Monday, September 26, 2016

Time for a Debate

What better time to remember what it means to do our civic duty than on the day of the much anticipated official kick-off to election season - the first candidate debate!  One can only guess what lies ahead as our two final candidates meet one on one for the first of several televised debates. Who will/will not be on his/her best behavior?  Who will/will not be in command of facts and figures?  Who will crack the first joke - and will that joke be truly funny or will it be a tasteless, knee jerk reaction to comments made by the opponent?  Oh, so much to look forward to.

This simple book, silly at first glance, opens eyes by bringing us back to simpler times when our lives where not led by 24 hour news services with overly dramatic, editorial readers dolling out "headline" news as if it were the whole story.

Info gathered from optimistic civics texts, civics manuals, government pamphlets and scouting manuals from the 1920's - 1960's, reminds us that good citizens are well-rounded, fun to be around, fit and mannerly. One publication tells us that good citizens eat meat while another emphasizes the importance of good penmanship, and fair play.

Being a good neighbor and tuning the blight of an ugly home into beauty are musts along with caring for the world, and never poisoning our neighbor's dog.  Here you have one of two pages on how good citizens remain healthy.  I find #7 particularly entertaining.  Have you been a good citizen today?  Don't answer, that's more than I need to know.

Most of all, we must be loyal and worthy of being an American.  May our Presidential candidates remember these lessons as they push forward to November.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Little Women...a new season of reading has begun

Last Friday, the book group that has been meeting at LaDeDa for many years selected our titles for the coming months.  Our selection process is simple, titles are submitted in a latte mug and whatever one is pulled out first is what we read.  Every once in a while, I like to re-visit an old favorite, so I dropped Little Women into the mug.

 When it was pulled out, there were several spontaneous facial expressions that I didn't know how to interpret.  A whole new array of expressions burst forth when I grabbed a used copy and informed everyone that this simple story of the March family was over 400 pages.  Even I was surprised and suggested that perhaps we might want to choose a different book.  Nope.  We're sticking with this one, and I'm glad.

I started thinking about the classic works I taught throughout the years and of all the riffs on those stories that pop up.  We have Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and others turning up as key figures, often as detective is cozy mysteries.  Just go ahead and Google "Books inspired by ____________________" and see what comes up.

This tiny, tons-o-fun book parodies seventy classics by shrinking them to clever poems that suck the marrow from the original.  After reading the original, I often shared the shrunken version with my students.  Beowulf is one of my favorites.

                                              Monster Grendal's tastes are plainish.
                                             Breakfast?  Just a couple Danish.

                                       Kind of Danes is frantic, very.
                                       Wait!  Here comes the Malmo ferry

                                     Bringing Beowulf, his neighbor
Mighty swinger with a sabre.

Hrothgar's warroirs hail the Swede
Knocking back a lot of mead.

Then when night engulf the hall
And the monster makes his call,

Beowulf with body-slam
Wrenched off his arm. Shazam!

Monster's mother finds him slain 
and goes and eats another Dane.

Down her lair our hero jumps
Gives old Grendel's Dam her lumps.

Later on as King of Geats
He performed prodigiuos feats

Till he met a foe too tough
(Non-beodegradabe stuff).

And that scaly aermored dragon
Scooped him up and fixed his wagon.

Sorrow stricken, half the nation
Flocked to Beowul's cremation.
Round his pyre with drums a-mufle
Did a Nordic soft-shoe shuffle.

That sums up the story nicely.

If you're wondering why we should even bother to read the classics when there's so much else to read, here are couple reasons.....

