Sunday, September 30, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - 2007 Style

WOW! I went to an extremely powerful production of Romeo and Juliet yesterday afternoon at the Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Ft. Myers. I've had season tickets to this theatre for many years now and cannot remember a time when I was disappointed with a production, so I was surprised at the lukewarm review that Drew Sterwald wrote for our local newspaper. I normally agree with him on just about everything. Then, my friend and loyal reader Maryellen, met me at a fundraiser for the new library Foundation Board where we ran into several co-workers who had seen the modern-day Romeo and were badly shaken by it.

Now I'm wondering what rock these people have been living under for the past 20 years. After all, this play was adapted and performed by the award winning Classical Theatre of Harlem whose mission, God bless them, is "returning the classics to the stages of Harlem, nurturing new, young, and culturally diverse audiences, and to producing theatre that truly reflects the diversity of ideas and racial tapestry of America." I can't tell you how fantastic it felt to sit in this gorgeous old theatre, usually peopled only with wealthy, retired senior citizens ( yes, you might wonder how I got in!) and see a racially mixed audience with an age range from 12 to 80. I subconsciously thanked my parents once again for exposing us to live theatre at an early age - they were amateur thespians themselves - and I wondered how these kids would remember yesterday's experience in the years to come.

I loved several things about this production, including the fact that there was no intermission to ruin the emotional buildup the actors worked so hard at creating, and that they adhered to Shakespeare's glorious original language and timeless storyline. The action takes place in contemporary Harlem so the rap music, suggestive dancing and butt-revealing baggy pants reflect that. (nothing you wouldn't see on MTV should you choose to watch) Since the Bard of Avon was such a bawdy guy with a clever penchant for sexual innuendo, the modern setting really worked for me and certainly got the students' attention. The choreography was exquisite, especially in the fight scenes which involved guns rather than swords.

If I could only take one book into exile on a deserted island I've always known it would be TheComplete Works of Shakespeare. It's a marvel to me how he was able to write about the universal human condition, the seven deadly sins if you will, with such compassion and humor. The message of Romeo and Juliet has been reprised on stage and screen innumerable times over the years, most notably in the Broadway musical West Side Story. It is as apt in 2007 as it has always been. Like the Capulets and the Montagues, we foolish humans seem to continue to find reasons to hate each other, be it race, religion, or culture, when it would be so much simpler to recognize our common humanity. Like Romeo and Juliet our children and grandchildren are paying the price.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Snob?

I really do hate to admit it but I think I'm becoming a book snob. I'm sitting here in my office looking at the photo I had taken with one of my all time favorite writers "back in the day," Elizabeth Berg. Have I changed that much since I picked her up at the airport 6 or 7 years ago? Or, has she?
When The Handmaid and the Carpenter came out I thought it was just an aberration but now, with Dream When You're Feeling Blue, I worry that Berg is perhaps yanking out some of her early material that couldn't get published and reissuing it because she's famous and she can. I was fully prepared to love this book. The dedication to her dad and the photo of what I'm sure is her folks on their wedding day appealed to the romantic in me, reminding me of a similar photo I have of my parents in the 40's. The World War II era has always called to me. My 82 year old aunt thinks that I was born in the wrong time. Still, after coming off an outstanding work like The Time of Our Singing and then listening to The Book Thief, I couldn't even give Berg the full 50 pages that the Rule of Fifty requires.

On top of that I had begun reading Penelope Lively's Consequences, which I hope to finish up this morning, and although it hasn't torn me up the way Heat Wave did about ten years ago, it's nevertheless a worthy addition to her oeuvre. It too begins in the 40's but in England, with Lorna, a young woman railing against the fate of being born to a social climbing family that expects their daughter to be something she can't. In a fit of rebellion she falls in love with and marries an artist. The two of them fashion a beautiful life of simplicity and harmony, raising their daughter Molly in the gorgeous countryside, until the war intervenes and does its usual damage.
Lively can turn a beautiful phrase, as my friend Andrea reminded me yesterday, and I'm coming to love the strong, independent generations of women who evolve from Lorna's lineage.

What else am I listening to that I could take or leave? In the car it's Jeffery Deaver's SleepingDoll. He's had my heart ever since he told a bunch of us at the reading festival a couple of years ago that he chose Lee County's festival over the Virginia Festival of the Book because he heard that ours was where the "regular fans" were at. Gotta love the man! It's not his fault that the book isn't knocking me out. My attention span right now is at near zero. I'll be leaving for a European vacation in a couple of weeks and haven't been concentrating on my Spanish language skills. I'm torn between getting all my overdue books back before I go and learning how not to be an ugly American.

On my mp3 I've got Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know which got rave reviews in AudioFile magazine but it doesn't exactly have me dying to go for a walk this morning either. Lippman has a fabulous reputation and has won multiple awards including an Edgar for her Tess Monaghan series. This book is a stand alone about two sisters who disappeared from a mall in Baltimore thirty years ago and how the dead case is reopened after a hospitalized accident victim claims to be one of the long lost Bethany sisters. Judging by the reviews in Library Journal and on Amazon I think it would behoove me to get off this darn computer, stick on those earphones and head out the door. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Another Blog, Another Book

How in the world are we to juggle all this online information? We have been challenged here at the library to create a blog to discuss technology and challenge us to use the web to our advantage. While it's true that I already have this one, I'm not sure I'm ready to share it with the world so, yup, I made another one. So, if you find that I'm missing in action over here talking about what I'm reading then you'll find me at the other blog talking about the joys and pains of technology!

