Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

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Reading Review: February 2017

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Well, that month passed quickly, didn’t it? (At least it did for me in my world.) It’s Spring here, although to us in West Texas, Spring tends to mean high winds along with a high chance of being very dusty, and so the weather is sticking to that atmospheric format for today. That’s ok. The very next day after these high winds and dust is usually crystal clear and looks fantastic, so I’ll take it.

Reading: After a rather dismal January where I couldn’t find my reading mojo, February marked the month where the mojo returned (much to my relief), and so now I’m happily picking and choosing titles again.

February is also Black History Month here in the U.S., and for the past few years, I’ve really concentrated on reading materials from people of African descent here in the States. This year, however, has meant that my poor eye (and some poor planning on my part) has led to a rather weak effort. However, at the same time, it has strengthened my resolve to continue to read more POC authors throughout the rest of the year, so it’s not all bad.

I’m a bit behind in my reviews though, so I expect we’ll have a round-up post soon.

To the stats:

I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Total number of books read in January: 7

Total number of pages read: 1,683 pages (av. 210).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 1 play.

Diversity3 POC (2 from African continent: Nigeria and Ghana; 1 from India). 3 books by women + 1 mixed anthology of speeches by both women and men.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library books, 2 owned books and 2 e-books.

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.

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…

May 2015 Reading Review

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For May 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Stage Kiss – Sarah Ruhl (2014) – play

American Notes for General Circulation – Charles Dickens (1842) – NF – travel

Ghost World – Daniel Clowes (1992) – GN-fiction

The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby (2004) – NF – essays

Saddlebags for Suitcases – Mary Bosanquet (1942) – NF (Post to come – maybe)

  • Total number of books read in April: 5
  • Total number of pages read: 925 pages (av. 185 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 3 NF, 1 graphic novel and 1 play.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 2 library books and 1 owned books. 2 e-books this month (although one in progress). (Total of 16 books off TBR this year.)

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Stage Kiss – Sarah Ruhl (2014)

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So I realize that reading a play and actually seeing a play in real-time can both be completely different experiences, and that reading side of things is what I’m going on to rank this reading of Ruhl’s play – it might be much better seen live on stage.

However, I happened to read this particular play, and after having seen reviews describing it as “funny” and “playful”, I ended up the read feeling rather the opposite of those adjectives. I would also add “really confusing” to that list of descriptors as the plot – wow. Confusing isn’t even the start of that, to be honest.

Using the description on the back of the book:

Award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl brings her unique mix of lyricism, sparkling humor, and fierce intelligence to her new romantic comedy Stage Kiss. When estranged lovers He and She are thrown together as romantic leads in a long-forgotten 1930s melodrama, the line between off-stage and on-stage begins to blur. A “knockabout farce that channels Noël Coward and Michael Frayn” (Chicago Tribune), Stage Kiss is a thoughtful and clever examination of the difference between youthful lust and respectful love. Ruhl, one of America’s most frequently produced playwrights, proves that a kiss is not just a kiss in this whirlwind romantic comedy.

And so I was rather expecting something light and frothy, perhaps on the level of P. G. Wodehouse’s or E. F. Benson’s sense of humor… Nope. I was wrong with that expectation. This play, the “whirlwind romantic comedy” wasn’t. I can say that the plot looks at the different ways that love can be viewed and how it can be hard to determine what’s “real love” and what’s not.

Ruhl places two former lovers (now broken up) in a stage audition to play characters who fall in love with each other in the play for which they are auditioning. It’s set as a 1930’s drama and the narrative flashes back and forth between present time and then (but that’s not that important, really) and, indeed, I seemed to spend most of my time trying to sort out who was whom when.

As the play continues, the audience is asked to consider what is real and what is not – it’s quite philosophical in places. The two lead actors are called “He” and “She” which is fine as a literary device, but got rather confusing for me, especially when the speaker was described as “She”, “She playing as Ada”, “He” etc.

So – I really wasn’t a big fan of the actual play reading itself, but in the hours after I had more fully digested it, my thoughts did return to it to consider some points. I would not say that this play was a straight-forward narrative, but it is a plot that gave me some things to think about later – and I would say that that is one characteristic of a good read.

(I would still recommend seeing this on stage though.)

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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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The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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