Mini Reading Reviews

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I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

Six American Plays for Today – Bennet Cerf (1961)

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When I was at the library the other day (shocking, I know), I was searching for a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’m still trying to read classics every now and then, and (at the same time) fill in some holes in my ongoing Century of Books project (which now has its own page, btw), and so thought this would do the trick in several ways.

Additionally, I’ve been dying to go to a live community play here in town, but the choices have been slim pickings lately…

So, having difficulty finding a copy of the Hansberry play on the shelves, I got to taking down copies of other similar books that might have had the play contained inside, and thus, this rather old edition of “Six American Plays for Today” (when “today” was 50 years ago) leaped into my hands.

plays_index_revI don’t really have a really deep background in drama or plays, and so it’s almost guaranteed that almost any play that I pick up is going to be one with which I am unfamiliar (apart from the usual school syllabus ones). So, I opened this book and bingo, it had an unadulterated copy of the Hansberry play along with five other plays, none of which I’d ever heard about. Undaunted, I checked it out.

This was an interesting read in several ways, one of which was that a number of these plays are a product of their time (unsurprisingly). When this edition was released, “A Raisin in the Sun” had recently been published in 1959 at the height of the U. S. Civil Rights movement and the script has a very much “in the present moment” feel of it as it covers housing discrimination, racial relations, and other hard-hitting topics. (See review of “A Raisin in the Sun” here.)

The other plays were ones with which I was not familiar. I had heard of Tennessee Williams and his “A Streetcar Named Desire” but had not read any of his work (or this one, Camino Real), but the other playwrights were new to me. So, I just worked my way forward through the book, and had a fine time, really.

However, I have to say that in retrospect that these plays aren’t really that memorable apart from Dore Shary’s Sunrise at Campobello (about the life of FDR) and Lillian Helman’s Toys in the Attic (although upon reflection, I have no idea why it’s called that title…) Perhaps it would be a different experience to see these plays live in a stage setting. (I bet it would.)

Despite that rather pallid review, this made a nice change in pace…

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Stick Fly – Lydia Diamond (2006)

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We recently had the opportunity to see a performance of Lydia Diamond’s play, Stick Fly, hosted on campus last weekend as part of the ongoing recognition of Black History Month (or African-American History Month). (The title can vary according to different sources.)

As with Black Violin, we had little idea as to the play itself but as campus prides itself on putting on a high standard of work for the most part, we trundled down to the theater on a sunny Sunday afternoon. (The play was only being hosted three times and I didn’t want to miss it.) So off we went…

Lydia_R__DiamondThe story centers around an affluent African-America family who all meet for one weekend at their weekend house, the two sons both bringing their new girlfriends (one white and one Af-Am) along with them. Add to the mix the now-adult child of the family’s old housekeeper and it’s an explosive recipe. As the weekend progresses, the paterfamilias arrives (sans wife) and via the two new girlfriends, a whole new family dynamic emerges with fresh perspectives. It’s not a comfortable narrative arc, but it does address some valuable issues as it progresses through its different acts.

 

Girlfriend #1 is African-American and secretly engaged to the younger son and none of the family know about this state of affairs. She is young, fiery, outspoken and passionate and creates quite a stir for everyone just being herself. Her boyfriend (younger son) is a lost soul who would rather write than do anything, an occupation found not really suitable by the rest of the family who would rather he would commit to a more concrete pragmatic career.

Girlfriend #2 is older, white, has a Ph.D. in multicultural issues and arrives as a “friend with benefits” sort of thing. She’s with the elder son who is an accomplished plastic surgeon, and so the stage is set for some interesting conversations that challenge the status quo: ones that challenge ideas of race, class, multigenerational issues and multicultural issues.

So – there is a lot packed into this play, but it doesn’t seem overstuffed with all the Big Topics. They flow very naturally into the play’s narrative and don’t provide roadblocks along the way. This was a great way to spend Sunday afternoon and I appreciated all the work that the students had put into making this play so professional.

