Month: February 2018

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.

 

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24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

 

Lecture Review – “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast” by Dan Leib

The Historical Society of Moorestown treated me to something I’d never experienced in the past. They presented a lecture that included an “opening act.” It delighted me that when I arrived at the Moorestown Library on the evening of February 24th, the organization’s president, Mickey DiCamillo, commenced the evening’s festivities with a preview of the Society’s “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit. After that, another president, Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, discussed two sunken locomotives off the coast of Long Branch. The duo combined for one spectacular double bill. It made for one of “historical” proportions.

A year-and-a-half ago the Historical Society left an audience with a pretty good cliffhanger. When Mr. Lieb last addressed the group on November 16, 2016, he provided an historical overview called “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast.” During that lecture he told of two locomotives his group found underneath the Atlantic Ocean. He said that he’d return and provide the group with more information on them. When I read that Mr. Lieb planned his update this February, I looked forward to hearing him review his findings. When the scheduled date arrived, like a good showman, Mr. Lieb built up even more anticipation. Due to traffic and scheduling conflicts, the keynote speaker arrived 40 minutes late.

Mr. Camillo took advantage of the opportunity by expatiating upon his opening remarks. After introducing the Society’s upcoming “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit, which will premiere this April, he shared a story with the audience. He described the little known role a Boy Scout troop from Moorestown played in raising money for the war effort.

In order to finance the First World War, the government issued bonds. At first the public delivered a tepid response. The cost of these bonds varied. Buyers could purchase them at different levels. Even with this incentive, the wealthy displayed little interest in procuring them. The government then tried a different tack: it issued a more affordable alternative in the form of war stamps. It enlisted the aid of the Boy Scouts to help sell them.

But, as with many ideas that germinate in Washington, this one came with a bit of a twist. The government stipulated that the stamps could only be sold in areas where the public had already been offered the opportunity to buy bonds. In other words, it only allowed the stamps to be sold to consumers who had already declined to purchase war bonds.

The Boy Scouts went door-to-door offering stamps which, like the bonds, had differing price points. These young men achieved a remarkable record of success. 21 of the 28 scouts in the Moorestown troop received merit badges for selling to more than ten people each. With a goal of $40K in sales, the Moorestown group raised $96K in 1919.

Mr. DiCamillo then displayed the banner of commendation awarded to the scouts. It read:

V

The Victory

Liberty and Loan

Industrial Honor Emblem

Awarded by the

United States Treasury

Department.

*

Following a brief intermission, Mr. Lieb presented the main lecture: “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast.” The speaker provided more details regarding the two locomotives discovered off the coast of Long Branch. The topic may be familiar to some readers. Mr. Leib originally discussed the subject on an episode of the History Channel program Deep Sea Detectives in September of 2004.

Each locomotive stands right-side-up and reaches eight feet high off the seabed. They were located in 1984 through the aid of a device called a magnetometer. It identified a big disturbance that covered a small area.

The locomotives are 2-2-2 class. That designation relates to the wheel arrangement on steam locomotives. It meant (according to Wikipedia) that the vehicle contained two leading, two driving and two trailing wheels. Each set fastened on to its own respective axle. Due to this configuration, Mr. Lieb surmised the locomotives were designed for commuter transport.

Mr. Leib described some of the objects he and his crew pulled from the wreckage. They included two bells, two whistles and tallow cups. He described the one bell as “well made.” The whistles contained the engraving of the manufacturer’s name: “H. M. Hooper 3.” The tallow cups measured roughly the same size as small tea cups. Engineers used them to pour lubricant into the locomotive’s gears. Mr. Leib added that these artifacts all contained unique thread patterns.

The speaker educated the group regarding the maritime “arrest” procedure. His organization claimed the locomotives under salvage law. The process is called an “arrest.” The judge granted them custodianship of the site and artifacts. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article notifying the public on 9/19/04. No one came forward to claim ownership. On 1/31/06, the judge granted Mr. Lieb’s group title to the find.

In spite of the amount of information his group uncovered as well as the publicity generated, the source of the locomotives remains unknown. Going forward, Mr. Leib plans to “raise, conserve and interpret” the site’s items.

