Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

A Comedy of Tenors

A Comedy of Tenors, Paris

Antoinette LaVecchia (Maria) and Bradley Dean (Tito)(photo: Roger Mastroianni. Courtesy, Cleveland Play House)

Ken Ludwig’s new play, A Comedy of Tenors is a good old-fashioned theatrical farce. “Three tenors. Three egos. One stage. What can possibly go wrong?” said the Cleveland Play House promotion. You may remember Ludwig’s big hit of 26 years ago—Lend Me a Tenor—and this one, too, involves amorous shenanigans with high-voltage opera stars, most of them the same characters who appeared in the earlier play.

A Comedy of Tenors premiered at the Cleveland Play House in September then moved to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, which co-produced it and where it was on stage through November 1. The entire cast of seven moved with it, as did director Stephen Wadsworth, who has masterminded numerous notable McCarter plays over the past two decades. Wadsworth is well acquainted with the operatic temperament through his work with opera companies across Europe, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as director of Opera Studies at the Julliard School. He doubtless has a natural affinity for this comedic material.

Set in 1930s Paris, the story centers on the final hours before a “three tenors”-style concert. But impresario Henry Saunders can’t seem to get his three singers in the same place at the same time. First, a Swedish tenor drops out altogether, but the biggest star of the bunch—Tito “Il Stupendo” Merelli—objects to the replacement Saunders is lucky to find. He’s a much younger man whose popularity is soaring, and Merelli is beginning to feel his age. Making matters worse are several romantic mixups that only a deft hand with comedy can carry off. The three singers finally come together, then fall apart again, and it appears the only man who can save Saunders’s concert is a bellhop with a golden voice.

The strikingly gorgeous set used in Cleveland—a luxury hotel suite—also made the trip to Princeton. As set designer Charlie Corcoran said in the program notes, “There’s one very specific need in all farces, and that is doors.” Doors to enter, doors to exit, and doors to slam. Lead actor Bradley Dean makes good use of those doors, as he plays both Merelli and the bellhop, and must exit the stage left door as Tito, dash around backstage (changing costume en route) and enter the door stage right as the bellhop. Watching him switch roles, costumes, and personae is one of the play’s great charms.

Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor is still playing all over the United States, and for theatergoers who love a romantic farce, his new play is something to watch for!

The Flock

River, sunrise

The Wabash River (photo by Bala K, Creative Commons license)

The speck of Indiana called Waverly rests in a placid region near the banks of the Wabash, where the river loops and wriggles, coyly postponing its inevitable rendezvous with the Ohio. The surrounding hills rise modestly above the horizon and, in the late 1800’s, this unassuming topography pretty well reflected local opinion of how people should behave.

At that time, a newcomer could easily disrupt the regular thrumming of Waverly’s carefully controlled existence. And did, one particular December. The townspeople knew two things about her for sure: her name—Mary Bight (the postmistress had told them that much)—and that she’d moved into old Mr. Thompson’s cottage soon after it was empty, since he now occupied an even smaller and more permanent space in the cemetery behind the Methodist church.

Word was he’d caught a chill from sleeping with the bedroom window open past Thanksgiving. “Never had a lick of sense,” the neighbors said, and the deteriorating condition of the cottage, with its reclusive tenant, confirmed it. They predicted the house wouldn’t last the winter, and the women of the town shook their heads and tsk-tsked as they hurried by on their way to Mr. Grassley’s store, as fast as the frozen puddles allowed.

No one knew where Mary came from, why she was there, or who her people were, providing a vacuum they filled with endless speculation. Mary thanked Rev. Applewood for his brief visit, but she didn’t appear at church. She nodded to postmistress Quaid when picking up her parcels, but turned away, studying the return addresses, unmindful of Miss Quaid’s affronted eagerness. Mary politely greeted the women who paid calls shortly after her arrival, but did not invite them inside. The tiny house was “too much of a mess,” she said, and their invitations to Christmas teas and open houses were neither accepted nor reciprocated.

In the winter, when Mary should have shoveled the front walk and knocked the heavy snow off the evergreens—and since she didn’t do this, several of the yews had become grotesque topiaries—she put on her crimson coat, and the townspeople saw her ramble across the fields that edged the town, a drop of red on snow clean as bandages.

In spring, when Mary should have planted her peas and lettuces and later her annuals and still later her tomatoes and peppers, she instead sat at a deal table by the open front window and clattered away on her new typewriting machine. Grassley’s young clerk, Tom Cooper, had delivered the big wooden crate on a handcart and would have helped her with it, but Mary told him to leave the box on the porch and prized it open herself. Stenciling on the box showed it arrived by train. If the new railway service, not yet a year old, brought goods that filled the crowded shelves of Grassley’s store, it also brought unfamiliar people—including Mary Bight—and noisy typewriters and city newspapers, and it made the places along its lengthy route seem closer than they ought to be.

