Friday, July 21, 2017

FISH TALE

So, this just crossed my virtual desk.

Normally, of course, I wait until I actually see a movie before I start raving about it. But I think this just shot to the top of my list of (potential) favorite movies of 2017!

(Despite stiff competition already from Franck and Their Finest.)

From the great Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), behold the new trailer for The Shape of Water.

Looks to me like a gender-reversed Little Mermaid meets Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a little Beauty and the Beast tossed in, just to spice things up!

And you know how much I love a good mer-folk tale!

Opens Dec 8 on a big screen near you.

I am SO there!


Sunday, July 16, 2017

COLD COMFORT

Are we psyched up yet for the Game of Thrones season premiere tonight?

Much has changed since last summer, when Season 6 ended. The Obamas were in the White House, and some determined stabs at social progress were still being made — like the international Paris Climate Agreement — despite the torporous just-say-no congress here at home.

But now everything has changed, to the point that our so-called "real" life has begun to mirror George R. R. Martin's art in sinister ways. The tagline for GoT Season 7 is "Winter Is Here," and boy do we know how that feels!

Winter has been here in our political landscape since January, and now that it's mid-July, it just keeps getting colder. That's just a metaphor, of course, as abnormal heat waves continue to ravish large pockets of the planet.

But in the GoT universe, the threat is very literal. A vast, unstoppable army of the undead, led by giant, frozen, immortal White Walkers, are advancing out of the North with but one objective — to obliterate every mortal in its path until the entire known world is reduced to frozen wasteland.

Jon Snow: blade-wielding
As metaphors go, this one is pretty acute for the destructive power of Nature unleashed on petty humans who have failed miserably as caretakers, and continue to ignore the warning that — yes — "Winter Is Coming." (Which dedicated Thronies will recall, was the tagline way back in Season 1.)

(There's actually a second tagline for Season 7, the even more ominous,"The End Begins.")

So now, along with the usual fear of fan-abuse that comes with every new GoT season, as we wait in dread for which of our favorite characters will be killed off, we also have to worry about the whole of the Seven Kingdoms getting overrun by the white menace.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, what armorer has forged the Valeyrian steel blade to vanquish our own White Walker-in-Chief, and his ghoulish, giraffe-killing sons? And where is our Jon Snow to wield it?

And who will step up with the savvy wit and the brains of Tyrion Lannister, and the passion for justice of dragon-girl Daenerys Targaryen, to lead us out of this morass?

Daenerys, Tyrion and company to the rescue!
Season 7 will run for only seven episodes (instead of the usual ten), followed by an even shorter final Season 8, next summer, which will be reduced to only six episodes. The days are literally numbered for the GoT universe.

Let's hope the same is not true for us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

RUNNER'S HIGH

Smolin and Rao: mysterious
Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off season with uproarious 39 Steps

It's not exactly the Bard, but the 2017 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare gets off to a ripping start with The 39 Steps.

Based on an adventure novel by John Buchan, famously made into Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller movie, the story gets another makeover in director Paul Mullins' uproarious production — long on sly wit, short on logic, and absolutely irresistible.

This 2005 stage adaptation by English playwright Patrick Barlow is an exercise in comic audacity. All the parts are played by a cast of four — three men and one woman —in a variety of costumes, accents, and disguises.

Gilmore, Ryan, Smolin: strangers on a train
Barlow takes his inspiration mostly from the movie (especially in the '30s period setting), and nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to Hitchcock and his oeuvre pop up throughout.

You don't have to know the film to enjoy the play, but those familiar with the Hitchcock version will get a special kick out of the sheer chutzpah of this interpretation.

At its center is Richard Hannay (Brian Smolin), a bored young man puttering around his London flat one evening who decides to distract himself by "doing something mindless and utterly useless — I'll go to the theatre!" It's the first step on the road to disaster.

At a music hall performance by a mentalist called Mr. Memory (Allen Gilmore) and his partner/handler (Mike Ryan), Hannay meets Annabella (Grace Rao), a sexy dame with a ripe German accent, who begs to come home with him.

Stagecraft: Smolin falls from a (ladder) train trestle
In short order, the mystery woman is dead in his flat. The police suspect him, the sinister men who were following her are now following him, and Hannay is on the run. All he knows is she was trying to convey secret information about an international spy ring to a colleague in the wilds of Scotland, so he grabs a map and takes the train north, hoping to sort it all out before the police can arrest him for murder.

But who cares about the plot? All the fun is in the playing. Smolin, who won hearts and cracked funny bones in the title role of The Liar a couple of seasons back, is the only cast member to play only one character, and his Hannay anchors the show with his determination to be a good sport, his insinuating double-takes, and his acrobatic dexterity.

(It's a riot when he limbo-slides out of an armchair from under a dead body.) The subtle ways he preens while running in place onstage as police bulletins describe him in ever more flattering terms is also very funny.
Name that Hitchcock reference!

