Month: February 2016

Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is the “tragedy porn” equivalent of Fifty Shades of Gray. Prior to reading, I thought no author could write a more disturbing portrayal of human sexuality as a tool of cruelty than Elfride Jelinek. With this book, that torch has been passed to Hanya Yanagihara.

There’s an old adage in writing that an author should make the protagonist endure the worst possible thing that could happen to him/her. A Little Life proved that there are limits to this theory. The author pushed the envelope again, again and again when inflicting misery on Jude St. Francis. She did this so prolifically that the story degenerated into a caricature of itself.

I found the story premise beyond all bounds of believability. Jude had the most original career path I’ve ever encountered. He started out in life as a child sex slave. After being liberated from that ordeal, he became a prostitute. Then he moved on to the role of adolescent sex slave. Following this, he graduated law school and earned a reputation as a brilliant attorney. To make this even more remarkable, while working as a lawyer he pursued a master’s degree in Mathematics; at MIT, no less. Shortly, after this he ended up in a committed relationship with the most popular actor in the world. All this took place as he spent his evenings cutting himself.

I AM NOT making light of child abuse or people who cut themselves. To be clear, I thought the author’s description of the abundance and nature of Jude’s travails very difficult to accept. He endured more inhumane treatment than the ones I’ve described, as well. I’m limiting my examples so as not to reveal spoilers.

While I’m not a psychologist, I thought the character’s traits inconsistent. I understand that childhood abuse leaves scars that never heal. My issue with Jude emanated from him being a brilliant man capable of attending prestigious schools, performing a very challenging job in the face of a physical disability (the result of yet more abuse), and, still, he struggled so much in letting his close friends get to know him. I could understand with Jude’s mental state why he would be leery of trusting people. I couldn’t understand how someone who had his professional life so together proved incapable of opening up to people who clearly cared about him. In addition to his friends, one of his former law professors liked him so much he adopted Jude after he turned 30.

I could fathom that a victim of serial abuse would blame himself. That sort of inhumane treatment would warp anyone’s mind. With such a great social support system around him, I just couldn’t understand why Jude couldn’t let them know the reasons why he developed into the person he became.

I also found the book poorly written. The modern writing mantra is: “show, don’t tell.” A Little Life contained nothing but telling. The author used the third person limited point of view for most of the book. On occasion the author wrote chapters that followed the activities of Jude’s friends. I didn’t understand why. The whole narrative revolved around Jude. The behavior of the sculptor, artist and actor seemed boring compared to the protagonist’s journey.

I had another issue with the point of view. In some chapters the author used the first person point of view. She chose to write from Jude’s adopted father’s POV, not Jude’s. Let me assure readers I take no satisfaction in writing this: I have to admit that had it not been for the pronoun “I”, the voice would’ve sounded the same as it did in all the other chapters.

While I didn’t like the book, I loathed the title. It referred to something I found despicable. I didn’t enjoy being reminded of it every time I read.

The book should’ve been edited better. It came in at 720 pages. As I wrote above, the chapters that focused on Jude’s friends should have been excised. I also believed that had Jude only endured one of the myriad abuse situations, it would’ve made the book more realistic.

The true tragedy of this book centered on its potential. It could’ve been a great story about one man’s struggle to overcome childhood trauma. With some editing this could’ve been an outstanding narrative of his successes and failures as he battled his past. Instead, it evolved into a tedious slog.

With that noted, this book was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. The Economist even ranked it one of the “Best Books of 2015.” I’m not looking forward to someone making a movie out of it.

 

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Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last Night of Ballyhoo developed into the most multifaceted story I’ve ever watched unfold on a live stage. The drama fused the premiere of the Gone with the Wind in 1939, with a quasi-love triangle involving two cousins, coupled with a prevalence of latent anti-Semitism among Southern Jewish society. The incipient phases of the Second World War along with a cotillion that glitterati from all over the South would be in Atlanta to attend served as the backdrop. To exacerbate the complexity, the humorous dialog during the opening scenes convinced me I misread the synopsis. The play began as a comedy! There’s only one word to describe a show like this: awesome.

This Tony Award Winning Alfred Uhry play may sound like a mind-twisting intellectual exercise. The written version of it may well be just that. However, the performers at Haddonfield Plays and Players brought the text to life in a way that made the story easy to follow. I had the pleasure of attending the Opening Night performance of this Mark Karcher directed presentation on February 19th.

