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

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. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Bestseller that Bombed (for me)

Oh my goodness, what didn't I like about this book?  The style, mostly. Wait.  The characters, mostly.  Then again...mostly the plot.  So, there you have it.  Looks like I was not fond of this book.  

What am I reading now?  Still Life with Bread Crumbs by the ever reliable Anna Quindlen.  Quindlen's easy style is a nice contrast to the themes running through this novel.  Rebecca Winter is an accomplished photographer with national recognition.  As the story opens, her career is in decline, her saving account in tow.  She sublets her NYC condo and takes a year lease on a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere. This gentle story of unexpected love at times reminds me of Under the Tuscan Sun, and that's not a bad thing.  Rebecca is a relateable character with dignity and an admirable presence.  Above all, she is not angry, vindictive or one-dimensional. And she is sane.  

Quindlen charms.  She has a delicate sense of humor that is always well-placed.  For example, although a bit over 60, city born and raised Rebecca has never seen a cow close up.  To her "They always seemed a little frightening, like farm machinery with an unpredictable personality."

Let me back up to Gone Girl for a few lines.  If you have read this book and liked it, that's good.  I always say there's the right book out there for everyone..  The popularity of this book baffled me, so I started digging around and found several sites dedicated to trashing and hating it.  I am not alone.  However, most people were unhappy with the ending and that colored their experience with the entire book.  I struggled right from the beginning, and by page 100 found the heavy narrative tedious and angering.  The story is told from two (supposedly opposing perspectives) but the characters share a common voice and syntax.  One in indistinguishable from the other. Neither one is likable.   Sentences are too long with little dialogue to break up the monotonous rhythm. 

Granted, I'm a purist when it comes to style.  Straightforward,  Simple.  Not a lot of ornamentation.  (I prefer music with the same qualities.  No baroque or crazy frilly sonatas for me).  The author uses far too many parentheticals, which are like little speed bumps (and in most cases, the info she offers in parens does not further the plot.).  Usually words captured by  parens are like theatrical asides - a character sharing a secret with the listener, or in this case, the reader.   But since the chapters are already narrated by the main characters, isn't everything written already a confidence shared between writer and reader, rendering the parenthesis redundant, or am I obsessing on those two little curved lines?

I won't trouble you with my thoughts on the Swiss cheese plot or the lame characters.  The whole book is like really, really really bad Shakespeare.  Lots of disguise plots, plots within plots and go nowhere plots. The Bard used those techniques sparingly, masterfully, and not all at once.  Flynn, not so much.

For me, the most interesting characters were the cat and the ottoman.

So, if you're reading this, liked the book and are feeling a little beat up, just remember, my book group threw rotten tomatoes at me for The Family Fang. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, The Lonely Polygamist, The Lady Cyclist Guide to Kashgar,...the list goes on.  Still, I read.  Still I enjoy the search for characters that jump off the page and speak to me, settings that take me places I haven't been, real or imagined, and plots that get me thinking...and sometimes arguing and defending.  And that's where the fun begins.

(Anyway) thanks for stopping by (today).

Monday, July 7, 2014

Just Enough Time for a Few Short Stories

With the hoppin' city picnic and fireworks on the agenda for the weekend, I figured there wouldn't be much reading time available.  I did manage to finish Cold Dish and start our discussion book, Gone Girl.  I flew through the final half of Cold Dish.  That's the way it works for me and mysteries.  Once the plot gets rolling, I find it hard to walk away and I plow through to the end.  At some point, I can't rest until I know whodunit and why.  For me, this book was more about character than plot, although the plot kept moving, jumping, twisting and never boring.  I was disappointed with the end, however (Sorry Steve).  Too many suspense novels resolve with a common reason for the perpetrator having committed the crime.  Well, that was a convoluted statement, but I don't want to give anything away.  That single disappointment did diminish my enjoyment of the book, and I will  read another Craig Johnson book soon.  You should too.

In fact, Johnson has a collection of short stories coming out soon and I know I will buy a copy.  Short stories were on deck on Sunday due to the busy weekend.  I first discovered Graham Greene when I saw the film version of The Quiet American.  The first time around I was so taken with the cinematography that I missed the story.  I never imagined there could be such lush,serene beauty in Saigon.  Breathtaking.  The second time around, I was able to concentrate on the story of a CIA agent working under cover in Vietnam. Since seeing that film, I have read  one or two Greene novels.  His main characters are generally highly scrupled individuals who face a major moral dilemma forcing them to question  closely held beliefs.  These personal moral issues are frequently entwined with political issues - shady political issues.

