Month: July 2016

Theatre Review – Jesus Christ Superstar at Collingswood Theatre Company

As a Catholic school graduate I’ve heard my share of takes on Jesus’ last days. By far the Collingswood Theatre Company presented the funkiest; thanks to the aid of the Superstar Band. On July 21st I had the pleasure of watching (and listening to) director CJ Kish’s interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1971 masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar.

The show utilized the best atmospherics I’ve experienced at a theatrical performance. This one included a fog machine, strobe lights and an extraordinary setting. The spectacle took place in the main ballroom at the Scottish Rite building in Collingswood. A large staircase leading to the balcony descended onto the stage itself. At times the chorus spread out among the upper sections surrounding the seating area. This created an eerie effect with the nature of some of the show’s music. Due to the elaborate choreography by Kate Scharff the cast meandered down the aisles in some of the scenes. Plus, the Superstar Band under Brian Kain’s direction played phenomenal music. Forget the performance: any of these elements alone more than justified the cost of admission.

But one can’t forget the performances. This show included the some outstanding ones along with exceptional singing; and it showcased a lot of the latter. Jesus Christ Superstar began its life as a rock opera before transitioning to the stage. It contained no speaking. The cast sang all the dialogue. After hearing the stellar vocals in this show, it made me glad they did.

DJ Hedgepath turned in the best performance I’ve watched him deliver. That’s quite a statement. I’ve written about him so often that readers have wondered if I’m stalking him. Mr. Hedgepath is one of the more active members of the South Jersey community theatre circuit these days. He’s played a diverse array of roles over the past few years. Make that over the last month. Several weeks ago he played the role of Hal, a PhD candidate in mathematics, in Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Proof. In this show he played Judas Iscariot. The man has range.

Webber and Rice made the Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar a conflicted man. Their Judas felt that Jesus strayed away from his spiritual message and moved into a political one. He “betrayed” Him in the hopes that authorities would protect Him. In the end, Judas felt betrayed by a divine plan. That’s a pretty complex character for a musical.

Mr. Hedgepath proved himself worthy of the challenge. He gazed at Jesus (played by Mike Reisman) with unvarnished hostility through most of the first act. His ability to maintain the same angry expression that long impressed me. Then he convincingly transitioned into a sobbing, broken man through the second part. Mr. Hedgepath’s aptitude for becoming the character was only exceeded by his vocal prowess.

Mr. Hedgepath possesses a very strong voice. His emphatic delivery of “Heaven on their Minds” drew me into the story from the beginning. He also impressed through singing songs rife with sixteenth notes in such a way I could understand all the lyrics. A tenor he nailed the high notes perfectly, as well.

I may not be able to sympathize with Judas, but I could sure empathize with Mr. Hedgepath. The character proved a very difficult one to play, but this performer met the challenge.

On the subject of challenging roles, Mike Reisman played Jesus. This character also experienced his share of conflicts. The human trait of frustration over the state of his ministry plagued him; as did anxiety over his own death.

Mr. Reisman did a wonderful job getting into character. His shoulder length long hair along with his beard and mustache allowed me to visualize him as Him. Through his stage presence I could identify him as a calm peaceful figure. Just as easily he adjusted his temperament and angrily chasing the merchants out of the Temple. In the most moving scene of the show, he and Mr. Hedgepath touched foreheads and cried together following the betrayal.

Mr. Reisman’s strongest moment occurred during his solo number, “Gethsemane.” He hit a high note that I estimate he held for about ten seconds. While doing so he leaned backwards. Singing’s rough when one uses perfect posture. I give this performer a lot of credit for fulfilling the myriad challenges of this difficult character.

Everyone in this show sang very well. I’d like to specially compliment Stef Bucholski (as Mary Magdalene) for her beautiful voice. I really enjoyed her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I also liked Ryan Adams’s (Caiaphas) awesome baritone. Hearing good, strong bass vocals in a theatrical production made my evening.