Jessica Braynor delivered an outstanding performance as Lala Levy. Ms. Braynor vividly expressed the mannerisms and bubbly Southern accent of an effervescent young woman struggling to assimilate into high society. Her character’s social awkwardness provided a good portion of the humor in this show. She also transitioned into a tragic figure as her mother, played by Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, pushed—well, make that shoved– her daughter to become part of the de facto Southern aristocracy.

Alex Levitt played an exceptional Joe Farkas; the surprising hero of the story. Mr. Levitt showed great range in his performance, as well. He became anxious and fidgety in response to Lala’s advances. In the scene where he first encountered Sunny Freitag (played by Marnie Kanarek) he exhibited coyness and tenderness. I applaud his ability to do so proficiently while speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent.

The stand out moment of this performance (rightly) occurred during the climax. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will mention that it consisted of an argument between Mr. Levitt and Ms. Kanarek. For the only time in the show Mr. Levitt’s character lost his temper. Ms. Kanarek displayed indignation at being screamed at while at the same time her character didn’t understand what she did wrong. That’s a tough scene to play and a difficult one for an audience to watch. The two executed this challenge brilliantly.

For a serious show, Last Night of Ballyhoo did contain a lot of humorous dialog. I liked the interplay between Tami Gordon Brody (in the role of Reba Freitag) and Lauren Fabbri-Picerno (as Boo Levy). I’m not sure if the playwright intended the line to be comical, but I found Ms. Fabbri-Picerno’s observation that there shouldn’t be a star on the family’s Christmas Tree because “we’re Jewish” quite amusing.

I’m preferential to laid-back, deadpan wit. Plenty of it occurred in this show. Michael Lovell (as Adolph Freitag) delivered some droll thoughts on marriage. While dozing in his chair with a newspaper over his face, he added some snoring at unusual times during the show.

Alex Young’s character (Preachy Weil) showed why he didn’t have a reputation for honesty. He followed up many of his fabulist declarations, with the expression, “What do you think?” The long, drawn out Southern drawl he used made his delivery more memorable.

In terms of Alfred Uhry’s play itself, I did have some minor issues with it. The story began with a lot of humor, especially around Lala’s quest to get a date for Ballyhoo. When I watched the performance I thought the playwright’s transition to tragedy too abrupt. The more I reflected, I realized a lot of foreshadowing occurred prior to that happening. For those who haven’t seen the show, I won’t provide a detailed explanation. I’d just suggest paying close attention.

I’ve also read that there’s controversy over the Last Night of Ballyhoo’s conclusion. While watching that portion of the performance, I had some questions about it, myself. To be fair to Mr. Uhry, many great dramas have recondite endings. I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other. How an artist prefers to close his/her work is always at that person’s discretion. I’d suggest theater fans attend the show and draw their own conclusions, no pun intended.

I have to express my admiration for the show’s cast. They managed to play multi-dimensional characters in a dramedy very convincingly. The thought provoking nature of the subject matter got me thinking after the show. While watching it I experienced an enjoyable evening of quality entertainment. I’d prefer attending the Haddonfield Plays and Players performance of Last Night of Ballyhoo to going to the premiere of Gone with the Wind or being present at the real Ballyhoo any evening.

Judge Not

“The saddest part of his death is that he can’t die again.” “He was a monster.” “I hope he burns in Hell.” And just who was the target of these acrimonious obituaries? If you guessed Osama bin Laden you would be incorrect. Do you think these comments were aimed at Saddam Hussein? You would be wrong again. How about Kim Jong-Il? Once more, you would be mistaken. These comments I read on-line over the weekend were targeted at, of all things, a federal judge.

Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Antonin Scalia passed away this February 13th. In addition to spawning conspiracy theories and speculation over who will replace him on the high court, his death ignited a firestorm that proceeded to immolate his character and burn his legacy in effigy. That seems a disproportionately harsh response for one of nine judges on the Supreme Court of the United States.

On a personal level, even “Nino’s” colleagues on the opposite side of the political spectrum respected him. He introduced Associate Justice Elena Kagan to his favorite past time: hunting. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, called him a “treasured friend.” She could’ve stopped there. Instead, Justice Ginsburg went on to say, “We were best buddies.”

Why then did his passing unleash such vitriol from his critics? Justice Scalia took a “textualist” approach to interpreting the law. He approached the Constitution as an “originalist”; meaning that that judges should interpret it “as written”. He scorned the view of it as a “living document” that could be adapted to modern times and sensibilities. Based on this philosophy, Justice Scalia did not view the law as a means to advance socially progressive policies. This, apparently, made him a “monster.”

