Monday, June 22, 2015 in Boo! Hiss!

By all accounts, today is June 22.  My calendar says so and my computer agrees.  Flipping through channels this morning I found that the good people at the Today Show and Good Morning America are also under the impression that this is June 22.  The weather doesn't support that, but we're getting used to crazy weather in June in these parts.  

But on June 22nd (and perhaps even before that) school supplies are showing up on store shelves!  That's insane.  I bet even the most dedicated teachers are crying  "Foul.  This isn't funny.  STOP".  Being one season ahead of real time is something I have never gotten a good grip on. Last year I cringed when employees started displaying Christmas books on the 4th of July and Easter books on January 1st. OK - perhaps their efforts weren't that premature, but it still seemed awkward to me.  

Last week ARCs (advance reader copy) of new books started rolling in, and it looks like creepy is in. Yup, publishers are already promoting what they hope will be big, scary books for Halloween. There are too many to share with you, and far too many to have read over the weekend.  Besides that, "Three coins in a Fountain" was on Sunday afternoon right in the middle of my planned reading time.  No contest.  Dorothy Maguire and Louis Jordan won.  But, from the pile, I picked out a couple and will share the back of the book blurbs with you.

Second Souls by Christopher Moore - lovable...oddball....classic bender....I'm a fan and will read this book soon.
In San Francisco the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing - and you know that can't be good -...buckle in for a weird and wild ride 

Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day...first chapter got me hooked and I might read the entire novel at some point.
Juliet Townsend is used to losing.  Back in high school she lost every track team race to her best friend.  Then one night, Maddy checks in (to the motel where Juliet works).  By the next morning, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy - she's the chief suspect in her murder.

The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler...I've started this twice and walked away twice.  The reviews are mixed, no middle of the road, either glowing or down right nasty.  I'll give it one more try but the whole mermaid business doesn't work for me. (Lizzer, let me know what you think of this book)
Books matter to Simon Watson, a young librarian who finds himself increasingly drawn to the one that has arrived on his doorstep.  It seems to be some kind of journal from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700's who reports many strange and magical things - including the drowning death of a circus mermaid.

Conversion by Katherine of my favorite plays to teach my high school kids was Arthur Miller's The Crucible an allegory about the McCarthy era veiled as the Salem witch trials.  Might be fun to read this fresh twist.
First the Queen Bee starts having loud, uncontrollable tics in the middle of class.  More students and stranger symptoms follow...the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts as school officials, angry partents and the board of health scramble to find something, or someone to blame. But Colleen Rowley, who has been reading The Crucible for extra credit comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuriess ago...

There you have it, a jump start to your October reading.  In between books, you can work on your Halloween costume and stock up on trick or treat candy.  After all, it's already June 22nd.

Me?  I'm getting out the shovel, salt, and having the oil changed in the snow blower.

Thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Let the Spirit Move You

This is the Maplewood Hotel, a popular gathering spot for tourists in Lily Dale.  A caption beneath the same picture in the book reads in part  "A sign in the lobby warns against conducting seances and circles in public rooms, but the side parlor is sometimes used for such.  Tales of roaming spirits, bumps in the night, and furniture inexplicably moved are common as tourists testify each morning about their night's adventures."

As promised here's more about Lily Dale, the tiny, New York settlement  whose inhabitants are known for communing with spirits. Christine Wicker's book is sometimes silly but never boring. Wicker, seventeen year religions editor for the Dallas Morning News is among the first reporters granted access to one of the world's oldest spiritualist community. She approached this investigative assignment with professional open-mindedness and lots of personal skepticism.  Previous assignments covering what she dubbed the "God beat" found her talking with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. She interviewed a man walking across America dragging a wooden cross behind him because Jesus told him to. She even pulled an all-nighter in Garland, Texas with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on the television and announce the end of the word.  Eventually, her penchant for chasing the weird led her to Lily Dale.

Wicker set some goals for her visit, one of them being to discover if the mediums that gather each summer and attract thousands of seekers are just skilled performers or humans with some sort of super power to connect and perhaps to heal. She pulls back the curtain and unlike those visitors to Oz, finds a complex, intriguing and life changing cast of characters.  

One of the first people Wicker meets is Dr. Pat Naulty, an English professor at a community college. Years earlier, Pat had left - some would say abandoned - her husband and two sons to go to college. She was dying a slow, emotional death in Indiana and needed to enrich her life. Her connection to those she left remained fragile and distant, but when her phone rang early one morning and she heard her ex-husband's voice her mind automatically  flashed to her sixteen-year-old son." "John's dead isn't he?" she asked.  He was.  He had taken his own life.  Nautly went to Lily Dale at the invitation of a friend, and only for a rest and not to seek answers.  

