Because Everybody Loves a Good Fight

A lot of people spent the last eight Sunday Nights watching Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Feud, and I think I know why.  First, it was a quality product: well-written, acted, edited and produced. It was also an intriguing story about well-known people in a fascinating industry.  My mom, with her collection of books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, would have raved about this series, either praising or vilifying it to High Heaven.  But, mostly I think the title explained why people tuned in Sunday after Sunday and can’t wait for the next season: everyone loves to watch a good fight, and the nastier it gets, the better.  In case you are experiencing Feud-withdrawal, and you like a battle of wits, may I suggest Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels?  Trust me, when it comes to insecurity and ugly behavior in public, writers are pugilists with words.
Take one of my favorite battles in the book, the one between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. You could argue these two, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, might have made better allies than enemies. As creative writers, political liberals, and women succeeding in fields still dominated by men they would have profited from mutual support.  Unfortunately, they also shared twin faults: neither responded well to criticism and both liked to get in the last verbal slam.  So, Lillian dismissed Mary’s negative review of her script by saying the opinion of a mere “Lady magazine writer” wasn’t worthy of her respect.  Now, Mary wasn’t a girl to let something like that go so when she was on TV, said Lillian, was an overrated, has-been and, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and,’ and ‘the.’  To Lillian, whose reputation at the time was based on her memoirs, those were fighting words. Lillian sued Mary the TV show, the station, and its host for every dime they had. Never mind that, since these gals were both past their peak of popularity, no one was really listening, or that Mary didn’t have enough money to make the litigation cost-effective. Never mind that a lawsuit could (and did) ultimately cause Lillian more damage than Mary’s original, catty remark.  Ms. Hellman stuck to the fight for years, while her health and reputation sank like the Titanic. Only dying allowed her lawyers to drop the suit.  And, McCarthy complained afterward that Lillian’s death kept her from winning outright in court.  Talk about your sore winner!
There are other wonderful tales of Writers Behaving Badly, like Truman Capote’s shot across the bow to Gore Vidal (“So, how does it feel to be an enfent terrible?) and Theodore Dreiser slapping Sinclair Lewis, but I’ll leave those for you to peruse.  In the meantime, before you get into your own war of words, remember, fights are only truly fun to those outside of the line of fire.  And writers know all the mean words.

Humans Are Dumb! (Guest Post from an Angry Turtle)

One Angry Turtle
I’ll tell you: Humans are Dumb.  Yes, most of the world moves faster than we southern turtles, but, when it comes to missing the obvious, people take the prize. Y’all are ridiculous, and I can prove it.
Take what happened to me last Saturday morning.  There I was, moving at my own pace across one of your roads, (which, by the way, are too many, to begin with, and far too wide for the rest of creation) when this car comes over the hill, barreling down right toward me. Now, a squirrel or a dog would try to race that machine, but squirrels and dogs aren’t all that smart either.  Humans can be outrun when they’re afoot, but none of us is faster than one of them in a car. Anyway, the stupid car started squealing its tires, making more noise than before, and it screeched to a stop…directly over me.  Then it backed up, stopped again, and a human jumped out and ran toward me, making the same kind of high-pitched sound her automobile just made.  “I’m so sorry, I tried not to run over you,” she cried, and I would have accepted her apology if she hadn’t picked me up and carried me away in her car!

