Saturday, November 14, 2020

Short and Sweet Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King


If you spend much time in the writing world it won’t take long before someone recommends you read Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s happened to me several times. But I confess, I’m not a fan of the horror genre that King writes in so…I was a little squeamish about what this book might hold in store for me. Not anymore!


Let me start by saying that anyone who loves a good Stephen King tale will really enjoy the first third of this book. Indeed, if you are a big fan, it’s worth getting it just for that. King is so much a part of our literary—and movie—history at this point that you’ll no doubt have enough personal knowledge of his work to at least be curious. And really, he does a wonderful job of spinning the tale of the pivotal moments in his early life that fed into his success as a writer.


If you’re hoping to get a glimpse into the story behind the accident that briefly side-lined his career, that comes nearer the end. But even non-writers might find the ‘writer stuff’ interesting because King has a way with words that makes the reading fun, even at the most potentially dull grammatically particular passages.   


And about that ‘writer stuff’. It’s pretty interesting too. You’ll learn much about how broadly he reads and how seriously he takes the English language (he was an English teacher once upon a time, after all). King has great respect for Mr. Strunk and Mr. White. If you’re a writer and haven’t dug into The Elements of Style for a while, you’ll get a little refresher course here, and maybe gain a new appreciation of that classic. But you’ll also learn about the rules King still breaks—and why.


For writers, this part of the book is pure gold. Well, really the whole thing is. From start to finish you’ll learn the back story behind so many of the story choices the author made throughout his career. What shaped the character of Carrie? How much of the author is reflected by the character of Paul, the author, in Misery? Frankly, I wish he’d write another book to fill us in on more story creation gems like these.


You’ll also gain some insight into what his career has been like, professionally and personally. His wife, Tabitha, is also a writer, and everything he writes is written with her in mind. She’s his ‘Ideal Reader’, the first to read and critique his work. Her opinion is number one for King.     


One of King’s pearls of wisdom is, “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”  If you’re not already a King fan you might be tempted to pick up another one of his books after you read this one because King does what he can do, and he does it very well.  



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Short and Sweet Review: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s or read the story...tread with caution for spoilers in this book review...

I fell in love with the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s when I was younger. It seemed so glamourous and nutty and sentimental. When I got older I read Truman Capote’s original short story and realized the story was darker and Holly Golightly, that delightful party girl, was really a uptown version of Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman. 

So I saw the story differently. It still had glamour and that zany touch, but now there was heartbreak and that sense of two lost souls finding each other to cling to, even if one of them was determined not to. I still tear up every time they find each other...and the cat, in that rainy alley and Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ swells in the background.

Maybe it’s corny and dated...or maybe it’s not. But what it was, at the time, was groundbreaking. The producers were determined to bring it to the screen but they tweaked that story good and Capote pretty much checked out after a while leaving George Axelrod to craft a perfect screenplay, one that kept the essence of the story but beat out just enough of the gritty truth for the Hollywood censors to find acceptable.

In addition to choosing Axelrod as the screenwriter, they made a couple of other genius decisions; they picked Blake Edwards to direct and Audrey Hepburn to star as Holly. Even George Peppard and Patricia Neal seem perfectly cast, though George comes off far less than charming off screen.

I could go on about the perfect casting of the other characters, including Buddy Epsen, who brings a heartrending clarity to the soul of the real Holly. But this book is about the making of the movie and the back story there is fascinating. The efforts that went into getting that perfect opening shot of Holly on Fifth Avenue in front of Tiffany’s gave me a whole new appreciation for the scene as well as the use of New York City almost as a character itself.

It took monumental effort to convince Audrey, with her squeaky clean image, and her controlling husband, Mel Ferrer, to take on what was considered a very risqué part at the time. This movie dealt with the underbelly of all those wacky ‘50’s and ‘60’s movies about sweet girls going to the big city and finding love. It cracked open the shell of fiction and pulled out a little reality, opening the door to more realistic movies in the years to come.  Sex, though unseen, was very obvious. And innocent though she claimed to, Holly still visited Sing Sing prison to deliver the ‘the weather report ‘to Sally Tomato (a great name for a character if ever there was one!). It’s hard to believe that a gal so world weary and wise wouldn’t have a clue what that was all about.