In keeping with his earlier visit, Mr. Leib once again left the Historical Society of Moorestown with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, he’ll identify the locomotives’ source and return with a definitive answer as to their provenance. This is just a thought, but that topic would make a pretty strong opening act for another one of Mr. DiCamillo’s lectures.

A Special Kind of Empathy

I’ve been deeply moved by the amount of empathy I’ve witnessed lately. Granted, it’s always seemed as though Americans have an immense caring for how their actions impact those around them; but lately, it’s been special. In fact I had a most extraordinary encounter with it this week.

The South Jersey area experienced several days of rainfall. I noticed my windshield wiper blades beginning to streak. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but during the evenings it could look like someone smeared Vaseline on the window. As it drizzled one afternoon, I figured it a good time to replace them.

Much like the empathy I’ve witnessed lately, my windshield wiper blades are also “special.” In fact, they’re so unique I can only purchase them through the dealership where I bought my car. As it’s in an out-of-the-way area, I procured a spare pair when I took the car in for service during the spring of last year.

I learned from past experience. The first time I needed windshield wipers I went to the auto parts store in my neighborhood; the one I drive by on the way home. Windshield wiper blades are a very common part. Every car has them. I can get them anywhere any time I want, I figured. Wouldn’t you know it? The auto parts store—one that’s part of a national chain–didn’t carry this “special” brand. As I didn’t want to make special trips anymore, I made sure I’d always have a spare set at home whenever I needed them.

To paraphrase Robert Burns: the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. When I installed the windshield wipers, they were incorrect. The person who pulled them gave me two passenger side wiper blades: not one for the driver’s side and one for the passenger’s side. As I happened to be off from work the day this occurred, I opted to go out of my way to the dealership to pick-up the right wiper blade.

When I got the wiper blade, I installed it myself to make sure it was the correct one. I measured it to confirm that I had been correct. The one wiper blade the dealership sold me last year was the wrong one.

I felt a bit distraught. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way during rush hour traffic in the rain. All this because one of the dealership’s employees failed to do his/her job. Was that really fair to me? After all, as a customer, the money I spend there goes to cover salaries. Wasn’t this person technically my employee, too? I decided to discuss the situation with one of the managers there.

I asked to see whoever was in charge. The general manager had already left for the day, so they put me in touch with a gentleman I’ll call ‘Jerry.’ I explained what happened.

Jerry made no effort to restrain his overwhelming concern regarding my inconvenience. His eyes glazed over with great interest. I thought I detected a sigh of alarm escape from his lips. When I finished explaining what happened, he leaned back. The overflow of emotion prohibited him from even making eye contact with me. It was like he felt so embarrassed by the employee’s inability to read numbers off a box that he couldn’t bring himself to even make eye contact with me.

After a moment that must have seemed never ending to him, he mustered the courage to make amends for this humiliating oversight. “I apologize. People make mistakes. I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. Hopefully, we got it right this time.”

I have to admit, at first I felt a bit disappointed. After all, I had to go totally out of my way to rectify his employee’s “mistake.” I had to use gas I paid for as well as time that I can never recover. Then I reflected on Jerry’s words: “People make mistakes.”

I realized that does happen. How true. And Jerry was “sorry.” Then I thought about the empathy Jerry showed: both to me and his inept employee. Just maybe, I thought, I need to be more like Jerry.

Based on his profound understanding of human error, I’m sure Jerry applies that philosophy to other facets of his life. If either he or someone he loved were injured because a mechanic installed the wrong brakes, he’d chalk that one up to “a mistake.” That’s why pencils have erasers. After all, the part number of the brakes may have been similar. Anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. I know he’d bring the car back to the same mechanic with the understanding that “hopefully” (s)he would get it right on the second try.

I’m also very confident that if a heart surgeon used the wrong suture on either him or someone he loved, Jerry would just call that a “learning experience.” “Suture looks like suture,” I’m sure he’d say. “Anyone could’ve made a mistake pulling it.” Of course, the expression “the surgeon said he was sorry, so everything’s okay” would’ve featured prominently in any subsequent eulogy.

I’ve convinced with metaphysical certainty that if Jerry’s employer shorted him $30 on his paycheck, he would’ve forgone financial remuneration in favor of a sincere, “Sorry” from the department that handles payroll. I have no right to complain about the $30 in parts and gas his employee’s mistake cost me. I received an apology. I accept that with the same gratitude Jerry would have in the situation I described.