On and on, that woman talked for the next 10 minutes, and 10 miles.  All she did was talk and drive that car far too fast.  She apologized again for not seeing me and said she’d make it up by taking me on “an adventure” (As if being kidnapped going on joyrides with humans was something would like!)  Then she said we’d to go to her house once she ran a gardening errand.
Now gardening’s an example of human stupidity, at least the way she explained it to me.  According to Her, gardening is the practice of killing what plants are already thriving and reseeding the earth with others that won’t survive there without help.  Does that make sense to you?  I don’t see the point, especially after she added she was doing this for decoration, not food.  She explained the process takes both “energy” and “money,” two things she seems to value.  I asked, in that case, why didn’t she hold onto her energy and money and keep the plants that grew there in the first place? I don’t think she heard me.
After the “errand” (where I was introduced to more humans than I ever wanted to meet) she drove me back up to her home and said she wanted to feed me “lunch” and take my picture. She also said she wanted to study me. If that was studying, she didn’t look at me much.  Instead, she’d stared at a black plastic box in her hand she called a smartphone and only glanced at me once in a while. Evidently, the smartphone was supposed to tell her what kind of turtle I was.   Fool Woman!  If she would listen, I could have told her, “I’m the kind of turtle that wants to go home!”
Why does every human assume
I want salad for lunch?

Eventually, she pronounced me a common box turtle, which I thought was rude (As if anyone with a profile like mine could be considered “common”!) and began to read about my habits and needs out loud.  “Oh dear!” she looked up from her smartphone and said in a small voice.  “It says here you can get stressed out from being over-handled and sick if you lose your way.” She needed a phone to figure that out?

At that point, she apologized again, and this time she seemed ready to listen.  So, I let her have it with both barrels. I reminded her turtles existed long before people and we’ve learned a thing or two over the eons.  For example, we’ve learned speed is nothing compared to endurance. “Lots of species have moved faster than turtles,” I said. “They rush along, never noticing anything that didn’t directly affect them, and they run themselves headlong into extinction.” The woman muttered something about turtles not doing so well themselves these days. “But turtles still exist,” I said. “Because we slow down enough to notice things, we have focus and endurance. If humans have realized turtles are in trouble,  they’ve learned to notice, which is good. Only time will show if you can develop the focus to endure as we have.”

And, people shouldn’t disrupt our lives based on momentary impulses, I continued. Birds, turtles, even bugs have their own purposes in life to serve, and humans shouldn’t disrupt them unless they are in danger.”I picked you up to keep you safe,” she protested. “But you kept me with you to make yourself happy,” I replied. “You bounced me around in that noisy car and took me far away from my goal just because you wanted my company for a few hours. That isn’t right.” I said. “Other species may be your prey or servants,” I warned her, “but none of us exist for your amusement.” She looked pretty ashamed at that point.  

Turtle Across the Road at Last.
So, we made a bargain, the woman, and I.  I dictated my opinions so she could publish them on something called “the internet.” (she said it’s where millions of humans gather and learn but the more she talked about it, the dizzier I got.) Then, people could hear the opinions of a turtle and maybe slow down, a little. Then, she put me back in that rattle-trap thing she called a Jeep, and drove me, more slowly this time, back to the spot in the road where we met. She put me in the grass on the side I was facing when she first saw me that morning. Then she left.  Of course, I stayed tucked up in my shell through the trip, but I didn’t stick around once she left. I had places to go.

Internet or no, I don’t think humans learn as quickly as they can move and we turtles may outlast them yet. Who can tell? I know only to protect myself when danger is near, and remain focused on my goal when it’s not. If we can endure, then we will survive. Such is the wisdom of turtles.

Revelations about Revolutions

For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution.  Reading it doesn’t leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), “What a long, strange, trip it’s been.”  It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.
Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical.  As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack.  To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton’s composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story.  Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.  
However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted.  When I first saw the images of the musical’s set, I assumed it was a “bare bones” stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don’t own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases.  It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research.  He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building.  Consequently, the first act’s set suggests a site still underway and under construction.  By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we’re at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.  
The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props.  There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision.  The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.  Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused.  If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren’t the static dramatic pieces we know so well.  Those are simply the final, evolutionary results.  There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show.  Sondheim and Lapine wrote that “Art isn’t Easy”.  This book shows that Art is still worth the work.

In Alabama, April can be the CRAZIEST month!

