Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is a pleasant talkie film. By that, I mean the characters meander the streets of Paris conversing. Nothing blows up (well, maybe a relationship or two), no one is killed, and at the end of the ninety minutes, you realize you want to sit in a cafe, drink some wine, and watch the world go by. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He's working on a book and wants to chuck the L.A. scene to live in Paris. He romanticizes the 1920s when so many American artists lived abroad. His fiancee, played by Rachel McAdams, thinks he's crazy. On this trip with her parents, he's the outsider.

Owen shambles along in his low key charming way and slowly realizes the engagment is all wrong. Every midnight, he strolls a certain cobblestone street and the atmosphere transforms into the 20s. He meets F.Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, et al - they are all living the bohemian dream. He falls for a French girl, played by the lovely Marion Cotillard. She the latest muse of Pablo Picasso, but she and Gil light a spark.

They discuss the times. He rhapsodizes over the 1920s, and she shrugs it off as boring. She desires to visit La Belle Epoque. Gil's time travel skill allows them to visit that era, and that's where she wants to remain. Alas, Gil's heartbreak and return to current day living does give him the oomph to say, "I'm giving Paris a try, and I'm finishing my book." (aaah, any writer's dream)

All in all, Midnight in Paris has snappy dialogue (written and directed by Woody Allen) and it is a writer/artist movie. Lots of fun meeting famous people before they really became famous. Owen Wilson's manner has us believe and enjoy his adventure. It's also amusing to witness Rachel McAdams play a total snot. You root for Owen to recognize her shallowness.

Say bonjour, buy your ticket, and fall in love with Paris via this film.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Musical Review: Billy Elliott

I'm late to seeing Billy Elliott: The Musical, but better late than never. I enjoyed the movie version immensely and wondered how it would translate to theater. It worked better than I expected and, of course, the dancing was phenomenal.

British Mineworkers went on strike in 1984 and it lasted one year. Margaret Thatcher held firm and broke the unions. Happy story, huh?

We meet Billy's family on the eve of the strike. His mother is dead. His father and older brother are coal miners - dedicated to the job and the union. Poor Billy is an eleven year-old kid, floundering in life, missing his mom, helping his doddering grandmother, and yearning to break free from his life. He just doesn't know how.

He attends boxing lessons, but doesn't want to hit or be hit. Fortunately, after boxing lessons the space is occupied by ballet lessons. He joins in by happenstance, likes it, worries over his young manhood, but can't shake the joy that ballet gives him - the freedom to express himself. The teacher (Faith Prince, an old Broadway veteran) sees a spark in Billy. He has a chance to escape this bleak town and future and perhaps audition for the National Ballet Company.

Naturally there's a lot of angst, issues, and ultimate (strikers, family, teacher) confrontation. Fortunately, the dances flow, the singing is decent, and Elton John's music with Lee Hall's book and lyrics, is pleasant. Billy Elliott's message of finding yourself, expressing yourself, and looking to the future is an inspiring one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: A Red Herring Without Mustard

Flavia de Luce is back in A Red Herring Without Mustard, and she has reason to heat up the Bunsen burners in her laboratory. A precocious eleven year-old sleuth, she has her fortune told by a gypsy at a local fair in Bishop's Lacey. Hours later, she finds the woman bludgeoned, barely alive, but perhaps part of an old child abduction scandal. For a wee town, there's a lot smoldering under the surface.

A local ne'er do well, Brookie Harewood is found dead, hanging from the Poseidon statue on de Luce property. Any connection to the gypsy? The Inspector is not pleased at the multiple trips needed to contain Flavia, recover evidence, and put together pieces of the puzzle. All the while, our young lady is two steps ahead of him and outwitting her older mean sisters, too.

From the back cover - As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets.

Alan Bradley introduced us to Flavia in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. He has a winning heroine, an enchanting writing style, tricky clues, and an exciting page turner. He's imbued Flavia with a wicked sense of humor and you'll enjoy her exasperation at life in Bishop's Lacey. Even under house arrest, it is hard to contain this delightfully dark yet winning young lady.

I highly recommend A Red Herring Without Mustard. It is a superbly entertaining summer brain twister.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Self Discipline

Whining. A lot. We're on day fifty of over 100 degrees. Oh, I exaggerate. It only seems like fifty days, but it's been at least a week. We (Texas - DFW area) start our morning headed to work and it's 80 degrees. Step outside in the evening for a "breath of fresh air" and the hot hair dryer effect is wicked. It's 90 after 9 pm and it's only June.

I use the heat as an excuse for everything. Too hot to mow. Too hot to go to the grocery store. I flop on the couch and swoon. I float in the pool, but then worry about skin cancer even after slathering myself in sunscreen number 45 - practically using a spatula to apply it.

Traffic's been awful and by the time I get home I'm not in the mood to face the computer to write. Bad, Joanne. This is usually an August state of mind, not June, and I must overcome this slothful attitude.

What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do - Aristotle He must have spent some time in Texas heat.

Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities - Bertrand Russell

I feel better having written this post. This is creation. I can accomplish more. Crank the air conditioner down another degree and heat up the keyboard. Self-discipline is my mantra.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Novel Reflections at Fifty: Two Reviews

I could probably write a mini-thesis paper comparing and contrasting these two library books - Once Upon a Time, There Was You by established author Elizabeth Berg, and Searching for Tina Turner by newcomer Jacqueline E. Luckett.

First up: Elizabeth Berg tends to be a surefire good steady read. She has a nice manner, strong voices, and her plots move along pleasantly. In this book, we meet John and Irene, both long divorced from each other but connected by their eighteen year-old daughter, Sadie. The adults are in their fifties, seeking out new loves/companionship, are set in their ways, conflicted about their own childhoods, and worried about the future. Sadie's in love with Ron but she hasn't introduced him to either parent. In a rather abrupt few chapters, Sadie is briefly kidnapped. The trauma of this event snowballs emotions, conflicts, and catapults the plot for all concerned.

I enjoyed Berg's story, but felt she glossed over the kidnapping sequence. Sadie was gone and then bam, she was back but married. Whoa! Her parents are concerned over her wellbeing and thought process and rightly so. And yet, when John and Irene married, was it truly for love or just an inevitable fate? Each character is flawed and Berg is very good at picking at the scabs and then cleaning wounds. Once Upon a Time, There Was You is a thought-provoking read with well drawn characters. Despite the characters' issues, you'll enjoy working through their problems with Berg.

Searching for Tina Turner is a sassy, fun read. This book explores the world of successful African American characters in their fifties. Lena and Russell are at the peak of success. He's worked his butt off to earn big bucks and a title. Russell asked Lena to forego her photography career to back him up. Now, Lena's looking to Tina Turner for inspiration. Is she willing to start over with the clothes on her back, her career and talents, and re-discover herself, rather than be in the shadow of a man? A man with affairs and an attitude, at that.

Big questions and at age fifty, it's really tough to start over. The body isn't perfect anymore, everyone has some baggage, and some of it is dragging on the floor. Jacqueline E. Luckett has created characters to root for and her sense of humor is superb.

This is an enjoyable read about serious issues. Lena runs into an old flame, but is she ready to jump back into a fire pit - a rich man with opinions? Lena comes from a strong loving family. Her mother wants her to mend fences with Russell, not rock the boat. Lena's sister encourages her to jump ship and be herself. Lena's daddy in heaven hovers - he was the beloved rock of the family.

I enjoyed Searching for Tina Turner immensely. It reminded me of Terry McMillan's writing and that's a compliment. Strong female characters in real life situations. Humor, style, and sass.

It makes reading fun.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Go Mavericks

Early June, hot as blue blazes, and I'm floating a lot in the pool. Reading and writing and sports are all encompassing in this household. Generally the boys of summer, Texas Rangers baseball, predominate. However, the Dallas Mavericks extended their post season streak and are in the NBA Finals. Not only that but tonight they could win it all over the Miami Heat (boo hiss).

Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas center and quietly humble superstar, has proven his mettle. He's led the team, been a class act, and should earn Player of the Series, in my book. I'm not the best fan and don't watch every second. Too many time outs and fouls annoy me. Just play the game, people. However, I root for the Mavericks and Dirk. They fill the time honored tradition of underdog, and their story requires more page turning. I can only hope it's a satisfying conclusion.

Go Mavs!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rejection: Go Jump in the Lake

He is most powerful who has power over himself - Seneca the Younger

Yeah, but, writers must defer to the almighty, all powerful editor and his/her ability to give a thumbs up or down. Acceptances and rejections ebb and flow like the tides. I send out my goodies with lovely cover letters, praise for journals, and the abject desire to be selected for a publication.

However, too often it's a quick thanks, but no thanks.

