seven years. I get great joy out of these readings, and my audiences seem to go away happy as well. So I hope everyone who reads this post will join me for the fun!

Just to be clear: the date is Thursday, December 12th, and the venue is the venerable Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, just west of Sixth Avenue between Bleecker Street and West 4th. The time is from 6 to 7:30 pm and the entry fee is $8, which will also entitle you to a glass of wine.

I’ll be reading both from my recently completed novel Problems of Translation and — as I often do — from even newer work, this time a short story in progress. I’m very proud of both. As some of you may already know, the great Ben Fountain (National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk) once called my writing, “swift, profound and exciting . . . laced with humor and a heartfelt passion.” I’ll take praise like that any day of the week!

If you’ve been to an earlier reading, you probably know that Problems is my comic adventure novel about Charles Abel Baker, who travels the world trying to get one of his short stories translated into ten different languages before being returned to English. Charlie lands in trouble in almost every country he visits. One of the last episodes I read saw him in the clutches of a drug cartel in Mexico! Perhaps I’ll give you a clue on Dec. 12 as to how (or whether!) he manages to get away. As for the short story, well . . . you’ll have to show up to see what that’s all about.

But there’s more! I’ll be joined on the 12th by a poet named Charlie Bondhus, whose poetry I’m really looking forward to hearing. The evening will be a first for Charlie — his first time reading at Cornelia Street — but he’s certainly no neophyte when it comes to gathering awards: the Brickhouse Books Stonewall Award, the Blue Light Press First Book Award, Main Street Rag’s Annual Poetry Book Award, to name only some. Major poet Carolyn Forche called All the Heat We Could Carry “a rare, brilliant, and necessary book.” So it stacks up to be an exciting evening.  Visit Cornelia’s website (www.corneliastreetcafe.com) for greater detail, including pictures of both Charlie and myself.

I look forward to meeting you all there on the 12th. Remember!  Keep your expectations high; it’s up to us to meet them!

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Elizabeth Strout Turns Her Remarkable Skill Set on Wider World

The Burgess boys rode up the turnpike as twilight arrived. It arrived gently, the sky remaining a soft blue as the trees along either side of the unfolding pavement darkened. Then the sinking sun sent up a spread of lavender and yellow, and the horizon line seemed cracked open to give a peek at the heavens far beyond. Thin clouds became pink and stayed that way, until finally darkness emerged, almost complete. The brothers had spoken little once they pulled out of the airport in the rental car, Jim at the wheel, and for the last many minutes as the sun went down there had been silence between them. Bob was unutterably happy. He had not expected the feeling, which intensified it. He gazed out the window at the black stretches of evergreens, the granite boulders here and there. The landscape he had forgotten – and now remembered. The world was an old friend, and the darkness was like arms around him. When his brother spoke, Bob heard the words. Still he said, casually, “What did you say?”

“I said this is just unbelievably depressing.”

This is how Book Two of Chapter 10 begins in Elizabeth Strout‘s engrossing new novel, The Burgess Boys. How that last sentence jars! But consider how masterfully it’s set up. First the quiet, graceful prose describes, in lovely but neutral tones, the landscape. Next Bob’s mood is defined, which is followed by further descriptions of the landscape, seen now through his contented, almost euphoric eyes, lulling the reader into a sense of the power of nature both to inspire and to succor. Then bam! The anvil is dropped.  Although the brothers, who grew up in the same small Maine town, are moving through the same landscape, you realize they’re not really seeing the same landscape, because what’s inside each head – a brew of divergent pathways, burdened or failed marriages and one life-changing secret – is coloring what each sees.

Of course, a delicate and precise delineation of thought and feeling, as well as the dramatic clash of family members’ viewpoints, are elements we have glimpsed before in Elizabeth Strout’s books. Amy & Isabelle. The Pulitzer prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. Even, to a lesser degree, in Abide With Me.

But there is a Tolstoyan breadth and richness to this novel that I think is new.

She’s raising the ante. Those earlier books dealt exclusively with small-town Maine, with its sometimes funny, often touching, occasionally outrageous characters. The issues she focused on were inter-personal. Now the focus widens. This book is set in a fraught and disheveled house in Maine, in a law office or a high-end bar-restaurant or toney dinner party in Manhattan, a gracious home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a spread in Connecticut. And the central event in the book, while small, has the potential to resound nationally and internationally. Strout is now dealing with larger social dynamics, with contemporary socio-political issues. In this case it’s the presence in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine of a group of Somalis and the aftershocks from a teenager’s tossing a pig’s head onto the floor of their mosque. Everything revolves around this single act. The three siblings of the Burgess family are revealed to us as they struggle and rub against one another, trying to understand this event, but we are confronted as well by the reactions of the teenager himself (a state of almost paralytic bafflement), of ex-wives living in splendid oblivion of world events, of Shirley Falls townspeople: policemen trying to do the right thing, church leaders seeking rapprochement, small-town prosecutors on the make. We see nationally-known defense attorneys, and moreover – and properly so – we see the hurt and shame of the Somali community, as they struggle to understand, individually and collectively, what has happened. We see how a tragedy that occurred much earlier in its characters’ lives can reverberate down through time to affect the personalities and even the character of those involved. We see the corrosive effects of a spur-of-the-moment lie.

Did I mention how adroitly the novel is orchestrated? Each character brought on stage both advances the plot adds to the emotional density. The pace is measured and controlled, though it picks up speed when it needs to.

The Burgess Boys is Liz Strout at the top of her game. And that is very good indeed.

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Welcome to Spring! Finally!

I’m delighted to report that I’m doing my semi-annual (Spring) reading in only a matter of days – May 8th to be exact – at my favorite venue, the Cornelia Street Café, 6 pm.  Please come and enjoy yourselves!

I’ll be reading, as I have done in recent years, from my recently completed novel Problems of Translation, which is at this very moment scouring the field looking for a publisher, as well as from an even more recently completed short story, “In the Shadow of the Condor.”

And by the way!  I’m excited by some great comments I’ve received from those who’ve read the novel in manuscript.  Like the following:

“. . . practically every paragraph twinkles with humor . . . ,”

“ . . .erudite from start to finish . . . ,”

“One of the most enjoyable books . . .in recent memory,”

“Marvelous touches of . . . poignancy that don’t . . . delay the progress of the story toward its delectable conclusion . . . ,”

“ . . . pretty much perfectly done.”

Please be assured I am far too circumspect to include another comment (I SWEAR THIS IS WHAT THIS WRITER SAID!): “[a] remarkable protagonist . . . [who] keeps encountering wet-dream women who find him attractive . . . .”

In any event, it should be a fine evening.  I’ll be sharing the stage with Shelly Stenhouse, a widely published poet, author of the collection PANTS and winner of numerous awards, including the Allen Ginsberg.  Shelly was also a finalist in the 2009 National Poetry Series competition and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes (NO FAIR!  I’VE ONLY BEEN NOMINATED FOR ONE!).

So hopefully we’ll see many of you on Wednesday, May 8 at 6 pm at the Cornelia Street Café (off Bleecker St. just to the west of Sixth Avenue), where you’ll pay your $8 to receive not only a free glass of wine but a great evening’s entertainment.

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