Mrs. Parker next door complained far and wide that she had to listen to the unsettling sound of Mary’s clackety-clack-ping!, clackety-clack-ping!, morning to night. Mrs. Parker, whose few ideas were doled out by a parsimonious husband, couldn’t for the life of her figure out what Mary could be writing, day after day. Who could she be writing to? How could she have so much to say? Why couldn’t she use a pen, like regular folks? Curiosity flamed and crackled.

Postmistress Quaid, who regularly sharpened her eyes, nose, and tongue on the whetstone of local gossip, swore Mary Bight wasn’t writing letters. She hardly ever mailed or received a one. “Books, books, books. That’s it.”

As spring arrived and Indiana turned its face to the sun, Waverly’s menfolk passed the Thompson house at a stroll, hands in pockets, as if they had nothing really to do and might be available for any odd job, should Mary appear at the front door with its sagging screen and call out to them. Their palms fairly itched as they considered how a hammer and some strong nails could repair the sprung boards on the porch and right the tilting shutters. And, what they could do with a brush and a couple gallons of Grassley’s white paint!

Mary was a good-looking young woman, and the men hoped to (but never did) catch a glimpse of her bending over a laundry basket or trimming the distorted shrubbery, chestnut hair pinned away from her face, lissome arms stretching overhead.

So, she lived among them, almost unseen but very present, when the events began that were fixed in the memories of Waverlians as distinctly as photographs glued to the crackling pages of a family album. Even townsfolk who only heard the story many years later, as it was passed parent to child, could recount some version of the debacle, which had about it the mingled clarity and confusion of a dream.

 

The townspeople awoke that June Sunday to weather so fine it must have been sent direct from God to encourage churchgoing. Along Mary Bight’s street came the weekly procession of straight-backed ladies done up in corsets and restless men choking in their neckties, all of them in their too-tight Sunday shoes, truly church-bound. But their progress halted at the Thompson cottage, where a growing cluster of citizens gathered, heedless of the church’s nagging bell.

A length of clothesline stretched across Mary’s yard, and pinned to it like miniature bedsheets and waving from the lower branches of the new-leafed trees like starched handkerchiefs were pages and pages and pages covered with Mary’s typing. From outside the yard’s tired fence, the torrent of words blurred grey. Several larking older boys tried to reach over the splintered pickets and grab one of those tantalizing papers, but they were just out of reach.

“Who does she think she is?” stout Mrs. Grassley asked, a sufficiently vague and all-purpose indictment.

“That’s a lot of writing, surely,” said young Tom Cooper, awestruck. The church bell rang insistently, and, out of lifelong habit, they at last responded. For generations the bell had been the town crier as well as its timepiece, even though the bell’s latter role was somewhat supplanted by the ear-piercing whistle of the 12:15 pm train arriving from points west, the 5:30 pm en route to Chicago, and finally the 8:27 pm speeding south, all the way to New Orleans.

On that Sunday, after the opening hymn and before the benediction, a bank of dense clouds rolled across the darkening sky, accompanied by a west wind that scoured the churchyard, sought out the dessicated leaves lodged against untended gravestones, swept them neatly into corners, then scattered them again. The wind slipped through an open church window and danced with the feathers on Mrs. Grassley’s fashionable hat and startled Mr. Grassley awake. And it played with the papers hung in Mary Bight’s yard, teasing them down from the trees and off the clothesline.

When the good folk of Waverly arrived home, a few found one of Mary’s pages skipping across their lawns or wind-plastered to their porch rails, and what would have been a drowsy chicken-and-dumplings afternoon became a scavenger hunt, as older children were sent to find more of the intriguing pages, if they could.

In all, twelve. Their contents mystified the families possessing them. Neighbors compared pages, and the puzzlement deepened. The suggestion quickly spread that those who had pages should bring them to the church that evening, in the hope that, all together, they might make sense. No one entertained the most obvious thought, to return them to Mary herself, the stranger in their midst.

 

After evening services, they congregated in Fellowship Hall, but soon discovered the random pages were still too random. In fact, reading all of them—in whatever order they attempted, since the pages were not numbered—made no more sense than reading them separately.

In a clear voice, young Evan George read out the paper his family had found. Evan had attended one semester at Indiana University, and the congregation deemed him well prepared for oratory.

