The Odd Kid On the Block

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 on the same day of every week and drinks from Friday night until well into Sunday.  Part of this is a habit, but part is how Eleanor copes with the world, a place that has rarely been kind.  She’s constructed routines for protection.  But even Eleanor doesn’t realize all the things she’s hiding from or how much good there is in life to uncover.  And it’s a joy to discover it with her.

No Filter/No-Nonsense Girl

Listening to Eleanor describe her own life is by turn hilarious or incredibly painful as she is the original No-Filter-Girl.  She describes some horrors from her past with such emotional detachment that you wonder what ails the poor girl.  Anyone else recounting this kind of personal experience would be sobbing all over themselves.  But Eleanor reports her history with such matter-of-fact acceptance that many readers debate whether her response is due to Autism or the profound abuse she’s endured.  Whatever the reason, we become mesmerized by her voice.

For Eleanor does have a voice, stunningly original and perceptive about the human condition. “These days, loneliness is the new Cancer” she observes, “a shameful, embarrassing thing.” And for all of her independence, Eleanor is a lonely woman.  But the story of how this unusual woman starts breaking her self-imposed isolation is the hit of the year.  Eleanor can make you laugh and cry but most of all she makes you glad you’ve found her. Eleanor Oliphant may be the Odd Kid on the Block but she’s also a good person and friend.[amazon_link asins=’0735220697′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’3c60ca62-b6fc-11e8-a77d-077d29570ab2′]

 

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.

[amazon_link asins=’0684835622′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’0d5527f3-b237-11e8-afca-3ba21d429e44′]

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

[amazon_link asins=’0684846918′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8a872c4a-b237-11e8-a0b3-b3bfb14a173b’]

 

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.

[amazon_link asins=’1501155032′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b483c4e6-b237-11e8-9cb1-e96253814450′]

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.

 

[amazon_link asins=’162779834X’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’cce863d9-9e59-11e8-8816-d9403b0d69fb’]

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.

[amazon_link asins=’0143113496′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’892fdf3f-98f7-11e8-ba80-db9e6110fe26′]