The play was written in 2006 and was awarded the Black Theater Alliance Award for that year. The playwright, Lydia Diamond, who has written plays adapted from The Bluest Eye (by Toni Morrison) and the poetry of Nikki Giovanni. Good stuff.

The Country Girls trilogy – Edna O’Brien

The last title in the trilogy.

The last title in the trilogy with this great 1960’s book cover.

 

Wow. This was quite a reading ride with two Irish young women who travel through life with nary a plan except to marry some handsome bloke and have a few gins along the way. This trilogy, written in the early to mid-1960’s, is a wonderful and very gritty look back at Baba and Caithlynn as they manage to leave their small worlds in rural Ireland chasing their own dreams for their lives. It’s very kitchen-sink drama, and there were times when I wanted to just sit them down and have a few choice words with them, but I really did enjoy this read.

Hmm. “Enjoy” is not the word I’m searching for. Perhaps “observe” the two is the more precise verb. I veered from being annoyed with them to feeling sorry with them, so perhaps it’s more than “observe”…

Both the two girls grow up in a small rural village in Ireland, Baba with a more stable and financially comfortable family situation, and Caithlynn with a horribly alcoholic and abusive father and a mother who cannot/will not leave but protects the young girl from her father. (Not many choices available to good Catholic girls who are unhappily married with children at that time of the century.)

Both the girls have an uncomfortable relationship with each other that veers from being good friends to one bullying the other (Baba bullies Caithlynn and gets away with it. Unequal power in a friendship is not a good sign especially in children.)

Stuck with each other due to their small village and school, their friendship changes from day to day (depending on how mean Baba is to Caithlynn) and I found this part of the trilogy very hard to read about. I can’t stand it when someone bullies someone else, and I just wanted to step into the novel and help poor Cat, but I couldn’t.

So – I just had to read and watch as Baba did some despicable things, but it was also with a sense of fascination as you just knew that somewhere along that narrative arc, Cat would get her due. She’d have to after taking all that viciousness for that long. But would she? So my fingers were crossed as I read…

Baba and Cat are both good young Catholic girls (with everything that went along with that in the 1960’s) and they both knew what happened to girls who weren’t good: hellfire, family exile, on the streets… The pair are sent to middle school at a convent a few miles away from home, but having no transportation options that were affordable, they were boarders. Cat had been offered a scholarship (thankfully as there is no way that her family could have afforded it otherwise) and had been relieved at such a good escape from mean Baba, but then Baba decides to apply as well and her family can afford even if there is no scholarship for her.

And this seems to be how it was throughout the whole trilogy: Cat struggling to escape home life and Baba; Baba always somehow beating Cat to the punch whether it’s getting a bicycle or a bedsit. It was really annoying for me to suffer through this, as I can so relate to how mean children and teens can be. This was tortuous.

So why did Baba stick so tenaciously with Cat? Baba needed her to bully and to feel powerful? Cat needed Baba as she had no other friends? They both needed each other as they navigated the rocky shores of adolescence?

This sounds a dreadfully depressing and grey book, and it’s certainly not rainbows and unicorns, but if you like reading kitchen-sink dramas (which I was in the mood for), this is a great read.

The first book covers their childhood and adolescence, the second their escape to a small town with equally tiny jobs and sharing a bedsit, and then the third – had they both escaped their dreary worlds and each other? Do they find their own Mr. Rights? You’ll have to read it to find out, but please do. This was a riveting if uncomfortable read at times. (Rather reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye in some ways in that both feature young girls getting bullied by their “friends” and yet no one doing anything about it. Gaah.)

Not always the easiest titles to get hold of, but worth the trial. I’m glad I met Cat – perhaps not so much about meeting the other one!

Plus my edition of the final book in the trilogy was great. It had been published in 1965 and had the perfect cover (see above), along with this titillating cover copy:

And then inside was this:

Oooh la la. You can just imagine women reading this under cover. Shocking stuff!