The show’s short run makes my only criticism of it. The Collingswood Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar only ran for three nights from a Tuesday through a Thursday. Perhaps this is nit-picking on my part, but I would’ve preferred more opportunities to attend.

At the show’s conclusion the woman seated in front of me cried. I doubt that’s because the ending surprised her. It’s a testament to how extraordinary the performance.

Book Review – The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a welcome anomaly for the work of a modern author. Kristin Hannah crafted an outstanding well-researched story that’s written exceptionally well. I enjoyed her creative usage of language along with the vivid characterization. In addition the author paced it brilliantly. Not once did its 440 page lose my interest.

Nazi occupied France served as the setting for most of the story. It evolved around the lives of two sisters. Vianne Mauriac lived as a conformist. She cooperated as best she could with the German occupiers. Protecting the lives of her children motivated her throughout the book; that and the hope of seeing her husband again. (A French soldier, he’d been captured by the Germans when they overran the country.) Love of family served as her main driving force.

Her sister Isabelle served as an excellent contrast. Always a rebel, the war gave her an outlet for her anti-authoritarian impulses. In spite of the danger, she opted to join the French underground. Under the code name Nightingale, she assisted dozens of allied airmen in their escapes to freedom: so they could “drop more bombs” on the enemy. The nature this journey made the accomplishment that much more remarkable. She personally led them from Paris through the Pyrenees Mountains to the British consulate in Spain.

I found the book very moving without drifting into melodrama. That’s an achievement for any author. It’s even more remarkable because I’d classify the story as a plot driven thriller. The depictions of hunger and privation at the hands of the occupiers gave me a sense of what life would’ve been like for the victims of Nazi oppression. As did the deportation scenes. The chaos where soldiers and collaborators rounded up multitudes of Jews combined with the detailed portrayals of the cramped conditions on the trains were disturbingly well written. I couldn’t believe Ms. Hannah an American born fifteen years following the war’s conclusion. The scenes read as though styled by someone who lived through the occupation. The author clearly performed her historical research.

As I mentioned I found The Nightingale extraordinarily well written. It contained perhaps the best opening line ever printed.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.

As one can surmise from that passage the book included myriad fantastic uses of language. “The stairs unfold from the ceiling like a gentleman extending his hand.” (Page 2) “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt at this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” (Page 16) “She watched the two men have an entire conversation without speaking a word.” (Page 99) And the most memorable: “Inside, the house echoed with the voice of a man who wasn’t there.” (Page 111)

The author utilized the following exceptional alliterative phrases, as well: “smelled of sausage and sweat and smoke” (Page 35),burdened beneath boxes”, and “served supper in silence.” (Page 86)

What all that impressed me, the author did a phenomenal job keeping me guessing. The structure accentuated this sense of mystery. In addition to the narrative of the occupation, several sections took place in Oregon in 1995. In those portions an old woman known as “Mom” reflected on the events of the occupation. I couldn’t tell if “Mom” was Vianne, Isabelle or someone else. I won’t disclose the character’s identity. I’ll allow readers to experience the same curiosity I did when they read the book.

A line from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis comes to mind. “I only wish it had been worse. Only then could I find the proper words to praise it.” The same could be said of The Nightingale.

Theatre Review – Bye Bye Birdie Presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Jeanne Gold engaged in the most creative casting I’ve ever encountered. For Haddonfield Plays and Players’ summer musical, Bye Bye Birdie, she selected a real life husband and wife team to star in this production. How can an actual married couple portray two people who are dating? I thought. It’s going to be a colossal effort to suspend my disbelief during this show. The performance opened with the two in the midst of a heated argument. Rosie (played by Megan Knowlton Balne) threatened to leave Albert (played by Thomas Balne), in essence, unless he took a more stable job and gave her more attention. After that exchange, I completely bought into the casting decision.

