The Odd Kid On the Block
I know a Good Story / September 13, 2018

Whatever happened to the Odd Kid on your block?  Everybody grew up with at least one; I’m talking about those kids who seem to be born outsiders, who say and do unpredictable things and never fit in well with the rest. The kids that even surprise the adults when they talk. You know the ones I mean.  And if you don’t have one of these kids in your memory, you might have been the class misfit. God knows I was one. So what? I can verify that most of us card-carrying weirdos eventually discover friends of our own.  We become reasonably functional adults.  But time has stood still for Eleanor Oliphant.  At thirty, she’s still the Odd Kid on The Block, although now she’s an Oddball at Work.  She doesn’t have any friends (unless you count Vodka and Mummy). And, despite the title of Gayle Honeyman’s brilliant first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is NOT Completely Fine, Stuck in a Rut Eleanor is, if anything, stuck in a rut, one she’s carefully constructed.  Every morning, she dons black pants, white shirt.  She does (and eats) the same thing each day on her lunch break.  Eleanor always takes the same bus.  She talks to Mummy…

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…

Into the Woods
I know a Good Story / August 23, 2018

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 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. …

Partners in Business and Art
I know a Good Story / August 16, 2018

Let’s tell the truth about Creative Artists; we already know the myths: Myths About Creative Types All Creative Artists are right-brain, impractical people, Given a choice, creative people tend to wear shabby clothes and messy hairstyles. Creative people all keep odd hours and disorganized lives. Artists are profligate, spendthrifts who don’t understand the value of money, and; 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…

A Modern Irish Murder
I know a Good Story / August 9, 2018

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…

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…

The Murder Mystery No One Expects
I know a Good Story / November 9, 2017

At one point, there was just Jane Austen.  A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi.  In those days, she was just Jane Austen. Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source.  Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania  has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me.  In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it. The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC.  With a reference…

Blossoms of Evil
I know a Good Story / August 29, 2017

The Memory Everyone has memories they don’t like but can’t shake.  This is one of mine. I was small and my parents were driving back through a desert in the southwestern states.  We hadn’t seen a town for hours, and I’d gotten used to seeing the endless miles of saguaro, yucca, and empty skies. So, when we started to pass a row of shacks that lined the empty road, I was surprised.  These structures didn’t seem to be part of any town or village, and it would be generous to describe them as houses.  With concave walls, covered with tarpaper and tin, they were the worst excuses for houses I’d ever seen but, judging from the faint light coming from the windows, someone seemed to be living in them.  Even odder, each shack’s sway-backed porch seemed to hold at least one shiny, white, refrigerator or washer and dryer. My mom made a noise of disgust.  “It’s terrible the way they are treated,” she said.  I asked what she was talking about.   Then, with a soft, but angry voice, Mom related this country’s history concerning Native Americans as if she was telling me an unhappy bedtime story.  Attacked, betrayed, segregated…

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,…

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