TIME TO BLOW THE DUST OFF A FEW STACKS

As my wife and I started listing what’s keeping us busy these days, we were both surprised to find that one thing – one important thing – was missing.

What we both realized is that regular reading … as in books … had been pressed out of our schedules.

Instead, we’ve been doing bits and pieces of reading online. It’s just not the same as luxuriating in a deep volume.

How about you?

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THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALL TOUCHES OVER TIME

From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.

I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.

First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.

Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)

Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.

I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.

A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”

As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.

~*~

Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.

He was so prescient there.

AND NOW FOR THE FIRST EDITION

The cardio incident in January threw off my planned marketing campaign to support the Advanced Reading Copy availability of my new novel, What’s Left, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Instead, “laying low” meant I had time to read all of the frothy Richard Avedon bio I’d been given at Christmas, and that had me rethinking the particulars of the life of a photographer. Remember, in the novel, Cassia’s father is a famed photographer, though nothing like Dick. The negatives and glossy prints her Baba leaves behind establish the foundation for much of her own recovery and growth.

At the time, I was already planning to revise the four novels that form the backstory to What’s Left – my Hippie Trails series – but had no intention of becoming as immersed in that project as I did. Well, it’s one of the big reasons I’ve been AWOL or missing in action the past five months. I’ll leave that for an upcoming post.

One critical reaction to the new novel, however, sent me back through the story to make some crucial changes.

The Advance Reading Copy used no quotation marks. Not one. Since the story is being told by Cassia, who’s to say she’s quoting others exactly or is instead paraphrasing what she remembers hearing them say? That is, filtering them into her own voice? The quotation-mark-free approach, I hoped, would present the tale as her own rich interior experience, but it was unconventional and apparently a challenge for some readers to follow. Since engaging everyone in this story is far more important to me than my personal pursuit of a literary technique, I yielded in preparing the first edition. Yes, I have to admit, judiciously adding quotation marks here and there does clarify the flow.

The revision also had me simplifying much of the grammar and syntax. As much as I love long, complex sentences, not everyone is comfortable reading, say 17th century literature. Besides, this novel is being told by Cassia, not me.

Well, this official version, the first edition, is now available. I think the tweaks make a huge difference, and I’m grateful for those who’ve given me feedback.

Hope you enjoy it.

TEN HOT HISPANIC MUSICIANS

According to one amiga and her buds:

  1. Dulce Marcia.
  2. Jencarlos Canela.
  3. Rolando Polo, pop-opera tenor.
  4. Moneda Dura.
  5. Balvin.
  6. Willy Chirino.
  7. Shakira. (And here I’m trying to keep this to performers new to the rest of us. So be it.)
  8. Manolito Simonet.
  9. Gilberto Santa Rosa.
  10. Myriam Herandez.

Admittedly, this list is biased in a Cuban direction. But it’s a start.

~*~

Digame más. I’m all ears. Any other world music talent we should know about?

A whimsical fence. Warren, Maine.

Of course, this is totally unrelated to the theme. Just another thing on my mind.

OH, THE FINALS WEEK ORGY

Among the gifts I received at Christmas was a tablet laptop, with the expectation I’d be using especially for Kindle editions – including my own ebooks.

But so far what I’ve really appreciated is its ability to stream music.

For me, that’s meant Q2’s New Sounds and Operavore from WQXR in New York and WHRB from Harvard University in Cambridge.

With solid jazz from 5 a.m. till 1 p.m. and some adventurous classical continuing till 10 p.m., plus the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons and another opera on Sunday night, my listening is mostly on the Harvard station. Admittedly, the student announcers can be unintentionally amusing in their pronunciations and amateurish touches, but I usually find that more amusing than annoying.

This spring, though, I finally got to experience an amazing tradition on the station – the finals week Orgy, when the regular programming is set aside for in-depth presentations of specific composers or performers.

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TEN REASONS ‘CITIZEN KANE’ IS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER

While Orson Welles usually gets the genius kudos, much of the creative brilliance in this 1941 masterpiece arises in the seasoned experience of his collaborators Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland.