Bye Bye Birdie featured a sophisticated story line for a musical. The amount of conflict impressed me. Rosie Alvarez wanted her boyfriend, Albert Peterson, to sell his company and give up his career managing rock and roll sensation Conrad Birdie (played by Steve Stonis). She also needed him to develop a life of his own away from his overbearing mother. Thanks to Lisa Croce’s spectacular portrayal of the latter, I’m still trying to determine which of these tasks the more challenging.

In addition to this thorn tree in this garden, teenaged Kim MacAfee (performed by Ashleigh Neilio) battled her own series of romantic conflicts. As a young woman discovering her own maturity, she decided to give up her membership in Conrad Birdie’s fan club. She opted to abandon her childhood crush and devote herself to her boyfriend, Hugo (played by Jack Rooney). Serendipitously for theatergoers, just as that moment occurred she received unexpected news from Mr. Peterson’s company. She’d been selected as the young lady with the honor of kissing Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show the day before his entering the army.

As I mentioned the two lead performers in this production are married in real life. Since they spend so much time with one another when they’re not on stage, it’s not surprising that they have similar skill sets. Both are extraordinarily strong singers and dancers. They both possess exceptional acting chops, too. Watching the two of them showcase their craft made for a most entertaining evening.

Thomas Balne turned in an amazing performance. His best moment on stage occurred during the upbeat song and dance number “Put on a Happy Face”. The ensemble and he sure made the audience smile. Under choreographer Jennifer Morris Grasso’s direction, they put on a very impressive dance sequence while he sang impeccably.

I also credit Mr. Balne for his crooning of “Baby Talk to Me.” The high notes at the end of the song sounded a bit of out his natural vocal range. He still nailed the notes correctly…on a balmy ninety degree evening, no less. That’s remarkable singing.

Megan Knowlton Balne also conveyed outstanding vocal prowess. A strong performance on an early number, “An English Teacher”, served as a good warm up for the more challenging “Spanish Rose” towards the end of the show. She sang just as proficiently in a Spanish accent as she did with her regular voice. Once again, that’s remarkable singing.

Aside from the great songs, the role called for a very intricate dance number with a group of Shriners. Mrs. Balne’s Rose rose to that challenge, as well. At times I thought the line between dance and gymnastics blurred a bit. It didn’t affect this performer at all.

While Mrs. Balne displayed many strong traits on stage, I found her non-verbal skills without peer. This player can express more emotion with an eye roll than most could with an extended soliloquy. Bravo.

Ashleigh Neilio may only be a freshman in high school, but she displayed the skills of a seasoned stage veteran. Her delivery of “How Lovely to Be a Woman” impressed me. It’s incredible how talented she is at this point in her career. Ms. Neilio sang with great vibrato and sustain. She also caroled with perfect intonation on the high notes. While achieving that difficult feat, she performed the number while changing costumes on stage as she faced the audience. (I can’t even put on a pair of loafers without looking at what I’m doing.) She’s got a bright future in theater. Audiences can look forward to watching Ms. Neilio perform for many years to come.

Steve Stonis (as Conrad Birdie) undoubtedly earned the award for best costumes in this show. The gold suit he wore gave off the colorful attire of a rock star and allowed him the flexibility of movement to out-gyrate Elvis Presley. He also drew laughs during his comedic appearance chugging a bottle of beer while sporting a leopard skin robe. Aside from his fifties crooner style singing, he showed his commitment to playing this character by wearing a pink blouse with a head scarf at the end of the show. That’s dedication.

I’d also like to credit Michael Hicks for his portrayal of Kim’s father. I last saw him play the serious dramatic role of Dr. Sloper in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. He turned in a fantastic performance in a light hearted musical. I’d never heard him sing before. His frustrated delivery of “Kids” and fitting facial expressions suited his character perfectly. Mr. Hicks brilliantly expressed Mr. MacAfee’s antediluvian values (even for a 1950s dad). I appreciated watching him in this comedic role.

