Wednesday, November 30, 2011

War Horse Review: book, play and movie soon

Horse in Port Meadow, England

I usually prefer the original book to the adaption, but War Horse by Michael Morpurgo improved on stage. The novel follows a horse and his boy from a farm in Devon, England to the battlefields of World War I France. In reality, the cavalry was pitted against machine guns, barbed wire, trenches and tanks. Over 15 million people and 8 million horses died. War Horse does not glorify war but remembers the bravery and sacrifices of those who served, both human and equine.

Although the book was very good, it was absurd to have a horse narrate a story of war brutality in which many sympathetic characters suffer and die.  Animal narrators belong in innocent books for young children.  Furthermore, the voice wasn’t believably equine, and there was no explanation for how a farm horse could understand three languages. We also lose track of the boy’s story when they part. An omniscient third person narrator would have worked better. Still, what a great story!

Oddly enough, moving the story to the stage with horse puppets created more realism. The puppets didn’t speak, and they acted like true horses: snorting, galloping and even breathing. It was hard to see them abused because you believed they were alive. There was nothing childish or cutesy about these puppets, and the war scenes were horrific and loud. In fact, I would not recommend this play to families with young children or sensitive teenagers because it was terrifyingly real.

War Horse is a must see for a mature audience. Not only were the puppetry, acting and singing fabulous, the staging was gorgeously artistic. A cloud-like backdrop became an animated sketchbook. As the actor rode the puppet horse, an ink drawing of them galloped across the rolling fields. Later the screen projected battle scenes as the stage spun or broke into trenches. The play was true to the spirit of the book, but the secondary characters and the plot were condensed and modified for more poignancy and greater realism.

War Horse at Lincoln Center, NYC

War Horse is currently playing in London and in New York City. It won 5 Tonys, including best play in 2011 and extended its run. In 2012 War Horse is due to open in Toronto and will simultaneously tour American cities. My parents (thank you!) took my teenaged children and me to the New York production over Thanksgiving. I purchased the ebook and read it before seeing the play. Thank you, Bee, for the recommendation.

Steven Spielberg’s film adaption of War Horse will open on Christmas Day, 2011.

Update Movie Review: my husband (who's family comes from Devon) and I were disappointed by the film version of War Horse. The movie was overly sentimental with too many characters, and the film looked obviously photoshopped (ie a tropical red sunset in Devon). The best part was the first half set in England, even if the actors didn't get the Devonian accents right. The later war scenes felt contrived, and the farm in France was absurdly bucolic. Go see the play (best) or read the book instead.

Theater Watch: on a lighter note, we also saw and loved Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall were superb.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How is a puppy similar to a 17-year-old boy?

Here’s Scout sneaking out of my office with the keys. She’s ready to hit the road. My son, with less than two weeks on his drivers’ license, wanted to drive two hours to Logan Airport in Boston on his own.

It was actually my idea for him to check out colleges solo. There is much more to campus life than what one sees on a tour. My son stayed with a friend who had gone to his high school. They had kept in touch via Facebook. I wanted him to not only see this college, but also to see that college is fun. He got to attend lectures and stayed in a dorm overnight. There were no parents.

Back when I was in high school, I had stayed with friends when checking out colleges. It was an invaluable education. I learned first hand that a coed dorm might be okay but not a coed bathroom. Frat parties were not my idea of fun. I applied early to the school where students had heated debates over philosophical ideas in their dorm rooms. I would not be the only geek on campus. There isn’t one right school for everyone; it’s more of an idiosyncratic match.

From NYC it was easy to visit colleges, but the journey is longer from Maine. I was okay with my son flying alone, but driving into Logan Airport, parking and making a flight would be stressful even for a seasoned traveler. When my husband drove down to Boston with our son, a smoking truck blinded them. Its engine was on fire. They took a wrong turn, but still made the flight on time. My son took the bus back to Maine on his return. I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say he could have done it all on his own.