In the story behind the story we find out Audrey longed to return home to her infant son, that George and Patricia went together off screen like oil and vinegar, that the actor that played the aristocratic Jose really was an aristocrat...and so many more delightful behind the scene revelations.

No one was quite sure how the public would take this movie. Would they hate Audrey for taking a part they’d feel was beneath her? Would they find the humor crass? Of course, we know now it was a success, so much so that it got four Oscar nominations, including one for Audrey. But in the end, it was Henry Mancini’s score that took home the only prize.

Of course, we need to address the elephant in the room, the casting of Andy Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the wacky Japanese neighbor. Unfortunately they went with Rooney instead of a well-known Asian actor (and they had a great option but passed  up). I don’t even recall if that character was in the book...but either way, in today’s light, it’s a difficult characterization to watch and clearly an unfortunate choice. I think readers will find that part of the story interesting and frustrating. You have to watch a movie not just in the light of the period it was set in but the period it was made in. It’s a reflection of its time and I’d hope a casting mistake like that could never happen today. Don’t hold it against the movie as a whole, which is otherwise a gem.

Clearly, I’m a fan, and if you love the movie too you will love digging into the book for all the details. You’ll see the movie differently, I guarantee it, but you’ll probably enjoy it more.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A Short and Sweet Review: The Splendid and The Vile by Erik Larson

As I write this we are all living through the COVID-19 isolation/slow reopening and the accompanying shortages, stresses and, in the midst of it all, hopefully discovering new ways to make our lives whole. It couldn’t be a more appropriate time for this book to arrive on bookshelves.

Erik Larson’s The SplendidAnd The Vile is an insightfully detailed and revealing book about the first year of Winston Churchill’s amazing term as Prime Minister (PM) of Great Britain during WWII. If you are tempted to hit the snooze button when you read the word Churchill, please don’t! This is not a snooze book, it’s a riveting retelling of a harrowing year, truly a page turner.

Churchill came into office just as France was falling to the Germans and it became more and more obvious that if England didn’t stop them, all of Europe would be under the control of the Third Reich. But England wasn’t prepared. They were low on everything, including money. They needed help desperately, but in America, President Roosevelt was dealing with isolationists who wanted no part of another World War.

And that’s when Hitler decided to unleash the full force of his air force, the Luftwaffe, trying to beat the English to a pulp, leaving them no option but surrender. No place was safe, not your couch, bed, or even the London underground. Eventually, the bombs set massive stretches of London ablaze and literally decimated port and industrial cities around the nation.

Despite the misgivings of many, including the King, Churchill was the man. His past was complicated, his character unusual, but he was truly THE man to save the nation. His voice lifted up the people and helped bolster their courage. His relentless determination drove the government to perform and produce at heights they never would have reached without him.

Larson has done a fabulous job of taking us into the inner circle, seeing the PM, his family and those around him as human beings. Even in wartime so much of life still goes on. The details are delightful! Turns out the King had the British embassy in Washington DC acquire his favorite toilet paper when there were shortages at home—something we can all relate to these days.

The PM’s character was unique, and not always popular. He demanded two baths a day--no matter where he was--and dictated constantly, even from bed or the bath, to his loyal secretaries. Evenings were often late and likely to find Churchill, cigar and drink in hand, strutting the premises in his silk dressing gown or on the rooftop of 10 Downing Street, watching Luftwaffe bombs fall while most Londoners took cover.

Along the way we come to know several in his circle quite well: his daughter Mary, young and in search of love and a purpose during the war; his daughter-in-law, Pamela, who fought a losing battle to keep her family together despite her husband’s gambling addiction. But best of all, we meet John Colville, the PM’s personal secretary.  Colville saw it all, both private and public, and wrote about it in his incredible diary, a practice national security would very much have frowned upon at the time, but which paid off nicely for historians.

This is a period I’ve always found fascinating, but even if it’s not your ‘cuppa’ of tea, Larson is a writer who knows how to make a reader appreciate the intimate moment, feel the fear and joy, celebrate the wins...and grieve the losses. We owe our inestimable gratitude to the men and women within the pages of this book, who fought against all odds to save their future. This one will stick with you long after you read the last word.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Reading: Pandemic Survival Strategy?