10 Reasons You Should be Reading the Classics

1. You’ll increase your vocabulary. Whether you want to impress your in-laws, boost your SAT scores, or deliver more effective presentations at work, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with words that instantly reflect your intelligence.
2. While you’re at it, you’ll also improve your social skills. A 2013 study showed that reading the classics, in contrast with commercial fiction and even non-fiction, leads to better social perception and emotional intelligence.
3. You’ll be reading something of value. The classics, and their typically universal themes, have stood the test of time; these are books in which we still find characters, experiences, emotions, and perspectives relevant today.
4. Literary references won’t go straight over your head. You’ll be a walking encyclopedia of major cultural references.  Great for those long winter nights of trivia.
5. You can “reward” yourself with the film version when you’re finished reading. 
6. The classics provide an opportunity to understand history and culture in context
7. They will enrich you in ways you didn’t expect.  Classic novels are restless creatures, trying out new forms of expression, challenging our views on how a culture might be understood and how a life might be packaged.
8. The classics challenge the brain… in a good way. Linguistic functions used by Shakespeare have been demonstrated to stretch the brain, and researchers believe that a thorough reading of Jane Austen is associated with a level of cognitive complexity beyond that involved in solving a difficult math problem.
9. Knowledge is power. IQ is the best predictor for job performance, educational attainment, income, health, and longevity.
10. Literature, along with (arguably) all forms of art, is a distinctly human form.  It is by definition an exploration of our own humanity, one of our most important tools of communication, and a force that both creates and reflects our culture.

So, it is with great hope of experiencing all ten of the above benefits of reading the classics that I will approach 400+ pages of Louisa May Alcott's book - a book for some reason I think I know all about but have never read.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Small Disasters and a Little World. (Perfect Little World)

Welcome to my morning of small disasters.  First stop - my accountant to drop off end of month info.  "Where's your bank statement?' Tina asked.  After all, that is the crucial piece of info needed to do my books.  Forgot to include it with the rest of the info.

First customer ordered a blended drink.  That went well until the whipped cream exploded all over my black jacket.  Then, a button caught on the counter top and ripped off. 

Small disasters, as I said.  For once, I had a solid to-do list but fear that today is not the day to tackle any of it.  My best bet is to just sit here and tap away lest I trip over my shoelaces, spill the water from the pail and soak my shoes as I wash the floors.  Oh, of course I packed chips and salsa for lunch so I will surely be wearing that shortly.

Anyway.  Onward.  If you read and loved Kevin Wilson's quirky fam-com novel, The Family Fang, don't expect more of the same in his second novel.  The Fangs were art performers, staging elaborate, public events featuring their children, A and B.  In one scenario, the parents prepped their son to participate in a little miss beauty pageant and, in the event that he won, he was coached to reveal the farce of the situation by removing his wig.  He did win, but the plan backfired in an hilarious display of hubris.  He liked winning.  He liked the crown and sash and went screaming from the stage as his parents watched horrifiied.  The plot turns dark and twisted toward the end, but the book is so worth the time.  

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Alison Arngrin, author of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, a memoir of growing up as a child star and playing Nellie in "Little House on the Prairie". Her childhood was so like the Fangs that I gave her a copy of the book.  A few weeks later, she emailed from an airport in Paris, stunned at the similarities.  I had so hoped that she would be tapped to play a role in the movie version, but that didn't happen.  Sadly, the movie focused on the dark side totally missing the humor that Wilson so adeptly wrote into the plot.

The once common thread in both books is the examination of non-traditional families.  In the new novel, a group of adults are chosen tho participate in a communal child raising experiment based partly on the proximity of their due dates.  The ten children are to be raised collectively.  It will not be until the third year of the experiment that each child learns the identity of  his/her biological parents. 

Complications arise, including adults straying from their marriage partners, and parents growing to love some of the children more than their own.  Their lives are structured, with charts and timetables managing most of activities and responsibilities.  What will happen, I wonder, after eight years when the experiment ends and the children are no longer being raised by a village of parents and other educated caretakers?  That may be the very question Wilson wants to leave us with. It will be interesting to see if his next book continues to examine the evolving definition of "family".