Rao is also terrific as the three principal women —Annabella, the femme fatale, Pamela, an innocent Scottish lass married to a parsimonious old farmer, and Margaret, an angry blonde who winds up handcuffed to Hannay in his trek across the Scottish moors.

She and Smolin get a lot of comic mileage out of those cuffs, trying to go over, no, under, no, around a wooden stile out in the country, or traversing a bog — played by Ryan.

Ryan and Gilmore (their parts are called Clown 1 and Clown 2), play everybody else, and they're both hilarious. Gilmore is especially memorable as the ferociously self-abnegating farmer saying grace, or an ancient staffer at a political rally attempting to set up a podium. Ryan brings down the house in the rally scene as an elderly speaker with a miniscule voice.

Rao and Smolin: comic mileage
A lot of the biggest laughs come from the Clowns missing their cues, or struggling to change costumes fast enough — like their virtuoso duet on a train platform, playing three parts simultaneously by feverishly switching hats.

Scenic designers Annie Smart and Justine Law's rolling staircase set cleverly adapts to every locale, from music hall to train station to manor house. Special kudos are due to properties designer/master M. Woods for transforming objects like crates, chairs, and a ladder into a train, a car, a railroad trestle, and the Scottish Highlands. (One door frame on wheels is particularly ingenious.) B. Modern's period costumes are deft and impeccable.

Clearly, everyone involved in this production is having a high old time, and the audience can't help but be swept along.

(Fabulous photos by Jana Marcus.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

LET'S GET HITCHED

Fasten your seatbelts, folks! Next week, Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off it 2017 season with a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller, The 39 Steps.

(Full disclosure: by all accounts, this 2005 adaptation by Patrick Barlow is more of a romp than a thriller, with its three-man, one-woman cast playing all the parts, at breakneck speed. But more about that in my review next week!)

Hitchcock's legend looms large over our cultural landscape. Okay, he loomed large everywhere, but he cast a particularly long shadow around here, as a longtime resident of Scotts Valley (he owned the Heart O' the Mountain vineyard for 34 years).

The Bay Area also provided inspiration, as well as locations, for several of his most memorable films, including Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds.


Dali's set for the Spellbound dream sequence: the eyes have it
In celebration of their upcoming production, and our local connection to the maestro, SCS is hosting Hitchcock Week, a series of film screenings and related events to be held at various venues around town.

First up, this Friday, July 7, is this year's first Noon at the Nick, the annual collaboration between SCS and the Nickelodeon, where SCS creatives meet the public to talk about their upcoming productions. A Q&A with SCS Artistic Director Mike Ryan about The 39 Steps begins at 12 noon. Admission is free.

Saturday, July 8, is opening night for The 39 Steps at the SCS Grove in DeLaveaga Park. Curtain time is 8 pm, but savvy patrons are encouraged to get there early for the pre-game wine tasting, beginning at 6pm, to sample Heart O' the Mountain Estate wines. Hitchcock's granddaughter, Tere Carruba, will be on hand to introduce the show.

Still thirsty? Fall by 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, downtown, on Sunday, July 9, for an evening of "Hitchcocktails." Drinks will be accompanied by a screening of Spellbound (1945) — although even teetotalers will feel woozy during the surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Bar opens at 5 pm.

On Monday, July 10, strap on some protective headwear for an outdoor screening of The Birds (1963) at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery .

Although it was based on a Daphne DuMaurier novel, Hitchcock relocated the action to a small Calfornia coastal town after a news report two years earlier that hundreds of seabirds (later discovered to be poisoned by toxic algae bloom) had flung themselves into buildings and structures all along the Monterey Bay — particularly in Pleasure Point and Capitola. Showtime is 8pm. You buy the beer, but the movie is free.

Tuesday, July 11, is a twofer: first, check out the exhibition, Hitchcock: A Look Back on display at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. Then stick around for a discussion of The 39 Steps — the book, the film, and the play — hosted by Maria Frangos, SCS Dramaturg, and Theatre/English professor at DeAnza College and UCSC, and co-hosted by moi, your humble movie critic.
The old McCrory Hotel: Santa Cruz Gothic

We'll be there to answer your burning questions about the SCS production, and the Hitchcock version. Questions like, what are the 39 Steps? And what the heck is a MacGuffin, anyway? So get ready to fire away! Discussion begins at 6:30 pm, and is free to the public.

On Wednesday, July 12, the Nickelodeon presents the one and only Psycho (1960), with special guest Tere Carruba, the maestro's granddaughter, to introduce the film.

Rumor has it that Hitchcock's inspiration for the seedy, Gothic Bates Motel was the old McCrory Hotel on Beach Hill, which has since been renovated into the Sunshine Villa. (Look here and here for background info and more images.) Showtime is 7pm. Visit the Nick, in person or online, for tickets.

The festivities wrap up on Thursday, July 13, with a screening of Vertigo (1958) at the Crepe Place. Showtime is 8:30 pm. Admission to the film is free, and Hitchcock's favorite cocktail, The White Lady, will be available.