If I left the front door open, Scout would run out into the street. I would be responsible. My puppy doesn’t know any better, but my son is a cautious, thoughtful boy. Part of me identifies with his desire to be free, even to make his own mistakes. I’ve let the leash extend 700 miles, but I’m not ready to let the boy go. That will happen only too soon, in less than two years. I think parents need to grow even faster than teens do at this stage.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to add blog pages with automatic forwarding or redirecting

 George J. Mitchell Field, formerly a US Navy Fuel Depot and now a public/dog park in Harpswell, Maine.

About once a year I give my blog a makeover.  My aim this time was to integrate my stand alone website (for my artwork and writing) with my blog.  I also wanted to reduce the clutter in my sidebar. On google blogger you can add up to 20 stand alone pages with tabs appearing under the banner (like mine) or in the sidebar. Thanks, Carol, for nudging me to add a homepage.

To add stand alone pages on Google Blogs:

Under the "Posting" tab click "Edit Pages"and then "New Pages." You create a new page like writing a blog post and then publish.

To create the automatic jump from the new page to my website, I added new code to my "Edit HTML" screen of the new page:'s instructions on adding automatic redirecting

This code would also work if you changed blog addresses and wanted to forward visitor to your new site. I changed the lag time from 1 to 5 seconds to accomodate search engines, but it jumps instantly due to the javascript. Don't worry, this is all much easier than it sounds.

More Posting Tips:

To improve your blog, read The Story Siren's Ten Things I Dislike About Your Blog. This is a must read post for all bloggers. The only point I disagreed with was word verification. I get bombarded with spam without it.

Here's my Advice for New Bloggers with your helpful comments.

Bookstore Watch: one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett has opened a bookstore.

Shakespeare Watch: from the latest New Yorker, "Who Wrote Shakespeare," by Eric Idle. Hilarious!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Author Elizabeth Strout Talks About Writing and Maine

Sunrise from by backyard, Brunswick, Maine

If you haven’t read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, go buy a copy now. You’ll want to read it more than once and to share it with others. I first blogged about Olive in 2009 after this novel of interlocking stories won the Pulitzer Prize. The author spoke last Sunday to a group of library volunteers in my town of Brunswick, the place which inspired her work of fiction. She said that libraries are the “fireplace of a town.” Children’s book editor and author, Kate Egan moderated the discussion. Elizabeth gave me permission to share my synopsis with you.

Although Elizabeth resides most of the year in New York City, she is a genuine Mainer: eight generations on one side and ten on the other. She was born in Portland and was raised in Maine and in New Hampshire. Elizabeth captures the quality of small town life better than any other author I’ve ever read. Kate agreed, “This isn’t just Maine but my Maine.”

Despite her phenomenal talent, Elizabeth’s road to publication was long. She suffered through years of rejection before her stories were printed in literary journals and in magazines. Even after those publications, it took her a couple of years to find an agent and a publisher for her first book. She was forty-one years old when Amy and Isabelle (1998) was published.

Amy and Isabelle is a disturbing tale of a teenaged girl having an affair with her teacher while her relationship with her mother deteriorates. The narrative has a linear and predictable plot, but it is still impressive for a first book. The novel is set in a former mill town like Brunswick, except with greater economic hardships.

The original cover image (at left) features the Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, across the river from Brunswick. The art designer found the old photo in a drawer at Random House. Locals might notice that the image was reversed. By coincidence, Elizabeth’s husband had also worked in that mill a long time ago. I have a personal connection too: that old mill building houses my doctor and the Sea Dog Brewery, a favorite spot for a pint or lunch by the river.

Olive Kitteridge is set in fictional Crosby, Maine, but references to Cook’s Corner and other Brunswick spots places the narrative in my town. When asked if Olive is a novel or a book of stories, Elizabeth replied that it is “whatever you like.” The stories all include Olive, but sometimes as the main character and other times as a minor character. Her reason for this variance was that Olive was such a large character. If Olive had been on every page, the reader would have been exhausted. Without an obvious structure, the stand-alone stories work together to build the narrative arc of a novel. Only 270 pages long, this expertly crafted book has depth, heart and soul.

