Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Sad Time

Not long after I’d returned to the US from Japan, I met a couple living a few doors away from my place at the beach. There was something about our meeting that first time that assured me we would become good friends. 

And that we certainly did. 

At the time, Fred and Kathleen were good medicine in the sense of helping me through the re-acclimation to American life, something I’d long been away from. It wasn’t long before I was calling them best friends, always happy to share dinner or a bottle of wine or nothing more than an hour of good conversation on the patio. Over the past four years there has never been a day I wouldn’t be grateful for time together with these friends.

About three weeks back Fred and Kathleen went to south Florida to spend time with family at the Club Med Resort. During their days there they renewed their wedding vows for the third time. Nine days ago I had lunch at their beach condo where I practically slavered over a casserole that took the place of the cold cuts she hinted we might have. Twice this past week I have made that dish, something I now call Kathy’s Kasserole.

Between March 2012 and November 2013 she wrote a blog called The Three Rs of Cancer: Remission-Recurrence-Resilience about her experiences of dealing with cancer and about the importance of remaining positive and upbeat in the face of a difficult battle. 

I am heartbroken to report that our good friend-wife-mother-sister and grandmother passed away early this morning. Fred, you and the entire family are in our thoughts and prayers.

Kathleen  1945-2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Aftermath of Cleopatra

It took recommendations from different people over a long period of time but several months late I finally got around to Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins

Hard to recall a book I’ve enjoyed as much in the last half year. 

With a book buying budget teetering on the brink of calamity, I opted for the local library but discovered the book was on reserve—good sign for one published over two years ago. The paperback came out in April of this year, so finding a copy on store shelves shouldn’t be hard. And of course, there’s always Amazon who can get an inexpensive copy to readers anywhere in a week or two.

Author, Jess Walter lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington with his wife and three children. His most recent book is a collection of short stories titled, We Live in Water: Stories. He has written six novels as well as two non-fiction books. His novel Citizen Vince won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2006, The Zero was a National Book Award finalist and Beautiful Ruins was included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012. HIs books have been translated into twenty-eight languages.

Beautiful Ruins brings a story that jumps here and there across fifty years from Italy to Hollywood, on to Seattle, London and places far and in-between. It begins with the arrival of a striking young woman in a tiny village on the coast of Italy. While filming the epic movie Cleopatra in 1962 Richard Burton “trifles” with the beautiful young bit-part actress who is later bundled off the set with a story that she is dying of stomach cancer, her symptoms very like those of early pregnancy. None the wiser, she is taken to a tiny village on the coast of Italy where she meets a young Italian named Pasquale. From there we follow a boldly entertaining cast of characters across fifty years to a little theater in present day Idaho. 

For all its color, its richness of character and bravura storytelling, Beautiful Ruins is at heart a novel of social criticism offering the reader much more than mere superficial entertainment. Each of the writer’s characters shows us another side of what it is to dream, to lie, to take advantage, fail and then ultimately understand what we are. Two of Walter’s central characters—the actress and the young Italian, Pasquale—are set apart in their goodness and honesty, but are forced to find their way through a world of others serving only themselves, feeding their own misguided selfishness. 

From here forward this reader’s eyes and ears will be tuned to anything by Jess Walter. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Duh-Byoose 3

Frequent rain along with a near medieval plague of mosquitos here in dirt road country has kept me pretty much housebound the past couple of weeks. Those rare times when I run from front door to car I have to hope that only a dozen or so of the bloodthirsty devils will join me behind the wheel. Farina the dog is wary as well, on more than one occasion breaking into a Saint Vitus dance when the attack comes from all sides. We are both happier ensconced on the back porch where we can watch the rain safe from mosquitos and happy with book or bone. 

Andre Dubus III is the author of six books: The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989), Bluesman (1993), House of Sand and Fog (1999), The Garden of Last Days (2008), Townie (2011) and Dirty Love (2013). His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, as well as being a finalist for the National Book Award. His books have been published in over twenty-five languages.

Dubus grew up in mill towns in the Merrimack River valley along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and began writing fiction at the age of 22, just a few months after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelors Degree in sociology.

At my local library a couple of weeks ago I came upon a Dubus book on the New Fiction shelf, his most recent work titled Dirty Love, published in October 2013. The writer’s name was not new to me and I remembered him immediately as the author of House of Sand and Fog, a book I read in 1999. With that in mind, I took home this latest book from Mr Dubus almost certain it would turn out to be a good read. 

