Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

 

The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick.  One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, “Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration.” In response, Marjorie published “Cross Creek Cookery”, a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable.  For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it.  There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.)  Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.

Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, Recipes of My Life describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

Home Story

All stories are about being human and all humans need a spot they can call home. More than shelter or status symbol, “home” is part of a person’s identity and many writers are known for theirs.  Faulkner didn’t stir from Rowan Oak unless he was forced to.  Daphne du Maurier’s obsession for Menabilly changed the course of her life.  But both of these homes are grand houses of great estates, spots most of us could not relate to.  So I traveled to Cross Creek, the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a simpler structure if no less beloved. In fact, so much of MKR’s happiness and identity were tied to her home, she wrote one of her best books about it.  And, from the moment you enter her gate, you can see both Cross Creek and the writer are cherished by those who remember them.

City-bred, Marjorie didn’t flourish as a writer until she moved to the backwoods of Florida and Cross Creek is still off the beaten path.  No disoriented tourists, adrift from Disney, will turn up at its borders. No major hotels or even gift shops entice explorers with the “Cross Creek Experience”. You have to look for the place, but it’s worth the search. Instead, of the routine showmanship of manufactured amusements, you get something better: a view of a remarkable person’s home and life as she wrote about and lived it.
There is the porch with its writing table, complete with typewriter and ashtray.  According to the tour guide, Jack, Marjorie composed at this spot until her books brought her fame and a collection of unwanted visitors, eager to watch her actually write. (I can’t think of any activity with greater potential to bore the spectator or irritate the subject.)  
Here is the living room, equipped with fireplace and bookshelves, the very definition of cozy.  Marjorie planned for Cross Creek to become a writer’s retreat after her death but, the tour guide states, visiting authors made the spot a party spot instead.  When the state took over ownership of the home, Marjorie’s widower removed her furniture from storage and returned them to their spots in the house.  The chairs and tables fit the room so well, you would have believed they never left there.
Marjorie’s kitchen would earn the praise from today’s interior designers for its pantry and prerequisite farmhouse sink but the stove astonishes me.  How did this woman find the energy to run a farm, write books and become a gourmet cook using this wood-fed contraption?  Yet she did, and wrote her own cookbook as well, which I own but refuse to cook from.  Marjorie’s greatest strength was her drive but I am a person with limits.  
Another of the writer’s strengths was her honesty and the guides at Cross Creek honor that, noting Marjorie’s inconsistencies, and character flaws along with her virtues. Stubborn and volatile, her character was as uneven as the floor in her bathroom (made famous in her essay, “The Evolution of Comfort”) and she made many mistakes. These errors cost her dearly at times and she faced many, if not all, of them in hindsight. But she was an individual, vibrant as the land she wrote about, comfortable and homey as her living room chairs.   
Most of all, she was a person who understood the value of “home” wherever it turned out to be. She invested her fortune, her talent, her dedication and sometimes her sanity in the house and orange grove of Cross Creek while recognizing herself as a mere temporary tenant. In turn, the spot brought her poverty, wealth, friends, opponents, joy, frustration, unending work, heartbreak and a spiritual as well as physical home. Oh, and it gave her her writer’s voice.
All in all, not a bad deal.

The Stories We Hide

The Story

Everyone has secrets they want to keep.
Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town.
Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence.
Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is.
This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies?
One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa, it’s the way to demystify her family’s past.
Where does Father go when he vanishes for weeks at a time? Why does he leave his kids with Aunt Jottie?  Why doesn’t Aunt Jottie have a family and kids of her own?  At the age of twelve, Willa’s beginning to notice how the people she loves the most avoid certain topics of conversation.  In fact, sometimes they lie.  With the Macedonian virtue of ferocious devotion, Willa decides to unearth the facts and learns that truth can come at a terrible cost, even while it sets you free.

The Truth Behind the Story

On a side-note, The Truth According to Us highlights an obscure bit of history, The Federal Writers Project. I know the notion of a federal program subsidizing writers may give some people indigestion, but it was a good idea at the time.  For meager wages, writers documented histories of places and individuals that usually wouldn’t get covered: guides were written about every state in the union, and the oral histories of former slaves were transcribed. Valuable information that would have been lost altogether was saved by this work, and it trained more than a few writers that went on to literary glory including Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Today, our culture still enjoys the benefits of what that agency did more than eighty years ago. Not bad for a short-term, New-Deal program.
But this is background.  The Truth According to Us is what happens when a fresh light is shed on a mythology created by resentment and shame. Passions heat up faster than the dog days of summer. It’s perfect for an August read.

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures.
Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.

The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want to write about them.  Instead, she chose to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of three literary geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building,  He should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education and opportunities, he should have, at least, been able to support himself. Instead, Branwell ruined every chance that he got and lived off his father or his sisters.  In the end, Branwell’s talent and gifts were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, little self-discipline, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier’s mind.
Perhaps Branwell’s disastrous luck was contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well, even though it was written by a popular author. After publication, it was rarely read.  But, like Branwell, if his biography is a failure, it’s an interesting one.  It’s the story of a man who had a gifted but uncontrollable mind.  In other words, it’s one obsessive writing about another.

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans

He called them his swans.
It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.

The Story

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success.  Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public.  At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.

The Summary

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed.  It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century.  Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
 
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.
 

 

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.

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.

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,
%d bloggers like this: