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