Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's Always Best to Laugh

Lorna Landvik never disappoints me.  Her deceptively humorous titles draw you into stories that ride the wildest of roller coasters.  You chug along to the top, enjoying the characters and the ride, and then in split second, everything changes and you are reminded of the yin and yang that comprises a full life.

Perhaps I was drawn to this book because of its show biz theme; but besides that, how can you resist an opening like this:

     Of the untold mysteries in this great wide world, the one confounding me at the moment was shy none of my neighbors stocked what I considered a kitchen staple.  In face, from Maeve Mullman's reaction, you'd have though I was asking to borrow a kilo of heroin.
     "Are you award that sugar is poison?" she said, hogging the doorway, as a six-foot body builder is wont to do.  "Are you aware that sugar is responsible for everything from cancer to sexual dysfunction?  Never forget, your body is your temple."
     As she slammed the door in my face I murmured my thanks and apologized, all the while doubting the purity of worship going on in her temple.  I mean, it was fairly obvious from her East-German-World-champion-swim-team-physique that steroids were part of the daily bread.

Maeve is just the first of the non-traditional apartment complex tenants that Candy meets upon leaving her drab existence with grandma in Minnesota and moving into her cousin's sublet in California.  There's the ruined nightclub impresario, a well connected Romanian fortune teller and a whole roomful of hecklers who boo, hiss and cackle when Candy tries her hand at stand-upcomedy.

Personally, I think that Landvik is at her best in this book - rubatoesque pacing, bits of stream of consciousness narrative, distinct character voices and a plot sprinkled with wit and wisdom.  If you haven't read anything by Lorna Landvik, give her a try.  Next time you're between books and the right title hasn't fallen onto you bedside table, pick up any one of her titles.  Within the pages, you will find yourself, your friends, and your town.  You won't be disappointed.

Other stuff....

Local lady, Sally (Pitz) Goldenbaum spoke at the Manitowoc Public Library last night.  Sally has written a series of cozy mysteries set in a small town peopled with characters that could be our friends and neighbors. I was happy to see so many familiar faces there last night.  Sally did a great job - funny, charming and with a bit of sass.  Keep your eyes open for these author visits.  They are always free and always worthwhile.  tom Maltman (The Night Birds and Little Wolves) will be speaking in spring.

If you're looking for a fun place to visit, take a drive to LaClare Farms just outside of Chilton.  Goat farm and cafe.  The LaClare's have 700 goats with more being born every day.  On Sunday, a set of white twins were born, along with a little black goat.  The farm dog has the loft responsibility of cleaning the newborns while trying to escape the ire of the new moms.  The farm foreman told me that new goats are born every day, with the highest birthrate being twenty-four in a single day.  The little ones live and rest in huge Tupperware type bins until they get up enough gumption to jump out on their own.  Great breakfast and relaxing time walking around watching the animals.  While you're in the area, you can wander through the corn maze at Polly's Pumpkin Patch,  and stop an artsy consignment shop called the Plaid Squirrel.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Creepy TV Show. Good Book. Bad Movie.

With Halloween lurking in the mist, I mustered up my courage to finally read Stephen King's It.  Oh, but then I watched the first episode of "American Horror Story: Freaks" and the plan changed.  (Thanks for the recommendation Rick Oswald and Ray Pritchard.  I haven't slept much since the big toothed clown entered my life last Wednesday.  Nice joke, guys.  You knew this show would freak me out and I am sure that you are both still laughing your fannies off thinking about how you duped me into watching.  But yet, I grin.  You know what they say about Karma.)

Luckily, the book pictured above arrived in time for me to avoid cracking open the King tome despite its obvious scary clown theme.  How could I resist with this tempting blurb on the back cover, "If David Sedaris and Agatha Christie had a child, it would have been Julie Berry!".   You know my fondness for Sedaris and so those words sealed my fate and filled my Sunday.  

Intended for YA audience?  Yes, but the storytelling blended with some cleverly turned phrases give this novel lots of universal appeal.  If you're looking to be frightened to the nth degree, this won't work.  But, neither is this a sweet little cozy mystery.  The students at St. Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies face a bothersome dilemma.  Mrs, Plackett and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at their Sunday dinner.  Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home unless the students - all seven of them - can hide the murders and convince the neighbors that nothing is wrong.   "Nunsense" and "Weekend at Bernie's" come to mind.