And it was. Dirty Love is a book of four novellas, each story set in the same town north of Boston and including minor characters that reappear in a subsequent story almost like a familiar face from down the street or the guy at the local Starbucks. Writing about Dirty Love in The New York Times, Jeff Turrentine reminds us that newlyweds crossing the threshold are walking into a ‘…daunting meshwork of married-folk dialectics: conquest and submission, selfhood and union, lust and shame, rejoicing and regret…so disoriented by love they honestly can’t tell whether they’re looking for a way into or a way out of it.’ This is a good description of characters who fumble through infidelity, philandering, romantic disillusionment and the betrayal of friends and family. My experience with Andre Dubus III has sometimes been that many of his characters come across as unsympathetic people who too often orchestrate their own problems. I found less of that in this new book. The final and best of the four stories is the sad tale of Devon, a high school dropout shattered by dirty love and the betrayal of friends and parents. 

Impressed by Dirty Love, I next dug up a copy of Dubus’s 2008 book, The Garden of Last Days, a story inspired by the suspected visit of one 9/11 hijacker to a Florida strip club shortly before the attacks. Probably my favorite of this writer’s work, it tells the story of an early September night in 2011 when a stripper in Florida is forced to bring her three year-old daughter to the Puma Club for Men because her babysitter has been hospitalized. Not well received by all critics, this was for me a relentless charge through over 500 pages, the story and viewpoint switching between five voices: April the stripper, Bassam the jihadist, A.J. an angry customer ejected from the club, Lonnie the club bouncer and Jean, April’s elderly landlady and babysitter. Dubus shapes anger, desperation, sexuality and fear into an absorbing novel I found hard to put down. Rumor has it that James Franco is planning to direct and star in a movie version of the book. Action-packed, that’s for sure.

A few days later I began the Dubus memoir, Townie, one that followed publication of The Garden of Last Days. Though born in California, Dubus grew up north of Boston in an area of depressed mills, poverty, drugs and alcoholism, where violence lived around every corner and where bullying was a way of life. I stuck with this one for 250 pages but finally put it down because the people of Dubus’s childhood and youth were mostly thugs and drunks quick to pound on the next guy or girl. At one point, afraid of his neighbors or classmates, Dubus took up weightlifting and boxing, turning himself into what he had previously feared. It is a great credit to him that he ultimately lifted himself out of that anger and brutality to become a respected writer, professor and family man. But his was a forge too harrowing for me and after the chapters leading to his early twenties I laid it aside. That said, I would discourage no one from reading the book. It has won awards and been called riveting and unforgettable. 

These days I am rereading House of Sand and Fog, the 1999 book that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one that Dubus conceived after reading a tiny newspaper article telling of a woman losing her house when erroneously evicted for unpaid taxes. There is something Shakespearian about the tragedy that befalls the characters in this book. Kathy Nicolo is a recovering addict whose husband walked out and who repeatedly ignores letters from the tax office until the day they knock on her door with an eviction notice. Forced into a motel room, her belongings in storage, the house left to her by her father is auctioned off by the state, bought by a former colonel in the Iranian military under the Shah trying to make a life for his family after fleeing Iran. And that is only the beginning. All involved are on a path to disaster. House of Sand and Fog is a harrowing and beautifully written novel. For a reader looking to sample Andre Dubus III, this one is the ticket.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Zen Dog

All of us from time to time get those email forwards that bounce around the Internet and more often than not prove to be either unfunny, treacly sweet, maudlin or politically overbearing. On occasion one of these bouncing forwards comes along with the familiar heading, “How Cute!” or “How True!” and despite the cloying title finds a sensitive spot inside us. In my case those times are rare and the delete key gets a quick tap. But I do have a vulnerable soft spot when it comes to dog stories and dog video clips. I suppose you have to have a dog for that to work. A couple of days ago I got one of these emails and was reaching for the delete key when something about it held me back. Minutes later I was mumbling to myself. “How true!”   

If you can start the day without caffeine, 
   If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
   If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
   If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
   If you can relax without alcohol,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
   Then you are probably the family dog.
Handle every stressful situation like a dog:
        If you can’t eat it or play with it,
        then pee on it and walk away.

All of us get mawkish when the right button is pushed.

