It is a rare and wonderful thing when something makes me laugh so hard that I cry.
Recently it happened while watching the Colbert Report. Mr. Colbert was ostensibly getting etiquette lessons from a fellow who is apparently a Professional Proper Englishman. Colbert is utterly unconstrained: he has no rules to follow. He eats sugar by the spoonful, lets a cupful of cream slide down his chin. The Englishman is defined by rules. He is outraged, perhaps even angry, but he can hardly show it. He can only murmur ‘No, you musn’t’. And the more he protests, the more outrageous Colbert’s behavior becomes, spurned on by his foil.
The scene very much reminded me of the Jean Renoir movie that made me laugh just as hard, Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A homeless man is ‘saved’ by a middle class family, and what ensues is a great deal like Colbert and the Professional Proper. Boudu spits out his beer, he wipes chocolate on the duvet. He does not follow the rules, and it is enormously funny.
If you think that a movie made in 1932 is too darn old, or you're not a fan of subtitles, check out this YouTube trailer and reconsider. The Criterion print is lovely, and the film is a true treat.
It is a rare and wonderful thing when something makes me laugh so hard that I cry.
It's the voice. Someone described Rick Bragg's voice as 'honey over smoke'. That intrigued me. I listened to a CD copy of Rick Bragg reading The Prince of Frogtown. That Alabama rhythm caught me, that pure Southern sensibility; the words just seem to flow. The storyteller's magic takes over.
In All Over but the Shoutin' Rick Bragg wrote about growing up poor in the hill country of Alabama, especially about his mother picking cotton and cleaning houses so her boys would have more than the welfare checks she received. Rick's father was an alcoholic man and very violent. He seemed to float into the life of the family and out again at regular intervals.
The author Willie Morris once told Rick that he would never have any peace until he wrote about his father. In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick pieces together the story of his father's life from interviews with his faithful boyhood friends.
The people seem so real. His father, Charles, was destroyed by drink and destroyed by his hard scrabble, blue-collar life in the mills of Jacksonville, Alabama. Yet Rick lets the soul's true light shine through the awfulness.
You can't help but like this young mischievous, hell-bent for leather boy. Rick retells one incident where Charles and his friend were flying a kite so high that it was nearly invisible in the sky.
Another boy comes along and asks, "What you doing with that string?"
"Why we're fishing," Charles answered.
You ache for the alcoholic man and the family that he has let down. Rick does not whitewash or rewrite his father's life. You get a sense of the man that could have been, but for that evil drinking and the streak of violence that resulted from that drinking.
No one is more disappointed than Charles himself. He knew he could not be with his family, that he had ruined all the chances of a life with them by his ceaseless drinking and violent temper.
Interspersed with chapters about his father are chapters about "the boy" Rick's stepson. In these chapters, he describes his own journey into fatherhood and his growing love for this boy. This story gives light and humor to a dark tale. You grow to love this boy and his stepfather who tries so hard.
Now I want to read Ava's Man, the story of Rick's maternal grandfather and the culture that shaped him.
I don't know about you, but when I'm being pelted with hail under a brilliantly sunny sky my mind tends to think, "Hey, look at that. The apocalypse is here." (This is even without factoring distressing global geological and political current events into the equation, which hold their own private audience with my horrified psyche on what seems like a near-hourly basis.) Extreme maybe, but my default setting is "the sky is falling." If I override that, I can remember it's spring.
I should be reading up on how to outwit slugs in the garden or what to do when a child discovers (shudder!) an entire universe of massively multi-player online gaming. Instead, I've been indulging in some fabulous dystopian fiction. What better way to escape the end of the world hosted by our evil slug overlords?
The Hunger Games trilogy is compulsively readable. The first book wins some sort of award for being the only reading material that has ever made me miss my bus stop. The Capitol controls the twelve districts of Panem, a country which covers territory once known as North America. The primary device for this control is the annual Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a manipulated arena on live television until only one remains. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself for the Games when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The trilogy is executed in a spare and accessible style with unexpected twists and a powerful ending.