Looks warm but this was a 45
degree morning!
One of the local jokes is, “If you don’t like this weather, just wait five minutes.  It’s due to change.” In April, that isn’t a joke, it’s the damn truth. Days when the mercury touches 85, are followed by fronts containing frost warnings.  Gardners, who put in plants weeks ago, get chilblains covering up seedlings and cursing the cold snap that just showed up in the forecast. On its seesaw course from late winter to spring, the weather here defies prediction, not just from day-to-day, but hour to hour. This is especially hard on GRITS (aka Girls Raised in the South).  Southern Women are raised to believe despite, limited income, energy and time, they must always appear “dressed for the weather.” This means April can drive a girl plumb crazy.  I’ll show you what I mean
6 a.m – 45 degrees (F)  – forget the sundress you set out last night and reach for the fleece hoodie and corduroy slacks you’ve been wearing since November.
10 a.m. – 65 degrees – You are smothering in corduroy and fleece, and you look like an idiot next to the spring

flowers.  Go back and change to slacks, short-sleeve blouse, and a cardigan.

1 p.m.- the thermometer says 72, but it feels so much warmer, you ditch the cardigan and swap the slacks for a skirt.
2 p.m. 75 degrees in the shade, feels more like 80 out here in the sun. Time to change to a halter and shorts. Why don’t they go ahead and open the swimming pool?
4 p.m.  Where in the hell did the sun go?  Temp’s dropping.  Better change back to a pencil skirt
6 p.m.  When people can see goose pimples on your calves and thighs, it’s too cold for skirts. Where’s Global Warming when you need it?
8 p.m.  I’d climb back into those damn corduroys if I could find them under this pile of clothes!
Now, this is just April on a day-to-day basis.  Add in this two occasions with sartorial significance that often fall in this period and add to a female’s distraction.  EASTER and PROM.
GRITS take both Easter and Prom seriously.  These events can take weeks of dress shopping and preparation.  The problem is, the weather rarely cooperates.  High school girls skin themselves into bare-shouldered, skin-tight gowns on a night when it’s chilly or downright freezing!  And nothing says Easter down here, like the faithful rising for a sunrise service that takes place in the rain. Heck, we’ve seen snow on April first, tornados on Palm Sunday, and hot sweats on April 15th that had nothing to do with taxes, but everything to do with the heat pump failing.  In the meantime, the weeds are growing a foot every day, allergy sufferers are on their last legs, and the peach farmers are begging James Spann to keep the cold away from their blossoming trees.  We can’t count on anything, weather-wise, much this side of Memorial Day.
When the lizards start matching the leaves,
Winter has probably turned. Watch out for tornados!
So if you see an Alabamian talking to him or herself, give the poor soul a break.  Chances are they’re not obsessed by Economic Woes or the Fragile State of the World.  They’re not contemplating the latest public scandal or their rich, troubled heritage.  The problem is a lot simpler and more immediate than that.  We’re all just trying to survive April.

The Story My Mom Would Have Loved

How to talk about a story with the improbable title of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society?  That question’s been baffling me for days.  I have to talk about it because it’s the best book I’ve picked up in recent memory, and it has not one but several stories worth telling.  I want to talk about it because it refers to may subjects I hold dear.  But, more than anything, I want to say this is one book my mom would have loved.

As a girl, my mom spent two years in England, before the Beatles but after the War.  To say those years made an impression on her is like saying the Colorado River had an effect on some of the topography in Arizona.  For the rest of her life, she maintained a lively and affectionate interest in the fortunes of Great Britain and everyone who had ever lived there.  But, even though she saw England recovering from World War II, I don’t think she knew about what happened to the Channel Islands during the conflict.  I know she never mentioned it to me.  That’s one reason why The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is so important.
We all know that the Third Reich’s armies marched west across Europe until they reached Dunkirk/Dunkerque, France.  Did you know they didn’t stop at the French edge of the Channel? Nope, neither did I. They continued their mainland invasion onto the Channel Islands which became the only British Territory occupied by the Nazis during WWII.  Once the invading force landed, all of the communication and shipping lines between the Islands and England were cut.  Islanders who evacuated their children to England didn’t know if their kids were living or dead, sometimes for years.  Between the blockade cutting off their usual supply lines, and the food and livestock commandeered by the occupying army, those who stayed had very little to eat. Germans shipped the Jewish Island dwellers to concentration camps and brought in their own prisoner/slave laborers to be worked to death there instead. Residents of Guernsey and Jersey and more had to find a way to survive five years worth of this misery. It wasn’t easy.  This book remembers part of that story.