Evan’s page started near the end of a sentence. “ . . . the means. But if he had not, would events have unfolded differently? Definitely not, thought those who claimed to know the doctor and his depraved intentions, who recorded his dabbling in the Black Arts. Most people avoided passing his noisome laboratory after dark. They heard frightening nighttime shrieks; the village’s many stray cats had disappeared. A vagrant who helped him move some firmly padlocked chests claimed the laboratory’s shelves held skeletons of small animals, baskets of dark, bitter-smelling herbs and roots, and loathsome things floating in jars. All this so unnerved the poor man that he refused to return for his meager pay.” A murmur from the crowd. “The doctor claimed he engaged in strictly scientific pursuits, but the eerie glow from his laboratory fed doubts. A pale and breathless stranger stopped by the tavern late one November evening and told the publican he’d peeked through the laboratory’s grime-streaked window and seen a green luminescence coil and swirl like mist, until it formed a grinning mask. The doctor spoke to it in an unfamiliar language. Its guttural reply made the . . .”

Mrs. Belden, one of the church’s eldest parishioners, gasped and came close to fainting—whether because of the frightening text, the heat of Fellowship Hall, or the constriction of her implacable corsetry. While several church ladies chafed her wrists and brought cold water, the others decided it best to move on, and Evan George sat down, disappointed.

Postmistress Quaid had left for the church in such a rush that she brought the wrong piece of paper, but she peered over her steel-rimmed glasses and in a pinched voice explained it contained a vile chemical concoction. Her elaborate description evoked sulphurous high school science experiments. She distinctly remembered a “bubbling cauldron” and a list of unsavory ingredients that made her hearers shudder.

Her dark expression prompted uneasy glances at Mrs. Belden, still vigorously fanned by Mrs. Parker. Doc Murray, the pharmacist, said the ingredients Miss Quaid cited were fantastical and that she must have gotten them wrong. Her vehement denials reinforced the muttered notion, repeating through the assembled group like the refrain of some popular song, that someone, somewhere was “up to no good.”

“Pure gibberish,” Doc Murray pronounced and shook his head.

The next page contained only four lines:

            midnight sun and again
the wash of strongest light
months pass fleetly by
til Aurora paints the star–specked night.

The reader—the shy clerk Cooper, who harbored a romantic streak—thought it might be the end of a poem, but Grassley declared there was nothing poetic about it. His clerk sank into chastened and accustomed silence.

“Well, it rhymes,” said Mrs. Grassley, puckering her mouth in opposition to her husband.

Grassley snorted. “It ain’t grammatical. Wouldn’t a poet know their grammar?”

The other pages likewise raised unanswerable questions. The group finally laid the matter at their minister’s feet. Rev. Applewood had sat quietly through the recitations, gazing heavenward—or at the stain on the ceiling he’d just noticed, which would require costly repairs to the church roof—pinching his chin thoughtfully.

“What does it mean?” the parishioners asked.

“Is it dangerous?” Mr. Parker refined the question.

“It’s subversive,” said Grassley.

“She frightens me,” said Mrs. Parker, a statement all the weightier because of her family’s unlucky proximity to the author.

Rev. Applewood was a quiet, self-contained man, a plausible vessel for keeping Eternal secrets. Because he had trained at a leading Methodist theological school—Boston or Drew, no one could remember which—he was expected to voice a considered and definite opinion. He sighed.

“It’s a puzzle, all right. We need to know more.” He heard the restless shuffling. His congregation wanted answers, not intellectual shilly-shallying. He quickly went on, “and I think it would be unwise—un-Christian,” he retreated to high ground, “to come to rash conclusions.” This didn’t sit well, either, so he ended with an ambiguous “one way or the other.” Much better. A few people understood this final emendation as laudably even-handed, but most fixated on its delicious hint that something dire remained possible. They went home uneasy, but oddly satisfied.

By the next morning, Mary Bight had taken down all the papers. Meanwhile, a dozen Waverly families laid out the mysterious sheets on their kitchen tables for intensive study. The post office became the central reservoir for growing speculations and overheated reactions, and few patrons went away without dipping from Miss Quaid’s overflowing pool.

One of the twelve papers was especially troublesome. It described an enormous monster, white as ice, with a devil’s cold and malevolent gaze. The monster struck the unfortunate men who encountered it with overwhelming terror, and the certainty it would be nearly impossible to destroy. Two members of Dr. Waylon’s family, which possessed the page, were acutely affected. Johnny Waylon, age eight, had screaming nightmares. Mrs. Waylon “heard things” in the night and, between comforting Johnny and repeatedly bolting out of bed to check the house’s previously unused door locks and window latches, barely slept four nights running.

“Take that thing down to Rev. Applewood,” she said to her husband Thursday at dinnertime, pointing a shaking finger at the paper. “I don’t want it in the house.” He promised to do so first thing in the morning, but just as the Waylons prepared for bed, a man pounded on the back door and pleaded with the doctor to hitch up his horse and hurry out to the farm to help his wife, struggling with a difficult labor. Dr. Waylon did not arrive home until nearly noon the next day. Exhausted, he lay down to rest while his wife cooked his lunch.