Modern American Short Stories – Philip Van Doren Stern (ed.) (1943)

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In this short story collection first published in 1943, there were 19 stories from the 1920s and 1930s by authors with whom I was familiar (Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck), some with whom I had only a name familiarity (Ring Lardner [one of Fitzgerald’s buddies], Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Katherine Ann Porter) and then some who were new to me (Jerome Weidman, Sally Benson et al.) and one whose story I just couldn’t finish.

(You get three guesses. Oh, OK: it’s you, Hemingway with your Snows of Kilimanjaro).

Specifically, I enjoyed the following, most of which are available on-line if you’re so inclined:

  • Profession, Housewife – Sally Benson (1938)
  • You were Perfectly Fine – Dorothy Parker (1929)
  • Babylon Revisited – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1931)
  • The Happiest Man on Earth – Albert Maltz (1938)
  • Going Home – William Saroyan (couldn’t find the date published)
  • The Night the Ghost Got In – James Thurber (1933)
  • Young Man Axelrod – Sinclair Lewis (1917)

Published towards the end of WWII, this collection of short stories seems to be poignant and innocent in some ways. (Not surprising when you realize that some of them were written not too long after the carnage of WWI or within view of the outbreak of WWII). Several of the stories seemed to be rather sad in some ways — as though the authors had seen too much or experienced too much — and there’s a general feeling of this lost innocence. However, there’s also an edge that seems to warn readers that these authors are not to be taken advantage of, either.

After reading a great book of lit crit on The Great Gatsby, I especially liked reading something from Ring Lardner (friend of F. Scott’s) and a few of his other writing friends, although Hemingway (never my favorite at the best of times) was not a good addition, not only as I happen to find him annoying as a human being and as a writer but also because he was mean to Fitzgerald during his lifetime. Fitzgerald may have had his issues, but overall he seemed to be a pretty sensitive and gentle writer so I see no reason for Hemingway to be so shitty towards him. No need to be mean, is there?

Some good quotes for you:

There were a few Tommies that showed minute and white against the yellow, and far off, he saw a herd of zebra, white against the green of the bush.”

(HEMINGWAY/Snows of Kilimanjaro)

(Disclaimer: This was the one sentence of the few that I read and really enjoyed. Just sayin’.)

 It had been given, even the most mildly squandered sum, things most worth remembering, the thing that now he would always remember – his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont. (FITZGERALD/Babylon Revisited)

The Ghost that got in our house on the night of November 17, 1915, raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I am sorry that I didn’t just let it keep on walking                  and go to bed.                                                                    (THURBER/The Night the Ghost Came.)

Wish You Were Here – Stewart O’Nan (2002)

book362(Unofficial subtitle [based on my personal reading experience]: Glad I’m Not.)

I expect you know how it is sometimes: You’re reading and reading, and yet at the end of the book, there’s still not much to say…

Wish You Were Here (Stewart O’Nan) was one of those reads, surprisingly enough. I carried it all the way to Vermont, around with me whilst we were there, and then all the way back, and yet – I still didn’t finish it. It does have a scary amount of pages, that is true, but I adored his sequel novel to this one, Emily Alone, which makes it puzzling why I didn’t really love this one. Perhaps because it’s an earlier novel in his oeuvre? Perhaps because there was a slew of characters and it got a little bit confusing at times? Perhaps it needed a big chunk of committed reading time and I couldn’t/didn’t give it that?

Reviewing Goodreads (which nearly always has some hilarious reviews on it for the titles that I read), it’s a mixed bag, but quite a few note that it’s a long book, and it’s made even longer because none of the characters grow in any way. The setting is a week-long vacation at the family’s lake house. It’s raining for most of that week, the most exciting thing is what’s in the fridge, and it’s never-ending for the adults involved. It was never-ending for this adult involved as well.