Burying two corpses in the garden, faking their way through a surprise party for one of the deceased (with whom an injured neighbor must share a bed!) and muddling through the horrors of Victorian housework unsupervised are easy enough.  But getting to the bottom of the murders in another task altogether especially since the girls fear the killer may strike again.

If you want a lighthearted, seasonally themed book, join Dear Roberta Pratley, Disgraceful Mary Jane Marshall, Dull Martha Boyle, Pocked Louise Dudley, Dour Elinor Siever, Smoothe Kitty Heaton and Stout Alice Brooks in this farcical mystery.

Thanks for stopping by.

I saw "Gone Girl" this weekend and still don't understand how this book and movie are getting such rave reviews.  I stand by my earlier comment that the most interesting characters are the cat and the ottoman.  Too many logic gaps.  If the director was trying to channel some film noir techniques, that just didn't work. ... and Amy got away with murder, for crying out loud.  Of course, that opens the door for a sequel, doesn't it?  I can't wait.

While we're speaking of clowns....check this out.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bullying Prevention Month

October is bully awareness month.  We are all asked to show our unified stance against bullying by wearing blue next Monday.  This sure is a baffling issue - hard to define and hard to end.  Like pain, everyone's tolerance level for bullying is different.  Was I bullied as a child?  I guess so.  I mean, what short round kid wasn't?  But school was so much fun for me, that I didn't notice - or was to dumb to notice.  Oh sure, Joe and Mike, my nasty neighbor boys who attended public school (that was the problem wasn't it?) chased me home from 1st grade every day. But I screamed so loudly all the way home that in time, one by one, neighbor's would step onto their porches, armed with brooms, rolling pins and fly swatters as they watched the three of us approach, allowing me safe passage. 

But you know what, the bullying I have experience from adults has been far worse, more hurtful and more memorable than those after school flights from the brothers.  One person is a name caller, the other, a disrespectful challenger.  When I finally had the guts to tell one that I could not longer tolerate my friends beings called "stupid", "liars" and a slew of other names, I was dismissed from the relationship.  That was good.   Most recently, I have been in a situation in which an individual chose to argue with me and belittle me - only when there was an audience.  When we talk one on one, all is well.  My defense with him has always been to take the quiet road, realizing that those witnessing the aggression will take note and his name will be forever written in the annals of nastiness.  A few days ago, my nemesis showed up at a party I was at and, wouldn't you know, he headed right over to the chair next to me.  He was warming up.  He was ready to find some reason to loudly tell me that I was wrong about something - the color of the sky, the day of the week - anything.   I told him that someone was already sitting there, which he clearly could have deduced from the beverage glass and partially eaten plate of food directly in front on the chair.  He got up. I wiped the sweat from my brow thinking I was in the clear.  Couldn't be that easy.  No sirree.  He squeezed in between me and the person to my right on the couch.  What's up with that?  I made it clear that we could talk about the weather and nothing else. Annoyed, he left shortly after that.

I'm an adult.  I know how to analyze situations and understand the importance of deciding what is and what is not worthy of my attention.  Kids don't have those skills yet and the bullying landscape is multi-faceted. 

Far too many books have been written about bullying in the past few years. Eric's Kahn Gale's Bully Book is based loosely on incidents that happened to him in 6th grade.  Classmates actually wrote a book on the fine art of grade school social climbing - how to do, how to choose a victim, and how not to care whose feelings are hurt in the process.  The rules are ruthless and beyond ugly. When Eric was eleven years old, he felt like the whole class was conspiring against him.  Everyone used the same insults and nicknames, and there didn't seem to be a safe corner of the room or moment in the day.  The book gives voice to everyone who has ever had a Joe, a Mike, a name caller or a bruiser in their lives.

Here are a couple useful resources

http://the http://the bullyproject.startempathy.org



Wishing you a bully free day, week, month, year....life

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Banned Book Week

Right.  I'm a week late with this info.  Doesn't make it any less interesting, though.