Looks like it's going to be a thrilling week!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

HIGH SPIRITS

Ghouls just wanna have fun in Cabrillo Stage's funny 'Addams Family'

The summer theatre season gets off to a boisterous start with The Addams Family, the first of this year's musical productions from Cabrillo Stage.

Although it seems odd to apply words like "lively" and "exuberant" to characters so famous for their morbidity and ghoulishness, you can expect to have an, er, spirited time at this handsomely produced, enormously good-hearted, family-friendly show.

Crook and Saucedo: darkly funny
This is a relatively new property that opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran through the end of 2011. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, it is, of course, inspired by the macabre, darkly funny single-panel cartoons by Charles Addams that ran in The New Yorker for decades.

The classic TV sitcom from the 1960s, and a couple of more recent theatrical films, have kept these characters in the public eye since then, but the writers here cook up an original storyline that mostly takes its cues from the cartoons.

Director Bobby Marchessault gets us in the mood right off, inviting us to feast our eyes on William "Skip" Epperson's splendid proscenium arch decorated with skulls, dagger-shaped supports, and cobwebs above a row of headstones.

Fittingly enough, the show begins in a graveyard, where the entire Addams clan — led by proud patriarch, Gomez (Adam Saucedo) and his slinky wife, Morticia (a seductively deadpan Danielle Crook) — arrives for its annual celebration of the dear departed.


Calling forth various ghosts of Addamses past, from different eras (a flapper, a conquistador, etc.) they all sing a funny paean to their ghoulish life in "When You're An Addams." (These silvery-grey ghosts, called Ancestors, in cheeky but elaborate historical costumes by Chiara Cola, also serve as chorus line and stagehands throughout the rest of the show.)

Wednesday, Gomez, as Chas Addams drew them
The plot kicks in with the show's biggest departure from the source material: little daughter Wednesday, usually portrayed as a middle-grade moppet, is now a teenager (Gabrielle Filloux) in the throes of her first love.

Filloux makes droll teen angst out of her struggle to reconcile the joys of love with the family credo of gloom. The problem is, her boyfriend, Lucas (Ryland Gordon), is "normal."

But, of course, the point of the show is observing the Addamses at play. John G. Bridges all but steals the show as a delightfully sweet and goofy Uncle Fester. (Fasten your seatbelts for the funky, yet utterly beguiling bit of stagecraft when he flies up to cavort with the moon.)
   
t's a running gag that Wednesday routinely tortures kid brother, Pugsley (Michael Navarro), on a rack — and how much he loves it. Deborah McArthur can't do much with the underwritten part of screechy, witchy Grandma.

Astin as Gomez: Latin lover
But David Murphy's zombified butler, Lurch, always in slo-mo, provides the show's biggest, best surprise.

Lippa's songs are consistently clever, and the book is very funny. ("Wednesday's growing up," sighs Gomez. "She'll be Thursday before you know it!")

I'm pretty sure the concept of Gomez as a Latin lover originated with the delightful John Astin in the TV show (ably continued by Raul Julia in the movies) — beginning with that name.

(In Addams' cartoons, the characters are unnamed. If the patriarch, as drawn, resembles anybody, it's Peter Lorre, or, possibly, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

But whatever the character's origins, Saucedo plays Gomez with gusto, geniality, and a terrific singing voice. He couldn't be any better.


(Read more in this week's Good Times.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

WISE GUYS & GALS

Their Finest: dueling typewriters
The recent popularity of Their Finest got me thinking about how to make writers dynamic in the movies.

Writing a novel in isolation is hardly a spectator sport. Sure, there have been good movies about novelists, but the act of writing itself is pretty much a snooze-fest onscreen.

But other forms of writing can be made more cinematic because they involve action — and humor.

A pair (or team, or pool) of writers bouncing ideas off each other verbally while concocting a film or television script is an idea situation: the act of creation is achieved as the jokes fly.

Boy Meets Girl: sell that story
One of my favorites in this genre is the 1938 screwball comedy Boy Meets Girl, with fast-talking James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as studio screenwriters hatching an elaborate movie scenario in double-time.

A more updated version was that venerable TV sitcom of the 1960s,  Dick Van Dyke Show, where staff writers Rob, Buddy, and Sally traded non-stop wisecracks while cobbling together a weekly comedy script for their TV star boss.

Another reliably visual writing genre is journalism. You can't go wrong with reporters out there tracking down a story — especially if they're cracking wise the whole time, as in The Front Page (1931, and remade many times).

Or better still, the 1940 remake, His Girl Friday, recasting the second lead as a female newshound played by Rosalind Russell, following leads and cracking the case alongside star reporter Cary Grant.

Wax Museum, Glenda Farrel: girl meets typewriter
One of my personal favorites, less well-known today than the others, is The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Sure, it's a horror movie, but it also features Glenda Farrell as a gal reporter with plenty of moxie, flinging snappy patter in all directions.

