Monday, October 20, 2014

Bright Star

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have landed a hit, in my humble opinion. Dan and I caught the matinee of this world premiere show yesterday at the Old Globe, after I spent nearly an hour on the phone the day before with the sales lady from the theater.  She called to sell me a season ticket package. I'd already checked tix for the play, but they were over my budget, and the reviews didn't give me the sense of urgency that I really truly had to see it...other than praise for the bluegrass score, which I hated to miss. So BINGO, the caller put together a custom package with reasonable prices and dates, and alas, we owned four sets of tickets for plays at the Old Globe -- two this fall, and two more in the spring. I'm in a little bit of heaven, since I'd gladly see a play every week if I could. Theater lingers in my blood...leftover from dancing, acting, and performing as a kid, and more of the same in community gigs as an adult.

New York Times: Joan Marcus

"Bright Star" opens with a toy train chugging along a track at the top of the curtain, its shadow crossing the back wall as an omen of what's to come. Before you can say Folsom Prison Blues, the bluegrass score takes center stage, literally, with musicians housed in a see-through, wood-framed shanty that spins around for set and instrument changes. Young Billy Cane enters in full uniform, returning  to his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina after World War II. We learn that he'll pursue a career in writing, which takes him to the big city for a job at the Asheville Southern Journal where all the famous southern writers are being published. After a few assignments, he's told his writing holds promise, but his editor suggests that Billy write about the people and places he knows best. So home again. With romances to warm the heart and flashbacks to earlier days, Martin and Brickell wind us through the country roads of Billy's journey to reveal an untold story and family secret that turn the play on its side.

"Bright Star" resonates like an old-fashioned tale of family, love, passion, heartbreak, and redemption, but with a fresh twist of original country and bluegrass tunes that elevate this slice of musical theater to a level of charm and poignancy that is hard to resist. Martin wrote the book and confesses to being teary-eyed as his own play unfolds. I confess I felt the same, almost from the beginning. It's no secret that he's a banjo picker from way back, and a big fan of bluegrass. The pairing of his musical genius with Brickell's lovely lyrics renders a magical score and winning choreography. The title song "Bright Star" is a little surprising right from the opening scene, but works nicely.  "My Baby" goes straight to the heart without pause or apology, and "Sun's Gonna Shine" allows us to believe there will be  better days ahead.  At least a couple of ensemble numbers deliver a hee-haw hoedown that makes you want to jump up and join in, which does happen for curtain calls.  Pure joy.

Could the show lose a couple of scenes? Probably. Broadway bound? I'm betting on it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Clubs and Americanah

When my husband and I moved to Carlsbad in 2000, I did what I've always done in a new neighborhood (once, in a new job)...I started a book club.  The notice about the first meeting appeared in our association newsletter. Two weeks later, eight friendly strangers walked through my front door and for the next five or so years, we met monthly at each other's houses. We took a hiatus after several members moved away, and four of us reconnected a few years ago with a new format -- over lunch. We literary lassies have an insatiable hunger for good books, and enjoy the lasting friendship that has blossomed from our discussions, shared history, and ongoing adventures.

Last month we read Americanah,  critically praised as one of the best books of 2013. A celebrated author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers a unique perspective on racism in the United States through the eyes and voice of Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant who arrives in the States to pursue a dream. While growing up in her native land, skin color was not an issue, but in America, a place of golden opportunities, Ifemelu discovers a nation still reeling from the aftershocks of slavery nearly one-hundred-fifty years later. Racial slurs, political correctness, and social order based on skin color are confusing in this new world, but become fodder  for irreverent observations on the popular blog she creates later.

Ifemelu's love for Obinze, the high-school boyfriend who encourages her to go to America -- says he will come later, is the thread that drives this love story. Unfortunately, the America she encounters is not a land of milk and honey, but a land that threatens Ifemelu's very existence. Up against a wall, she's forced to make a bargain with the devil for her survival. In the aftermath, Ifemelu loses herself and Obinze too. After she returns to her native speech pattern (she abandoned it to fit into her adopted country) and decides to wear her hair natural, Ifemelu finds her way. She graduates from college, and stability and respect follow, anchoring her to solid ground and a more predictable future. But, like many heroines before her, the pot at the end of Ifemelu's rainbow is not the one she set out to find.  