In addition to Naulty's story (the ending of which I will not reveal) Wicker follows two other visitors to the Dale: a newly bereaved widow, and a happily married wife whose first visit to Lily Dale brings an ominous warning. 

This spiritualist movement dates back to the 1800's and the little Victorian village has attracted the likes of Sinclare Lewis, Harry Houdini and Susan B. Anthony. Yup, I'd love to take a road trip and nose around. Am I a believer? Nope. Not one bit, but neither was Christine Wicker.

Lily Dale has a detailed website  Seriously, I didn't fully understand the magnitude of this movement until I went to their website.  My goodness.  This is an organized group with a serious schedule of events along with all you need to stay busy for a lengthy visit.  There are cafes, gift shops, hiking trails and even a bookstore all focusing on the beliefs of these spiritualists.  Check it out.  You decide if this is just a merry amusement park for those who enjoy dwelling on the edge of creepiness, a concerted effort to prey on those in emotional turmoil, or a place where spirits co-exist with those who know how to harness their energy.

Wishing you stable furniture, friendly spirits, and gentle bumps in the  night.....

Monday, June 8, 2015

Odds and Ends

No long, chatty post today.  It's moving fixtures around the store because I want to day.  Gives me great appreciated for physical laborers.

I did read a bit this weekend - a lot, actually.  fFirst-  a short play called Trapped which is a take off of Death Trap- a play within a play.  Adding this new, third layer makes it a play within a play within a play, I guess.  I want to direct this short piece someday soon.

The title UnCatholic Conduct calledmy name.  Rating: Awful.  Make that Awful -.  Luckily it came in a box of books that had been damaged by the carrier so I will be getting a credit for this book which I will finish despite the awfulness.  Gotta find out who's killing those Catholic School kids in a private school in England.

I just got started on Lily Dale, a big departure from my normal reading.  I remember seeing a segment on TV about this secretive community in New York where psychics gather and  are sought out  by those hoping to contact dead loved ones.  Although this sounds like a new age commune, it's not.  Lilly Dale has been around for decades, and until recently, the inhabitants resisted publicity.  Not sure why that has changed.  .

That's that. Gotta get my tool belt on. Time to start spittin' and cussin' as I shove shelves around.  (No, that's not a comment on tough, physical workers.  It's what I do when I exert myself which makes most people in my life happy I have chosen an  exertion free occupation).

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Hold Still

Funny how things fall into place every once in while.  Hold Still has been featured on bookseller publications and websites for months, touted as "visionary", "visceral", "pitch-perfect - the list of accolades runs long.  Still other critics have described it as "gothic", "disturbing", "stark", "hell on wheels".  Those polarized comments alone would ordinarily have drawn me to read this book, but for some reason, I kept passing it by.  

Then an abrupt announcement moved this book to the top of my list. You see, I learned that my friend Julie's cancer has progressed to a critical stage.  Julie, along with her life long companion and artist collaborator, Johnie, have brought much attention to the reality of Wisconsin life through their nationally recognized photography.  You might remember the big splash over a whimsical little pink book about Manitowoc's own aluminum Christmas trees, Season's Gleamings.  That was their book but it certainly isn't the only contribution they have made to the arts community.

Like Julie, Sally Mann is a photographer and this book is all that the critics say it is.  Mann grew up in the south and her well connected parents played host to any number of famous writers, artists and philosophers. Her world was filled with unconventional thinkers. Abstraction, ambiguity, impulsiveness and experimentation were the norm for her.  Somehow she managed to marry into a family that brought untold drama to her adult life.

In this book, which is accompanied by photographs, she tell her stories, unfrosted and unashamed.  She put into words many things I never could.  Julie frequently sends me a postcard from one of her collections, and although I connected to them, I could not identify why.  Mann's book helped me do that.  

The big story about Sally Mann was caused by the pictures she took of her kids.  Nude pictures.  To Mann, they were a natural expression of the tenderness of childhood.  Not everyone felt that way and great debates and legal discussion arose when the pictures were publicly exhibited.  I will admit I found many of them uncomfortable, but it's mainly because her son and daughter look angry in the photos she chose to include in this book.  Angry little kids - that is uncomfortable and I can't help but wonder why they seem so sullen.

This book is a memoir and as such, I accept what the author says as truth.  If this were fiction, I'd be shaking my head page after page wondering why a novelist with obvious control over structure and style would choose melodrama as her genre.  Thick book - fascinating page turner.

Julies little postcards are all tacked to a b-board in a corner of my basement where, from time to time, I commit art.  It's my own private installation of her work.  I will spend some time there tonight, in my corner, sending her strength and and wishes for bravery. Glitter on, my friend. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mike Perry is Back

Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor's heart, a Hummer-driving predatory developer is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm, and inside his barn is a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ.