Sometimes, it's nicer - I liked your poems, but not enough to publish them. They were a little too literal for my taste (but that is a matter of taste). I can accept that and it does give me something to work with in regards to my poetry.

For a recent flash - our first readers read your story with interest, but in the end didn't love it enough to send it to the second round. Well, darn. What if I begged and pleaded?

Getting published is a huge game. I have to improve my craft and provide the editor/reader with a treat. It's also subjective - a matter of timing. Hit the right person on the right day with the right piece for the mood.

I chuckled at a WSJ interview (4/29/11) with singer Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane). In regards to American Idol she said she, "loves the show but no way could I be a judge. I have no middle ground. I'm a buzzer or a gong, far more negative than a Simon Cowell."

In another piece (3/16/11), Mr. Eddie Rabin has been playing piano for singing auditions for over thirty years. He said he can tell within three bars if a performer has what it takes. I"m sometimes tempted to say "Kid, you haven't got it." But it's not my place. And I figure they'll find out for themselves in a few years.

There are days when the rejections seem to pour in and I'm ready to jump in the lake. But then, sunshine and glory (the ding in the Inbox) announces an acceptance, and I'm once again validated as a writer. Type, type, type and roll press ... for a few more years.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

the Monster in the Box: Fun Read

Summer time - I need poolside reads to keep the brain keen, not melted mush in the Texas heat. Ruth Rendell's Monster in the Box was a wonderful find in the last death throes of the local Borders. I had heard her author name, but never read any of her work. Now I'm hooked.

We meet Inspector Wexford under sad circumstances. A recent murder causes him to reflect on an early murder in his career and a particularly evil suspect named Targo. The short, muscular man wearing a scarf to hide a birthmark is wily. Wexford is positive Targo has been deliberately flaunting his seeming innocence and daring Wexford to accuse him. It seems Targo kills people who he feels others have deemed trouble in their lives. It's as if he thinks he has permission and can justify the strangling.

p.1 None of it could be proved, not the stalking, not the stares, the conspiratorial smiles, not the killings, not any of the signs Targo had made because he knew that Wexford knew and could do nothing about it..

Rendell's writing does not involve explicit gory details. The deliciousness of her book is in the characters, the cat and mouse game, and some missing persons essential to the investigation. All the while, the stoic inspector trusts his gut, and we trust him too, to track down the guilty party - deal with the Monster in the Box.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Marriage Angst: By Nightfall Book Review

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham is an insightful look at a married couple, Peter and Rebecca Harris. Both are in their forties, have careers (he an art dealer, she an editor), a college age daughter in Boston, and both are questioning their lives.

With the arrival of her much younger brother, Ethan (aka Mizzy), who's been in and out of rehab, seemingly intelligent and yet unmotivated, Peter and Rebecca begin to turn on each other, full of doubts as to their joint goals and love.

Cunningham, author of The Hours, has a smooth spare style. He ingratiates the reader and draws us in to lives and thoughts. We like the characters and at the same time, we question their life choices. He sets his scenes well: p.169 The train from Grand Central Station to Greenwich runs through a morass of exurbia that, let's just say, one would want to conceal from a visiting extraterrestrial.

He evokes emotion: p. 196 Beauty - the beauty Peter craves - is this, then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope.

Finally, he gives keen observations on life today: p. 234: Isn't it the way? We build palaces so that younger people can break them up, pillage the wine cellars and pee off the tapestry-draped balconies.

Michael Cunningham's sure hand writes an evocative tale of married life. By Nightfall is a bit angsty and yet, I rooted for Peter and Rebecca and the redemption of their marriage.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

International Press: Live in China

My boss returned from two weeks in China. He had a fabulous time and came back very impressed by the energy of the people. I've enjoyed his travel tales and asked many questions as to his encounters. We did talk about newspapers and the reporting. Each day he bought the China Daily and the Global Times (both English editions). He followed our weather here in DFW, the tornadoes in Joplin, MO, US economic news, and global updates.

I perused the papers last night (with the admonition to bring them back to work). Well written, thorough reporting, very neutral perspective, and an eye-opener to me. I definitely had the wrong impression, in thinking news would be very censored and repressed. On the contrary. Editorials covered a variety of subjects and were critical on issues like water, energy, economic issues, etc. If not for the Chinese names, I could have been reading a U.S. paper.

Power to the press. Enlightenment, indeed.