Banned Books Week has been celebrating the freedom to read and drawing attention to censorship issues in the last week of September since 1982. This year, Banned Books Week runs from September 21st to September 27th and specifically focuses on comics and graphic novels. Learn more about the event and banned books in general with some great articles, infographics and quizzes that we culled throughout the week!
  • Banned Books by the Numbers: The Huffington Post made banned books visible with this super helpful visual breakdown of the most popular banned books in 2013 and the reasons behind them.
  • Celebrity Videos: What’s better than seeing someone you admire talk about their favorite banned book? From Markus Zusak (THE BOOK THIEF) explaining how THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton made him want to be a writer to Whoopi Goldberg reading one of her favorite Shel Silverstein poems, there’s a wealth of entertainment here.
  • How Scandalous is Your Reading History? Take this Buzzfeed quiz and see how many banned books you’ve read (I got a 38 out of 93!).
  • 10 Great Book to Screen Adaptations: For those of you who can’t get enough of our Books on Screen feature, wordandfilm.com compiled a list of some of the best banned books to make it to the movie theater. Pass the popcorn!
  • Banned Books blog posts: On her website, writer E. Kristin Anderson dedicates the entire month of September to guest blog posts by authors talking all things banned books. Contributors so far have included William Ritter (JACKABY), Jessica Verday (OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS), Carrie Mesrobian (SEX & VIOLENCE) and more. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Introducing a New Voice in Mystery Writing

What a pleasure to read a well written book by a colleague, acquaintance or friend.  Deadline for Death, by friend and guest blogger, Steve Head, arrived a week or so ago.  Actually, Steve sent an electronic copy of an early draft over a year ago.  I read the first chapters quickly, discovered that reading off a computer does not work for me so I never finished.  I recall sending Steve several questions and comments, which he politely rebuffed and refuted.  But now, battery free copy in hand, I can say that this book does not have the usual tell-tale signs of a first novel.  In fact. Steve's novel holds up well against mysteries written by many well established authors.

"Deadline" takes place over eight days in 1952, the time not only serving as a backdrop but also being integral to the plot.  The Wyoming setting also provides an anchor for the action.  Each character, distinct and unique in voice, attitude and history, plays a significant role.  Incidental players add local color and just the right dash of humor, especially Rose, the waitress at the Atomic Cafe.  (Thanks for the silly bit on page 304, Steve!).

The plot?  When Corky  Freeman, young newspaper photographer, is found dead, the local newspaper editor, Wilson Dodge's digging about turns up more than answers to whodunit.  Several apparent political murders follow, begging the question of whether or not Corky was involved in some clandestine small town governance plot.  I kept guessing.  My guesses were nearly always wrong.  I don't mean to imply that the logic of the action was flawed.  The plot was so layered, detailed and fast that I had to keep my eye on every detail in order to pop the final puzzle piece into place.

Jolly good work, Steve.  Congratulations.

FYI - Steve is hoping to make the trip from Nebraska to Manitowoc for a signing at some point.  

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Flesh, Blood and the Bard

Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta have been a formidable team for many years - twenty-two books worth, to be exact.  Having been a fan of the "Quincy" TV show, these novels filled a void for me when the show ran its course and was cancelled.  Cornwell's series began with the aptly titled Postmortem, and introduced the smart, tough, and ever on duty medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta.  For a while, I was loyal and grabbed each new book as soon as it hit the shelves, but then, something happened.  Scarpetta got an IPhone, a computer, a notebook and all sorts of other gadgets and a flurry for techno plots emerged.  I moved on and discovered new writers and challenging themes.

But last week this new novel appeared in my mailbox and so I gave it a try.  What a refreshing reunion this has been.  Are the books all I remember them to be?  Well, the base characters have evolved - nice to see that, and the opening scenes show a softer Scarpetta than I recall.  The plot began quickly incorporating contemporary themes including racial profiling, terrorism and 911.  Scarpetta herself appears to be in imminent danger, and if you are a fan, you know that her niece, Lucy is sure to play into things - Lucy being the "Blood" in the title. 

In the opening pages, Kay Scarpetta finds herself in the unsettling pursuit of a serial sniper who leaves no incriminating evidence except fragments of copper.  The sniper's shots seem impossible, yet they are so perfect they cause instant death.  The victims appear to have nothing in common and there is no pattern to indicate where the killer will strike next.  First New Jersey, then Massachusetts and then the depths off the coast of South Florida where Scarpetta investigates as shipwreck.  It is there that she comes fact-to-face with shocking evidence that implicates her techno-genius niece, Lucy.  I will say no more!

Between murders, I am trying to read Unbroken, our book club selection for next week.  That one is not going well.  I'll blame it on lack of concentration due to our upcoming Heart-A-Rama/UW-Manitwooc show.  Tickets are still available.  Hope to see you on Friday or Saturday night. For more information go to www.heartarama.blogspot.com

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, August 25, 2014

From Sawyer to Shakespeare and Back Again

  True confession time - I never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer until last weekend.  In fact, I never read anything by Twain except for the hysterical Diaries of Adam and Eve.  Hard to believe.  Twain was known for being outspoken and hard living; both threads are evident in this little novel that is more thematically complex than I anticipated.