A shriek from the kitchen woke him, and he rushed in to find Mrs. Waylon bent over a bowl of potatoes, blood dripping from a cut on her hand, staining the white slices. He whipped out his handkerchief and fashioned a tourniquet. They sensed movement in the doorway and turned. The menacing page had blown off the hall table and lay on the floor, fluttering lightly.

Mrs. Waylon shrieked again, and her husband had no choice but to carry that page to Rev. Applewood as soon as he had properly bandaged her wound.

The story of the papery attack on Mrs. Waylon flew around town as fast as Johnny Waylon could run. Shortly thereafter, Rev. Applewood possessed all dozen riddle-pages. Mr. Parker rushed to buy tickets for his wife and children on the 5:30 Chicago-bound train, penning a short letter for her to take to his sister, explaining the precipitate visit.

 

The following Sunday, when the Methodist Church’s bell summoned the town, many congregants looked uneasy as they slipped into their familiar pews, their usual good humor and benevolent nods set aside. Rev. Applewood chose as his text, Joshua 1:9, “Be not afraid.”

During the week he had felt the blood quickening in the townspeople’s veins. “Do not let your imaginations take control of you, just because of a few puzzling sheets of paper,” he said. But his warning went unheeded, and that night, in the shadows of the trees across from the Thompson cottage, two or three men gathered, watching for they knew not what.

On Monday, the event the town had vaguely expected became all too real. Helen Jackson found her three young children behind the barn, vomiting clotted blood and moaning “as if possessed,” a neighbor said. Desperate, Mrs. Jackson sent for Dr. Waylon, but he was several miles outside town, tending a farmhand whose horse had kicked him in the chest. The story of the poisoned children reached every corner of the nerve-wracked town before Dr. Waylon could return, apparently just in time.

As ever, good news travels at leisure, while bad news takes the express, and only several hours later did everyone who had heard about the poisoning learn about the children’s recovery, time enough for the idea that confirmed their prejudices to become rooted in many minds, free of discordant facts.

That night, eight or ten men loitered outside old Mr. Thompson’s house, and they carried guns. They’d brought out two or three hunting rifles, Grassley’s father’s Spencer carbine, and several revolvers not loaded for decades and more likely to explode in their owners’ hands than to hit any target. The small guns stuck ostentatiously from the belts of men lucky to be sober. They stared at Mary’s night-blackened house, alert to every noise, but saw and heard nothing.

Rev. Applewood might not be a man to act precipitously, but he could detect the brimstone odor of moral danger. He sniffed it now. He called on Waverly’s leaders: Dr. Waylon, attorney Horace Silpatt, who was also the town’s mayor, and Doc Murray, the pharmacist—the town’s most respected and level-headed men, men with “a sense of consequences,” he said to Mrs. Applewood. “And we need Miss Byron’s good sense. She can calm the children.”

Janel Byron, Waverly’s schoolteacher, had spent the last month of the school year in St. Louis, attending her mother’s final illness. They expected her back in Waverly on the 12:15, and when the train clamored into the station screeching its brakes and whuffing steam, the four men stood silently waiting.

“I didn’t expect such a prestigious welcoming committee,” she greeted them.

“We surely would not descend on you in this way, out of consideration for your loss,” the Reverend said, “if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”

Questions flew to the woman’s lips, but before she could ask them, Dr. Waylon said, “This is unpardonably rude, but can you come with us now, to the church?”

“Now?” Miss Byron looked around the platform for her luggage. She gave a young man leaning against the station wall a dime to carry her bags the several blocks to her rooming house. On the walk to Rev. Applewood’s office, the men condoled with her by describing in detail the agonizing deaths of their own parents.

They’d soon told the whole tale—the mysterious pages, the growing anxiety, the odd events that fed the fearmongrels. And, in the midst of everything, Mary Bight, secluded, unaware, and going about her work, whatever it was.

“Let me see the pages.” The men sat silently as she studied them. The church bell chimed one o’clock. Miss Byron looked up.

“Well?” A chord of voices.

“First we must talk to Mary Bight.” Miss Byron’s obvious suggestion was a chink of light that immediately brought them to their feet.

“We’ve meant to do that, but,” Rev. Applewood reddened, “we don’t really know her, and we thought it would go better with you there.”

“And the situation has gotten worse so quickly,” said Mayor Silpatt.

“We’ll go now.” Miss Byron said.

If Mary was surprised to see Waverly’s five leading citizens on her sagging front porch, she did not reveal it, and promptly invited them inside. Unlike the house’s shabby exterior, the inside, though tight on space, was clean and orderly. True, boxes and piles of books outnumbered pieces of furniture, but even without knowing the volumes’ contents the visitors could see there was method to their arrangement. By the window sat the typewriter that punctuated Mrs. Parker’s days, flanked by a stack of clean paper on the left and typed sheets on the right. Less than an hour later, Mary’s visitors departed.