If you balk at reading teen fiction, now is your chance to get over it. Really. Everyone else has, and you're missing out. The Hunger Games is now part of the Lucky Day collection, so may the odds be ever in your favor.
OK. I know there are a lot of holds on this, but trust me, it's worth the wait. Tangled was the most fun I had at the movies last year. I went to go see it with three other adults and we all agreed, including the one guy, that it was great. It's funny, it has catchy little songs and it's just charming. I watched it again recently with two teen-aged relatives and my mother and they all loved it too.
It's a retelling of the Rapunzel story. You've got the princess trapped in the tower except this time she has magic hair and her prince is a scoundrel with a good heart. There's a pet chameleon that's obviously intelligent and a horse with magical abilities. But it all works, even for an adult viewer, if you're willing to go with the magic for just 100 minutes. You can go back to being a grownup who knows better later. So, go get in touch with your inner child and watch a cartoon. This one is worth it.
A lot of people go through a crisis of sorts when they hit their forties, but in literature - at least in the books that I've been reading lately - things seem to go wackily and spectacularly wrong when characters enter midlife. In The Widow's Season by Laura Brodie, Sarah's forty-three year old husband goes on a short kayaking trip one day and after a huge storm, never returns. His kayak turns up, but his body doesn't and most people assume that he drowned. Sarah doesn't have the closure she wants, but believes that her husband is dead. She believes, that is, until she sees him at the grocery store. She also sees him other places including the churchyard right after his memorial service. And then there's the sighting on Halloween night. Maybe David isn't dead? Maybe he's just had enough of his old life and wants a change. Brodie kept me guessing right up until the end.
I wasn't even going to mention Chronicles of a Midlife Crisis by Robyn Harding, but then I read some reviews on Good Reads and discovered that there weren't very many other people who felt the way I did about it: that the characters were a bunch of self-absorbed, loathsome, childish losers; not to mention that the story was something like a cross between a National Enquirer cover story and the movie Fatal Attraction. It starts out well enough with some humor about how Lucy should have known that her husband of sixteen years was cheating on her (he's wearing skinny-legged trousers and using wrinkle cream - hello!). The story is told in back-and-forth fashion between Lucy and Trent. The more I read, the more I absolutely hated the characters. Not only is Trent involved with a psycho, but then Lucy starts seeing a teen celebrity (although really he's twenty-seven and just playing a teenage character on television) who happens to be her daughter's biggest star crush. Drama and severe stupidity ensues. But as I noted earlier, there were plenty of people on Good Reads who enjoyed it. One of the good things about reading midlife crisis fiction is that you can be pretty sure that your own drama will probably never be as bad!
Coming up with the perfect next read can feel like trying to scratch an itch just out of reach: sometimes there's a craving for something in that charmed middle ground - not genre fiction, not a series, not one of the warhorse classics - but how to find it?
Though most readers probably don't think much about specific publishers, and even less of searching the library catalog by publisher's name, here are two richly rewarding ones guaranteed to supply years of engaging and often offbeat reading: Europa (also Europa Editions) and New York Review of Books (search also New York Review Books, without "of", and the series New York Review Books classics.).
Perhaps best known for their bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa offers a wide array of sophisticated international literature, much of it, like Hedgehog, in translation. Jane Gardam's Old Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is the sharp, funny, and moving story of an expat English lawyer and his wife dealing with retirement in the motherland after years abroad, and is just one example of the excellent choices on hand from Europa.
The New York Review of Books has undertaken to reissue wonderful but neglected older books, including novels, memoirs, travel writing, and children's literature. One not to miss is Richard Hughes' deeply weird A High wind in Jamaica, a story of inept pirates and kidnapped children sometimes compared to Lord of the Flies, but Golding's book is bland as butterscotch compared to this disturbing little masterpiece. Gregor von Rezzori's unforgettable portrait of his family in the obscure corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called the Bukovina, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, is one of those books which, once read, just begs to be passed along to a friend. And foodies will love Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, written during a time of gray post-WWII privation, which opened a sunny window onto views of olive and lemon groves for the ration-weary English.