Wish me luck....a dirty floor and bucket of water await.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Existential Fear

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my next book group title At the Existentialist Cafe.   Not sure what I have gotten myself into with this one, but I am up for the challenge.  On Saturday, I met up with a number of people I haven't seen in a while and one thing we had in common was books and book groups. That got me thinking and suddenly I was overwhelmed by the realization that I am now in three book groups.

My first group began way back in the 20th century, when LaDeDa was still on Washington Street.  A couple customers got the group going, but we eventually disbanded after being infiltrated by an offensive human who, despite being told to go away, would not.  He had moved to Manitowoc from Whitefish Bay because, in his words, "those people" were taking over all the nice neighborhoods.  He also was unable to attend any theatre functions because the shows were all run by and acted by Jews.  Month after month we listened and were sickened by his bigotry, and month after month one or more member told him those attitudes were unacceptable.  I even had several discussions with him one on one; still he continued to show up whether he had read the book or not.  Eventually, we just decided to fade away for a while.

When the group came up for air, LDD had moved to its present location and here we remain.  We read 6-8 books a year and supplement with a movie here or there - mainly foreign titles.  The group is smart, friendly and very social.  Everyone knows and respects the fact that that last characteristic often frustrates me....but not enough to leave.  I enjoy our meetings, and I enjoy and respect each of our members.

One Tuesday, I walked into my piano teacher's living room for a lesson and had hardly taken off my jacket before she blurted "I just read the best book ever.  Peter says I need to join a book group".  On that day, group two was born.  We decided to keep this group small.  There are only four of us.  Our plan is for each of us in turn, to choose a book.  We have no specific schedule, no deadlines, and we meet whenever the book picker can find a common date to pull us together.

Then there was the visit from Mary which began with a brief overview of our shared love/lust relationship with Hemingway.  Because of her job, Mary is not able to commit to a discussion group that meets with any regularity.  Viola!  Group three.  We're a cyber group, still in our infancy and are about to plunge into our second book.  We have nine members and I am sure that at times we will each take a pass on a book.  What I like about the FB format is that we can comment and ask questions as we go.  

5:05 - UPS finally arrived and from skimming page 1, I have learned there is nothing to fear from Sarah Bakewell's book.  After all, this philosophy - or a mood as sentence one suggests - found its way into some rather provocative pieces of literature, and most definitely into theatre.  

I'll be OK with this one and will report on the accuracy of my prediction in two weeks.  No post next Monday...Labor Day.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mockingbird Takes Flight

Ever hear of literary terrorism?  Me neither until I read this book.  (Should I worry that I used the T word in a public post?). Oh well....

After The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I needed a softer book, a palette cleanser.  In the end, the Alice Hoffman book proved too much for me. "Oddly fascinating" was how one book group member described it.  For me, it was lack of relief from the grueling day to day nastiness in the character's lives.  I simply needed a breather (no pun intended for of those of you who read the book.)  Heck, Shakespeare knew that after a significant battery of hate, trauma and drama he had to toss in a couple drunken gatekeepers, or a jester telling silly riddles to lighten the mood.  

Anyway.....this young adult novel is filled with good, old fashioned mischief.  A trio of junior high kids - very literary savvy junior high kids - have been given a summer reading list which includes To Kill a Mockingbird. Painful cries of fellow students echo throughout the town and our three Mockingbirdists devise a plan to make the novel as appealing as possible.

In short order, the book becomes a rare bird when the trio sets out to hide all existing copies found in their town's bookstores and library.  The plan takes off nationwide.  TV coverage.  Police intervention.  All sorts of twists and turn and conspiracy theories abound from this supply and demand prank.

In between caper planning, there's a mom with cancer, an undisciplined wiener dog, and a time love story.  

Luke, my favorite UPS guy brought me two great Arc's last week - although I wish he had held one back so I didn't have to decide which to put on the TBR pile.  Nick Butler's Hearts of Men landed there when I opted to read Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson.  I put Wilson in the Great Quirks file along with Brady Udall.  Wilson wrote The Family Fang, about grown children, Child A and Child B, who live with mental peculiarities thanks to being forced to participate in their parents' weird and often dangerous performance art pieces.  In his new novel, families take center stage again.  