I relished observing my friend Lisa Croce reprise her role as Mae Peterson. Ms. Croce once told me that she’d like audiences to remember her as “funny”.  I’m sure she achieved that goal with this group of theatergoers. Her artistic choice of voice suited this role. It fit well with her repeated (and mostly successful) efforts to lay guilt trips on Albert. Her modulation on the not so veiled attacks on Rose made her the perfect antagonist to Mrs. Balne’s character.

I wished the performance could’ve included a live band. As a “purist” I feel that musicians performing along with the people singing make for a better listening experience. All the music was pre-recorded and broadcast over the public address system. I understand that the facility lacked the space to fit the required orchestra for some of the songs, however.

The show began with an off-stage relationship developing into a fictional one on stage. By the end of the performance the true love affair turned out to be between the audience and the cast. (I still noticed a little friction among Ms. Croce’s and Mrs. Balne’s characters, though.) See this show no later than August 6th. After that it’s bye bye Bye Bye Birdie at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Book Review – A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

In A Man Called Ove, Fredrick Backman may have crafted the most loveable miserable bastard in the history of literature. Ove was fifty-nine. He was a man of principle. He believed so strongly in things: justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right. (Loc 1919) Unfortunately for those around him, this intransigence transferred over to just about everything else in his vicinity. From Ove’s choice of car (only a Saab) to enforcing the parking regulations in his development (because vehicular traffic is prohibited in the residential areas), everything was plain to him. Or it was until he met his wife Sonya. As Mr. Backman wrote,

He was a man of black and white

And she was color. All the color he had. (Loc 476)

SPOILER ALERT: All that color disappeared when his wife passed away, leaving Ove alone.

I enjoyed this book. I found it much more light-hearted than expected; especially,due to the subject matter. The author even found humor in his multiple suicide attempts. Pushy neighbors and people in the path of the same train he wanted to jump in front of thwarted his plans. Please note that Mr. Backman hails from Sweden: the same land that gave us Ingmar Bergman and August Strindberg.

The author included more conventional uses of humor as well. He’s an exchange over a “broken” ticket machine that occurred at a train station.

“Your ticket machine doesn’t work,” Ove informs him.

“No?” says the man behind the Plexiglass.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I mean…I’m just asking, doesn’t it work?”

“I just told you, it’s broken!”

The man behind the Plexiglass looks dubious. “Maybe there’s something wrong with your card? Some dirt on the magnetic strip?” he suggests.

Ove looks as if the man behind the Plexiglass had just raised the possibility of Ove having erectile dysfunction. The man behind the Plexiglass goes silent. (Loc 1765)

Ove’s wife may have been the one person capable of managing him. The author described her behavior during her pregnancy.

Sonja, not to be outdone, developed a temper that could flare up faster than a pair of saloon doors in a John Wayne film which made Ove reluctant to open his mouth at all. (Loc 2257)

Here’s the author’s witty depiction of Ove’s rest room:

Towards the end the doctors prescribed so many pain killers for Sonja. Their bathroom still looks like a storage facility for the Columbian mafia. (Loc 2704)

While the lyrical flourishes above entertained me, I found a few examples of poor writing, as well. With apologies to the Johnson columnist for The Economist, I read weak uses of the passive voice in several places. Examples included, “Ove’s father was sent for” (Loc 511) and “can be heard” (Loc 1314). The author used the cliché “sweating buckets”. (Loc 2108) I also didn’t like that at a critical scene in the story a reporter introduced herself as, “I’m from the local newspaper.” (Loc 3779) Would a real journalist talk that way? Wouldn’t she identify the news organization that employed her? I didn’t find this character’s conduct believable.

While A Man Called Ove ended somewhat happily, I thought the author wrapped up the story too neatly. He explained the blissful outcomes for all the characters in the story in one neat paragraph. I won’t give away spoilers, but some of the resolutions jarred me. As a reader I would’ve appreciated some foreshadowing so I could’ve either surmised the conclusions or at least understood some basis for them.