 

Church bells

(photo: goodpixgallery.com)

At six-thirty that evening, the church bell’s urgent summons boosted husbands out of their chairs to put on their coats and prompted wives to set aside the dish-washing, dry their hands, and gather the children. Only an urgent matter would call them out at this unusual hour, and they guessed what it was.

The townspeople approached the church afraid to learn what new depredations might have been revealed that day and keen to hear about them. They filled the sanctuary quickly and quietly, eyes fixed on the five town leaders who sat in front of the altar, facing them.

Rev. Applewood stepped to the lectern. “Dear friends, a pall of fear and confusion has lain over our town these last days. I know certain strange events and coincidences have alarmed many of you.” His audience stirred on the uncushioned pews, alert, backs straight, eyes on him. “Some rather wild speculations have circulated. And some of you believe these rumors justify strong actions.” Nods and mutterings of assent.

“I’ve called you here tonight with great relief, because we can finally put these matters to rest.” He told them how he and the others had visited Mary Bight that day. “She made a good impression on all of us. She’s bright, studious, and completely absorbed in her work, as we’ve all recognized.”

“The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape,” a rumbling voice called out from the back of the sanctuary.

Rev. Applewood held out his arms in a mollifying gesture. “We are very, very far from needing to think along those lines,” he said. “I’d like Miss Byron to explain.”

“When these gentlemen showed me the twelve sheets today,” the schoolteacher said, “I observed a theme—a thread—among them. A thread related to their purpose, not their content.” The audience looked wary. “When we spoke with Miss Bight, we found my supposition was correct.

“Far from being alarming or dangerous, these are pages of a scholarly work. Miss Bight recently received her doctoral degree in English literature and is writing a textbook exploring many of its masterworks.”

“What about my page—the chemistry problem? That’s no literature,” Miss Quaid interrupted.

“I’m surprised no one recognized it,” Miss Byron said and turned to Doc Murray, who stood.

“I said the ingredients sounded odd, and I couldn’t understand the ‘Hell broth boil and bubble,’ that Miss Quaid recalled for us. But today when I saw the actual paper,” he paused, “it’s Shakespeare! We read it in high school!”

The crowd shifted in their seats. “Many of you surely remember the three witches who foretold Macbeth’s fate,” Miss Byron said. “‘Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble?’” She looked at them expectantly. “Miss Quaid’s paper had a fragment of that speech. And, yes, the witches’ cauldron did contain odd ingredients, like ‘eye of newt and toe of frog.’”

Miss Quaid fumed. Mrs. Grassley jabbed her husband with her sharp elbow. “You should of got that,” she muttered.

Unconsciously clutching her bandaged hand, Mrs. Waylon asked, “What about the white devil?”

“Part of a summary of Melville’s Moby Dick,” Miss Byron said. “The Great White Whale.”

“But, my hand?” she asked in a weak voice and held it up.

“I’m sorry, my dear.” Her husband smiled gently. “I’m afraid you are somewhat prone to household accidents.” Before she could take offense, he added, “It’s one of the chief reasons I’m glad I’m a physician.” The audience chuckled, and she blushed, but returned the smile.

“The man in the laboratory?” someone inquired, cobwebs of uncertainty still clinging to him.

“That page describes a type of story that uses science to give its plot a base of plausibility, then erects on it a most unscientific edifice. You may have read or heard about Robert Louis Stevenson’s new story, ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ or remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Like balloons losing their air, the townspeople gradually slumped. Their heads sank further with each benign explanation.

“But why did she hang those papers outdoors like that?” Miss Quaid launched a flanking attack.

Rev. Applewood returned to the lectern. “In a way, she had the same problem we did. She’d neglected to number the pages. She went shopping on Saturday, and a sudden thunderstorm came up. The wind through the open window blew a good many of her papers onto the floor and hopelessly scrambled them. She didn’t have room to lay them out inside the house and had the idea of hanging them up so she could see them all and put them back in order. Which, in fact, she did.”

“What about the Jackson children?”

“Ah,” said Rev. Applewood. “That was unfortunate. But it had nothing to do with Mary.”

Dr. Waylon spoke up. “The children spent the afternoon climbing in their neighbor’s cherry trees. They ate too much fruit, plain and simple. Nothing supernatural about it.” A few people nodded, having had children of their own.

After a prolonged silence, a woman’s peevish voice asked, “Why don’t she take better care of that place?” Everyone burst out laughing, including Rev. Applewood.