Harley's best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to avoid the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called "a scene."


Then the secret gets out--right through the barn door, and Harley's "miracle" goes viral. Within hours pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a percentage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want-and raise enough money to keep his land-and, just possibly, win the woman and her big red pickup truck?

Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park-think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and t-shirts. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.

Funny, I can hear Mike's voice in my head as I read this fictional tale of the eccentric residents living in and around Boomler.  Funny how so many of them resemble the "real" characters he honors in his essay collections.  Methinks that for Mike, the line between fact and fiction is about as fluid as cow muck in a pasture after a driving rain.  Gotta love this guy and all the folks in his real and imagined lives.  

What am I reading?  Today I switch over to script reading for a little Hypothetical project a few friends have been tossing around.  We'll see....

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

More Vampires

Still plugging away at Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  Heart-A-Rama slowed my reading down and I haven’t been able to get back at it.  Doing the undone (cleaning, laundry, answering chatty emails) has taken some time and today, I need to find the owners of all the left behinds.  Each year, after the show closes, a couple of us return to the venue to dismantle the show.  Somehow, I always end up being the custodian of left objects.  This year I have several cooking/baking items, a tennis racket, stuffed animals, aprons and more – all of which need to find their rightful owners.  So it goes.

As far as the book goes – right now I’m thinking we will have a short discussion on Friday. This isn’t a book for a casual discussion group, like ours – not that there’s anything wrong with that, we just don’t get too far into analysis of styles, symbolism and other rhetorical concepts.  We like to focus on plot, character, and motivation, believability.....

This is just a totally different piece, odd for sure, but packed with meaning that needs studied reading to appreciate.  I am enjoying the exercise.  A book hasn’t challenged me like this a long time and it feels good to know I can still read at a deeper level.  I find myself noting pages, phrases, jotting down questions and hopping on the computer to validate what I believe are literary, social, historical and cultural references in each story. 

This entire collection of short stories is unified by the themes of flight and transformation.  Russell even uses forms of  the word “metamorphosis” in various selections, an obvious nod to Kafka.  The second story - about women morphing into silk worms in duty to the state- (told you it was odd) echoes philosophies put forth by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto.  In fact, Marx even used a silkworm analogy to describe the importance of people knowing their place in a society. 

The third story has Greek influences including the wheel of fortune and fate.  The Greeks believed that we are all cold cocked at some point in our lives, but if we wait long enough, the wheel of fortune will spin in a more favorable direction.  They also believed that we cannot escape fate, which is exactly what the young man in the story discovers.  Choices will be presented to us and we have the freedom to choose from a number of alternatives.   However, the choices we make will always lead us to the inevitable pre-determined outcome – be it good or bad.  There’s also the whole search for self theme that comes through, but not as strongly as the other threads.

That’s as far as I have gotten, partly because I need catch-up time and partly because these are challenging stories that need some digestion.  Hopefully, I will be able to chew on a few more pages before our group meets on Friday.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, May 4, 2015

I Thought We Were Done with Vampire Stories!

To begin with, I have only read the first story in Karen Russell’s latest collection.  The story puzzles me.  Like most short stories, the opening is quick, characters appear fully developed on page one, no need to watch for great development throughout the action arc.  For sure, I know that this is the type of story I would have enjoyed teaching – sharing first the exquisite language with just the right amount of ornamentation, and then moving on to discovering the meaning behind the words.

Don’t let the vampire theme in the title story fool you – this is not about emotionless, blood sucking uglies that travel by night searching for innocents to induct into their secret society.  Instead, this story is a kind of meditation on the comforts of sameness and the challenges of change.

Clyde and his wife, Magreb no longer suck blood; it is no longer effective for them so they have sought substitutions finally settling in a lemon grove in Sorrento.  There they live on the juice of fallen lemons along with others secreted for them by a young grove worker whom they suspect understands them.  Long ago, Magreb taught Clyde that book generally held beliefs about vampires is inaccurate and so the couple  lives openly in the sun, sleeping wherever they can, but never in a coffin.

However, Magreb is restless and hints that it is time to move on.  With that simple suggestion, Clyde finds his world turned upside down, something which has become difficult in his advanced age - hanging upside down that is!  The comfort of his past calls to him and he chooses to act upon what he believed to be true for many, many years.  OK...a stronger resolution would have been more satisfying, but I’ll wait to see if soft endings are a theme throughout this collection.

Short stories.  I have always enjoyed them and am looking forward to reading more of Russell’s work.

What am I reading next?  Time for another Hemingway novel, I guess - but there's an inviting ARC on my desk called The Book of Speculation.  Both will have to wait until I finish a few more short stories.