Meanwhile, just a note to say that I finished an audio book called Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward. I had never read anything by her but had seen a blurb in AudioFile Magazine and the story line appealed to me. It's not drop dead great fiction but hey, they don't all have to be, do they? Sometimes I'm just listening to something to keep my type A personality from rearing its ugly head on US 41! Forgive Me is a very satisfying story about forgiveness on many levels, from the global to the personal.

Nadine is a small town girl, born and raised on Cape Cod, who's always had a yearning for something more. I can empathize with that as I couldn't wait to get out of Dodge (Great Barrington, Massachusetts). Even at 17 I wanted to see new and different places and now, at 58, the desire is stronger than ever. Nadine, with her degree in journalism, runs toward trouble wherever she can find it, sending hard-hitting stories back to the American news media. In South Africa she falls in love with a man and with a country but the lure of the next story, the potential Pulitzer, always finds her leaving commitment or entanglements behind.

When Nadine is attacked and injured while scouting a story outside Mexico City she is sent home to the Cape to recuperate under the suffocating care of her estranged father and step-mother. Here she is pressured unmercifully by her family and oldest friend, a contentedly married mother of three, to "settle down like a nice girl" and bake cookies. She tries. Nadine has an affair with the physician who's been treating her injuries and seems to understand her need to roam, that is until she leaves him, drawn back to Cape Town for the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, the historic post-apartheid process of forgiveness on a grand scale.

I don't want to give away too much more of the story but suffice it to say that here, in Cape Town, Nadine confronts those she has hurt in the past, precipitates a reconciliation that one would assume could never happen and makes some unexpected decisions about her own future. I love the way the author runs two or three parallel storylines that eventually veer off course to intersect. I highly recommend the audio version of the story as the narrator, Ann Marie Lee, is adept with the lilting Afrikaans and pulls off a passable Boston accent as well.

Today is my book discussion of The Time of Our Singing which I only finished this morning but wrote about in a previous blog. This is such a devastating book, it has taken the wind out of my sails. I talked with my friend Don on the phone this morning as he journeys through the old South in search for his ancestors, hoping he could give me some insight that I could take to my ladies this afternoon. His advice, which he knows will be tough for me, is to try to rein in my passion a little bit and see what unfolds. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Tale of Two Books

I hate it when I'm too busy reading to post to my blog. Does that mean I'm addicted to both reading and blogging?? Right now I'm juggling a few books, having just finished and returned Stephen Carter's New England White while being smack dab in the middle of my book discussion book for this month, The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. Both authors speak of the African American experience over the 20th century, Carter from the position of exclusive membership in an elite, powerful club of African American movers and shakers, and Powers through the eyes of a biracial couple who brave tremendous scorn with grace and aplomb, raising their children through the turbulent '50's and '60's.

Carter is a glorious writer, his books exhibit elements of all that's best in historical fiction, with a hefty dose of suspense and relationship problems thrown in, topped off with codes and anagrams a la The DaVinci Code. A prolific writer of non-fiction, Carter is a distinguished professor of Law at Yale, whose two fiction books are just what the doctor ordered; big, fat, literary and convoluted. In a Waspy college town, thirty years ago, a young lady was murdered, an investigation was stonewalled and an innocent black man was framed for the crime. I've finished the book and I'm still not sure "who done it."

Fast forward to present day as Lemaster Carlyle, president of a university (NOT Yale the author assures us) and his wife Julia, wend their way home from a faculty function in their Cadillac Escalade (the author seems to consider this vehicle a status symbol and I can only hope he's being facetious) and come upon the dead body of Julia's former lover, Kellan Zant. It seems that Kellan has been investigating this past murder and has enlisted the help of the Carlyles' daughter Vanessa, a history buff with brains and curiosity. Like red ants disturbed in their nest, the unsavory facts this duo uncovers crawl through town, affecting characters from the upper echelons of the university system to the powerless ones on the "other side of the tracks."

One thing I don't quite get about Carter, and I found this in both his new book and the previous best seller The Emperor of Ocean Park, is the underlying impression of an angry man dwelling too much on the barriers to race relations in our country, not to mention the prejudices abounding within the membership of the "darker nation."(his term, not mine.) I've read interviews with Mr. Carter ( ) that belie this feeling I have, so perhaps I'm being overly sensitive. It certainly wouldn't be the first time!

On the other hand, Richard Powers' characters and we readers, have every justification for being deeply angry at the historical evidence of our country's slow, with a capital "S," progress in enacting civil rights legislation that brought African-Americans into full participation in United States citizenry. In 1939 Delia Daley and David Strom travel from very different paths to Washington, DC. Their common goal, to listen to Marian Anderson's concert being held at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the Negro songstress to sing in their hallowed Constitution Hall. Do you remember learning this in school? I sure don't! Thank God for fiction writers who so deftly weave the true history of our nation throughout their fictitious tales.

David, a displaced Jew with no living family, and Delia, an upper class African-American woman from a large, educated family make a mistake in judgment that day. They fall in love, believing that they can rise above the pain of discrimination, sheltering their three future children from the evil effects of prejudice through the strength of their love. But love alone cannot prepare Jonah, Joseph and Ruth for what they find when they at last break out into a world where a young man named Emmet Till is bludgeoned to death for speaking to a white woman, Martin Luther King, Jr. is gunned down on a hotel balcony for having a dream, and cities across the country smolder with the flames of dissent. The Time of Our Singing is a powerful book written by a man reviewers refer to as "the finest writer of his generation who has never been heard of." But we all know John Grisham, don't we? What a sad commentary!