When I find myself stuck inside hiding from a pandemic, I kinda hope I have a good book. How about you? I thought so. That being said, I was curious what everyone is reading. I just finished ‘Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.’, which, if you LOVE the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I do!!) you MUST’s the behind the scenes and a lot of fun. And fun sounds good right now, right?

So I thought I’d look online for recommendations of fun books to read. I did NOT look for books with a pandemic theme because, well, we’ve already got that, right? But if you’re a glutton for punishment go for it! And Google/Siri/Alexa just don’t seem to understand me when I ask for fun book, they're suggestions were a mixed bag that made me wonder if they even have a sense of humor. I doubt it, although Alexa will tell you joke if you ask her to. (really, try it!)

Then I looked at lists of books you simply MUST read, darling. (Sorry...that’s Holly Golightly speaking through me...she’s hard to shake). Now those lists are what I will call erudite, which means ‘makes you look smart because you read them’. And guess what, you may have read some of them: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Hamlet, Animal Farm...I know, I’m dozing off already.  Not what we’d call ‘fun’ reading, although TKAM is fabulous, just not laugh-out-loud fabulous. Okay, so that’s not a very useful list for our current circumstances...right?

Let’s do more digging...what do you like? Sci-Fi? Romance? Thrillers? Mystery? Well, I could go on, but the list is long and we all find different things ‘fun’. One person’s romantic comedy is another person’s Steampunk thriller.  It’s kind of subjective, right?

So what do to when you need a good read and you’re stuck at home? I’m assuming here that you have some sort of reader (Kindle, Nook, etc) or can order your book in from Amazon, etc. If not, you can, so figure it out, you’ve got the time.

Just how do you find THE book(s)? The best way is to ask other readers what they are reading and enjoying and guess what, there are nearly as many options for that as there are books. Start with Goodreads. Go to the Community tab and click on Groups. Then plug in the type of book you like. You’ll see lots of groups that chat about books in your favorite genres. And you can join and interact with ‘your people’, too!

So, go find your next fun read—check my past blogs for some ideas, or even one of my books, if you like. But there’s a great read out there just waiting for you and it will hold your hand and take you away from all this shelter-in-place, lock-down, and quarantine craziness. At least for a little while.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

A Short and Sweet Review: Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

If you are a fan of all things Julia you will love this might even become a personal treasure that you enjoy rereading as your beef bourguignon is percolating in the oven. If you've written Julia Child off as a skit on SNL, you'll be delightfully surprised by how accessible and personable the real woman was. And if you've ever pursued a dream, trying to make it real, this book will stick with you long after you turn the last page.

I had heard how little Julia knew about cooking before moving to France with her dear husband, Paul. (in the 'how to husband' handbook, they should put a chapter on Paul!). But I was blown away...oh my, she ate dreadfully and really, it wasn't her fault. She just hadn't met a beautiful filet of sole marinating in a luscious puddle of butter yet.

But she will, and that's so much a part of the fun of this book. Really, Julia had quite a life story going (yes, she was working in the precursor of the CIA during WWII!) before she found her life's calling. But once she found it she dove in head first and never looked back.

So much of her story is also a love story about her life with Paul, and readers will want to know more about this creative and supportive man. But it's also the story of so many cooks who learned to love their craft because of a woman who fell in love with food and then made the rest of us fall in love too.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Short and Sweet Review: Wish Upon a Cowboy by Jennie Marts

Harper Evans’ luck has been very bad. She trusted her mother and that landed her in the county Jail, with custody of her son going to her mother-in-law, who was never her fan. She’s free now and ready to reclaim her son and make a fresh start, the only problem is she’s broke and stuck in a Colorado mountain town with no friends and only a slim thread of hope to hang onto.

Logan Rivers just fired his housekeeper because her idea of keeping house had more to do with playing between the sheets than washing them. Now he’s running the family ranch while his dad is out of town and doesn’t have time for cleaning house and putting three squares on the table every day. Plus, the learning disability he struggled with in his youth has led to what seems like an insurmountable problem that could cost the ranch thousands, not to mention what little self-respect he still has.

When Harper applies to be Logan’s new housekeeper she decides not to tell him about her son, or her bad luck with the law. Her new job might solve one problem for them both, but neither of them expects the growing attraction they start to feel. Logan’s luck in love has been lousy and he’s not anxious to be hurt again. Harper came to town looking for her son and she can’t get him back without a steady job and a place to live. If she risks her heart with Logan and tells him the truth does she put her future with her son at risk?  