On the surface there is fun story of a boy who witnesses a murder, attends his own funeral, and announces that he is engaged after a single kiss with his beloved Becky Thatcher.  Beneath all that, Twain subtly comments on societal hypocrisy using characters and events to illustrate frequent discord between society's values and its actions.  Hmmmmm.  No, he doesn't advocate subversion, just puts the word out there for us to consider.

Twain give us plenty to chuckle at. We all know that Tom is not a model citizen, always lingering on the delicate equator between questionably angelic and amusingly sneaky.  In the classic whitewashing scene, Aunt Polly punishes one of Tom's many indiscretions by making him paint their fence.  Instead, Tom convinces he pals that whitewashing is a honor, and they trade him prize possessions in exchange for the opportunity to do his work for him.  

Because I'm all consumed with directing a show right now, I couldn't help thinking that this is a lot like what directors do.  We sell a cast on our show painting a picture of how much fun it will be to create art together. We convince them it is for a good cause, they will make new friends, shine on stage and be the envy of everyone in their paths.  Once on board, we make them work and work and work.  They build our show for us, one line, one movement, one bit at a time. When the curtain opens and the lights go up, they're all polished up on stage, and we sit back and watch as they skip, dip, maneuver and turn in a thespian dance of maybes and hopes.  Maybe it will all work as planned and hopes that they have given the audience a reason to put the day's stress behind and laugh. 

Yup, that's a big old commercial for our HAR/UW-Manitowoc show Barbecuing Hamlet.  September 12 and 13.

Great new kids' book by Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon.   The title says it all.

Last week, an old friend stopped by all the way from Nebraska.  Slowing down and catching up is  always so very nice.    Steve's (yes the very Steve that occasionally appears as a guest blogger)  first book will be published soon.  I'll keep you all posted.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blue Monday

What a sad Monday.  Lights were dimmer  and laughter softer yesterday as we learned of the passing of two theatre comrades - Rick Klein and Robin Williams.  As the hurt subsides, Rick's lights will brighten again and laughter will rise from deep in our bellies.

I had the opportunity to work with Rick often starting when he was in high school working as a  roadie for Studio 1615.  He hung lights and set up sound for many of my student productions at Valders, and (although I am a little embarrassed to admit this ) he teched a couple Miss Manitowoc  Pageants where I acted as assistant director.  (Stop laughing!  I can hear you.).

Rick was a typical techie.  I say that with the utmost respect for those who add the magical layer of lighting and sound to productions that would be flat without those components.  The routine was always the same.  I would outline for him what I was looking for - mood, color, blends, shifts, intensity....he indulged me for however long it took to me to explain.  Then it was Rick's turn.  He never took notes, but remembered everything - and, in a flash, he told me why most of what I wanted was impossible.  Each time, the conversation ended with me near tears, my exit line being "OK then, just do it".  And he did.  For hours, Rick labored until finally, all was accomplished.  He was proud.  I was happy.  That's the way it always
went.  We both knew it.  The game got easier over the years, but the rules never changed.  Miss you, Rick.

Robin Williams.  Such a tornado of creativity.  How much fun would it have been to spend just one hour in person with this guy?  Unlike so many screen personalities, Williams had great range, using his manic style where appropriate, but when needed he was vulnerable and caring.  He also played sinister in a disturbingly realistic way, partially because that attribute was totally unexpected of our lovable Mork.  It was through this range of possibilities that we got to know him better.  He came into our living rooms as a player in a story, and after a few years of movies, TV shows and honest interviews, he left as a friend.

So, I'm thinking we all need a little happiness and luckily, this documentary is showing on PBS this Wednesday at 8:30
  • HAPPY takes us on a journey from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Kolkata in search of what really makes people happy. Combining real life stories of people from around the world and powerful interviews with the leading scientists in happiness research, HAPPY explores the secrets behind our most valued emotion.
    - Written by Wadi Rum Films, Inc

And when you're done.....

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street.
Thanks for stopping by.