All I know so far is that Dr. Grind is experimenting with a new Utopian society.  Ten children are being raised collectively by a group of adults without anyone knowing who, within the group, are the birth parents of any of thechildren.  I am guessing that suspicions and jealously will begin to arise.  Will some of the adults want to "own" specific children?  What if there's a bad seed in the group.  Or a genius?  Or an artist?  Will anyone want to claim the "average" kids?  

Maybe the book will go in a totally different direction, but so far, I am finding it "oddly fascinating".

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Return of Jay Gatsby

Sidetracked again.  I suppose the time has come for me to consider the pile of want-to-read books simple suggestions, rather than as a plan.  That relieves me of the weekly task of looking at the pile and arranging and rearranging based on my mood, the time of year, customer suggestion or super cool cover art.  Letting books subtly slip into my psyche, or just blatantly hitting me on the head to be read will be my new approach.  For now.

On Saturday, the Masques, our long lived community theatre group sent me info on their 2016-17 season featuring "Company," "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The Great Gatsby".  You can tell from the picture at the top where this led me.  The first and only time I read that book was in high school, when some altruistic, well-meaning new lit teacher attempted to get us middle America kids to embrace the story of Nick, Jay and Daisy.  Vaguely I recall parroting some lecture facts back to her on an essay exam (she was fond of essays), but realistically, this book had nothing I could relate to no any characters I understood.  Then, of course there was the challenge of the historic context.

Many things made sense to me as I read it this weekend, including why my bright eyed teacher thought it would be a good idea to put it in our hands.  In less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald hits all the right notes, and had I been ready examine those notes, maybe I would have actually read the book and not have flunked the unit test. But heck, at 16 I was not in tune to elegant language, nor did I comprehend the depth and significance of the symbolism throughout.  Oh, maybe I picked up on the billboard, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelberg  watching ominously over the city, but I sure didn't pick up on the ideas that the artwork had been uncared for, suggesting that the American Dream had fallen into ruin.  

Reading this, I began to visualize the wonderful time Masquers will have with this production.  Crafting the lavish, art deco setting, along with costumes befitting both the old money and the nouveau riche of 1925 will challenge our local designers, but they have proven many times over they are up to the task.  I can hardly wait to see the characters moving about what is sure to be a edgy lighting plot.  In my mind I have cast the show...I wonder how close I will be?  Sadly, this show isn't until spring, so I will practise patience.

I will also practise looking at my book pile, patting the top book, tossing off a "harrumph" like sound...and moving on.  No adjustments.  I will wait for next week's book to fall from the sky, but first I have to finish The Museum of Extraordinary Things for our book discussion on Friday...that is unless I get sidetracked.

By the way, never noticed this before...If you look closely at the most frequently used Gatsby cover - the one with the eyes and will see people in the pupil of each eye.  I suppose my sophomore English teacher pointed that out to us, but who had time to be bothered with that when great novels like Love Story was begging to be read?

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, August 8, 2016

More Extraordinary Things

If you searched for last week's post, you came up empty.  To be honest, I am still working my way through this Alice Hoffman novel and haven't yet settled in on how I feel about it.  Two stories, which will certainly intertwine at some point, focus attention in different directions, although there are parallel themes.  Both Eddie and Coralie have peculiar relationships with their fathers.  At first, Coralie's father appears overprotective, even smothering, but as her story evolves, she discovers that he may not be all that he seems.  Eddie, on the other hand, leaves his distances himself from his deeply religious father'house to work for a man with questionable scruples.  In doing so, Eddie turns his back on his religion, creating darkness between him and his father.  At least that is what Eddie thinks.