I thought Mr. Backman crafted an excellent story in A Man Called Ove. Normally these kinds of novels aren’t a part of my regular repertoire. I would recommend it to people interested in an entertaining read. The positives about this book far exceed its shortcomings…just like Ove himself.

Theatre Review – The Drowsy Chaperone at The Maple Shade Arts Council

I could use many expressions to describe The Maple Shade Arts Council’s presentation of The Drowsy Chaperone: sleep inducing would not be one of them. This Brian Padla directed performance showcased the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in a church basement. When I attended on July 9th, even the audience featured exceptional performance artists. (Rachel Comenzo attended as did other luminaries of the South Jersey community theater community.) An entertaining evening of music and comedy resulted.

Mr. Padla, the cast and crew deserve great credit for putting on a musical this involved. They merit even more accolades for doing so while in the Council’s “temporary home.” The staff managed to convert a small stage in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Nolan Hall into a professional theatrical platform with an orchestra section and dressing rooms. As if that didn’t warrant kudos, the show well exceeded my expectations; and they were stratospheric even before I walked in the door. As many readers are probably already aware: I’m familiar with the work of producers Michael Melvin and Jillian Starr-Renbojr as well as that of performers Connor Twigg, Gabrielle Affleck and Casey Grouser.

The “musical within a comedy” featured a unique premise. It began with the lights out. A lone voice broke the darkness. The Man in the Chair (played by Dennis Dougherty) delivered a humorous monologue ruminating on musical theatre. He described an obscure show from the 1920s called The Drowsy Chaperone as his favorite. Then he pulled out a vinyl recording of the musical and placed it on his record player. The performers took the stage and acted it out. From time-to-time the show would freeze allowing Mr. Dougherty’s character to provide witty commentary. While The Drowsy Chaperone’s script turned out to be musical theatre’s answer to a B movie, the Man in the Chair’s exposition combined with wonderful singing and dancing made it an unforgettable piece for theater fans.

One of the Man in the Chair’s vignettes concerned the fate of the actor who played Aldolpho in the original production. It turns out the performer met an ignominious end. After drinking himself to death his poodles partially devoured him. All theatregoers should hope that destiny doesn’t befall Antonino Baldasari. (He portrayed Aldolpho in this production.)

Mr. Baldasari played the funniest role I’ve had the pleasure of watching on a live stage. As a parody of a lusty Latin lothario he carried a long cane that he just couldn’t seem to control; always dropping it at the most inconvenient moment. His high-pitched stretching of the word what could be the best one-word catch phrase in the history of comedy. He then took the humor to another height by crooning “A Message from a Nightingale.” In that challenging number he portrayed an Oriental man singing with a Spanish accent. He impressed me the most by keeping a straight face through the whole show: something those of us in the audience couldn’t do.

I give Connor Twigg great credit for taking on the role of Robert Martin, let alone playing it so well. He performed a phenomenal tap dance while singing “Cold Feets”. (Joe Lee—as George—expertly accompanied him towards the number’s end.) A few scenes later he wore a blindfold while roller skating. To round out the character he also delivered numerous funny lines perfectly. Mr. Twigg had a full evening.

I’ve attended shows where Gabrielle Affleck either performed or directed. In the title role of this one, I had the chance to hear her sing for the first time. Ms. Affleck is such a talented vocalist that I’m stunned I’ve never heard her perform a musical number before. I enjoyed her melodic rendition of the so-called ode to alcoholism “As We Stumble Along”. Because of the unorthodox mixture of tango with comedy, I’d select her duet with Mr. Baldasari, “I Am Aldolpho” as the stand-out number from this show.

The Drowsy Chaperone seemed to spare no performer from singing a song that challenged one’s ability to keep a straight face. Following a great rendition of the narcissistic “Show Off” in Act I, Nicollete Palombo (as Janet van de Graaff) sang the most unusual ballad ever written, called “Bride’s Lament”, in Act II. The Man in the Chair warned the audience that this track had “terrible lyrics.” What an understatement. The dolorous lament compared a woman’s lover to a monkey. One can only admire the way Ms. Palombo voiced such an emotional recitative without cracking a smile.