The few stories I read from this collection kept to those themes, but one or two strayed.  Although Greene is not often considered a mystery writer, he wrote several crime novels and shorts stories.  In "The Basement Room" he skillfully crafted a psychological drama based on lies and  pangs on conscience.   The truth V. lies cat and mouse games move quickly and the anxiety driven protagonist finds himself locked in a web of lies because the truth appears unbelievable.

Hawthorne wrote some dark (really?) and challenging short stories.  Haven't read many of them since torturing my high school student with them.  Maybe it's time....Watch out Dr. Heidigger...I'm coming for you.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Go Ahead, Blame Steve

If you stop by my house over the holiday weekend, I will graciously greet you at the font door, but you are not getting inside.  You can thank Nebraska Steve for that.  You see, he has been torturing me for several years with reference to Craig Johnson books, the Longmire series.  Then he began nagging about the Longmire series on A&E so I decided catching an episode or two of that would be less painful than reading what I pre-judged to be a half-baked mystery series with stock characters and predictable plots set on the edge of a Native American reservation.  

I'm well into the second season of the series now and am looking forward to the third. On Sunday, I cracked open my first Walt Longmire novel, The Cold Dish.  Granted, I was looking for an excuse to not clean, but this book pulled me in from the first page.  

Dust bunnies reside happily in corners, HAR scrapbooks are piled high  to be riffled through for historical articles and pictures, magazines remain in stacks to be sorted, tossed or re-assigned to another reader, two half painted signs for the store wait for finishing touches on the dining room table. That is just the beginning of the chaos that will keep you visiting on my front porch if you drop by.  Again, you can thank Steve for that.

Now about the book - I have a little literary crush on Walt Longmire. Come on, who doesn't have one of those?  My friend Valerie thinks that 80-year old Major Pettigrew (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand) is sexy, and I know you have a book crush, too.  Walt's an earthy, common sense kind of guy, and he reads people well.  He's scrupled and fair and he has a wicked sense of humor.  

Admittedly, I have been a cowboy fan since Sky King rode across the skies.  Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger were also favorites of mine growing up, and "Talent round-Up Day" was my favorite theme day on The Mickey Mouse Club.  Cold Dish starts fast with the discovery of a body.  The victim is tied to another crime and this appears to be a revenge killing.  That's about as predictable as it gets.  Intertwined, and well constructed characters, enter the story randomly, leading me in new directions.  It is clear who will be the leads throughout the series.  I like them all and so I am afraid I am committed to another Longmire book after this one.

Johnson is a no nonsense writer, except for an occasional simile for which I will forgive.  I hate similes.  I am a fan of the metaphor, personally.  His clean, direct style supports Walt's solid persona, and the story arc ebbs and flows bringing in just enough personal info on Walt and his companions along with Native American culture and lore to keep the mystery itself from growing stale.  All in all, a masterfully crafted mystery.


Here's my rant for the week....Let me begin by saying that most self published authors are excited to talk with me and are grateful to see their books on our shelves.  But I ran into one who wasn't.  He put together a nice looking non-fiction book, well written, well organized, great pictures.  I agreed to start out with five on consignment.  I could tell he was disappointed that I didn't want cases of them, but five is always where I begin.  We signed the contract, and his parting words were "Five is good for you, Bev.  I'll make my real money at B&N and on Amazon.  None of you small stores are going to last much loner anyway."  I was floored that he was so rude to someone from whom he had just asked a favor.  I tried hard to think of a cheeky comment to finish off this rant, but can't come up with one.  The "writer's " comment will have to stand on its own.

All in all, it was a good reminder to me to try to be less caustic.  Had I been heeding those words I wouldn't have shared that last story now would I?

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Who Gets the Letter?

My word.  I just got off a phone call that quickly became a real life rendition of  "Who's on First?"  It won't surprise you to hear that the conversation was with an insurance carrier.  Here's a little history for you. Because of last fall's hailstorm, I needed a new roof here at the store along with some drywall and painting inside.  Work has been done - although the ceiling leaked again last night but that's a story for another time, as my friend Chet the dog would say.  

During all the fal-der-al in filing the claim, I asked the adjuster once and the voice at the insurance end if this claim would cause my insurance to go up or - horrors - cause them to cancel me.  All responded with a resounding NO each time.  I was assured that my claims was small, nearly invisible compared to the bulk of the claims they get.  Well, you can just about cancellation but  - a 25% premium raise.  So, I switched companies.  