The first Olive story came to Elizabeth while working on her second novel, Abide With Me (2006). She got a vision of a woman standing by a picnic bench at her son’s wedding, waiting impatiently for the guests to go home. Looking back at other unfinished stories, Elizabeth realized they were all waiting for Olive. From there, she wrote even more Olive stories.

The book structure came subconsciously while Elizabeth moved the stacked stories from her desk to a suitcase to share with her editor. Although the book went through editorial changes, the original order of the stories remained fixed. Elizabeth has a few Olive stories left over but doesn’t plan to share them. The next time we see Olive will be on TV. The book has been optioned by Francis McDormand for HBO.

I asked Elizabeth about her manuscript editing process. For the past 28 years, she has only had one writing critique partner. When asked about grammar and style, Elizabeth replied, “I love a semicolon and a nicely placed adverb.” She has only worked with one editor, who has recently retired. Someone new will be editing her work in progress. Her advice on writing was to keep reading; I can’t wait to read her next novel.

Elizabeth was a wonderful speaker. She was articulate, sincere and often hilarious with an almost British sense of self-deprecating humor. I found her personal story inspiring since I’m also trying to get published in my 40s. I've set my novels in mid-coast Maine too.

Storm Watch: my college roommate, Deb Sabin, wrote an amusing letter in The Boston Globe about the up side of the October blizzard. Book lovers will enjoy this.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Scout's first romp in snow.
A white Christmas is normal for Maine, but a white Halloween? A blizzard hit the northeast last weekend, robbing three million homes of power (our lights just flickered). We had a busy weekend preparing for early winter, and my back still aches from stacking logs and storing garden furniture.

Luckily my son’s play wasn’t cancelled, but I didn’t let him drive into the storm alone with his new license. Taming of the Shrew went very well, and he was hilarious in the comic role of Hortensio. Of all of Shakespeare's plays, this romantic comedy of domestic abuse fails to charm me, even though the kids did a great job with it.

Today my son's Mock Trial team is presenting an imaginary case to a real judge. My son will drive himself into school, to court and back home. This new stage of freedom feels as jarring and as exciting as the first day of kindergarten.

On the topic of coming of age stories, this week I’m reviewing a young adult novel for the book club. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta won the Printz Award in 2009 and continues to stir controversy today. Some reviewers claim that its unconventional literary style is too complex and hard for teens to follow. Yet others embrace Jellicoe Road as the book that changed their life as a teenager.

Jellicoe Road is realistic fiction, but the remote Australian location feels like another world. The story is Dickensian with a touch of dystopia (like Lord of the Flies.) Taylor was abandoned at a state-run boarding school. The students are engaged in a border skirmish with the townies and visiting cadets. Play escalates to violence due to the lack of adult supervision. The closest Taylor has to a parent is her dorm monitor, and Hannah has disappeared mysteriously.

Taylor searches through Hannah’s work-in-progress for clues. She begins to suspect that the manuscript isn’t entirely fiction. There are hints to her own past as well if only she could follow the narrative. The unnumbered pages are out of order with chunks missing. The reader is equally baffled as excerpts from Hannah’s manuscript are interspersed through the real time narrative.

The plot comes together like a fragmented dream. The seventeen-year-old characters are wonderful: headstrong Taylor, charismatic Jonah of the cadets and Santangelo, a half Aborigine from town. I got caught up in the entertaining narrative and didn’t mind following it through the thorny underbrush, into dead-end tunnels and down circuitous paths. When we reached the final destination, I was satisfied but sorry for the book to end.

I’d strongly recommend Jellicoe Road to discerning readers of all ages. This innovative book would be an inspiration for writers too. Young adult literature is pushing fiction into unexplored territories.

Disclosure: I bought an ebook of Jellicoe Road without compensation. It was so good that I then bought a hard copy for my library. The warring puppies at play are my golden retriever and her pug buddy, Guinness. No puppies were harmed for this post.

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@Barrie Summy