The production featured many exceptional performances. I also applaud James Gallagher, Matthew Maerten, Sarah Harris, Casey Grouser, Debbi Heckmanm and Lori A. Howard for their enactments. Alex Davis, Haley Melvin, Mary Melvin, Kevin Roberts, Frankie Simpson and Amber Stolarski rounded out the ensemble nicely.

The orchestra, led by Cameron Stringham, sounded fantastic. The sound quality impressed me; especially when taking the venue into account. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack on CD. The songs in this show were rather complex, as well. The “Overture” had the band come in mid-way through a pre-recorded performance. Some songs included rests in unusual places. One track simulated a record skipping. They and the cast delivered all these numbers flawlessly.

The show did experience some technical glitches. A loud humming noise came through the PA system a few times during Act II. Then the sound briefly cut out. These things happen. The issue is how performers handle them when they occur. One of these episodes transpired with most of the ensemble on the stage. No one reacted to the snafu. Everyone remained in-character and continued their performances while the sound crew corrected the problem. That’s professionalism.

The talent level at South Jersey community theatre productions always impresses me. I write that a lot, but this show was special. I’d never heard of The Drowsy Chaperone, but I left thinking it the most entertaining musical I’ve witnessed. Before the show I met Michael Melvin, the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. He thanked me for the reviews I’ve written of his and the Council’s work. If anything, as audience members, we should be thanking Mr. Melvin and his organization for producing such fantastic shows. Their current staging of The Drowsy Chaperone is a great reason why. It runs through July 16th.

 

Book Review – The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

It seemed fitting that the protagonist of The Girl on the Train would be a train wreck. Rachel Watson couldn’t hold a job, drank chronically and harassed her ex-husband’s new family. And then there were her bad qualities. As if all this didn’t keep Rachel occupied she found herself drawn into an intriguing murder mystery. While no Miss Marple, she became the key investigator in determining Megan Hipwell’s killer.

Paula Hawkins crafted Rachel like a character out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. After getting fired because of her drinking, every day she still rode the same train she took to work. She did so in order to make her landlord think she still had a job. At one of the stops she could see into a young couple’s yard. She found herself drawn to the pair; even to the point of giving them imaginary names. (I mentioned Rachel had ‘issues’, correct?) They reminded her of the early days of her defunct marriage. “They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be,” Rachel observed. (Loc 177)

Then Rachel read an article in the paper that the woman, Megan Hipwell, had disappeared. The couple happened to live a few doors down from where Rachel’s husband Tom resided with his new wife and their infant daughter. To add to the intrigue Megan went missing on a night Rachel had one of her drunken confrontations with her ex-husband on the same street! Unfortunately, she blacked out following the encounter. Even more unfortunately for the missing woman, Megan turned up dead.

Ms. Hawkins did an exceptional job choosing such an unreliable narrator to serve as a sleuth. As I read I wondered if Rachel would end up incarcerated for her continued harassment of Tom and his family. I also pondered what other drunken hijinks she’d get into next. I liked how she struggled with her demons. As the story progressed she steadily learned to control them enough to focus on finding Megan’s assailant. I didn’t expect to encounter a protagonist this complex in a murder mystery. I applaud the author’s proficiency with the character’s development.

This will sound like a strange comparison, but this book reminded me a bit of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter.  I loved the first three quarters of it. The protagonist and suspense really engaged me. Then the book degenerated into cliché. The end section failed to maintain the high level of writing. The events leading to Rachel’s recollection of the events during her blackout seemed contrived. Out of respect for those who haven’t read the book yet, I won’t reveal the killer’s identity. I will comment that the culprit possessed a narcissistic personality with sociopathic tendencies. The murderer believed himself or herself smarter than everyone else. Doesn’t that describe any villain from any murder mystery ever written? The climactic life-or-death fight at the end bored me. While it contained a lot of action I thought it weak and predictable.