Let me back up a little.  Coralie's father runs a museum of oddities and he is prepping her to be a living mermaid.  In his teens, Eddie worked for a man who sent young boys out to recover information on missing people, in whatever way they could.  Eventually, Eddie becomes jaded by his life searching in and out of beer halls and brothels; after meeting a hardened photographer Eddie begins photographing the seamy side of life.

This is where I think the stories will begin to merge somehow.  A young woman goes missing after the famous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.  Eddie is hired to find the young girl for her distraught father.  About the same time, while on one of her late night mermaid training swims, Coralie becomes entangled with the corpse of a girl; her father quickly hires a man to transport the body back to his workshop where he creates many of his museum exhibitions.  

Right now, I can't say if this is a love it or leave it book for me.  Hoffman's writing is mesmerizing and artful. The story makes me uncomfortable.  At times I feel like I am peeping on the very private lives of people so flawed they will never find a place in my "normal" world.   Should I pity them or should I admire the strength with which they move through life knowing they will always be dramatically different physically, emotionally  intellectually and perhaps ethically?  I'm not sure at all, but I will keep reading in hopes of finding that one line, or that one idea between lines that brings it home for me.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tails and Tales

A terrible ratting-tatting woke me around mid-night  - sounds like hail on the skylight, or gunshots.  The attack lasted way too long to go unchecked. Figuring the sight of me in mismatched pajamas would scare off intruders, I bravely checked around the house and in the basement.  Nothing, yet the noise continued. Rhythmic, so I ruled out gunshots. But it kept getting louder.  Noting it seemed to be close to the head of my bed which is on an outside wall, I grabbed a flashlight to check outside. By this time I was too annoyed to be scared any longer.  

I arrived at the side of my house in time to see the remains of a mouse being chewed violently by the air conditioner fan.  Believe me, I have never been a fan of the mouse family, but this was an awful sight. Mystery solved and I figured once the execution was complete, the noise would end.  Wrong.  The little guy's tail dangled just within reach of the fan blade and clicked with each spin.  In time, the sound ended, mostly likely due to the appendage being clipped off.  

So, if I make less sense than normal, blame the beast.

One of my book discussion groups has chosen this book for August (yup, Steve, I know that earlier I reported the new book to an Alice Munro piece.  I stand corrected.).  Needing to finish The Bolter  for an on-line group, I didn't get far with this one.  But, aren't blistering hot days (and below freezing days) perfect for binge reading?)  The haunting cover drew me in and the first few pages hold promise.  

Young Coralie opens the story explaining her life as the daughter of a freak show exhibit owner in Corney Island in the 1920's.  Even though her father refers to both the living and preserved curiosities as "wonders', he forbids Coralie to look at them.  With great respect and sadness, she reveals how the working individuals hide themselves in public since there are no laws to protect them for harassment, and worse, from attack.  She looks upon them with near reverence, saying that their differences tell us they have been touched by God.  

I can't help but think about a troubling movie called Freaks which featured real life circus exhibits, and of course, last year's installment of American Horror Story:Freak Show.  I think these types of roadside attraction have begun to fade away which is good.  However, they have been replaced by the train wrecks offered to us by Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and the enigmatic Kim and Kanya et al.  I can't figure out the popularity of these shows, but I will say they - and their popularity - frighten and unsettle me.

One more unsettling note, I recently received an ARC (Advance Reader copy) of Anthony Bourdain's new cookbook to be released in October.  As expected, he includes many international recipes, lots of appetizing ideas.  But, why on earth does he introduce each chapter with photos of dead chicken parts?   Really. The book is filled with photos of chicken feet, chicken legs, some with feathers, some with the dimply skin exposed.  Somewhere you will find a picture of a salad or a noodle but not accompanying the recipe for roast chicken with lemon and butter.  Nope.  There we get two chicken feet, innards , the chicken head and neck along with a butcher knife.  Appetizing.  There's a guy in full camo with a rifle, a burning wishbone, and next to the recipe for sausage gravy with biscuits we have an creepily lit picture of Bourdain himself, dripping white gravy like a rabid dog.  Oh, did I mention the dusting of f-bombs throughout the narratives?  It will be interesting to see if his intended audience gets behind this unconventional offering.