Jerry’s empathy deeply touched me. It was truly “special.” I’m sure he and his coworkers will show the same understanding should I decide to go car shopping at one of his competitors next time. After all, if I make the wrong decision, it’s only a “mistake” that costs his company a couple thousand dollars in profits.

Sorry, Jerry.

Love, Loss and What I Wore at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Many first time directors choose challenging shows for their debut efforts. Add to that list Tami Gordon-Brody. For her first show she selected Nora and Delia Ephon’s Love, Loss and What I Wore. Ms. Brody informed me that, “It’s a girl show, but I think you’ll like it.” I can write that this style of theatre suited me just fine. I attended the opening performance on February 23rd.

This play featured a rather unique format. A group of women sat on the stage and faced the audience the entire evening. Each performer had a lectern in front of her. They presented monologs, spoke in unison or delivered dialog while music played in the background.

A screen at the back of the stage displayed various images. When the only named character, Gingy, spoke, drawings of the various outfits she described appeared. On other occasions the backdrop showed the view of a sunrise over a lake. The latter created the ambiance of sitting by a patio while listening as someone told a story. It transformed the theatre into a more intimate setting.

The title well described the play. Seven women sat on stage while sharing various vignettes from their lives. The structure made for a very interesting evening of theatre.

The playwrights crafted a creative story. All of the monologs related what the character speaking wore during the significant life event she discussed. Without the benefit of costume changes or stage actions, this limited the performers to advancing the narrative through story telling ability alone. Ms. Brody selected the proper cast for this endeavor.

Susan Dewey played “Gingy.” I really enjoyed her performance at the show’s conclusion. Ms. Dewey movingly described the “personal” nature of the play. With great feeling the performer added that audiences found it just as “personal.”

Sara Viniar delivered Love, Loss and What I Wore’s most powerful monolog. Ms. Viniar expressed her character’s fondness for boots and mini-skirts. From this introduction she segued into a deeply moving story about the character’s sexual assault while attending college. Her emotional portrayal made me uncomfortable. I credit her for bringing out such feelings in an audience member.

Nicole Lukaitis delivered the most passionate description of a purse ever presented anywhere. It’s difficult to display that level of enthusiasm for an inanimate object. Ms. Lukaitis established a benchmark for doing so.

The other performers brought out their characters’ distinct features very well. I enjoyed Brittany Marie’s tale about how both she and her prom date wore matching outfits. Lori Clark’s inspirational story about her character’s battle with breast cancer at the age of 27 illustrated the theme of hope. Annie Raczko presented an entertaining rendition of how her character lost her favorite shirt while she and her boyfriend broke up. Jenn Kopsesky-Doyle’s character delivered a relatable monolog about marriage woes.

While Love, Loss and What I Wore featured an all-female cast, I can’t agree with Ms. Brody that it’s a “girl show.” While men and women may wear different style clothes, underneath them we’re all people. We all experience love and loss in our lives. They’re two of the facets of the human experience that unite every one of us.

If you’d love to see this show, there’s one more opportunity. It runs through February 24th. After that, it’s your loss.

 

Book Review – Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow achieved a remarkable feat for a writer. He managed to craft an engaging tale centered on a pathetic protagonist. Just how pathetic was the main character in Seize the Day? Compared to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman would be in the same category as Tom Brady. That’s quite a feat.

I prefer to avoid the use of negative pejoratives when describing even fictional people. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the term failure when describing Mr. Wilhelm. Unfortunately, that would be the kindest way to do so. As the author explained:

This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. He had decided it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check. (Page 19)

Wilhem’s father even told him:

“I don’t know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.” (Page 105)

Aside from giving Mr. Wilhelm the trait of consistency, Mr. Bellow balanced out the character very well. The protagonist made a point to take his sons to Brooklyn Dodgers games on weekends. (Seize the Day was published in 1956.) On one weekend when team travelled, he visited his mother’s grave.

I liked the author’s method of introducing the character. The book opened with the line:

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was certainly a lot of evidence to back it up. (Page 1)

Once more I have to extend kudos to Mr. Bellow. He spent the book’s full 133 pages explaining those sentences in detail.