The originality of the story’s protagonist made The Girl on the Train a worthwhile read. I have to admit there were times when I really didn’t care about the killer’s identity. I was more curious to discover what Rachel would do next. The ending made the story much too cliché for my taste. It made me want to take up Rachel’s favorite pastime. For me the real mystery was why I didn’t stop reading 75% of the way through.

Book Review – Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died by Jim Bernhard

It seems like every person who’s ever written something famous has died at some point. So many have, in fact that (the still living) Jim Bernhard decided to write a book about it. A tome regarding such a macabre topic as death may seem morbid to some. The writer still managed to present an interesting and many times entertaining take on those who have gone before us while leaving a lasting legacy of letters in their wake.

The author structured the book by presenting short biographical sketches of various writers. He began with the Greek playwrights and concluded with the late film critic Roger Ebert. In order to liven, no pun intended, the subject matter, the author added these writers views on religion along with some witty epigrams regarding their lives and work. While not a scholarly reference book it did contain many witty and amusing anecdotes; as well as sound advice. A very engaging read resulted.

The theme of rampant alcohol abuse permeated the book. Imagine that. Jack London was an alcoholic by the age of 15, which could explain why he didn’t live past 40. Notables such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams all possessed a legendary fondness for the bottle. Mr. Bernard explored some others’ experiences with it. In fact authors’ affectation for potent potables could be traced back to Geffrey Chaucer. Mr. Bernhard wrote, “So highly regarded was he by Edward II that he was granted a gallon of wine daily for life, possibly as a reward for an early poetical work.” (Loc 586) When warned about the dangers of his alcohol abuse just prior to his death, Miguel de Cervantes said, “Many people have told me the same thing, but I can no more give up drinking for pleasure than if I had been born to do nothing else.” (Loc 655) James Thurber provided my favorite thoughts on the subject. “’One martini is all right,’ he said, ‘two are too many, and three are not enough.’” (Loc 3368)

The author also included some interesting facts about the various writers he covered. For one, I didn’t know that Thomas Hardy invented the “cliffhanger.” In an early serialized novel an episode ended with a character physically hanging off a cliff. (Loc 2580) Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first use of the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” (Loc 1445) Edgar Allan Poe only made $10 from “The Raven”. Dorothy Parker supposedly came up with all the following clichés: ball of fire, with bells on, birdbrain, face-lift, doesn’t have a prayer, scaredy-cat, the sky’s the limit, and wisecrack. (Loc 3319)

The myriad uses of humor impressed me the most about this book. The author provided an amusing take on Thomas Aquinas’ burial.

Thomas’ body was given to the Dominican order, and today most of it is in a gold and silver sarcophagus in the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France—except his right arm, which is in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a bone from his left arm, which is preserved as a relic in the cathedral of Naples. Canonized in 1323, Saint Thomas now rests in pieces. (Loc 542)

Apparently, burials amuse Mr. Bernhard. He had comparable thoughts on Dante’s interment.

His body is buried in Ravenna, and the tomb erected for him in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce remains empty. Although the Florence City Council formally revoked his exile in 2008, there is no indication Dante plans to relocate. (Loc 578)

The book’s most entertaining passage described Voltaire’s deathbed.

On the morning of May 30, Gaultier and another priest came to his bedside to exhort him once more. They asked him if he believed in the divinity of Christ. Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, don’t mention that man to me again—and let me die in peace.” Asked to renounce Satan, Voltaire observed, “This is not the time to make any more enemies.” He expired at eleven o’clock on the evening of May 30, 1778. (Loc 1199)

Rabindranath Tagore (not covered in Final Chapters) wrote, “And because I loved life, I know I shall love death as well.” I don’t know that I’ll “love” it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it in Final Chapters. While witty, the book did include some serious thoughts on the subject. The follow from Marcus Aurelius seemed a fitting one with which to conclude this piece.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. (Loc 479)