It’s the typical plot: long grown up children gather for family event (in this case, the father’s death) and then end up having to spend x amount of time together whilst ends get sorted and memories/feelings get aired out. (See also the much more successful read of This is Where I Leave You [Tropper] and others of that ilk.) Perhaps I was not in the right mood to deal with these adult siblings (each with their particular well-trodden family role: loser, mediator, distant daughter/son-in-law etc.)?

This is pretty well written, all the different strands of each character are well developed and then woven into one piece… So why wasn’t this the best experience? Looking back, I think I became a little impatient with the characters and wanted to tell them to grow up a bit lot. Plus it was slightly predictable, plot-wise, and that’s always a mark on the Naughty List for me.

Hmm. Not sure what I can say to explain this experience, but suffice to say it was just a “meh” level for me. Luckily, I had Dirda ready to step up onto the plate and save the day…

Note: Oh WordPress. I know we’re friends, but couldn’t you pls tell me why the font keeps changing in the middle of a post? I promise I won’t tell anyone else…

Play: Red by John Logan

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Over the weekend, a last minute invitation from some friends led to us attending a really good local drama production which was really unexpected fun.

Hosted by the tiny drama group, Hub Theater Group, Red has a small cast of two in a plot focused on modern artist Mark Rothco and his star-struck apprentice. As their working relationship develops over the next couple of years, the audience learns to appreciate the rather acerbic Rothco and his insecurities over being an aging and perhaps irrelevant artist, railing at his innocent apprentice who eventually learns to stand up to the bullying and force the older man to face some uncomfortable truths. (See more on the play’s plot here in our local paper’s review.)

It was a literate and interesting theater experience and made a really good change from the traditionally “safer” play choices usually selected by Am-Drams here. (Not a slam by any means as most productions are fine but this was definitely a more challenging selection than the 32nd showing of Steel Magnolias.)

It was also played in a black box set up so it expected more participation from the audience (in terms of higher expectations) which I just loved. So – an unexpected treat for the weekend and fit the bill perfectly for a good evening out.

One of Rothco's pieces...

One of Rothco’s pieces…

Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984)

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I have been wanting to go to a real-life play for a while, but not being able to find one that I was interested in locally, saw this in a thrift store (hooray for thrift!) and snapped it up. Reading a play would be almost as good as attending a play and this was on the old TBR, so win-win and perfect timing.

This is a well-known U.S. play written by Neil Simon and set in the Depression year of 1937 in New York. This small Jewish family is in the middle of a poor immigrant neighborhood right at the start of WWII and with family over in continental Europe, there was a lot to worry about from almost every angle, both on the home front and abroad.

Extended family are living together in tight quarters so with money short and not much space, tempers can flare. Seen through the POV of 15 year old Eugene (these are his memoirs, after all), the audience travels through his adolescence when he is on the cusp of growing up, vacillating between being a kid (he’s a huge NY Yankees fan), and being an adult (puberty is hitting hard with regards to interest in the opposite sex).

I think I got a lot more from the play this time around for some reason. I saw the Matthew Broderick film when it first came out in 1986, but reading the actual script was a different experience. And, after having been a dedicated Seinfeld fan for decades, there were obvious echoes between the characters of Frank and Estelle Costanza and the family in this play. I wonder if there is any clear connections between Neil Simon and either Seinfeld or Larry David (who directed the series).

So – good read for a nice Spring day.

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Little Bee – Chris Cleave (2008)

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Although I expect that a large number of people have already read this book, if you haven’t, you’ll be doing yourself a solid if you go and do so right now. This is a great read – strong narrative, great characters, and amazing character development.

I’d like to tell you more, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll wreck the plot for you and I really don’t want to do that and ruin this reading experience.

Suffice to say, that it’s about two women from two very different places whose lives overlap with enormous ramifications. I found it very hard to put down, and I would think that you may have a similar experience.
And that’s all I can say, really.

Go. Now. Read.