Month: November 2015

Book Review – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Did you ever feel like giving up on your writing? Do you frequently ask yourself if it’s even worth the effort? Does staring at the blank page on your monitor inspire you to dive right into cleaning the refrigerator? If so, Ms. Lamott must’ve had you in mind when she penned Bird by Bird. While a good work of writing instruction, it’s a stronger book about motivation. What a great choice of subject. That’s something all we writers out there could use more of.

The author selected the title from a personal vignette. As her eloquence far exceeds my own, I’ll let her tell it.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Pages 18 – 19)

That blurb set the tone for the entire book. Ms. Lamott strived to convince authors they can complete any work; in spite of the myriad obstacles, some self-imposed, that will come one’s way.

The advice I liked the most concerned “perfectionism”. The author described it as an “oppressor.” (Page 28) She went on to call it a “mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.” (Page 32) She elaborated: “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts.” (Page 25)  I applaud Ms. Lamott’s encouraging writers to not let “mistakes” interfere with their love of the craft.

I also enjoyed her thoughts on publishing. The author used an unusual example to illustrate her point. She referred to the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in the movie Cool Runnings. He told his athletes, “If you’re not enough before the Gold Medal, you won’t be enough with it.” (Page 218) That’s an appropriate observation. I’m glad the author chose to include it. I always remember something someone told me, “Publishing is a tool for our writing. Our writing isn’t a tool to get published.” Some writers lose focus on that sometimes.

Ms. Lamott emphasized that writers should, in essence, write for writing’s sake. She quoted her students who said they write because, “I will not be silenced again.” (Page 196) While it’s important that artists have something to say with their work, the author cautioned that one must keep that within limits. She mentioned Samuel Goldwyn’s admonition: “If you have a message, send a telegram.” (Page 104)

Bird by Bird primarily served as an inspirational tome; its purpose being to motivate writers to write. The author still included some solid suggestions for those interested in the hard aspects of craft. She encouraged authors to focus on their characters more than plot. (Page 54) She explained that “good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is unsaid.” (Page 67) I appreciated how she clarified the difference between a “moral position” and a “message”. “A moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you.” (Page 108) Ms. Lamott rounded that out by including a quote from Molly Ivins. “Freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right.” (Page 109)

One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me came from my former manager, Ray Ziegler. In terms of how best to execute a plan he said, “Take away the excuses.” For procrastinating writers, Anne Lamott did just that in Bird by Bird.

 

 

Book Review – The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

But the story of leukemia—the story of cancer—isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from one institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship—qualities often ascribed to great physicians—are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients. (Page 148)

In the prologue to The Emperor of all Maladies, Dr. Mukherjee wrote:

 In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.

The author quoted journalist Paul Brodeur who observed, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” (Page 267)

That statement’s accuracy resonates with me. My mother passed away from cancer. Her brother passed away from cancer at the age of 49. My paternal grandmother survived cancer twice. Myriad acquaintances of mine have battled the disease. Because of this, I felt compelled to read Dr. Mukherjee’s book.

The author is a cancer physician, researcher and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He’s also a gifted author. I thank him for writing such an accessible work about one of the most complex medical challenges to afflict human kind. While he lost me with some of his bio-chemical explanations and descriptions of how various drugs function, I found the overall work understandable.

Instead of presenting a dry scientific tome, Dr. Mukherjee chose to present his story as a “biography” of cancer. He called this scourge “possibly the oldest disease among humans.” (Page 43) Throughout the story he described the (sometimes quirky) physicians who made breakthrough discoveries. He also detailed the innovative ways researchers sought new means to combat this “emperor of all maladies.”

The most intriguing revelation I found concerned how the Ancient Egyptians may have identified the disease. He included the physician Imhotep’s chilling description of the treatment: “There is none.” (Page 41)

The author began each chapter with quotes. As someone more grounded in the humanities than the sciences, I liked that he chose to include some from literary figures. Here’s a poem from Hilaire Belloc.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame

Were called at once; but whence they came

They answered, as they took their Fees,

“There is no Cure for this Disease.” (Page 11)

The doctor apparently had a good background in verse. He included “The Fall” from Czeslaw Milosz.

The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation

That had valiant armies, captains, and prophets,

And wealthy ports and ships all over the seas

But now it will not relieve any besieged city

It will not enter into an alliance. (Page 116)

In one of the sections where he discussed drugs he referenced the Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Wit by Margaret Edson. The play detailed a woman’s battle with cancer; especially, her cancer treatment and the effects of the drugs prescribed to her.

These references helped to round out the narrative. They balanced out the technical sections nicely.

While the author presented a host of concrete scientific details, he did allow his personal views to permeate the text. He made no effort to conceal his disdain for the tobacco industry. Numerous times he described smoking in the same way most others would recount heroin addiction. He included the following statement when explaining a meeting that took place at the National Institute for Health in the 1960’s.