When her roomie (Fay Wray) disappears, right around the time the city wax museum begins exhibiting a bunch of new figures of dubious provenance, Farrell convinces her skeptical, hard-boiled editor (Frank McHugh) to let her track down the story — and, boy, does she ever!

The genre inspired its own homage in Woody Allen's Scoop (2006). Ian McShane is great as a recently deceased reporter who haunts cub journalist Scarlet Johansson with clues to a crime, because he — being inconveniently dead — can no longer get the story.

As long as writers are producing the scripts, tales of the writing life will be told onscreen. (Write what you know, and all that.) Here are some of my other favorites.


Monday, June 12, 2017

BEAST OF THE MONTH (JUNE)

The countdown continues — s-l-o-w-l-y — to the publication date of my next novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.

Due date is March 6, 2018. Get in line now!

Okay, that's still 10 months away.

But in the meantime, I'm posting a Beast of the Month on this blog, sharing some of my favorite Beauty and the Beast images from the 260 intervening years since what we now think of as the classic version of the novel was published in France by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1757.

This month: feast your eyes on this gorgeous painting from contemporary African-American artist Thomas Blackshear!

This does not resemble my Beast, or my heroine, but I love, love, love the Klimt-like decorative element of the patterns and brushwork!

Seriously, could this be any more gorgeous?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

GOOD COMPANY

Okay, there's no ocean anywhere near Phoenix, Arizona. And yet, James Hook's voyage of world domination continues!

A friend directed my attention to this summer reading book display at a Barnes & Noble in the Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix.

Notice the prominent position of Alias Hook! The idea is, they are pairing up classic books and authors with their suggestions for "great modern" retellings or updates!

For my part, I'm thrilled to be sharing valuable tabletop space with such good company as Jane Austen and Alexander Dumas! (Along with J. M. Barrie, of course!)

And speaking of which, see the paperback of Peter Pan at the lower right, wedged in between the "Go" game and The Count of Monte Cristo? The cover image is by none other than Roy Best! It's the same image of Pan that's on the cover of that 1931 storybook that was gifted to me last week.

Anyway, I'm thrilled that my book keeps finding its way back into the public eye. Occupy Bookstores, that's my motto!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

CAPTAIN'S LOG

Russell Brand as Captain Hook, by Annie Leibovitz
Captain Hook continues to have legs!

(And, why not; it was only his hand that got cut off.)

What I mean is that readers over at the Republic of Goodreads keep discovering Alias Hook and posting enthusiastic reviews!

Many early readers assumed the book would be YA (Young Adult) because it's about Peter Pan (although they were quick to discover my book is really about James Hook). And some were disappointed that it was not. But now, some of this late-coming crop of Goodreaders are actually relieved that the book is not YA.

Their comments have been interesting:

This was a book for people just like me - adults who still love magic and the fairy tales from childhood, but don't want to read another book about teenagers (I'm pretty sure 97% of all books now are YA action romances :/ )

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, much more than I probably expected too, despite the interesting premise. I had sort of pegged it as a young adult fantasy with probably many of the same themes that seem to frequently recur in that genre, but this is most definitely a grown-up book, with an adult's perspective of Neverland.


It does sometimes seem there are more YA fantasy series than anything else in the marketplace. Of course, lots of adults read YA because, as a writer friend recently observed, "that's where the ideas are." But it's up to writers to resist the lure of formula that could so easily lead to stagnation within the genre (or any popular genre).

This is useful to think about, since my next two novels will be YA. Keeping the stories fresh and the writing fresh — for readers of all ages — that's the challenge!

(Meanwhile, it's great to know that my James Hook continues to win fans. Pardon me while I blush over this Alias Hook review posted last week on the You Tube book review channel Liene's Library! Thanks, Liene!)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

STORY(BOOK) TIME


So this happened this week:




A friend helping her mom move unearthed this vintage storybook edition of Peter Pan. For some strange reason, she thought of me!


It's an oversized volume called The Picture Story Book of Peter Pan, published in 1931, and illustrated in voluptuous watercolors by Roy Best.


Obsessed as I am with depictions of Captain Hook in all media (to see how they stack up with my James Hook in Alias Hook), I couldn't wait to dive in!


This Hook arrives in full comic-opera regalia, complete with luxuriant, long black Charles II curls. And the red coat, which is standard in Hook depictions probably as far back as the original stage play in 1904. (And immortalized in the 1953 Disney cartoon.)


I do approve of the elaborate headgear here; my James Hook has an absolute fetish for extravagant hats.



But while J. M. Barrie makes a big deal of Hook's icy blue eyes, I find it a little bizarre that illustrator Best tints Hook's entire eyeball (what we usually think of as the "white") a fetching shade of powder blue.