Like many of Mr. Bellow’s works, I found Seize the Day a very difficult read. That made its ‘brief’ length deceptive. I thought the con-man’s, Dr. Tamkin’s, philosophizing very erudite and challenging. The doctor recited an esoteric poem called “Mechanism vs Functionalism Ism vs Hism.” Fortunately, he explicated to Wilhelm which helped me follow its meaning.

As much as the book challenged me, I found it worth the effort. Throughout the story, I kept hoping that Wilhelm would get that one break that would allow him to maneuver his life into a positive direction. I attribute that to great writing on the author’s part.

I did find the book very well written. Mr. Bellow included the following memorable lines:

Mr. Perls put in, “He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.” (Page 37)

Everyone was like the faces on a playing card, upside down either way. (Page 59)

I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones. (Page 102)

The following description of an old man demonstrated sublime attention to detail.

How old—old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart. Beyond remedy by glasses, his eyes were smoky and faded. (Page 82)

So did Wilhelm eventually “seize the day” or did the day seize and strangle him? I’ll allow future readers to experience either that joy or sorrow compliments of Mr. Bellow’s prose. So seize the day and read it.

Book Review – It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis crafted the most dystopian vision of America’s future in the form of It Can’t Happen Here . It illustrated what can happen when a discontented citizenry determined that conventional leaders lacked the capability to cope with an uncertain world. A chilling image of a country rejecting its own political traditions and a culture of freedom resulted.

This 1935 masterpiece included Lewis’ signature writing techniques. The choice of distinct character names made this book one of the author’s best. My personal favorites included President Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, Senator (later Attorney General) Porkwood and Bishop Paul Peter Prang. The protagonist’s appellation, Doremus Jessup, earned an honorable mention; as did his attorney, Mungo Kitterick.

Lewis possessed a unique genius for the clever use of sarcasm. It Can’t Happen Here contained its share of memorable passages.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he said. (Page 73)

For three nights he was questioned and lashed—once late at night, by guards who complained of the inhumane callousness of their officers in making them work so late. (Page 268)

The D. A. R. (reflected the cynic Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization—as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely those principles for which these ancestors struggled. (Page 18)

The story presented a rather eerie situation for the nation. Ardent populist, Senator Buzz Windrip managed to secure the Democratic nomination for President over incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the aid of his “satanic” secretary, Lee Sarason’s, proficiency for public relations, he won the White House.

With what’s going on in the US right now, I’m sure some readers think I’m making this up. Here’s a direct quote from the book. In it, the new President spoke to the “Minute Men” who made up his de facto secret police force.

“I am addressing my own boys, the Minute Men, everywhere in America! To you and only you I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs. They told you to sneak off like bums and get relief. They ordered you into lousy C.C.C. camps. I tell you that you are ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land—the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me—help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you—give the swine the point of your bayonet!” (Page 127)

And there’s more.

Lewis selected an interesting structure for this book. In the chapters leading up to Windrip’s election, the author prefaced them with a paragraph from the candidate’s book, Zero Hour. The latter allegedly written by Lee Sarason. Here’s a paragraph describing the media that reads like something more contemporary.

I know the press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pockets by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Page 43)

With an antagonist consumed by such animosity for reporters, it didn’t surprise that Lewis selected a newspaper editor (Doremus Jessup) as his hero. As disturbing as I found America’s decent into a fascist state, the true tragedy for me concerned Jessup’s internal struggle with his own disillusionment. He expressed the following thoughts on idealism.

“Is it just possible,” he sighed, “that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?” (Page 111)

Later in the book, Jessup experienced another sullen realization.

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. (Page 169)

While written over 80 years ago, Sinclair Lewis crafted a timeless book that’s relevance never seems to wane. In a preface to George Orwell’s 1984, Walter Cronkite commented something to the effect that: “while 1984 might not arrive on time, there’s always 1985.” In It Can’t Happen Here, Doremus Jessup observed that “it can’t happen here” even while it happened here.