Ashtrays with cigarette butts littered the tables. (The committee was split exactly five to five among nonsmokers and smokers—men whose addiction was so deep that it could not be shaken even when deliberating the carcinogenesis of smoke.) (Page 261)

His comments on the passage of the Federal Cigarette Labelling and Advertising Act of 1965 were much harsher. He wrote:

…it changed the FTC’s warning label (on cigarette packs) to Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health. The dire, potent language of the original label—most notably the words cancer, cause, and death—was expunged. To ensure uniformity, state laws were also enfolded into the FCLAA—in effect, ensuring that no stronger warning label could exist in any state in America. The result, as journalist Elizabeth Drew noted in the Atlantic Monthly, was “an unabashed act to protect private industry from government regulation.” Politicians were far more protective of the narrow interests of tobacco than of the broad interest in public health. Tobacco makers need not have bothered inventing protective filters, Drew wrote dryly: Congress had turned out to be “the best filter yet.” (Page 265)

Obviously, The Emperor of All Maladies does not have a happy conclusion. Towards the end of the book, the author included an anecdote about a lab sample he worked with.

The cells, technically speaking, are immortal. The woman from whose body they were once taken had been dead for thirty years. (Page 339)

Sadly, even with the vast advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, the war on cancer may last just as long.

Drama Review – Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

The worst tragedy that any person can experience is losing a child. This 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning drama delved into the impact of such a loss on a young family. The result was a moving exploration of a couple struggling to cope with their grief and at times each other. While somber in tone, Rabbit Hole still served as an excellent read.

At first I struggled to get into the story. It began with Becca folding clothes while her sister, Izzy, prattled about her recent fisticuffs. It took several pages before the playwright made any reference to a child. He did so in a very subtle way. Here’s an exchange between Becca and Izzy. This took place after the latter announced her pregnancy.

Becca: I’m washing all these clothes to give to Goodwill. I might as well save them for you. In case you have a boy. No sense in my giving these away.

Izzy: I don’t know, Bec. They’re in baby clothes for so long, it’d be a few years before he could even fit into this stuff.

Becca: It comes up very quickly. You wouldn’t even believe it.

Izzy: Plus we don’t have a lot of room to…

Becca: That’s okay. I’ll keep them here. In the basement. You’ll be happy I saved them.

Izzy: But what if it’s a girl?

Becca: Then I’ll bring them down to Goodwill. What’s the big deal? You’re gonna thank me. A couple years worth of free clothes here. Think of the money you’re gonna save.

Izzy: It’s not about the money.

Becca: Well it should be. You need to start thinking about stuff like that, Iz. Especially if the dad’s a musician. It costs a lot to raise a child.

Izzy: It’d be weird, that’s all. If it’s a boy. To see him running around in Danny’s clothes. (Beat) I would feel weird. You would too, I think. (Beat) I’m sorry. (Pages 24 – 25)

A former screenwriting professor I know gave me some great advice. “The best way to drive exposition is through conflict.” The playwright nailed it here. Izzy kept trying to avoid the issue of Danny’s death while Becca inadvertently forced her to mention it. Later in the same passage, Izzy said “I know the timing really sucks,” in reference to her pregnancy. By contrast, the pace in this passage was exceptional.

At this point I realized that the story would focus on grief and bereavement. I liked the way that we never saw Danny. He passed eight months prior to the opening exchange. I applauded the playwright’s decision to avoid the hackneyed “hero dies after a valiant struggle” plot line. This gave Rabbit Hole that much more impact.

When the play began I assumed the drama would center on Becca’s efforts to cope. At one point when Howie suggested she return to work she replied, “No I can’t. That’s not who I am anymore. I left all that to be a mom.” (Page 46) That’s a pretty powerful line.

But Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had a twist in store. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of gender roles. Howie’s first scene introduced him using wine and Al Green music to seduce his wife. What a contrast to Becca’s! While the two battled grief in their own ways, Howie became the more emotional of the two. He spent his evenings watching a video tape of Danny and him. When Becca accidentally erased it, Howie became unhinged.

(Losing it.) It’s not just the tape! I’m not talking about the tape, Becca! It’s Taz (the dog), and the paintings, and the clothes, and it’s everything! You have to stop erasing him! You have to stop it! You HAVE TO STOP! (Page 86)

In another unique plot twist, the boy who accidentally hit Danny with his car contacted the family. Jason sent them a letter asking to meet them. Later he stopped by when the family hosted an open house. Howie threw him out. Later Becca met with the boy. That was the only scene in the play where she cried.

Rabbit Hole focused on the bereavement process and how people cope in different ways. Becca delivered the most trenchant observation on the subject. Here’s a comment she directed at Howie.

You’re not in a better place than I am, you’re just in a different place. And that sucks that we can’t be there for each other right now, but that’s just the way it is. (Page 87)

While an otherwise superb work of art, I did have one criticism of the play. I thought the playwright added some gratuitous references to pop culture. Izzy worked at Applebees. Becca worked at Sotheby’s before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Izzy had a Three Stooges shower curtain. While I understand any writer strives to make his work relatable, these examples were a bit much for my taste.