The mayor spoke up. “Mary is renting the Thompson house for a few months, just until she finishes her book. Meanwhile, Sarah and Hiram Thompson took some of the old man’s money—yes, he had quite a hoard, believe it or not—and went to Europe.” The townspeople shook their heads. “When they return to Indianapolis, they’ll see about the house.”

“By the way,” Rev. Applewood said, “Mary did number the pages, once they were all in order. She realized some were missing and was pleased to get them back.”

There were no more questions, and soon the church emptied, the people seemingly embarrassed to have needed such an explanation.

“Mrs. Parker’s idea, the trip to Chicago,” Parker said to the Grassleys, as they walked toward home. “I knew that young woman wasn’t a witch.”

“Of course not,” sighed Mrs. Grassley and glared at her husband.

“Hmph,” said Grassley, muttering, “‘eye of newt.’ Hmph.” He hoped no one remembered he’d suggested the guns.

Miss Quaid, head held high, turned off at the next corner. “I just can’t believe how gullible people are, letting themselves get carried away like that,” she said.

Behind closed doors that night, the townspeople gradually came to accept this alternate and benign set of realities. A lot of conversations that started out talking about “protecting my family” and “can’t be too careful” ended up with “benefit of the doubt” and “jumping to conclusions,” as well as “sorry.” The men who’d held the guns said little, but their hands trembled. Just one more step, which the night before had seemed almost inevitable, and they would have fallen into an abyss of error and regret.

 

Over time, the people of Waverly drew upon this lesson again and again, as they confronted new challenges to their established ways—the prejudices sparked by immigration, the hatreds born of wars, the meanness of the Depression, and all the other upheavals in small town life whose beginning they dated to the arrival of the railroad, so many years before.

On the morning after the community meeting, Mary Bight opened her front door to find a bouquet of garden flowers, two pies, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Mid-morning, a half-dozen men carrying tools strode up her walk. By Sunday, the porch floor was secure, the shutters straight, and, most surprising of all, Grassley had donated several gallons of white paint that the men put to good use. She’d learned a lesson, too, and regularly appeared at church and took time to know her neighbors.

As I grew up, I often heard this story from Waverly’s old-timers. And I know that Johnny Waylon, my grandfather, lived its lessons throughout his own generous life. Still, whenever he told it, I could hear, just dusting his dry voice, a small boy’s disappointment that the most exciting event of his childhood had evaporated like a mysterious green mist.

country bouquet, flowers

(photo: brunifia, Creative Commons license)

Finding the Soul of the City

“The soul of a city can be found by talking a walk”—the premise and inspiration for generations of street photographers. In the February 2014 Metropolis, Jeff Speck, city planner, architect, and sustainable growth advocate writes about his book, Walkable City, claiming such visually rich environments are “better for your soul.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

Walking is certainly a better way to get a closeup look at the life going on around you. He illustrates that point with scenes of timeless urbanism captured by some of the giants of the street photography genre—Gary Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Vivian Maier, and others. The daily activities that animate city streets produce layered insights about both places and people. In a vital urban scene, “the presence of difference”—in ethnicity, race, class, income level, occupation—suggest endless story possibilities.

These images may require a second, even a third look, but it is clear why such photographs are often used as writing prompts.  What’s going on between those two? What are they looking at? What are they thinking? Why did he wear that?

 

Walkable ≠ Happy

Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Though Urban Design, agrees that walkability may be a component of a healthy city, but alone it cannot make a city a happy one. A more complex set of elements contributes to people’s assessment of their own well-being. Photographers have captured these factors, too:

  1. elbow room (“People like their space”)—think about how kids tag every graffiti-friendly surface, it’s a way of claiming something distinctly, if momentarily, theirs; or consider the “reserved” parking place
  2. green space—and not just the occasional pocket park, but big swaths of it worthy of Frederick Law Olmsted, connected in continuous corridors, perhaps helping to explain the runaway popularity of the High Line, and
  3. economic justice. In other words, a city cannot be happy when a large segment of its population is much poorer than the rest.

Quality of life may be high in great, high-status cities, but that “does not translate into feelings of well-being . . . where social stratification creates a culture of status anxiety.”  Those tensions, too, are evident in photographs of many urban streetscapes.

walkability, streetscapes, urban life, High LineMore:

  • Jeff Speck’s TED talk on the walkable city.
  • The 10 U.S. cities having the most people who walk to work.
  • How cities are trying to become more walkable.
  • What’s the “Walk Score” for your address (U.S., Canada, and Australia)? Moving? Find walkable places to live.  My neighborhood’s Walk Score is 35, compared to New York City’s 88.
  • Many of Vivian Maier’s works can be seen on the Artsy website’s Vivian Maier page.