Once again Ms. Marts is drawing her readers back to the cowboys of Creedance, Colorado and readers will be happy to go on this journey. Personally, this is my favorite book of this series thus far. The author has written compelling characters with fleshed out back stories. Plus, with each new book Marts adds layers to the community of Creedance and its citizens. By now readers are feeling very much at home with the folks they’ve come to love and root for in this little mountain town. There’s no doubt they’ll be rooting for Harper and Logan as well.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Short and Sweet Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I am not normally a fan of ‘Best Of’ lists, like best books of the year, best summer reads, etc. I find they tend toward either the depressing or the pretentious. Why is that? Why can’t lists like that be filled with fun books that you’ll find hard to put down and even harder to say farewell to when you reach the end? But that’s a topic of another post.

I’m also not particularly into the ancient Greed gods, although I do have the basic working knowledge a liberal arts education affords those who at least pay some attention in class. So you can imagine how uninterested I might be in a ‘Best Of’ book that revolves around the Greek gods. I know, right? And yet...

Circe kept showing up on list after list; it kept being mentioned here and there in various interviews and articles. I’ve even heard it’s been optioned for a TV series. Plus, I am a fan of Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mystery series. The delightfully strong-willed heroine is, as her fans know, completely smitten with the ancient Greeks, so you get a little schooling in that arena along with a great story to boot. In other words, all the pieces were in place for me to finally jump in and read Circe. And I’m so glad I did!

Author Madeline Miller has done an ingenious job of taking the ancient gods and incorporating their existing stories into a fully developed tale of Circe, the daughter of Helios, the sun god, who traverses the heavens daily, spreading the sunlight from sunrise to sunset. While he’s an awesome god, he’s not much of a dad. Still, Circe is devoted to him and follows him everywhere. She’s the classic odd-kid-out of the family: not as lovely as her sisters, not as talented at, really, anything.

Circe longs for acceptance and love, but she’s the independent type as well and she’s discovered a growing knowledge of herbology, along with a talent for witchcraft. When she finds love in the wrong place—with a mortal—and breaks a BIG rule in the god realm in the process of trying to make her love acceptable, Zeus commands she pay a price. And with gods, those prices can be steep. She’s banished to live alone forever on a remote island.

You’d think she’d be devastated, but Circe finds satisfaction in being removed from the petty concerns of the gods. She’s able to find herself and develop her talents. Not that it’s easy, or fast. These things take time, centuries even. And gaining wisdom from what you learn takes even longer.

This could have been a long slog through eternity with Circe alone on that island. But it turns out she gets a lot of visitors. Hermes, the god of, well, a bunch of stuff, keeps popping in. He’s full of the latest gossip and good for a turn between the sheets. She knows he’s also reporting back to the curious gods what’s happening on her island—gods love gossip, it seems. Pretty soon mortals come to her shores as well. And let’s just say, you don’t want to come to her house with anything but good intentions. She can be an unforgiving hostess.

Despite the occasional bad guest, Circe finds herself growing more and more fond of those pesky mortals. Aren’t they cute? Some are even lovable. The gods, however, haven’t forgotten her and she gets a brief reprieve from island life to help out her relatives, but you know how it is when you visit relatives, the results can be monstrous-literally.

Eventually, the reason you probably know Circe’s name arrives: Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey. (You read that in school, right? No? neither, but I get the idea and you will too.) Soon, he is smitten with Circe and she with him, although with mortals, nothing lasts forever. Her relationship with Odysseus sets into motion all the pieces needed to pull together Circe’s lose ends. There are still many twists and turns ahead for her and I don’t want to give anything more away, so I’ll leave you with this. Read this book, it’s quite an epic tale of its own. You’ll be glad you did and, like so many good books, it will stick with you after you’re done. Plus, you’ll learn all that great god info in a very user friendly venue—it’s a win/win.

Bottom line, this is one of the best written, most beautifully fleshed out page turners I’ve read in a long time. I’m in awe of Ms. Miller; she knows her stuff, both with the Greek gods and with the art of writing. Well done! the different gods as you meet them, it's fun to get a quick low down on each one's story and helps you better appreciate the big picture.