Benjamin Cardozo, himself an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from1932 until 1938, took the opposite view of a judge’s role. I’m paraphrasing, but Justice Cardozo wrote that a judge should take into account the impact his decision would have on society. While I’m sure most people would agree with that, they should understand there’s a caveat. That’s a great approach to the law, but only IF WE AGREE WITH THE JUDGE’S RULING. I’m sure no one stripped of his/her home in an eminent domain case would agree that the court did the right thing in the interest of bettering society.

Ironically, while not known as a civil rights crusader, I always cite Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion on the National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab case (1989) as one of the best commentaries on the subject ever written. For those unfamiliar with the case, it’s the one that led to mandatory work place drug testing in the US; the only major industrialized nation that engages in this practice. The dissent belongs in the same category of great American orations such as “The Gettysburg Address”.

There is irony in the Government’s citation, in support of its position, of Justice Brandeis’ statement in Olmstead v. United States,277 U. S. 438, 277 U. S. 485 (1928) that “[f]or good or for ill, [our Government] teaches the whole people by its example.” Brief for Respondent 36. Brandeis was there dissenting from the Court’s admission of evidence obtained through an unlawful Government wiretap. He was not praising the Government’s example of vigor and enthusiasm in combatting crime, but condemning its example that “the end justifies the means,” 277 U.S. at 277 U. S. 485. An even more apt quotation from that famous Brandeis dissent would have been the following:

“[I]t is . . . immaterial that the intrusion was in aid of law enforcement. Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”

Id. at 277 U. S. 479. Those who lose because of the lack of understanding that begot the present exercise in symbolism are not just the Customs Service employees, whose dignity is thus offended, but all of us — who suffer a coarsening of our national manners that ultimately give the Fourth Amendment its content, and who become subject to the administration of federal officials whose respect for our privacy can hardly be greater than the small respect they have been taught to have for their own.

(Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/489/656/case.html#679 3/21/15.)

A judge is not an elected official. (S)he is not accountable to an electorate or the American people. Political and social changes should emanate from the will of society carried out by elected representatives accountable to the people they serve. As Justice Scalia himself observed,

Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.

            His critics could use his judicial career as evidence of just how right he was.

 

Book Review – No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

A lot of people would say you’re batty if you think you can write a novel in one month. It turns out the person who started the whole National Novel Writing Month craze was, certifiably, batty. In fact, his name’s Chris Baty. After founding NaNoWriMo (as we writers like to call it) in 1999 and participating in it multiple times, he went on to write a book about the experience. No Plot? No Problem! detailed the author’s “lessons learned” and “best practices” he discovered during his month long journeys.

For those unfamiliar with the concept Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth) takes place every November. Writers from all over the world challenge themselves to craft the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. It interested me to discover that Baty and his circle conducted the first one in July. They switched to November to take advantage of the three day weekend for those of us in the USA. Also, the bad weather made the year’s penultimate month more conducive to writing.

The author presented many useful tips for accepting the month long challenge. I’ve found that many of them apply to “normal” writing occasions, too. The most valuable tool for a writer is a deadline. (Page 32) Busyness is an asset that helps writers stay focused on their work. (Page 21) That’s a good point. I’ve discovered in my own life that the more I have to do, the more I tend to get done. The same concept applies towards writing goals.

I liked how Mr. Baty  emphasized that “no one ever writes a brilliant first draft…Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go around.” (Page 36) He called a first draft “exuberant imperfection”. He defined the concept in an unusual way: “the quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horrible and crappy.” (Page 37) Why? He explained, “Inspiration and insight, I’ve learned, flow more freely from failures than they do from successes.” (Page 174)

In addition to solid writing advice, the author provided non-craft tips for completing NaNoWriMo. He mentioned the need to get friends and family on-board for one’s November challenge. This helps minimize unneeded distractions. One father had an unique take on how to parent while writing 1,667 words a day. He called November, “National-Going-to-Bed-Early Month.” (Page 73)

The author intended the book to guide writers through the emotional caprices of NaNoRiMo. I thought the inclusion of quotations from people who’ve successfully finished the month long challenge a great idea. It showed that the ideas expressed in the book weren’t exclusively the author’s. He provided comments from people who’ve completed the 50,000 word challenge once, to those who’ve done so up to 12 times. It surprised me that so many people have completed NaNoWriMo during multiple years.

As if all that isn’t enough an incentive to motivate writers, Mr. Baty provided commentary from several authors who’ve gone on to publish novels they wrote during NaNoRiMo. Gayle Brandeis and Rachael Herron each published three. Marissa Meyer published four. As if that didn’t get the attention of his readers, Elizabeth Haynes published five.

