"Nora Webster", a novel by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014)

Irish novels tend to be a bit melancholy, with the local environment heavily influencing the characters.  Not so much Dublin, but the small towns are like hives—closely quartered, each knowing the others’ business.

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Thus, Nora Webster begins her life as a middle-aged widow, two children grown and two still at home.  The story has no big climax, just the natural ups and downs of growing children, helpful family and friends, and a town that knows everything you do.  Lack of privacy is Nora’s angst.  When her husband was alive, she shadowed her life under his, with perfect contentment.  Now, she is visible, a person of interest.  

Skillfully woven in the background is the beginning of the Irish “troubles”.  Catholics in Northern Ireland are beginning to march, demanding more representation and the cessation of British oppression.  It’s clear that politics plays an important, but underlying role.

Tóibín does nothing to glamorize the lives of his characters.  It’s the late 60’s, and Nora does not even have a telephone, an early reveal about her personality.  But few complain about this, even though they become involved in relaying messages and substituting for phone booths.  The community cares.  And Nora develops a single life on her terms, both private and public.

The book is 375 pages that flew by.  The writing is so solid, the characters so grounded and the plot, though not surprising, pulls you along.  Highly recommended for a gentle summer read.
 

"Physical Festival" Chicago 2018

This is our fourth year of attending the festival.  Some pieces burned brighter, some exploded.

 Demons of PTSD

Demons of PTSD

Nobody’s Home by Theatre Temoin & Grafted Code Theatre (U.K., U.S.)

We hear so much about PTSD – could it really be as bad as painted?  Granted, there must be degrees, but this 50-minute piece featuring two performers as returned-vet husband and at-home, pregnant, wife, delivers intensity of feeling with a gut punch. Click here for Amy Munice's review on Picture This Post.

 

 Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

The Red Bastard: Lie with Me (New York)

"Body and Motion Theater" defines the buffoon, "a character living at the fringe of society, daring to say what others won’t. Many times the one to tell us a painful truth while the rest prefer to live in a lie."

Oh lord, The Red Bastard did just that.  He  leads the audience down his seductive path until we all admit we are liars.  After all, who really has read all the verbiage in the multiple "terms and conditions" which we agree to on a computer program or website? As he licks his fingers in tasty enjoyment of our admissions, we can’t wait to see him hoist another of us on his petard. 

Eric Davis's performances are sold out year after year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  No wonder, we laughed and laughed, even as he revealed our willingness to lie, lie, lie.

In the second half of the performance, Davis sheds his red garb and we lose the enchantment of theater to not-so-funny improv with several audience members.   Next time, just more buffooning, please.

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Drunken Half-Angel featuring Michael Montenegro of Chicago

Short vignettes feature a local genius of physical theater, Michael Montenegro.  I loved the masks and puppetry, but found it disjointed.  Here's Nate Hall's review from Picture This Post.

 

The Other by Gael Le Cornec (Brazil/France)

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Hers is a story of immigration, separation, loss and insanity.  The narrative is woven by shadow puppets, a doll that represents an abandoned child used as a puppet , and narration by Le Cornec.  The story is powerful.  If we were not reading about this every day, the performance might have more impact. For me, it was difficult to become involved when stories of children ripped from their parents are in our headlines every day.  I'm jaded to this tragedy. 

Shadow puppets are a difficult medium, requiring precise coordination between the lighting designer, the puppeteer and the large or small puppets.  In this instance, the puppets seemed to be designed to appear childish and unfinished--like they might have been torn out of paper in a detention camp.  The puppets became the medium to tell about beating and probably rapes suffered at the hands of the guards. further distancing reality.  Unfortunately, the shadow puppet sequences were laced with technical problems, which distracted everyone.  A talented performer, but the execution was spoiled.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Little Soldier Productions (Spain/UK)

 Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Can you squeeze the whole of Don Quixote into an hour performance?  Well, these three talented performers, accompanied by a Spanish guitarist (For no apparent reason, except that she plays a good classical guitar.) attempt to capture the essence of the masterpiece in silly scenes, mostly on a small platform stage.  They are acrobats as well as actors, and use their bodies to become horses, houses, whores, heros.  But it's likely that, like me, they never read the book.

The setup is a good excuse for lots of romping fun, including an audience-involving pillow fight.  Aside from some good laughs, the magic did not happen for me.  But my sister-in-law has studied Don Quixote, and she loved this much abbreviated version.  I couldn't even make it through the Cliff Notes of Don Quixote.   Perhaps it played better in Spain or the UK where the Don is required reading.  

Onward to 2019 and more physical theater.

The Road to Little Dribbing: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson, (Doubleday, 2015)

Crammed with things you’ll enjoy as he travels from Bognor Regis in the South to Cape Wrath in the North of Scotland.  Bill Bryson is funny.  Not what you would expect from a Des Moines, Iowa native who spent most of his adult life in the U.K., much of it in senior copy and editing positions with the The Times and The Independent.  It must have been galling for the British reporters to take direction from an American.