Both of these publishers will steer the reader towards something completely new, or - just as fulfilling - towards one of those great, familiar-sounding authors one always meant to get around to reading.
Our guest blogger is Naomi, who is a librarian at the Midland library.
For me, one of the highlights of a recent conference was meeting author Devon Monk and being introduced to her Allie Beckstrom series. Devon Monk lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband, two sons and a dog named Mojo. She has sold over fifty short stories to fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, and young adult magazines and anthologies. Her stories have been published in five countries and included in a Year’s Best Fantasy anthology. She is currently writing two series, including the Allie Beckstrom books (Magic to the Bone, Magic in the Blood, Magic in the Shadows, Magic on the Storm, Magic at the Gate). Her latest book in the series, Magic on the Hunt, is due out this month and you can hear her read from it at the Midland Library on Sunday April 10th from 2-4 p.m.
In the Allie Beckstrom series, you are transported to a Portland where magic has become a commodity to better the lives of the masses - all made possible by Allie Beckstrom’s father, the CEO of the company. Of course there are those people who are the real holders of magic. In the first book, Magic to the Bone, Allie doesn’t realize how much magic she holds. She’s too busy scraping by as a hound, a person with magical powers who is brought to the scene of a magic crime to help the police. No one, except other hounds, know the physical toll the use of these magical powers has on the body. And then her father, who she has always despised, is murdered.
Living in Allie Beckstrom’s Portland is like living in an alternate Portland - both familiar, yet different. The hounds will remind you of the homeless kids you see hanging out in Pioneer square or the front of the downtown library. Allie hangs out at her favorite coffee place which is oh so familiar to those of us who live here. And so much takes place in St. Johns, the one area of Portland not wired for magic with the most dramatic scenes taking place under the St. Johns bridge.
Please join us on April 10th at the Midland Library to hear this engaging author in person.
Recently Heidi wrote about The Tudors in this blog, reminding me of my own failed attempt to watch that program. Which is not to fault the program - it’s likely that I would have really enjoyed it - if I had not read Wolf Hall first.
Wolf Hall is about Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, and over the course of reading I had grown to think of Thomas Cromwell as ‘Cromwell my Cromwell’.
Throughout the book Hilary Mantel creates a feeling that you are sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder, experiencing the world with him, from the blacksmith’s son to the Cardinal’s councilor to the King’s chief minister. Through humiliation, manipulation, and the plague.
And I adored Mantel’s Cromwell, this extremely intelligent, ruthlessly pragmatic man, who loves his family so deeply and understands that they are all just as human as he is. The writing in Wolf Hall is not complex, but the ideas are -- power, the Reformation, the inevitably democratizing effects of literacy.
It gave me a hunger for more on the Tudors. So I tried A Man for all Seasons, various BBC documentaries, and The Tudors. None satisfied.
I only want ‘my Cromwell’, not other representations. Or the facts.
I just finished watching The Tudors, the story of King Henry VIII and his six wives. The writing and acting are good and the costumes and settings beautiful. The beheadings, burnings, battle scenes, hangings, urine, feces, vomit, blood, scabrous beggars... well, those just add a little accurate historical color. There's one execution in particular where the screams of the condemned - well, the actor really hit the right pitch to convey the hysterically desperate howl of a man in mortal agony and terror. I suspect he had a sore throat by the end of the filming that scene. I admit to a little queasiness after that scene.
The drama of a king who thinks himself divinely appointed, who holds the power of life and death and has a horde of wives and mistresses to get through in four short seasons makes for interesting television. The history isn't too bad either, though Showtime wanted good television, not a history lesson.