Meanwhile, Best's version of Pan is much younger and way more cherubic than mine. In these illustrations, he's practically a toddler.
Which I guess makes a kind of sense, since the Pan in my book, is going through an eternal case of the Terrible Twos.


But I do love Best's  va-va-voom Tinker Bell. Just look at her, so saucily perched on her little vase, scantily-clad, and vamping like a mini Jean Harlow! Or a chorus girl in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical.


It's plain to see why this artist was best known for his calendar girl pin-ups!


None of these images remotely resemble the characters as I see them in Alias Hook. But I'm such a sucker for vintage illustration, this one is definitely going on the "keeper" pile!

Monday, May 29, 2017

BEING HERE NOW

Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square, Prague
Yesterday, apropos of nothing in particular, Art Boy said that these are the halcyon days of our old age.

And I realized that's true: no matter what age we are now, there's some point in the future when we'll look back fondly on this moment in time, today, and think, Wow, those were the days!

So maybe it's time to unplug from the Borg for a minute, forget the %@#!!*$! news, and pay attention to where we are right now.

Yesterday at this time, I had just made a strawberry tart. (From our weekly box of strawberries from Grey Bears' Brown Bag Program!) All day, a hummingbird had been building her teensy nest in our apricot tree.

Art Boy was chopping peppers in the kitchen. We were having friends over for dinner.

In the immortal words of Steve Miller, time keeps on tickin', tickin,' tickin', into the future.

So we better be here now!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

AHA!

Having trouble dragging the first draft of your novel to the finish line?

Here's a tip from Stephen King: the first draft is always just for you. No one else will (or should) ever see it. This is how you tell yourself the story.

I don't know when, or where King ever said this. It's just one of those tiny infobites that occasionally pops up in the Random Shuffle that is my brain. But even though I've forgotten where I heard or read this nugget, the idea itself is so savvy and reassuring, it's stayed with me.

It's especially pertinent now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book. (The one coming out after Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.) This is the first time I'm working from a detailed proposal that includes the beginning, the (dreaded) middle, and the end of the story.

My previous book-writing method was to just plunge into an idea and flail around for the next couple of years, but I'm beginning to see the wisdom of actually making a plan first.

Things are, in fact, going more smoothly than usual. But here's the thing: at this stage, when you're still telling yourself the story, you haven't thought of every detail yet. There will be plenty of "aha!" moments in the course of the writing (and rewriting) — but now is not the time to sit around waiting for them!

The job now is to get a complete story onto the page, by fair means or foul, even if it means writing something stupid to connect scene A to scene B. Don't agonize over every word choice, and don't get hung up on details.

And whatever you do, don't stop!

There'll be plenty of time later to throw out the stupid stuff. (And a lot of stuff you think is great now; that's what editors are for.) Everything is going to change, anyway, but until you have something that at least vaguely looks and quacks like a duck on the page, you won't be able to proceed to the next step — revising. And believe me, that's where the real work begins!

That's when you get to those "aha!" moments too. But you have to get there first!

Monday, May 22, 2017

THE 'HOOD FIGHT

Activist resists callous city planners in Citizen Jane

Guess what? You can fight City Hall. With engagement, activism, and a keen sense of moral outrage, we, the people, can foil the best-laid plans of mice and politicians, however mighty they may think they are. Matt Tyrnauer's excellent documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, shows how it's done, a call to arms that could not be more timely in this chaotic political moment.

The city referred to in the movie's subtitle is New York City. The story begins in the late1950s, where the battle lines are drawn between Utopian post-war urban planning and the communities and concerns of real-life people.

Leading the charge is Robert Moses, an imperious, celebrated urban planning czar who callously decrees, "You have to move a lot of people out of the way," (mostly low-income residents) to make room for the so-called "Urban Renewal" he envisions. (Or, as James Baldwin calls it, in a vintage TV clip, "Negro Removal.")

In the opposing corner is journalist Jane Jacobs, who develops her "theory of opposition" to Moses' plans. A city resident since 1934, whose freelance stories on urban life earned her a position as Associate Editor at Architectural Forum magazine, Jacobs believes a city should be "a place with scope for all kinds of people."

Jane Jacobs: resistance in action
She believes that life lived out on the streets, on the stoops of old buildings and the sidewalks in front of them, creates community; even residents without a lot of money can create rich neighborhoods. Whereas Moses' solution is to tear down all the old buildings, eliminate sidewalk culture, and remove people to soulless highrise towers: i.e.: housing projects.

The welfare of the people involved, uprooted from their community life, is a matter of complete indifference to him. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he chuckles, in a TV clip.

Filmmaker Tyrnauer sets up Jacobs vs. Moses as a "battle for the soul of the city." He posits that Jacobs' influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is as defining a moment in 20th Century radical politics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1963).

Jacobs consistently fought for the lives and concerns of real people over insular, elitist goals and corporate greed. It's a fight we're still engaged in right now. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE INSPIRATION GAME

Matisse: Studio, Quai St. Michel. Seminal.
Okay, we're the last kids on the block to see the excellent exhibition on Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn up at SF MoMA.