I mentioned that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. I’m not sure how many revisions went into No Plot? No Problem!, but I did find a few mistakes in it.  Throughout the book, the author included gray boxes separate from the narrative. They included additional material regarding the topics discussed in the text. The one entitled “How Long Does a Rewrite Usually Take?” appeared twice in the version I read. I found it on pages 180 and 175. The most obvious error occurred in the phrase “Jimi Hendrix writhing over his flaming Telecaster.” (Page 146) A Fender Stratocaster served as Jimi’s guitar of choice.

Statistically only 17% of people who begin NaNoWriMo finish. (Page 36) With this excellent reference source available, it will be interesting to discover if that number increases. That’s not really the point, though. The author emphasized that writing for its own sake has surprising awards. “The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously.” (Page 23) I’d suggest all aspiring novelists give that some thought as November approaches.

 

Music Review – Rush R40 Live

After All the World’s a Stage, Exit Stage Left, A Show of Hands, Different Stages, Rush in Rio, Working Men, R30, The Grace Under Pressure Tour, Snakes and Arrows Live, Time Machine, The Clockwork Angels Tour, The Lady Gone Electric and infinite bootlegs, we finally have another live album from Rush. This has been one of the longer stretches where they haven’t released a one in recent years. R40 Live came out two years and one month after the last live recording. I have to give Alex, Geddy and Neil credit: it was worth the wait.

The “dinosaur trio” returned to launch a major tour celebrating 40 years of playing music together. When I received a “distant early warning” they’d be releasing a CD in commemoration I thought I was “losing it.” I purchased it deciding to “roll the bones” and see if they could “animate” some of the older tunes and not be “the wreckers” of them. I worried that after hearing this album, I’d want to stick my head “between the wheels” of a “red barchetta”. Would my musical tastes take a “headlong flight” from this band? Would that be “how it is”? Fortunately, R40 Live turned out to be more than “one little victory”. None of the tracks sounded like a “far cry” from the originals.

The band chose an outstanding format for this celebration. The package came with the audio and video versions of the show. The concert opened up with a pre-recorded compilation from the band’s history. Songs from the first album segued into one another leading into tracks from the last studio album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels. To balance this out, the concert set list began with songs from that album, progressed through tracks from the band’s extensive catalog and ended with a medley of tunes from the eponymous debut album.

I didn’t like the self-indulgence of Rush’s 30th anniversary DVD. Throughout the show photos of the band from over the years kept appearing on the big screen. The video portion of R40’s opening rectified this. It began with animated figures of the group walking down the street. Cartoon images of items from that period of the group’s history floated by in the background. The figures aged as they progressed though the various periods of Rush history.

I found the use of comedy absolutely outstanding. The animator ribbed Neil Peart for the mustache he sported during the 1970s, Geddy Lee for his 1980s ponytail and Alex Lifeson for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. I’ve been a fan for years and always enjoyed their sense of humor. The guys deserve a lot of respect for their willingness to be caricatured.

I also give Rush a lot of credit for their song selections. Most bands that have been around for 20 plus years use the same set-list every tour. They play the “best of” live along with three or four songs from the new album. Not Rush. Whenever they tour they pull songs “out of the vault”; in other words, they play tracks they’ve never performed live before. This offering introduced live recordings of Vapor Trails’ “How it Is” and “Losing It” from Signals.

In addition, they included songs they don’t usually play in concert. Since this is Rush, none of these cuts are easy to perform. R40 Live included oldies such as “Jacob’s Ladder” and the prelude to “Hemispheres”. The dueling double necks made “Xanadu” my favorite track. The two encore medleys, “Lakeside Park/ Anthem” and “What You’re Doing/ Working Man” rounded out the show nicely.

The ubiquitous complaint about live Rush recordings in recent years has been Geddy Lee’s vocals. To be fair, here, Rush’s melodies are just as complex as their bass, drum and guitar parts. (Are there any rests in the chorus to “Subdivisions”?) They’re not easy for a 20 year old to sing, let alone a man in his sixties. I thought the vocals on this concert album were Mr. Lee’s strongest since 1998’s Different Stages.

For those who still have issues with the vocals: I’d suggest being impressed that all the other instruments sound as sharp as they do. At the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, it sounded to me like the Foo Fighters struggled to keep up with the band on 2112.

I’m astonished to be writing this, but even for those who already own all the other Rush concert recordings, R40 Live is certainly worth picking up. Aside from the opportunity to hear songs they don’t usually play live, the classics such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Closer to the Heart” sound better than ever. It’s like these guys never age. I’m ready to reserve my copies of R50 and R60 today.