Bryson returns to his strongest theme in Little Dribbing—the joys of travel among the annoying idiosyncrasies of his adopted country.  Unlike Paul Theroux, who makes you not want to visit the countries about which he entertainingly writes, Bryson revels in the beauty of the UK, the ignorance of British clerks, and the unique history of minor lay-bys that dot his island's highways and byways. 

I’ve read most every book of Bryson’s—he’s that kind of writer.  Not one who produces series thrillers or mysteries, but one from whom you will effortlessly learn in beautifully written prose.  And, if you want to take on a 500-page science education (A must for those of us educated 50 years ago by the RSCJ’s.), A Short History of Nearly Everything is a must read.  Also suggest that you read Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island prior to Little Dribbing

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Book Reviews - a Winter Collection

Five Skies by Ron Carlson, (Penguin, 2008

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The beautiful skies of the high plateau in Southern Idaho are the tableau against which Carlson draws this compact tale of three lonely men who come together to construct a reality TV set.  Each has a difficult background:  Darwin, death of a spouse; Art, death of a brother and Ronnie, petty criminal.  The opportunity of a summer job with good pay brings them to the Idaho plateau where they establish camp and a work rhythm.  The set reveals as it is built, without much focus on the production itself.  The focus is on the development of trust, friendship and grief.  Highly recommended.

 

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Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West by Wlliam Drozdiak (W. W Norton & Company Ltd., 2017)

Taut read that covers a lot of territory—almost all of Europe.  In journalist style, Drozdiak delivers most pertinent 21st Century history about 13 European countries and Washington D.C.  How different it is today that at the close of the 20th Century when a united Europe seemed almost a certainty.  His thesis is that the rise of nationalism within the European countries has weakened the strength of numbers, threatens global trade, and leaves them weak and susceptible to Russian interference, if not takeover.  This is a good read if you follow U.S. and European current events and sometimes cannot figure out “the back story”.

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Elizabeth Bishop:  A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

This is a new biography of Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979), one of the U.S.’s greatest poets.  She was born in Lowell, MA.  Her father died when she was one and her mother was committed to an asylum when she was five.  She was raised by her mother’s family in Nova Scotia, a time she recalls fondly.  Her father’s wealthy family brought her to U.S. for a boarding high school and Smith College.   Early on, she acknowledged she was lesbian and had lots of lady friends throughout school.  Her great love was an architect from Brazil, Lota de Macedo Soares.  Elizabeth lived off and on in Brazil for years, and the country influenced her writing.  Her actual literary output was small, but perfect—100 poems.  She won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1959.

This biography is written by one of Bishop’s students at Harvard, so there are interesting insights into her professional life as well as her difficult, personal life.  If you are into poetry, this is a good read.

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The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie (Picador, 1987)

A short book that I listened to in the car, it was Rushdie’s first non-fiction book.  It details his three-week visit to Nicaragua in 1979, while the Sandinistas were in power.  He was invited by an arts organization, and in a style reminiscent of Paul Theroux, does little to paint a pretty picture of what he finds.  On the one hand, life is better, more democratic (if that means better) for the mestizos and indios.  On the other, the Sandinistas were enjoying power and money much the same way that that powerful people do.  Ties were close with Cuba, and the U.S., supporting the Contras, was hated.  

At the end of the book, there is an Epilogue that Rushdie wrote in the 90’s when the book was republished.  That should be read first to really benefit from the content of the book.  It provides the perspective of time.  Eventually the sanctions imposed by the U.S. choked the Nicaraguan economy and the Sandinistas were democratically voted out of power.  A good little book if you like history in the Americas.

Phineas Finn: The Irish Member by Anthony Trollope, originally published as a serial October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine, London, England.  Read by Librovox.org.

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Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were contemporaries in the U.K. literary world.  So why is Dickens a household name and most readers have not heard of Trollope?  Some say Dickens was a more creative writer, with memorable characters and a unique knack for portraying hardscrabble London and general misery.  Trollope is gentler, easier to read (for me).  Dickens is the fruit cake and Trollope the egg custard—both lovely, but in different ways.  Trollope’s 40 novels usually run in series, and there is enjoyment in tracing the characters who appear, downstage, front and center, then in another book, upstage, a marginal figure.  