From Page to Pixel

So Hollywood has made a hash of Anna Karenina. That’s a disappointment. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley have teamed up before in films based on significant novels, with mixed success. Viewers liked or didn’t like their Atonement for the same reason they liked or didn’t like the book and its last-minute emotional switcheroo. Before that, they made the really awful Pride and Prejudice—a box-office success that made Austen fans cringe. (The last scene, yuck! Yuck!)

When I heard Knightley would play Anna, I admit to being skeptical. Perhaps it’s the way she’s photographed, but she’s always too “on,” too aware of her external self, her perfect face, never revealing anything inside. Is anything inside? As Anna, “there’s nothing to discover in her face because she’s too much in ours,” said New York magazine critic David Edelstein.

Alas, what gives many novels their power is that internal stuff. Somehow moviemakers have to move the story and the characters with their balled-up and conflicting desires/histories/strengths/flaws from page to pixel. This week, at the last session of my class on Dickens, we watched excerpts from a 1983 video/film adaptation of one of the books we’d read, Dombey & Son. Squeezing a 950-page novel into even 300 minutes (10, 30-minute episodes) inevitably loses a lot, especially a book like Dombey, where the main plot drivers are characters’ internal “heart,” not external events. (That would be A Tale of Two Cities.) Still, it captured much of the essence and was not nearly so awful as 1998’s “modernized” Great Expectations.

It isn’t easy to modernize the classics, though Clueless did just fine in updating Emma. Pip’s determination to “be a gentleman” doesn’t resonate today. Dombey’s wife’s desire for a divorce doesn’t carry the same shock as 160 years ago. Pages of exposition that help readers today understand the characters’ view of the world and why particular issues are fundamental to them are necessarily lost. When they are put before us on screen without all that context, they feel like cardboard cutouts, “a bright red heart without a beat,” as film critic Peter Howell said of the new Anna.

Lack of a heart, a center, isn’t confined to films of the classics; even movies of modern books can be frustratingly opaque. Those are the films where you say to yourself, “What does she see in him?” or “Why is he doing that?” Oddly, what would seem an unlikely novel to make a successful transition to film was Life of Pi. The filmmakers used the long stretches at sea to present uncluttered narration that revealed Pi’s character. The movie works because the people in it and their motivations are understood, viewers can empathize with them, and they find a little piece of Pi’s struggle within their own hearts.

“30 Days and Nights of Literary Abandon”

The first question almost everyone asks when they learn I’ve written a novel is, “Do you plot everything out in advance, or do you figure it out as you go?” The answer is “Both.” I have a general idea of where I will end up, and I point the plot in that direction, but the route is unclear until I get there. Thousands of people—many of whom have never written a book before—are discovering their fictional paths this month.

We are reaching the middle of National Novel Writing Month (awkwardly abbreviated NaNoWriMo). Participating authors from countries around the world already report they have set down some 1.2 billion words. Skimming the long list of NaNoWriMo participants whose books drafted during this annual literary frenzy were ultimately published, I found Hugh Howey’s Wool, Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Indie Book of the Year. I happen to be listening to Wool on my iPod. I’ll bet there are authors in the list whom you know, too.

NaNoWriMo encourages participants to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. In its first year, 21 writers participated, and six reached the finish line. (I use that term loosely, since completing the first draft of a novel is pretty darn far from anything resembling a “finish.”) Last year, the 14-year-old program had 256, 618 participants, 14 percent of whom reached the goal. Though they undoubtedly will have further work to do, this is a tremendous accomplishment.

The whole idea of NaNoWriMo appeals to me as a helpful boot camp for writers, aspiring or accomplished. It stresses the importance of writing every day—sustained effort—and shows writers they are capable of actually finishing something. Too many of us have promising, half-complete manuscripts languishing in drawers and Word files,  awaiting the return of a Muse who has apparently decamped to Brazil. NaNoWriMo’s fixed and tight deadline requires writers to power through at a blistering 1700-words-a-day pace, barely leaving time to roast the Thanksgiving turkey.

NaNoWriMo offers moral support and coaching through regional support groups. It took my breath away to learn that my region (Central New Jersey) has almost 3500 NaNoWriMo participants! The “shared experience” this encourages is based on the founder’s first experiment with the concept in July 1999. “We called it noveling,” he says. “And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed.”

A wistful look comes over people’s faces when they find out I’ve written a novel and published short stories. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” they say. If they do, there will be a rocky road ahead, but what I tell them about is the joy in traveling it. In future, I’ll also tell them about National Novel Writing Month.

As the NaNoWriMo folks say, “Win or lose, you rock for even trying.”

Sandy, Sandy

Such an easy-going name, and such a wallop. Rain, wind, and fire. Six days later, the aftermath continues. For some, it will never end. For people who have lost loved ones—tragically, preventably. For people who must rebuild their lives from nothing but determination and an abundances of resources they will not find at Home Depot.