Farina Belly Up

Sunday, May 18, 2014

5 Books for 5 Moods

The past couple of weeks have been fortunate as far as book choices go. Most times you read a couple of reviews, flip through a few pages on Amazon and you’re still not sure it’s the right book for your mood. This time I got it right with a string of five books, some new, some not, one something I’d been meaning to read for a long time. It’s unusual to hit upon five in a row that all prove to be the right choice. Here are those that did it for me:

Continental Drift (1985) by Russell Banks
This is the book I had been meaning to read for the last several years. I’ve read a couple of other books by Banks, so to some extent knew what I was getting into. Continental Drift is about a luckless guy from New Hampshire who uproots his family from all and everyone they know and drags them to Florida trying to catch his dream. Like others before him, he falls prey to people looking to exploit, one of many looking for the chance to better themselves in a new setting. The story is built upon a marvelous cross section of characters that range from black and white, to old world and new, from the living as well as the dead. Continental Drift gives us a bleak perspective of opportunity in the America of the 1980s.

Long, Last, Happy (2010) by Barry Hannah
This selection of old and new stories was published shortly after the writer’s death. For a while there, Hannah was a blazing comet across the skies of American literature, a reputation ignited by his first novel, Geronimo Rex, published in 1972. He followed that with another novel before showing readers that his true power lay in short stories. Barry Hannah could do just about anything with words, leaving images on the page that you hadn’t thought were possible. The problem often arises that his beautiful sentences and use of language, along with his fascinating oddball characters never find the plot, or at least one that’s clear. For the reader with an interest in southern writing, Hannah shouldn’t be overlooked. He wrote a good many incomparable short stories that are taught in universities. Long, Last, Happy is a good sampling.

The Painter (2014) by Peter Heller
After reading Heller’s earlier book, The Dog Stars, his new book grabbed my attention at first glance. The author has written mostly non-fiction, but makes the shift to fiction without the least stumble. In the two books I’ve read, Heller tells a story of moral ambiguity, the main characters in each at battle with the laws, traditions and culture that have shaped them. The Painter is about a man successful in his painting but with less luck in his personal life, where violence seems to almost seek him out. Jim Stegner is trying to outrun his past but keeps bumping into reminders that threaten to undo him. The story is set in Colorado and New Mexico, a landscape that is as rugged as it is lyrical and Heller soars in his descriptions of fly fishing in creeks meandering along canyon walls under an overhang of lime-green cottonwoods. With short, abrupt sentences and paragraphs you would expect the story to flow with less grace. Not so with Peter Heller.

The Son (2014) by Jo Nesbo
Saw this book in the window of my tiny local library and checked it out mostly because I had never read anything by a modern Norwegian novelist, or anything set in the city of Oslo. From the first page this crime novel grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Jo Nesbo has a new fan and after the last page of The Son, I jumped up to order two more of his books. The son in this story is a young man serving time in prison for the crimes of others. He is accepting of his sentence until learning that his father’s suicide was not that at all. He escapes from prison (very cleverly) and begins working down a list of those who he believes killed his father. The question is, who will get him first, the cops or the criminals?

The Keillor Reader (2014) by Garrison Keillor
I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor for two things in particular. It is a long custom of mine to begin each day with a cup of coffee and the latest online edition of The Writer’s Almanac. That has led me to read Keillor’s several compilations of poetry which have done a lot to re-shape my appreciation of a form that high school taught me to hate. By hook or by crook find a copy of Keillor’s splendid introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times (2005) wherein he explains what poetry really is and who it is meant for. The Keillor Reader is something just out and is a collection of his writings over the last forty years. There is so much humanity and warm humor in this writer’s stories that natural reaction is a smile that lasts for 358 pages. Never read any of the Lake Wobegon stories? This one’s for you. I took great enjoyment from this little snippet out of “The News from Lake Wobegon.” 

‘I wish to be cremated… I wish my ashes to be placed in the green bowling ball that Raoul also gave me, which somebody can hollow out (I’m told), and then seal it up, and I would like the ball to be dropped into Lake Wobegon.’

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bulldozer Mad

Judging from a handful of posts on this blog, some might begin to wonder if anyplace and anyone is as nutty as the Japanese. Fear not because looney tunes are played all over the world and a good many of the craziest stories are born right here in the USA. Whether it be here or there, no one country holds the monopoly on screwy behavior and the daily papers are full of stories about people acting out unbelievable nutzoid scenarios.

