Into the Woods

The Trees

The first time my Dad saw my adult home, he muttered, “I don’t know why you and your sister moved back into the woods.” Although I hadn’t realized before, I instantly knew what he meant. Although we grew up on the plains, both my sister and I chose homes in densly forested areas. I can’t speak for my sister, but I must say that I do love living surrounded by trees.

The Woods Behind my House
My woodsy back view

The Forest Primeval

Then again, I’m not Sayward Luckett. Sayward is the central voice of Conrad Richter’s novel, The Trees, and she has good reason to hate the forest.  It’s the late 1700’s and her father’s transplanted their family from a village in Pennsylvania to the endless woods of the Ohio Valley. The tree trunks (or Butts, as Sayward calls them) hem them in wherever they turn. High branches shut out the sunlight. No sunlight means it’s impossible for the settlers to grow crops. The forest isolates them from other pioneers and it’s an easy place for little children to get lost. Too easy. The woods are not a safe place to be.

Still, Sayward is the sympathetic, tough, resilient person needed to make a home from the wilderness.  She tells her story in a matter-of-factly in the settler’s dialect and rhythms that author, Conrad Richter discovered researching this novel. Her common-sense voice leaps off the page.

“Whether you liked it or not, Death was something you had to go through life with.  Plenty times you would meet up with it if you lived long enough, and you might as well get used to it as you could.”– The Trees, Conrad Richter

Everything happens to Sayward and her family as they carve a life out of the forest. Good and Bad both come their way, joyful moments and terrible loss. And her family’s story parallels the story of America’s development. Sayward and some settlers who live long enough even learn to appreciate the world they’ve known and seen.

THE TREES (Awakening Land)

Even a world filled with trees.

Partners in Business and Art

Let’s tell the truth about Creative Artists; we already know the myths:

Myths About Creative Types

  1. All Creative Artists are right-brain, impractical people,
  2. Given a choice, creative people tend to wear shabby clothes and messy hairstyles.
  3. Creative people all keep odd hours and disorganized lives.
  4. Artists are profligate, spendthrifts who don’t understand the value of money, and;
  5. Damn few artists have enough sense to run a successful business.

The Truth

Anyone who believes these stereotypes needs a copy of Something Wonderful, the new biography of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Not only does it recount the history of a creative partnership, it shows the practical businessmen that created that art.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both successful men of the theatre before they teamed up together.  They’d both written hits and flops. And they’d both worked with other partners before so they knew how to give and take.  Neither man felt like he knew the other.  But neither of them let that get in the way of creating great songs together.

In Something Wonderful, Todd Purdum reveals how the R&H songs we know, the ones where words and music fall so naturally together that they almost seem inevitable, were the results of lengthy revision and multi-stage efforts.  Hammerstein agonized over each word and phrase, spending weeks to craft the right lyrics.  Then Rodgers, in a separate time and place, would sweep in a lyrical melody, so quickly it infuriated the lyricist. Sometimes they’d debate, very politely, over details in the work.  And, outside of business, the two men tended to lead separate lives.

But, inside of the theatrical business, they were indivisible partners.  They forged and reigned over the Rodgers and Hammerstein empire, creating and casting tours of past successful shows while they created and produced new ones each season.  And, despite all assumptions about artists, both men kept tight hold of the money.

If you’re a theatre geek or a  musical freak, you’ve probably already read this book.  If not, pick up a copy anyway.  You should know the truth about artists.  Sometimes the truth can be Something Wonderful.

 

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A Modern Irish Murder

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country

Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this.

Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder.

Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what.

In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each character is brilliantly developed in their own stories so we get to see how different people view the same incidents.  And we also see the toll this job takes on detectives.  Thankfully, we also get to see Ireland, complete with cell phones, office buildings and the concerns and issues facing contemporary society.

Along with murder, that most ancient of crimes.  Because some things, it seems, never change.

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The Breakable Professionals

I love the way things evolve.  (Don’t be scared if you’re feeling fundamentalist; I’m not talking Darwin here).  I mean that as standards of civilizations and cultures change, standards of popular arts morph along with the culture.  In that way, we can study the values of any era by looking at what was created and celebrated during that time.  And, since mysteries have been popular literature since the first “whodunit” was created, we can trace see how some protagonists have changed along with the times.  Of all of these “standard” characters, none has changed more than the professional detective.  They’ve gone from flat feet to tortured souls.
Think of literature’s early detective heroes, Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.  (Okay, so Auguste wasn’t a professional detective, but he’s close).  Fans referred to them as human thinking machines because they solved puzzles with rational, deductive thought and neither allowed emotion to clog up their thinking.  Which makes them fascinating characters to follow but not someone a reader can identify with.  Self- doubt never undermines either man, and although both men have weaknesses, they’re never disabled by them. Let’s face it, these guys are great, but we’re not sure that they’re human.

[amazon_link asins=’0679722645′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’f662772c-9dcb-11e8-a5dc-ef9e1f1e247e’] Sam Spade took a step towards humanity, even if it was a baby step.  On the surface, he looked and acted like the hard-edged, tough guy/private eye that Dashiell Hammett first dubbed “The Continental Op”.  And ultimately, he does the makes the difficult but right decisions. But read Maltese Falcon again and you’ll notice that Spade is guards something carefully than even The Black Bird: his feelings.  Whatever else he may think about Miles Archer, Spade respects him as a partner and Archer’s murder disturbs him badly.  We don’t know this at first, because Spade keeps that secret to himself, but it steers every step of his investigation.  And when Archer’s murderer turns out to be the woman Spade loves, it costs him to turn her over to the police.  He gives her up nevertheless because it’s the right thing to do.  But we learn just enough to realize how difficult that decision was.

 

[amazon_link asins=’0425228223′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’905c1ad3-9dca-11e8-8952-0522da58f85d’]By the latter 20th century, mystery detectives were feeling fear and self-doubt and by the millennium, they were downright troubled.  Thomas Harris‘s Will Graham is a brilliant detective and profiler but his exposure to evil and his own ability to imagine scenarios from a killer’s perspective put him in the hospital more than once.  Graham is a man uncomfortable doing what he does best, even though what he does serves mankind.  The same can be said for Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta, though not for the same reasons.  Like the BBC’s detective, Jane Tennison, and Val McDermid‘s Carol Jordan, Scarpetta is an ambitious, gifted woman often frustrated by the political, male-dominated world of criminal justice.  All three of these fictional, female crime-fighters endure unhappy personal lives. They make mistakes. And all three of them, at times, drink too much.[amazon_link asins=’0425230163,B0030MQJXM,B0045UADFI’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c50ce076-9dca-11e8-88b3-df8d4ab3e619′]

[amazon_link asins=’B000OIZUUS’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e3a29de2-9dca-11e8-be18-3f50e44b37b5′]——–Lincoln Rhyme and Cormoran Strike add to the list of contemporary detectives with acknowledged physical and emotional vulnerabilities.  Lincoln is almost completely paralyzed and in his first fictional appearance (The Bone Collector) is so depressed, he is searching for a way to commit suicide. Cormoran Strike (first seen in The Cuckoo’s Calling) has no steadiness either in his personal or professional life and he’s missing part of a leg. But both of these detectives have training, brains and female colleagues equipped with their own talents and demons. Let the villains beware.[amazon_link asins=’0316206857′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8e41d0cf-9dcb-11e8-b7a1-4f8a580df689′]

Today’s literary detectives are strong enough to be admirable but vulnerable enough to be human.  And that makes their stories even more fun to read.