But it's so worth seeing!

At first glance, you might not think that the prolific, French post-Impressionist genius, Matisse, has much in common with California mid-century modernist Diebenkorn.

But the whole point of this show is to demonstrate the connections between the two.

Diebenkorn was a lifelong admirer of Matisse. And through a judicious selection of paintings by both artists, this show suggest how Diebenkorn was inspired by the French master through different stages of his own career, during the process of finding his own voice.

Diebenkorn: Window (1967) I love this — so rich!
It's fascinating to see how that influence plays out — not necessarily in subject matter or theme, but certainly in color palette, shape, and the energy of the paint on canvas.

Both artists progress through stages of figurative and abstract work, and while connections between the works are not always obvious, we gradually come to realize how much even the abstract, color-blocked, expressionistic images for which Diebenkorn is best known pay subtle homage to Matisse — even the figurative and decorative Matisse.

In some cases, the curators attempt to show the direct effect of a certain Matisse over a subsequent Diebenkorn, but the influence is far more general and fluid than that.

The curators know this, too, and the connections are ours to discover.

Matisse: Blue Window (1913)
They wisely begin the exhibit with the Matisse painting above, "Studio, Quai St. Michel" (1916). As our docent tour guide pointed, out you could draw a direct connection between this seminal Matisse image and just about any Diebenkorn work in the entire show.

This exhibition got me thinking about inspiration vs. imitation. If you've spent any time at all in museums, you've probably seen some young student, or fledgling artist, with easel and paint box set up before some great painting, studiously rendering a copy.

The idea is not to replicate that painting exactly, like a forgery, but to teach yourself how and why that painting works through the process of painting it yourself.

This is a necessary step any creative artist has to go through —understanding something we love by making our own version of it — on the way to establishing our own, unique, creative voice.
Diebenkorn: Ocean Park #79 (1975)

The visual artist paints and paints and paints until he or she gets some idea of where their work is going. In the writing biz, we call this editing.

And you keep working over and over again until you get it right. The early, abstract Diebenkorns from his Urbana series (from his time as an art professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana) come first in the SF MoMA show. It's possible to glimpse the Matisse influence, but these paintings are a little chaotic for me; Diebenkorn is still finding himself.

But as the show continues, you can see Diebenkorn getting a grip on his art as he perfects the sophisticated distillation of color and line that owes so much to the spirit of Matisse, yet is so distinctly Diebenkorn.

Full disclosure — I didn't know anything about Diebenkorn, and most likely would never have sought out his work if he hadn't been paired up with the mighty Matisse in this show. I'm generally more of a figurative, narrative kind of art-lover.

Diebenkorn does Matisse!
But now, I'm a fan! His colors are extraordinary, and there's a kind of monumental serenity to his images that I find quietly profound.

My favorite piece in the show? Diebenkorn's "Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) (at left). From across the room, this looks like a Matisse, with that swirling, organic pattern on the left. Up close, it looks like a Matisse grafted onto a geometric, color-blocked Diebenkorn.

Turns out the painting was done after Diebenkorn viewed Matisse paintings at The Hermitage in Leningrad on a trip to Russia the year before. In one way, you get the sense of viewing a Matisse on a wall with another landscape outside, possibly seen through a window.

But in another sense, you see in this celebration of Matisse, the old master beginning to make way on the canvas for the mature Diebenkorn.

This show is up at SF MoMA for one more week. See it if you can, and be inspired!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

BEAST UPDATE

Hey folks, here's another update in the Beast saga!

This week, I received a hard copy version of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, straight from the copyeditor! So I was sharpening my quill pen to scrawl my "yea" or "nay" on suggested edits, supply alternate changes, if necessary, and seize my last opportunity to make any last-minute substantive alterations.

Fortunately not too many of those. Intrepid  Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair and I have already re-edited and revised this thing so many times, there weren't even any typos left for me to correct — only my persistent misspelling of one frequently-used word. And my always uncertain grasp on the realities of commas, and when to use them.

(For which, I apologize, retroactively, to anyone who has ever entrusted me to edit your manuscript. My approach to commas is creative and free-form, although not exactly correct— apparently!)

Anyway, shipped my shaggy Beast back to the publisher today. And I'm eagerly awaiting the next step on the road to my expected pub date, March 6, 2018.

Stay tuned!

Monday, May 15, 2017

IN THE BAG

Have you heard about the Brown Bag program? Once a week, the stalwart folks at Grey Bears provide a grocery sack full of fresh produce for qualified seniors county-wide. (Including home deliveries to hundreds of housebound seniors.)

But here's something I didn't know until a few weeks ago: you don't have to be in the low-income bracket to qualify. Anyone age 55 or over is eligible to receive a bag of goodies — every week! — for a ridiculously modest investment of only $30 a year!