Florida has its fair share of crazy, let no one tell you otherwise. St Augustine is a city on Florida’s northeast coast founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers and famous as the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the US. For 200 years it served as the capital of Spanish Florida. Since the late 19th century, the city’s historical character has made it a major tourist attraction. I have visited St Augustine and remember being delighted by its old world colonial ambience. Despite its beauty and antique charm, not surprisingly the city also has in its back streets at least one person we could describe as completely bananas.

At one time or another most of us have endured neighbors we didn’t care for or didn’t get along with. Might be uncomfortable at times, but most of us find a way to live with the problem and keep things civilized. Ana Maria Moreta Folch, a resident of St Augustine doesn’t get along with her neighbors and claiming she was doing the neighborhood a favor, took a drastic step. Deciding she didn't like the kind of people her neighbors are, Ms Folch solved the problem with a bulldozer.

She called a land-clearing company and asked that a bulldozer come out and demolish ‘her’ trailer on Dusty Road. She told the workman who came with a bulldozer that she owned the trailer they were standing in front of, showing him a key to the place and explaining that no one lived there and she wanted the trailer and septic tank destroyed. Of course, the real owner of the trailer, Maria Gottfried was not at home. Taking Ms Folch at her word, the man and his bulldozer got busy.

When Mrs Gottfried got home and saw her house reduced to a heap of rubble she immediately called the Sheriff’s Office. She told police she had owned the mobile home since 2006 and never had fights or disagreements with Ms Folch, but had certainly not given the woman a key to her home. Ms Folch, on the other hand described her neighbor as an unsavory character she suspected of breaking into her car.

For her bulldozer attack Ms Folch was charged with criminal mischief (!) resulting in $25,000 in damage. She was later released on $10,000 bail.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dressed to Kill

Bordeaux in southwestern France is home to a small but elegant bridal salon called Mary Mariées, a shop that despite research, yields little information for those of us ill-equipped to read French. The most I could squeeze from a ‘translate this page’ website snippet is that the store’s customers are brides-to-be. Ms Mariées features wedding gowns by designers well-known for bridal fashion, but apparently, carries nothing at all for men, leaving the groom to find his own simpler attire. But then, it is surely the bride who is most excited by shopping for a wedding dress and choosing the bridesmaid ensemble.

I can only imagine that a Japanese tourist wandering around Bordeaux one summer day happened upon the Mariées Salon and was intoxicated by the notion of transplanting the idea to Japan and offering wedding fashions and ball gowns to ladies for whom marriage and fancy dress is an unfulfilled dream. Nothing odd about a plan to open a rental clothing shop, but as it happens, the business expanded in another direction. Within months word got out and the store was inundated with requests from men dreaming of a secret debut. And thus was a new market discovered, one for men—men with a secret desire to wear beautiful drag.

For a low price under $600, Mary Mariee (no connection to the French salon) in central Japan offers men the chance to dress up and be photographed in a ball gown. The price package includes a haircut, shampoo and close shave before moving on to make-up and hair, or wig selection. After a choice of favorite gowns and a two-hour session for hair and make-up, the "man" moves to a studio where a professional photographer does an extensive shoot showing off the "new woman" in a panoply of gowns. Princess for a day. 

Among the many dresses offered to women customers are racks of 100 gowns exclusively for men. Choices include a selection of sumptuous white wedding dresses, as well as traditional kimonos with a seamstress on hand to alter clothing for a male figure. The store manager explained, “Enquiries from men were so overwhelming we concluded that men too yearn for that princess feeling.” Naturally, the store’s services are offered without any judgment of men who choose to wear a dress and heels on occasion. The manager added, “We provide the opportunity for people to enjoy showing their real selves, whether they are men or women.” In line with that philosophy, Mary Mariee has extended its services to cover fashion shoots for women who dream of being dressed and photographed in men’s clothing.

Should the reader with delicate sensitivities be shocked and open-mouthed at this phenomenon, rest assured that it is unlikely to turn heads among average modern Japanese people, who probably buy lettuce from a vending machine, pay to have "cute" crooked caps put on their teeth, frequent coffee shops where waitresses wear the costumes of animation characters, and where the Takarazuka all-female theatre troupe is wildly popular and where strawberry and whipped cream sandwiches for lunch are ordinary fare.

Lettuce from vending machines in combination with the Mary Mariee fancy dress salon puts me in mind of New York drag entertainer, Hedda Lettuce, but who’s to know if the salon has any wigs and dresses in verdant green, trademark of the queen of green.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America