Phineas Finn is part of Trollope’s Pallisar Series.  Finn is Irish, a unique hero in any mid-19th century British book.  It deals with both British parliamentary politics of the 1860's, including voting reform (secret ballot and eliminating rotten boroughs and Irish tenant-rights) and Finn's romances with women of fortune, which would secure his financial future.  The education and the romance are never heavy-handed.  These would be excellent books to read to children as my grandmother did for me with Dickens’s novels.  They are also good books for listening.  They are large and heavy to tote as print books; and, if you miss a paragraph or two on the recording, it’s no big thing.  Recommended

"The Wanted" by Robert Crais (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2018)

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I liked this book the minute I looked inside: 307 pages, with large leading between the lines; short chapters and U.S. names – a comfort read.  I’m interviewing Crais, one of the U.S.’s bestselling mystery authors at the Tucson Festival of Books.  He has twenty books in his bibliography and is going strong--The Wanted is his new bestseller.

Crais handles the many elements of his mystery with ease.  He introduces characters that most readers know intimately; his protagonists, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are featured in 16 of his books.  I've not read any of them, but  Elvis and Joe were immediately familiar to me.  I never felt like the backstory was missing.  His new characters, a devoted single mom, her teenage, spineless son and his wacky girlfriend, become embroiled with major crime due to the teens’ burglary spree.  There is a unique criminal team, who may be lovers, that provides a taste of comic relief—reminded me the radio comedians Bob and Ray (RIP), professional and droll. 

Crais’s writing style flows, carrying the reader in a bubble of good writing and thoughtful character development.  The tag lines that appear at the end of chapters bring characters further into the reader’s confidence. You are reading their minds.  It’s an elegant device and paces the plot. 

I enjoyed The Wanted.  It’s a great plane read (5 to 6 hours).  If Robert Crais is even a bit like Elvis Cole, I’ll be the privileged interviewer.  

Beautiful Pair of Memoirs by Lucette Lagnado, WSJ Feature Writer

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, and The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado, (Ecco, 2008 and 2011.) - Review

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I stumbled across these in a used bookstore.  Lucette Lagnado is familiar as a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal – usually interesting and often obscure articles, covering New York or Middle Eastern topics.  What a powerful treasure of information and family homage is captured within these books.  Sharkskin Suit is the Lagnado family’s life in Cairo, traditional and as secure as any Jews ever feel.  Her father Leon is the focus, his mysterious life as a trader, a bon-vivant, and a dispassionate husband and loving, yet absent, father.  His marriage was between a patriarchal, Sephardi Jew, Leon, and a beautiful, submissive, Syrian Jewish wife, Edith—and between Edith’s mother, abandoned by her husband and family, and Leon’s mother, the autocrat who ruled the house.  For a Gentile, the combination of regionally close, yet traditionally different, Jewish spouses (Syrian and Sephardic) was interesting.  Prayers are different, relationships are different, roles are different.  Naturally, Edith’s were purged. 

After Egypt took control of the Suez Canal, Jews began to leave—taking the opportunity to migrate somewhat thoughtfully.  By the time the Lagnados left Cairo, with 26 suitcases and $200, there were no choices.  They fled to Paris to a pauper’s life assisted by Jewish Relief.  Eventually, they made their way to the U.S., but Leon, crushed by the loss of his life in Cairo, never adapted.  He kept his merchant ways, selling ties out of a cardboard box, and scrupulously repaying the $2,000 loaned to him by Jewish Relief for fare from LeHarve to New York. 

The Arrogant Years is not so much about Lucette as about Edith, who blossomed in New York.  A skilled teacher of French before her marriage, she found work and a new life within the city library system accessioning books.  Stories of the siblings, a rebellious older sister and two older brothers, are told, but not in depth.  Lucette excelled in high school, struggled at Vassar, regrouped, graduated and began work as a reporter.  Throughout both books, her mysterious illness, finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, interstices her life with pain and despair.  The Arrogant Years, as with most memoirs, does not plow new ground of the immigrant, destitute Jews who thrive in the U.S., but is beautifully written with love and thanksgiving.

Both books are elegantly illustrated with photographs that bring the family to life.  Highly recommended for history lovers and those who appreciate well written memoirs.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, produced by The Rogue Theater - Review

Converting a novel into a movie or play requires radical simplification while remaining true to the plot and characters.  With a movie, you have fully fleshed film locations that speak thousands of words.  In the theater, you have several sets that must evoke location.  In the case of The Rogue, you have one set and clever wooden boxes that rearrange themselves into the truck, dining tables, stools, and stands.  Thus, 169,481 words make their way into two hours and forty-five on stage.

 Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Frank Galati, a member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, adapted The Grapes of Wrath in ’88.  It was produced in Chicago, then traveled to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play in ’90.  It did not run even a year—this is not the fodder for the matinee crowd.  I was fortunate to see the Steppenwolf Chicago production.  Though memories of the production are dim, The Rogue production seemed more emotional, real, and benefitted from the small stage.  