For a long time, Art Boy and I never even considered participating in this program; we thought a weekly surprise package of produce we would be fun, but we didn't want to take food out of the mouths of people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

But then one night we had dinner with Grey Bears honcho Tim Brattan, who invited — no, implored us — to join the program. The organization has to provide brown bags for X number of participants in order to retain the crucial grant funding that keeps the program going. So anyone in the correct age bracket willing to spend as little as $30 per annum (or more, if you're so inclined) to support the program is welcome to sign up.

And just look at what you get! There's been a box of strawberries in our bag every week of the three weeks we've been part of the program! (Hey, that's practically worth the annual investment right there!)

There's usually a selection of root veggies — potatoes, yams, carrots, onions (one week there were parsnips, which I discovered I love!) — and an apple or an orange, or two. This week we got two big, fat portobello mushrooms! Some sort of bagged salad greens is also part of the deal, shredded coleslaw cabbage this week, but last week it was a bag of fresh spinach leaves — pre-rinsed!

And let's not forget the bread! The brown bag is stapled shut, so the contents are always a surprise, but you get to pick out a loaf or two of whatever you like from a mind-boggling variety of breads.

Food is locally donated, and a community of 75 Grey Bears volunteers put the bags together each week, to be trucked to various distribution points around town. When you sign up, you'll find out where the nearest drop-off is, and your name will go on a list at that location. You'll get an official membership card in a couple of weeks, but as soon as your name goes on that list, you can start reaping the bounty!

To sign up for the Brown Bag program, or find out more about this intrepid organization, visit the Grey Bears website.

Salut!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

ORDER UP

Hey, intrepid readers!

Just found out my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, is available for pre-order as we speak on Amazon!

Yes, it's still going to be a long wait; expected pub date is March 6, 2018. But if you're one of those ferociously organized types who hates to wait around until the last minute, now's your chance to go to the head of the line and avoid the rush later!

I have no idea when shipping will actually commence. I don't even have ARCs yet (PubSpeak for Advanced Reading Copies), although I have seen the cover — and it's pretty cool!

All of which will be revealed in due time, of course, right here. Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, May 11, 2017

BROODING BEAST

The countdown continues toward the pub date of my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, coming in Spring, 2018.

Meaning: it's time for my Beast of the Month!

This is from English illustrator Paul Woodroffe, from a 1905 edition of Beauty and the Beast. My version of Beast is not nearly as humanoid as this one. (Although I do love his elegant backswept horns!)

But his brooding posture, and the mysterious mood of this image feel just right.

I also adore the prominent candlestick, lighting the scene. A silver candlestick plays a very important role in my story!

Woodroffe was famed as an illustrator of fairy tales and other children's books, Bible stories, and Shakespeare. But he was also renowned as a stained-glass artist, as you can tell by the elaborate design of the panel (or possibly chair back) behind Beauty in this image.

My Beast borrows a lot in terms of mood and atmosphere from golden Age illustrators like Woodroffe. But I've shaken up the classic story too!

Pub date is currently planned for March 6, 2018. Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

MENAGE á DOG

Wife vs pet in funny JTC season closer Sylvia

If you share your space with a pet, chances are you talk to the little critter. (Oh, go on, admit it!) You're probably convinced your pet understands what you say (even if he chooses not to respond), and that you can tell what he's thinking.

But you never have an actual conversation with your pet, in which each of you speaks and responds to the other. Not unless you're in the play, Sylvia. In this 1995 comedy by prolific playwright A. R. Gurney about a man, a woman, and a dog, everybody talks to the dog — and the dog talks back.

A new production of Sylvia is the crowd-pleasing final offering of Jewel Theatre Company's 2016-17 season. The show is literally back by popular demand: it was a huge hit when it was first produced at JTC in 2009, and has been much-requested ever since. For this reprise edition, director Diana Torres Koss has assembled the original four-person cast, and they make the most of every syllable of Gurney's funny script.

Greg (Shaun Carroll), who works in the financial industry, comes home from the park one day with a stray dog called Sylvia (Julie James), an excitable, overly-affectionate lab-poodle mix — to the dismay of Greg's wife, Kate (Diahanna Davidson). 

James and Carroll: smitten
 With their children out of the nest, Greg and Kate have just relocated to an apartment in New York City from the suburbs. Kate is eager to pursue her new career teaching Shakespeare to inner-city kids. But Greg is facing a midlife crisis, fractious with his boss over a job he hates.

At this stage of her life, Kate doesn't want the responsibilities of a dog. But Greg gets unlimited support from Sylvia; they adore each other, and Kate starts to feel like the third wheel.

Sylvia is not meant to be a magically talking dog, like a canine Mr. Ed. It may be that we're simply witnessing the personality that Greg and/or Kate project onto her onstage, as their marriage is tested. But James has a high old time in the role emulating doggy behavior. She scratches, she sniffs, she leaps into Greg's arms shrieking "I love you!"