 

Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)

 

“Riding the Rails in Moorestown: A Discussion of Railroads in Moorestown and the Surrounding Area” by Hank Cutler and Randy Acorcey

“You don’t know where you are until you know where you came from.” With these words, Randy Acorcey and Dr. Hank Cutler commenced an engaging lecture. The choice of a travel metaphor to explain history well suited the topic. Mr. Acorcey discussed the development of railroads in South Jersey. Dr. Cutler followed by describing how they affected the local Moorestown business community. The speakers shared plenty of fantastic material for both railroad and local history buffs. The Moorestown Library and the Historical Society of Moorestown hosted this event on January 17, 2018.

The Garden State served as the location for some monumental innovations affecting ante-bellum transportation. Mr. Acorcey explained that in 1832 the Camden and Amboy Railroad became the first line in New Jersey. The C & A introduced the steam powered locomotive. The first one to travel on its rails, the John Bull, came over from England in various pieces. Crews in the US reassembled it without the benefit of instructions.

Before that game changing advancement, horses drew railroad cars. The speaker displayed a photo of one such set-up in Gibbsboro. To answer the obvious questions, Mr. Acorcey explained: “It wasn’t fast.” As to the poor condition of the tracks: “Horses learned to step in between things.”

The C & A selected the perfect president in the form of Hoboken native Robert Stevens. Mr. Acorcey described him as a “prolific inventor.” One of his many innovations included the baggage car. Most important for railroads, Mr. Stevens developed all iron rails. Prior to that, engineers used stone or “sleepers” to set down the tracks. Mr. Acorcey added, with perhaps a bit of understatement, this led to “a few accidents.”

While these innovations certainly improved travel by rails, not to mention safety, modern passengers wouldn’t be impressed. A train trip from Burlington to Mount Holly took 30 minutes each way in the 1860s.

At this point in the lecture, audience members needed scorecards. Just after the Civil War an era of railroad consolidations commenced. The mergers accelerated through the twentieth century. In April of 1969, a passenger train embarked from Moorestown for the last time.

The C & A’s spirit of innovation transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the two merged in 1872. In 1895 the new organization built the Delair Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Pennsauken. It allowed train travel directly between those two locales for the first time. The structure still stands and railroad companies use it today.

Dr. Cutler then described how the railroad impacted Moorestown. At one time the town contained three different rail way stations named the East Moorestown, the West Moorestown and the Stanwick. The East Moorestown came first at Chester Avenue and East Third Street. People in the western section of town complained about the location. To accommodate them, the railroad added a second one at North Church and West Central. The Stanwick was built to support the Moorestown fairgrounds.

As an interesting side note on stations, Dr. Cutler added that the Pemberton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad used the same stations from 1868 until 1968. As remarkable as that may seem, an audience member trenchantly observed, “(Railroad) tracks don’t change (their location) easily.”

The prevalence of railroad ‘sidings’ in Moorestown served as the focus of Dr. Cutler’s comments. These offshoots from the main tracks led into various businesses throughout the community. This facilitated freight transport both to and from these companies. The speaker showed photos of two such Moorestown enterprises that utilized sidings. When Hollingshead Fuel went out of business in the early 1990s, its siding was removed. The JS Collins and Son Hardware store still operates today. While no longer used, those interested can view the original siding in the parking lot.

An audience member asked if either the company or the railroad paid to install a siding. The speakers couldn’t comment on Moorestown, but Mr. Acorcey provided information about the sidings in Camden. He explained that if the business generated enough freight to financially satisfy the railroad, the later would install it. If not, then the business provided the funds to do so.

The speakers presented an impressive amount of information. They both possessed a deep understanding of the topics they covered. However, the speech lacked either a unifying theme or a call to action. The lecture left more questions than it answered. Just how did the topics they covered relate to society on a macro level? For instance: what led to the abundance of railroad mergers? Dr. Cutler mentioned numerous Moorestown companies that no longer exist. Did they decline for similar reasons? The River Line has been in operation since 2004. What conditions led to this resurgence in passenger rail transportation? Do they foresee that trend continuing?

Mr. Acorcey and Dr. Cutler delivered an excellent synopsis of the history of South Jersey railroads. The numerous transportation innovations it facilitated not only changed the industry: they improved society. With that observation, it’s sad to note that the last passenger train left town for good almost five decades ago. The Stanwick station is now a concrete pad. The East Moorestown station moved and converted into a dentist’s office. Upon reflecting on all this, one recalls the words of another creative New Jersey son. In the words of Bruce Springsteen:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

 

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.