The GL&PPPS is also about life after the war and how people learn to live with their memories. Everyone in the book has experienced loss and traumatic memories that many of them would rather forget.   Of course, such things cannot be forgotten, but some of these folks learn to work through their pain with the wisdom they accidently saw in some book.  GL&PPS is, in many ways, a love letter to the books, and readers, and writers that get us through the rough times.  Even the story behind the book is enchanting.
If you notice, the cover art in the picture above says Mary Ann Shaffer is this story’s sole author but the cover here says it was written by two people: Ms. Shaffer and one Annie Barrows.  The epilog, I’d guess you’d say, of GL&PPS, is the story of these two, and a story that was too good to die. I’m won’t tell you more, except to say the tale is good and warming enough to be included in the GL&PPS.
My mom and I didn’t agree on everything. In fact, I think we fought through my entire adolescence. I didn’t always understand her. Still, she was my first teacher and my touchstone on a great many things and that hasn’t changed in the years since her death. I know she would have loved this tale of survival and serendipity, and how books can help you during the worst of times. And she’d want everyone else in the world to read it.

Updating the voice of a Racing Thriller : A Plea to the Estate of Dick Francis

Mr. E. Williams
Johnson & Alcock Ltd.
Bloomsbury House
74-77 Great Russell Street
London, WC1B 3DA

Dear Sir:

As the literary agent for the estate of Dick Francis, you probably receive too many letters concerning his novels and I apologize for adding one more.  However, this letter is not to ask for licensing, reprinting, film or merchandising rights; nor does it demand Felix Francis be locked away until he creates six new books.  It is a request that some of Dick Francis’s thrillers be re-recorded and released as audiobooks in order to protect the stories as well as their prospective audience.
I realize book recordings were probably something of a publication afterthought when these books were originally released, and the process involved little more than recorded speech.  I know, I just spent an excruciating weekend listening to Odds Against being read like it was a shopping list.  All of the tension, terror, irony and humanity was drained from the narrative and although each character had an individual accent, they all spoke at the same rate and pitch. As a suspense novel, this recording it could have been marketed as an effective sleep-aid medication. I’m female, American, and an amateur performer but I could have done a better job reading than that!
Now, Wikipedia and Amazon/Audible’s web-sites show the same actor recorded at least seven Dick Francis novels, including the great nail-biters Enquiry and Smokescreen.  The audio samples of these sound like literary pablum. Not a bit of crisp, cool, British, reserve but boredom and distinct enunciation of every “t”.  Such recordings will not bring any new Francis readers to the fold or harvest many pounds from the older, willing fans who miss their jockey-turned-author.  For the sake of stories and the fan-base his name still commands, can new recordings of these stories be made with an actor and production team who knows their business? 
Incidentally, although Mr. Francis wrote more than 40 books, I notice a large percentage of them are not available in e-format, at least here in America.  Can that be changed?  These may be 20th-century tales but they need not be confined to that period’s technology. New fans would appreciate the convenience of e-reader formats for the old stories and older fans would appreciate the chance to carry their entire Francis collection without developing arm strain.   Trust me.  40+ books begin to add up in weight, even when half of them are paperbacks.
Thank you for your attention and time; I wish you well through the snarls of Brexit.
Sincerely,