Grooming brings out her inner French Poodle
When nervous or excited, her "bark" is staccato cries of "Hey! Hey! Hey!" And when Sylvia spies a cat in the park and goes ballistic, James is hilarious, lunging and spewing verbal invective.

The more anthropomorphic the part becomes, the funnier James is, strutting like Kate Moss after her first trip to the groomer, or turning coy and trampy when Sylvia comes into heat. She's abetted in these transitions by B. Modern's sly costumes; she dresses Sylvia in overalls and high-tops when she's homeless in the park, with increasing use of black leather, lace, and heels, as the dog comes into her own.

Carroll and Davidson are great as the couple caught up in this unlikely ménage a trois. And J. T. Holstrom is  a riot in his three roles: a macho guy in the park giving Greg tips on canine psychology; a snooty female friend of Kate's who suffers the business end of Sylvia's curiosity; and an ineffectual marriage counselor of indeterminate gender.

I didn't actually buy it toward the end when Sylvia, the dog, lectures Kate about what love is. But I didn't care by then, since the show is so entertaining.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

SCRIPT MINING

Novice scribe joins morale-boosting film unit in sharp, funny Their Finest


Okay, I'm a sucker for movies about writers — not an easy subject to get right onscreen, since there's nothing cinematic about watching somebody tapping away at a keyboard.

But a canny filmmaker can make the spark of the creative process visual by showing a pool of writers pinging ideas off of each other, or escalate drama in a succession of ever more ridiculous demands imposed on the writers by whoever is in charge of their project. Oh, and a little romance never hurts.

Lone Scherfig is a very canny director. And she and scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe manage to craft a smart, entertaining femme-centric movie about writers and writing in Their Finest, using all of the above storytelling techniques.

Set in London in 1940, during the Blitz, the story concerns the efforts of a film crew to make a morale-boosting epic to help the war effort. The mood is witty, urbane, and irreverent, but it's not exactly a lighthearted romp, with the specter of death and destruction always just around the corner.

Claflin and Arterton: morale-boosting
Adapted from the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (which is a pretty funny title, right there), it's the story of young Welshwoman Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who arrives in London with her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston).

The dismal canvases he paints are considered "too brutal" to be used in the war effort, so Catrin goes for a job interview at the Ministry of Information: Film Division, for what she thinks is a secretarial position.

But because she's done some advertising copywriting, she's assigned to the scriptwriting unit.

Her new boss, Swain (the ever-droll Richard E. Grant), produces films about the war at home, and they need somebody to inject the "female viewpoint" into their pictures. Of course, Catrin is told, "we can't pay you as much as the chaps" in the scriptwriting pool, but they need her to write what one of her new co-writers, Buckley, calls "the slop" — i.e. women's dialogue.


Arterton with Stirling: dry wit
Young and able-bodied, the acerbic Buckley (sharply caustic Sam Claflin) was called up to fight, but it was decided he'd be much more useful behind a typewriter than a gun; despite his own irreverence, he has an unerring gift for heart-tugging without bathos — leading to the required "morally clear, romantically satisfying" conclusion.

Scherfig's film percolates with acutely funny dialogue and situations. The wonderful Bill Nighy is on hand as an aging ex-matinee idol hoping for a comeback. Jeremy Irons has one funny scene as a Shakespeare-spouting Secretary of War.

Rachael Stirling is a standout as a production assistant in trousers calling herself "Phyl," with a dry wit equal to Buckley's. (No wonder she knows her way around a one-liner: Stirling's real-life mum is the beloved Diana Rigg.)

Like the fictional filmmakers it portrays, Their Finest may not be able to achieve all is conflicting objectives, as the bombs rain down around them. But Scherfig's film continues to engage and surprise us with its wit, skill, and heartfelt emotion.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

THE TAO OF HITCH

Here's some sage advice from the great Alfred Hitchcock, which crossed my desk last week:

"You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace."

Hitch was talking about constructing a movie, but his words are also very useful for writing the first draft of a novel — as I am now.

And a writer slogging away in isolation seizes on any good advice she can get!

With Beast (finally!) loping off to the copyeditors, I'm ready to dive back into my next book. I submitted a proposal to my editor, and last Monday, I got greenlighted to go for it.

So now it's back to the keyboard for me!

Oh, and the reason I found myself consulting the Tao of Hitch? Santa Cruz Shakespeare is launching its 2017 season this summer with a new stage adaptation of The 39 Steps — described as "a madcap adaptation of Hitchcock's 1935 thriller."

I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of the story — stage and film versions — that SCS will present in conjunction with their production. (Venue and details tba.)

Scurrying to my dog-eared copy of that classic movie resource book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, to read up on the film, I found that priceless quote above on how Hitch kept the action moving!

Meanwhile, over at the Republic of Goodreads, they're doing a promotion on the "Joys of Re-reading." Big thanks to all intrepid Goodreaders who have been listing Alias Hook as a book they are reading for the second (or even third) time!

You readers rock!