Part of the switching process includes switching my workman's comp policy.  I thought that was taken care of until I got a letter from AmTrust, an insurance company that should called Am-not-trustalbe.  Anyway. I have to fill out a form and return it.  Trouble, is the top of the letter gave me one address saying I had to return the form via "registered certified mail, personal delivery or via facsimile."  Also included was an envelope with a totally different address pre-printed. So, I made the big mistake of calling the provided number for clarification. 

Here's how that went: (I'm in italics)

I have a quick question.  (Silly me thinking THAT was true)  I have this form, and two different addresses  on where to send it.  Which one should it go to?


Yes, the one on the letterhead or the one on the envelope?

One on the letterhead.

OK.  Then what is the envelope for?

You need to send the form back to us in that envelope.

Oh.  I should make a copy and send one to both addresses?

Yes.  Just to us.

Right.  What about the address that I am supposed to send via (here I read the top of the letter to the voice)

Oh.  Let me bring up your policy.

You haven't done that yet.?  I thought you brought it up when you first asked for my policy number.

Yes.  You just have to check the appropriate box and return it.

Well, I would be happy to do that, but there are no boxes and I don't know which address to use.  Could the envelope have been included by mistake?


For sure?  So I really only have to send it to the place that needs the info via certified mail etc?

Yes.  You can use the envelope provided to do that.

But it has a totally different address in a totally different state.

Oh. That will be fine if you do that.

Do what?

Send it to us.

To you?  You're sure?  I won't get thrown in jail if I don't send it to the other place that requires a certified letter?

Did you say you're in jail?  Is that why you're having this problem?

I'm not in jail. 

Oh.  Perhaps my supervisor can help.

(Here I wait for about three minutes and when does she return?  Just as I am about to break my record score in Mahjong solitaire)

We don't know.  Call your local agent.  He might know something. By the way, can you tell me why you are leaving us?


What?  My phone just cut out.

Nothing.  Really.  Thanks for your help.

Now, before you go jumping to any conclusions, the voice on the other end was not foreign!  And to be fair, her phone did cut out periodically but I am sure she thinks it was mu jail cell phone that caused the problem.


This is not a formal Dog Blog entry but it is a secret worth sharing.  On Saturday night You-Know-Who came home from Metro Jam well after 9 pm.  I had waited patiently for my walk, and what does she do?  Plops down to watch some PBS mystery.  I am getting so tired of them.  Those people talk funny and the stories are always continued.  I have thing to do.  I can't be expected to remember things like what cop was chasing which criminal.  There is sunshine to follow around the house and birds and chippies to watch.

Anyway, I got irritated.  "My walk" I finally demanded.  So, YKW reluctantly turned off the TV, grabbed my leash and off we went.  Me looking proud and trotting along at a brisk pace, taking in all the local smells...YKW in her pajamas!  I was happy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A New Series from Ann B. Ross (Miss Julia)

Anyone who loved an laughed as Miss Julia fell into one misadventure after another will be thrilled when, on August 19th, Ann B. Ross begins a new series set in the town of Abbotsville.  This time, she writes about Etta Mae Wigging, a woman with a heart of gold and a lot of rough edges.  Etta lives in a trailer park, has a rotten family and dreams of a better life.  

Working as a home health nurse for the elderly and obscenely wealthy Howard Connard, she sees her chance.  She will use her feminine wiles to get him to marry her.  That is until his money hungry son gets wind of her plan and stops Etta at the front door.  When one of Etta's ex husbands shows up in town with a winning lottery ticket things get hectic.  Goose chases ensue with everyone from the trailer park to the mansion born grabbing for easy cash.  A couple local thugs and Miss Julia even join the fray.

This is all good fun...and silly deck reading.  We all need that, don't we?

Over the weekend, I also read a new young adult novel called Eleanor and Park.  This book left me speechless and heartbroken...and not one single person dies in the story.  If it weren't for an opening filled with some creative cussing, I would freely suggest this to all my teen readers.  If language scares you, or you fear that reading a book with the "F" bomb in it will change your life or in some way make you a doer of evil, then stay away.  If you can read a book without being altered by profanity, then pick this up and be altered by the story.

What's next?  My book group is reading Gone Girl for July.

Thanks for stopping by.