Thanks for stopping by.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Three Special Ladies

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a curious Britcom called Mapp and Lucia (pronounced in the Italian tradition - LuCHEEa).  At first I didn't know what to make of the two battling divas, but by the third episode, I had decided to embrace them and dedicate myself to a summer filled with their competitive and devious antics.  Well, wouldn't you know, Mapp and Lucia was not a series, rather was a simple, three part adaptation of Benson's books - and from the reviews I read, the adaptation was not well received.  It was the second attempt to bring these two women to life; neither worked.  

Still, I was intrigued and decided to follow up by reading one of the books upon which the TV show was based.  Not far enough to say much, other than the style is as ostentatious as the characters, and from what I can tell, Mapp and Lucia each have been given the dignity of separate novels and don't appear to intersect as the show did.  

This is what I know so far...comedy of manners in the tradition of Sheridan and Goldsmith plays set in English village society of the 1920's and 1930's.  Lucia dominates the art scene in Riseholm, setting villagers straight on what they should and should not embrace when it comes to music, painting, flower arranging and interpersonal relationships.  She indeed regards herself as the center of all that is important in the village, acting as her own spin doctor and  staging opportunities for the masses to speculate about her and her motivations. 
The author's father was Archbishop of Canterbury.  E.F. Benson amused himself with associations the likes of Henry James and Oscar Wilde.  He published over 100 books but is best known for the collection of characters occupying the pages of his many Mapp and Lucia novels.  More next week.

Sigh.  Fine Print on a Monday has one less reader today.  Pat Chermak took her final bow early Sunday morning.  Pat was quick to contact me if FPoaM didn't appear by the time she was up and ready to read it.  I explained that if I wasn't deep enough into a book sending out a basically empty, vapid post seemed silly.  "Just one paragraph.  That's all we need."  Didn't want to disappoint so I tried to follow the one paragraph rule when I could.  Pat was an insatiable reader and frankly, I was often embarrassed to say "No"  way too often when hit with her barrage of  "Have you read....?'.  I'll miss you Patsy Ann....

Monday, July 11, 2016

Orphan Train Surprised Me

I have done my share of book blasting in the past, and if ever there was a book worthy of a big blast, Orphan Train is it.  Clearly, Christina Baker Kline knows my list of novel no's and applied them all just to annoy me.  First, there is the contrived framework.  Molly, a young woman, tossed from foster home to foster home, finds herself doing community service hours by helping an elderly woman clean her attic. Together they open boxes and the story of Vivian's orphan train experience emerges.  A straight forward telling of Vivian's  story might have been more effective, especially since the juvie girl is painfully underdeveloped and the parallels between her life and Vivine's come off trite and contrived.

Several underdeveloped characters wander through the novel, adding to the overall weakness of presentation resulting in logic gaps.  Then there's the portaging metaphor, and that old "it's the journey, not the destination" message.

Despite all that, along with flaws piled upon flaws, I must say that I liked the book.  It has stuck with me. Vivian's resilience - probably more stubborn than resisilant - makes this 90-ish storyteller a powerful protagonist. Success stories like hers were likely few; her success, no matter what the circumstance, is due to who she is and the choices she makes no matter how hard.

I learned so much from this book which is something I never expected.  Anchoring the simple story is the solid foundation of time in history I knew little about, a time filled with suspicion, poverty, class division, and social systems that failed due to blind eyes. 

 I thought a lot about why we keep what we do and how a life with less could bring greater clarity.  I thought about how importatant it is to know we can rely on the kindness of strangers, and how important it is to be that stranger whenever possible. I wondered how many people I know are or have been broken and have chosen to stay strong and not prop themselves up on the crutch of disaster.  Lots to think about.

Final thought?  Simple book.  Huge impact. word for the events of the past week...just sad.

Thanks for stopping by.