Galati included music in his adaptation.  The Rogue’s program says, “Music Direction and Original Composition by Jake Sorgen”.  So, I’m inferring that what we heard was all original to this production, though some pieces were old folk favorites.  Here, the music and the players melded into the production, playing non-speaking parts where a “crowd” was needed.  Vicki Brown, violin, and Jake Sorgen, guitar, made wonderful music together and formed much of the frame surrounding and supporting the plot.

The Okie story is told in vignettes:  at the Oklahoma sharecrop farm, leaving the farm, on the road and camping, at the campground by the picking fields, on the road – again.  It’s the eternal story of the disenfranchised poor—contrasted with the off-stage middle class, living some form of the American dream even in the Depression.  They are the farm owner who evicts the Joads, the law enforcement men who harass and arrest migrants, the growers who pit needy against needy to keep wages low, the nascent unions that promise help, but can’t or won’t come through for the pickers.  To leave Oklahoma was to leave hell.  To make a new life in California was a living hell.  In the audience, you felt shame and pain for this black part of American history.  You also felt the love among the Joads and how they were clannishly bonded until California broke their spirits.

 Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

The Rogue Ensemble were excellent in their roles.  David Greenwood, as Pa Joad, at last had a leading role where his vocal “twang” authenticated the character.  His phlegmatic style befits the family leader.  Matt Bowdren, as Tom Joad, and Cynthia Meier, as Ma Joad, shared the unspoken love of mother and oldest child, no matter how unpredictable the child.  

There are 39 characters in The Grapes of Wrath—20 actors are listed in the program guide.  Director, Joe McGrath, did a masterful job of seamlessly blending the characters, choreographing the almost constant movement and delivering the meaning of the play clearly. Travel was signified by “constructing the truck”, situated on the small round circle stage right, propelled around by cast members using long sticks fitted into holes.  It all worked for the audience.  Lighting Designer, Don Fox, made effective use of back-lighting upstage to create silhouettes that added kuroko-like extra players to crowd scenes. 

The Rogue Theatre again took a difficult play, challenged by the need for a large cast, and made it look effortless.  Kudos for a great production.

“How to be both: A Novel” by Ali Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014) Review

A “tour de force” of inventive writing.  But for me, a struggle to both figure out and keep up with the double plots and the cross references bridging 500 years.  

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How to be both is two unique stories:  a teenager, George/Georgia (actual name Georgia, “both” because she has her first stirrings of same-sex attraction), who has tragically lost her mother and seems abandoned by her father who mourns in drink and her brother too young to really understand; and a young woman in 15th century Ferrara, Italy, Francescho del Cossa, who is a masterful painter, posing as man to gain commissions.

The book’s “tie” is a fresco, seen by the mother in a magazine that prompts her to take both children out of school and drive to Ferrara – these frescos are not fictional.  Per Wikipedia, 

Palazzo Schifanoia is a Renaissance palace in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna (Italy) built for the Este family. The name "Schifanoia" is thought to originate from "schivar la noia" meaning literally to "escape from boredom" which describes accurately the original intention of the palazzo and the other villas in close proximity where the Este court relaxed. The highlights of its decorations are the allegorical frescoes with details in tempera by or after Francesco del Cossa and Cosmè Tura, executed ca 1469–70, a unique survival of their time.

When I researched the palace after reading the book, I immediately recognized the work of Francesco del Cossa, though I have not visited Ferrara.  Having these in mind would enrich the reading.  

To soothe her loss, George/ia ditches school and spends her days at the National Museum in London in a room with a painting by del Cossa, as she imagines her mother did.  George’s time there becomes a study on the insensitive way most museum visitors dash past roomfuls of art, rushing to “complete the tour”.  I warmed to this activity and empathized with George’s precise method of examining all sections of a painting, thinking of each as a solo work.  del Cossa is known for his malicious depictions of stingy benefactors in the face of pigs and devils—totally missed if all you study is the face of the central character.   

To further confound readers, Pantheon issued two version of the book:  one with George/ia’s story first, the other with Francescho’s story first.  Mine began with George/ia, and that was difficult enough because you are thrust into the first scenes with no context.  However, Francescho’s would have been even more difficult as the first section.  

Smith’s writing pushes the envelope on guidance for the reader.  There is no dialogue punctuation – a blessing in a way because the flow is livelier.  There are sections of blank verse with no punctuation at all.  And there is this force that pulls the reader along because you hope that the next page will provide more comfort.

I came to this book after reading several NYT best sellers and recommended books for 2017. To me, they seemed pedestrian, too easy a read.  Ali Smith has two current bestsellers:  Autumn and Winter.  At the recommendation of Sam Sacks, reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, I began with her 2014 book.  Wish I had known what you know now, because then the read would have been enjoyable and challenging.  As it was, I struggled.  However, I highly recommend this book if you want to put your foot into the genre of a successful Scottish contemporary author.  This book summary on Amazon says it all.
 
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. It’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Amen.