A few days ago, I watched a local community theater group perform this play. The show was very powerful and really affected me. It led me to remember times when I experienced grief and how I coped with it. I think all this led me to re-read Rabbit Hole as a form of closure. How many dramatic works can inspire people like that? While an uncomfortable subject matter, I’d still encourage people to try it. It’s a phenomenal example of brilliant writing.

Theatre Review – Rabbit Hole at Burlington County Footlighters

It seemed appropriate that a man named Al Krier would make his directorial debut with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. The drama explored how two parents, a grandmother and aunt coped with the accidental death of a four year old child. In an interesting spin, it also showed this tragic event’s effect on the 17 year old boy who drove the car that hit him. The realistic performances the cast delivered made the audience criers.

Rebekah Masters (as Becca) and Dan Brothers (as Howie) turned in phenomenal performances as the grieving parents. They animated Lindsay-Abaire’s dialog in a way that made me feel like part of the conversation.

Ms. Masters brought great depth to a character who internalized her pain. This role allowed her to show the range of her skills. The performance began with her folding laundry and talking with her sister, Izzy. (Played by Corrine Hower-Greene.) Several minutes into the conversation she revealed with composure that they had belonged to her deceased son. She’d washed them before donating to charity.

Later in the show Ms. Masters displayed anger in response to Becca’s mother Nat’s (played by Susan Dewey) references to her own son’s passing. (Ms. Dewey’s character had a habit of telling Becca the worst things at the worst times.) Ms. Masters assertively snapped at her. She pointed out the difference between a 30 year old heroin addict hanging himself and a four year old child getting hit by a car. I thought that an interesting response from a character talking about her brother’s death.

Ms. Masters also showed vulnerability when cleaning out her son’s bedroom. She asked Nat (Susan Dewey), “Does it (the feeling of loss) ever go away?” Ms. Dewey showed great tenderness in her explanation of how the grief process changes over time.

The most intense scene in the show took place when Becca met with Jason, the boy who drove the car that killed her son. Max Farley played Jason on the night I attended. He took on arguably the most challenging role in the show. Performing with Ms. Masters, Mr. Farley kept his head down and expressed remorse without being consumed my guilt. That’s a difficult balance. He also showed calm and poise when Ms. Masters cried; the only occasion in the show when her character did.

Dan Brothers’ performance impressed me the most. He started out playing Howie as a relaxed, laid back man trying to coax his wife out of her grief. Then his character became emotional: really emotional. I liked his facial expressions as he watched a video tape of Howie and his son. He managed to weave those of a proud father with a grieving man very well.

Mr. Brothers has such a soothing bass voice that he’d make an exceptional nighttime disc jockey. That is until he yells; and boy did he yell in this show. I’ve been to numerous sporting events in Philadelphia. I’ve never heard yelling quite like his brand. I thought the building was going to rattle.

I also liked the way he could play an unhinged Howie and still bring himself down to a calm demeanor within minutes. He did this best in the scene where he discovered Becca erased the tape of Howie and his son.

In a story this somber, comic relief becomes the sine qua non of the show. Most of the humorous lines went to Becca’s sister, Izzy. (Played by Corine Hower-Greene.) I enjoyed the deadpan way she delivered the line, “we’ll have to do it again next year” after Izzy’s birthday party disintegrated into fighting. She did an entertaining job describing a bar fight that wasn’t really a bar fight in the beginning, as well. Because of the immense sadness in the show, had Ms. Hower-Greene not delivered the catharsis so well, this play would’ve been unwatchable.

Just about every performance I attend encounters some sort of technical difficulty. Much to Footlighter’s credit, this one didn’t. Al Krier and Bob Beaucheane did a great job with the sound. While Howie watched the video of him and his son, I could understand all the pre-recorded dialog without any trouble. It came through loud enough to hear and very clear.

While I’ve been “cautioned” not to comment on costuming, I’m going to do it, anyway. Everybody dressed in accordance with the way I imagined the characters would when I read the play. It helped me to suspend my disbelief that much more. I felt like that this was an average American family living in Yonkers.

My only criticism of the show involved the audience, of all things. No one applauded between scenes. After the show I heard someone tell a cast member that he “didn’t like the show, but liked the performances.” These responses probably stemmed from the uncomfortable subject matter in Rabbit Hole. It shows how intense the drama and how convincingly the actors performed when people thought it inappropriate to applaud.

No one likes to think about grief until they’re forced to. The play showed how different people cope with it in different ways, not always healthy ones. We all confront grief and loss in our lives. Watching the show got me thinking about some I’ve experienced. It led me start reexamining how I dealt with them. In spite of that, I still enjoyed the play. It brought out an unpleasant facet of the human experience. Isn’t that what great drama is supposed to do?

After the show I joked with Mr. Krier. I mentioned how he selected an “easy” play for his first outing in the director’s chair. He explained that the script and the great cast made it easy. The cast members with whom I spoke expressed their admiration for the dialog in Rabbit Hole. It came through in their performances.