  1. The nature of the story itself. It’s not exactly likeable. We want to befriend Kane but can’t. He starts out as charming but more and more becomes a sphinx. The newsmen themselves are nobodies. As for his wives and lovers? And yet there’s something gripping in the rise and fall of this spoiled rich boy turned tycoon and populist turned brutal cynic and failure, plus his times. (Sounds topical, considering the White House now, doesn’t it?) Pulling this off is much more difficult than it sounds, and yet we’re swept along throughout. In short, anything but a conventional screenplay.
  2. The soundtrack. Welles and Mankiewicz were grounded in radio drama, not filmmaking. And so they brought to Hollywood a revolutionary ear for not just dialogue but everyday detailing background sounds like footsteps and doors. Their radio perspective also meant they could envision a scene from the way it unfolded within a viewer’s head and not just how it might appear on a stage in front of us, the way directors and writers had framed movies before this.
  3. Cinamatographer Toland. In his work with Hollywood great John Ford, Toland had begun exploring a new technique called deep focus, which allows multiple things to be present within a single shot. In Kane, this comes to full fruition. Tons have been written about what’s happening in the background or how multiple items come together to make their own statement or put everything into a fresh comprehension. And it holds opportunities for emotional depth previously absent in cinema.
  4. Optical illusions. Again, give Toland credit. They serve as guideposts, according to film critic Roger Ebert in his lovefest to this film.
  5. Visible ceilings. You never saw these in a movie before. Sometimes it required cutting a hole in the floor. But it made for some much more dramatic visuals. Again, Ebert has much to say about this, for good reason. I think the ceilings are an emblem of many other similar breakthrough touches that advance this movie light years ahead of convention.
  6. The blending of drawings, real sets, and wipes. Welles was surprisingly economical in obtaining some of his spectacular impressions and moving the story across time.
  7. The witness. Always in a corner, observing or even commenting. A great storytelling device.
  8. Complete artistic control. RKO executives agreed to make no cuts in the footage. In addition to writing, directing, and taking the starring role, Welles had unprecedented complete artistic control. Amazing. The one compromise was forced by the film board, which nixed the brothel scene. Alas.
  9. Common misperception. Unlike the widespread tale, the story’s not even about William Randolph Hearst, whose opposition undermined of its chances for commercial success.
  10. Kane prompted Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in homage. Not that I viewed them in chronological order.

Oh, yes, if you want to know about “rosebud,” you really do have to look up Ebert’s take. We do miss him.

~*~

What movie and its special effects have especially impressed you? These days we practically take them for granted.

~*~

See what’s new at THISTLE/FLINCH.

 

THAT OLD EAST-MEETS-WEST CONUNDRUM

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others. The logo of the new Gyro Spot in downtown Dover takes the traditional Greek blue-and-white border and twists it into a G. Or is that Gee!

Decades ago, in selecting a Greek-American family as the closing destination of my first published novel, I imagined its circle of siblings as an embodiment of Western civilization – a bohemian counterbalance to the Tibetan Buddhism my hippie-dippy Dharma bum was carrying back to the American heartland. I intended the fusion of two non-mainstream cultures to suggest the rainbow of alternative lifestyles emerging in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the optimistic possibilities before us.

Frankly, some of what I wrote was semi-autobiographical. After an immersion in yoga practice on a small farm in the Pocono mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, I had returned to a rural corner of Ohio – a small town I call Prairie Depot in some later novels. While our yoga was Hindu-based, the teachings allowed me to explore an earlier interest in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism – enough similarities exist for me to feel comfortable in that part of my story.

What still astonishes me, though, is my intuitive flash to make the family Greek. I vaguely sense my decision may have been based on a local family-owned restaurant that had undergone a similar tragedy, though I would have known little more than what I’ve just related. Only in the past half-dozen years have I begun to perceive how prevalent Greek immigrants and their descendants have been in the American experience, yet even when they’re as numerous as they are where I now live, their presence is nearly invisible to the general public.

I hope my newest novel, What’s Left, will change that perception.

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