Thanks for stopping by. 
Spring arrived.  Enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Commas, Prepositions and Lots of other Wordy Goodness.

I always understood that English evolves with time.  But my college Linguistics classes and my IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) theatre class never went into the fascinating detail covered in Mary Norris’s new book. 

Her fierce, at times academic, delivery of the information was challenging (maybe even boring) at first, but in no time, I found myself drawn back to the book time and time again, eager to get another small lesson in the life of our language. 

Who knew that, in addition to birthing a nation, many of our founding father’s invested time into the development of a language for our new England?  Here’s a passage that explains that:

Benjamin Franklin, who was already in his eighties when he befriended Webster (Noah) and who advocated spelling reform, had encouraged the younger man to adopt his ideas.  Franklin proposed that we lose c, w, y and j; modify a to u to represent their different sounds; and adopt a new form of s for sh and a variation of y for ng as well as tweak the h of gh to distinguish the sounds of”thy” and “thigh”, “swarth”, and “swathe.”

Wow.  My IPA studies provided a basic understanding of diacritical marks in order to use or teach accents and dialects to those who are not lucky enough to have refined ears.  I never gave thought to the fact that somebody had to actually study sounds and break them down to tiny components and then devise a way of to symbolically distinguish one sound from another.  Surly a myriad of uses exist for this knowledge other than theatre.  Think about how valuable intonation and inflection in pronunciation must be to the CIA and the FBI. 

This book is packed with information, including a look at the detailed work that goes into each edition of the New Yorker, where Mary Norris worked at a copy editor and where she learned to examine literary works with bionic eyes.  She brings that attention to detail to every subject in this book.   Norris devotes over ten pages alone to a discussion on gender neutral words and all the acceptable variations of s/he, his/hers and sheesh

If this sounds interesting but perhaps a bit much for an intro to language, try Richard Lederer’s The Miracle of Language.  Leaderer covers much of the same material but in a more playful and digestible fashion. 

As for me, my appreciation of  our language is growing along with my understanding that, like many things in life, sometimes even the traditional, time-tested ways of doing, being or saying need to be examined challenged, and YIKES! maybe even changed.  My greatest wish is that this book will finally drill into my head how to properly use commas.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Charley's Aunt or ont...or awnt...or ant

Heart-A-Rama time - that means my reading has been reduced to Entertainment Weekly and the backs of cereal boxes.  Incidentally, those cereal boxes are worth taking a look at. Skip the nutritional info and move right on to the little quizzes, games and bits of trivia.

HAR did inspire me to re-read one of my favorite plays,  Charley's Aunt.  Of course, the play I could see and/or direct over and over is Harvey.  I love how kind Elwood is to everyone, even those who appear invisible.  His "It's our dreams that make us real" mantra is one I try to live by - always dreaming and scheming about the next project on my list.  

I've always wanted to direct Charley's Aunt, but the costume and set budget alone scare me.  Then there's matter of the word aunt.  Do we pronounce it ont? awunt?  or like that annoying little picnic pest - ant?   And, could I really find a male lead willing to wear the necessary corset for the bulk of the show? Structurally, this play is in three acts and that doesn't fly with modern audiences.  It is looooogh. To make myself happy, I used the plot as the basis for this year's HAR musical "Chuck Needs Money; Chuck Wants Romance; Chuck Gets Brand New Underpants".

The original plot revolves around Jack and Charley, private school  boys in love with Kitty and Amy and hoping for a bit of a weekend tryst.   However, when the expected chaperon for the boys' dates is delayed, they persuade a fellow student, Lord Fancourt Babberley, to don a stuffy aunt persona and fill that role.  All sorts of chaos ensues when Jack's father falls for the ersatz companion.  The chaperon, by the way, is from Brazil, "where the nuts come from" - my favorite line in the play.

This is a photo from the very funny movie version starring Jack Benny as Charley's Aunt.

Our HAR version does not stray far from the original and our twisted couple have been having all sorts of fun flirting and flouncing.  Of course we updated and our four students are a microcosm of today's kids - an  involved, annoying  activist, a disinterested punk, the popular girl, and the overly enthusiastic kid who tires but always misses the mark.  There's giggling, sarcasm and the most pitiful rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" sung by our heartbroken lover.

A lot of people find reading plays awkward.  They miss the narrative elements providing details about setting and direct statements about characters moods' and motivations.  Plays give readers the opportunity to imagine those details as long as they are consistent with whatever hints the playwright provides for us.  I can read a play quickly, generally in one sitting.  That's a good thing at HAR time.  Now - gotta go - still deciding if I'm should torture my male lead with a corset.

Thanks for stopping by.

Steve - better get your cable reinstalled.  Tonight we're going to find out where Castle was when he went missing!