"Barbecuing Hamlet" September 12 and 13 at UW-Manitowoc.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Miss and a Hit

Once again I have been duped by slick marketing and a cacophony of media noise.  Once again, I cannot figure out why I fell for it.  This advance reader copy came bundled with a glossy, 2-pocket folder containing all sorts of goodies. Attractive sell sheets.  Testimonials. bookmarks.  In the outside world, bookish websites from coast to coast have this flagged as a must read.  

After my recent battle with Gone Girl, I am disappointed that I did not recognize this as one of the many knockoffs that are sure to follow. The Good Girl was faster reading however for many reason, beginning with the straightforward plot.  No deception here.  Just characters going about their business in an apparent kidnapping/hostage situation. Gone Girl alternated between two storytellers, this book moves among four, most of them are believable and at times complex. However, by page 70 or so I was already saying to myself  "I bet that .....".  Once I made that assumption, the pieces came together nicely, basically as I thought they would. 

The plot?  A nice middle school teacher from a richer than rich dysfunctional family is kidnapped by a hired gun.  At the midpoint of the abduction, he gets cold feet, changing directions and secreting Chloe in a deserted cabin with no provisions.  Chloe has no idea that her captor is trying to protect both of them from the man who hired him - a man he has never met.  So, Stockholm syndrome kicks in, and when the girl is eventually found, she has amnesia and can't help the authorities in any way.  Can't or won't?  That's the question I began to ask...on page 70!

I turned the pages of this deck read.  Luckily my neighbors are not close enough to have heard the screams when I got to the "Epilogue".  350 pages of plot.  Epilogue begins on page 345 and finally things are revealed and explained just in case we missed all the big clues that clobbered us in the previous 345 pages.   I know. I know, Agatha Christie did this all the time, but who can find fault with the charming Miss Marple?  This was just lame.

The Black House by Peter Max has lots of promise.  Another mystery.  This one is set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.  Geography and history combine to add layers to the plot.  I'm struggling with some of the Gaelic words, but the author anticipated that and provided a pronunciation guide for me. A detective who has been detached for a while due to a personal tragedy is dispatched to investigate a crime that bears simillarites to a case he cracked in the past.  The journey back reopens wounds and reveals secrets about his troubled past.  Reminds me of the detective shows on PBS.  This is the first in a trilogy.  I think I will enjoy these.

If you're on the lookout for an out of the ordinary movie with an exceptional cast, try "The Grand Budapest Hotel."  This modern day fantasy piles layer upon layer of silliness and visual excitement.  Keep your eyes and ears open, this moves goes quickly and you if you blink, you'll need to rewind.  Even if you don't care for the story, the look or the characters, watch it for the prison escape scene.  That deserved an award.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Haunted Family and a Haunted House

Since Rebecca Makkai snuck on to my radar with The Borrower I have been waiting patiently for her next book...and here it is.  The Borrower is one of those books that I loved because of it's quirk; experience has taught me that I should be cautious about recommending books that fall into that category, but I can't help it. They make me giggle at the wrong times, and by turning the world upside down they push me to see the life differently.  I don't always like what I see but as a result, I have stopped questioning whether or not there is life on Mars and go about my days taking what is given to me and accepting people for who they are no matter what they think or do or believe.  

One of the responsibilities of the written word is to challenge us to look again, to reevaluate and to consider other ways.  Quirky books do that for me, and so for me, they are valuable.  That is not the case for everyone, however, and that is just fine.  That is, unless it's the 50 shades books that are influencing your life. Not going into that again, except to say ...forget it, I won't get on my soapbox again about cruddy writing and cruddy books.  (And that is not an opinion, that is fact - 50 shades books are crud.)  OK, I have stepped off the box.  

Don't confuse The Borrower with the young people's stories by Mary Norton.  That is The Borrowers - with an "s" - clever little stories about tiny folk with borderline evil intentions - living under the steps in a family home.  Makkai's Borrower tells the story of a young boy who kidnaps a librarian.  Try topping that for excitement.  I double dog dare you.

Here's the scoop on this new book...which you all should read!

A haunted family and a haunted house... in reverse.

When Doug’s mother-in-law offers up the coach house at Laurelfield, her hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago, Doug and his wife Zee accept. Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.
Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

Thanks for stopping by.

Even though I no longer teach, I still read this book each year at the end of August.  It reminds me of what an important job teachers have,and  of how how hard they all work.  I think of my friends who continue to teach, and admire them for it.  I hope they are thanked each and every day.

This August, when I read UTDS, I will be thinking of Bel Kaufman, who passed away last Friday at 103.