When he came back inside the store [as the storm approached], a woman was sitting at the bottom of a rolling ladder in the cabinet fixtures aisle, crying. She had her face cupped in her hands. He thought to sidestep the hassle and let someone else explain that the store was sold out of everything she would need. “Waterwalkers” in Corpus Christi: Stories, Bret Anthony Johnston, 2005.

The overwhelming reaction among my local friends is, “We were lucky.” There may be a 40-foot tree resting on the roof, they may have no power (or heat or light or refrigeration), the Internet may be down, work and school may be closed, gasoline may be rationed, the quiet inside may be deafening, and outside, the drone of chain saws like a wasp in the brain, but, “We were lucky.” A response that displays a sense of perspective and respects the storm’s startling power.

How a confluence of natural forces can create a “perfect storm” was minutely examined in Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, whose title has become an overworked metaphor for catastrophic events of all kinds. Junger’s straightforward descriptions don’t allow misinterpretation: “A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth . . . and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years.” No surprise, then, that such a storm could turn oceanfront homes into kindling in a matter of hours. Yet, for some, even the term “mandatory evacuation” didn’t command sufficient attention.

Not giving ground to Nature is a persistent human error. The poor folks who settled around Lake Okeechobee in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, saw the Seminoles, the buzzards, then all the animals leaving the low-lying area around the lake in a determined procession. Some folks heeded these signs and the hurricane warnings, but others paid a hard price for waiting too long.

Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island. A tin roof of a building hung from the branches by electric wires and the wind swung it back and forth like a mighty ax. The man dared not move a step to his right lest this crushing blade split him open. He dared not step left for a large rattlesnake was stretched full length with his head in the wind.

Writers, painters, composers–all have worked to capture the fury of wind and water and the terror and searing grief people feel in the grip of uncontrollable forces.

The King’s son, Ferdinand, with hair upstaring—then like reeds, not hair—was the first man that leaped, cried, “Hell is empty, and all the Devils are here.” Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene ii.

Stuck in Italy—Really?

[Post by Eugenia Clarke, the fictional heroine of the Eugenia Clarke mysteries by Victoria Weisfeld]

I glimpsed a magazine story headline the other day: “Stuck in Italy for Thanksgiving,” and it started me thinking. In my opinion, the only place to be on Thanksgiving Day is at my brother’s house, eating turkey, enjoying the vegetables from his organic farm, trying to decide, pumpkin or pecan?, and watching the Redskins on TV. But if you don’t have a family cornucopia like ours and if Grandma has taken off with her boyfriend to St. John . . . Italy will do! Like everyone else who travels, I’ve been stuck at airports more times than I can count. And I’ve sure been stuck in D.C.’s Beltway traffic. (Pause for lengthy string of obscenities.) But “stuck” in Italy? How is that even possible?

I say this even though my most recent Italian adventure had some pretty dark moments. Last month I was in Rome researching an article and was mugged. My fault, wasn’t thinking. I didn’t follow the mounds of advice I’ve dished out to my readers like mashed potatoes on Turkey Day. I ended up with broken ribs and stuff (don’t ask!), which meant I couldn’t fly for a while, so technically I was stuck, but I made new friends, met a man (do ask!), and spent a couple of weeks staying out of sight and out of the reach of the mafia freaks who wanted to finish the job—something I accomplished only imperfectly, I’m sorry to say.

Safe home in Virginia now and back to the gym, my yoga class, and starting some intensive lessons in Arabic. Enough to get me past the stage where my brain just shrieks “foreign language!” and pops out a word at random. Could be Greek, German, whatever. It’s a language stew up in there sometimes.

Even under the incredibly trying circumstances–recovering from my injuries, looking like hell, my nerves a wreck, the meds–Italy was a fabulous place to be, and I did finish my article on deadline. Do you see me patting myself on the back? The piece is about “everything new” Rome has to offer. You can read it in the March issue of My Mapps, and you’ll find The Eternal City still has awesome surprises up her fashionable sleeve.

Happy—and safe—travels.

P.S. I hope to tell you more about my Rome adventure—someday!

[Note to readers—My Mapps exists only in Eugenia’s world, where deadlines are reasonable, the copy-editing actually helpful, and payments are prompt.–vw]

 

 

Endings and the Reader’s Imagination

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have readers said that as they closed their book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For a class on Dickens I’m taking this fall, I just reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Sunday we saw the new movie Argo. A lot in that movie takes place by inference. As in the real world, the participants don’t have complete information and neither does the viewer, though we have the benefit of some multiple perspectives. Glimpses of the treatment of the main body of hostages let us imagine the rest. Likewise, details of the escape of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, also in deadly peril, must be mostly created by the viewer.

Have you imagined final scenes involving the characters of stories you read, see, or listen to? Share!