Each episode left me wondering what would happen next. The characters of the wives were well drawn. One was just too stupid to live, another a tragic figure. Wife number four, Anne of Cleves, actually got a rather good deal out of her hasty obedience to the king's demand for divorce. She was given a settlement that left her wealthy and was treated with friendship by the king, all because she was clever enough to see the headman's ax in the shadows.
The four seasons of The Tudors served as an admirable distraction while I wait impatiently for Game of Thrones on HBO this April 17th. If it comes close to the quality of The Tudors in acting, writing and production, I'll be nigh ecstatic.
Does our gloomy weather get you down? Would you like to have a new way of thinking about things? Would you like to spend some time in a warmer and sunnier location, maybe do some things that would give you more pleasure in life?
The women in the following movies find pleasure almost by accident. Their senses are reawakened in different ways. In each one of the films, there is a very special scene where you may find yourself saying YES or maybe laughing out loud with the characters.
Babette’s Feast, takes place in a village in Denmark after the Paris uprising in 1871. It is based on a story by Isak Dinesen, which can be found in a collection of stories by the author called Anecdotes of Destiny. Babette is a political refugee from France where, unknown to the Danish villagers, she was a gourmet chef. She meets two sisters and out of the goodness of their hearts, they allow her to work as their cook and housekeeper in exchange for room and board. The two sisters lead a rather grim life where the atmosphere is all shades of gray and their very strict religion considers all pleasures to be sinful. Their father is dead but the 100th anniversary of his birth is fast approaching and they want to hold a celebration. Babette has recently come into some money and she wants to prepare a special feast for the event. When Babette has worked her magic on the meal and the sisters taste the food, the simultaneous look of pleasure and guilt on their faces is priceless.
The second film is Enchanted April, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. When I first heard the title and knew nothing about the film, I thought April was a person in the film. Instead, April refers to the month of the year. Lottie and Rose live in England. The weather has been rather cold, wet, and gloomy, just as our Oregon weather has been. They learn about a villa in Italy that is for rent and leap at the chance to visit there. They are not alone. Two other women, Mrs. Fisher and Caroline Dester, will be sharing the villa with them. Mrs. Fisher is played by Joan Plowright and if you are familiar with her film work, she is her usual forthright self and adds a few notes of discord to the mix. The sun, the warmth and the beauty of their surroundings, however, work their magic on the four people and they begin to relax and see their senses reawaken. Even Mrs. Fisher begins to loosen up. When the husbands of several of the women join the little group, their senses are reawakened as well.
The third film is Cold Comfort Farm, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons. It is the 1930’s and cold comfort is indeed what you will find at that farm. An old woman, Ada Doom, mostly just stays in her room, but when she mixes with the others, she is constantly muttering to herself “something nasty in the woodshed”. Ada is, of course, a rather crazy and spooky person. Be assured, though, that by the end of the film, you will know what has happened in that woodshed.
Into the mix comes Flora Poste, who is only twenty years old and has recently lost both of her parents. Although she comes from a well-to-do family, she only has a small inheritance. She wants to become an author in the style of Jane Austen and looks for a situation where she will have a variety of experiences with a variety of personalities. When a cousin asks her to move in with the cousin’s family on the farm, she agrees to give farm living a try.
There are plenty of colorful characters to fuel Flora’s imagination. The other relatives at the farm are rather rough around the edges and Flora tries to transform them into her image of refinement. Well, you can just imagine how well that goes over with the group! Flora soldiers on, however, and she and the other residents of the farm begin to slowly change.
Flora tries to teach one of the women, who is almost perpetually pregnant, about birth control, and the woman bursts out laughing. She cannot imagine such a thing. Chances are you will find yourself laughing right along with the woman. Of course, birth control methods in the 1930’s were very basic and not always effective, but the incident is illustrative of some of the changes Flora tries to implement. If you try this film may you find it as enjoyable as I did.