Much of Adichie's plot unfolds as backstory from a beauty parlor in a northeast urban neighborhood. Seated in the chair for a hair appointment, Ifemelu watches, listens, and even interacts with a mix of colorful characters who discuss personal relationships and business affairs, all while they iron, straighten, cut, and set customers' hair. The narrative returns repeatedly to the significance of hair to black women of African descent -- an entertaining literary device for exploring the theme of identity woven through the novel. In the end, Ifemelu's story is about a solitary journey spanning two continents with vast differences in search of singular meaning and love. I found the novel highly relatable. Anyone who's left the comforts of family, home, or a job to settle in new places, cultures, or jobs that challenge their social norms may recognize the difficulties of adapting to the new environment. The pangs of love lost will also resonate, especially when new loves end or fall short. The echo of home rings loud and clear. Whether you grew up in Nigeria or New Mexico, and move to Alabama or Africa, certain remnants of childhood and home remain intact, like DNA, as a point of reference for all that follows. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Massage Nirvana

The red-tasseled Chinese lantern hung in slanted daylight as friendly staff greeted me at the front counter of the neighborhood massage establishment, only fifteen minutes from my house. While one smiling assistant refilled my water bottle, another led me to a dimly-lit room, the center-stage massage table covered by a thin sheet of fabric. A small wood stand displayed key props -- oils, cloths, and a clock, tools of the trade for a holistic service within a given timeframe. Simple wall hooks and a shelf for clothing and jewelry rounded out the decor. My post-yoga body, muscles repeatedly tightened, strengthened, and stretched during the hour-long class, tingled in the chilled air. Would the lightweight spread provide enough warmth for sore limbs also recovering from of a six-hour stint of gardening two days earlier?

With damp gym clothes hooked on the wall and worn athletic shoes discarded on the floor, I slipped beneath the gauzy cotton, my bumpy silhouette nearly visible through the scant cover.  How does a youthful male masseuse from a small town in China view the women's bodies he massages daily, each for an  hour or longer? He'd seen plenty by now, including this one, so there was little chance of a subtle stir. Many workers come from small villages back in China. Landing in America, they attend a Los Angeles massage school where their native language is spoken and ancient methods are taught, to provide the ying and yang of massage places in strip malls all over Southern California. During the past six years, I'd entered half a dozen names next to the business title in my contacts list, i.e. Jackie, Linda, Kathy, Tina, George, Lester -- all American versions of given names. All with substantial skills to soothe aching joints and muscles.

With lids lowered, I inhaled and exhaled in rhythmic beats, slowing to a calmer pace. Recent events and future plans drifted from my consciousness. A light tap at the door. "Ok," I said. My current favorite name entered. A soft click blocked out the rest of the world and the last of my extraneous thoughts. Lights lowered to a warmer shade of dark. In quiet anticipation, my weary bones welcomed the gifts that would accompany my deep tissue massage.

The wide Asian hands rested on my shoulders for a mere few seconds before pressing in gentle pulses along one side of my body, which responded in a soft rocking motion like jello. At my ankles, firm tracks reversed course and pulsed up the opposite side. Any worries about warmth melted in a pool of silence, broken only by my breathing and the faint sound of exotic music from a faraway place. More pressure against the filmy sheath, to waken muscles with the therapeutic lullaby, a gentle overture for my ninety-minute retreat into nirvana.

Carefully arranging the drape to expose my back, nimble fingers pushed, probed, and rolled over knotted muscles, body barnacles holding their own in stubborn, stormy revolt from the crevasses of my  shoulders and neck. The likely culprits -- too much time on the computer and too much heavy lifting in the garden. More pressure. Whoa. If ever there was a good hurt, this was it, with no small measure of deep yoga breathing required. Lips pressed tight, I teetered on the brink, sucked air through my teeth, had to tell him, "Too hard." A master masseuse, he lightened the pressure and rubbed fast circles to relieve the soreness. His clairvoyant hands traveled to new trouble spots in other territories of carefully draped, exposed skin. Part by part, he pushed, prodded, and rubbed. I breathed deep, blew hard, and released tension, allowing stored stress to give way to calm waves of muscle tissue. When he raised the cover and said, "Please, turn over," act one ended. I was satiated, in a state of deep relaxation from the body work. All my worries and tight muscles on their way to neverland.

Struggling to shift my weight from facedown to face up, I beckoned flaccid muscles to act. Slowly, in stages, I rolled to my backside and took a deep breath to adjust my head, neck, and torso. For the next twenty minutes or so, until an hour was up, it was more of the same -- agony and ecstasy for knots and nirvana. Ahead of time, I requested an extra thirty minutes of pure luxury to focus on my feet. Long and slender, with little meaty cushion to soften the blows of daily use, they begged for attention. The reflexology performed on feet is based on an ancient Chinese technique that links exact locations on the foot to specific body parts, i.e. sinuses, liver, kidneys, ovaries, testes, spine, eyes, heart, etc., When reflexology targets these spots, the associated organs benefit, much like acupuncture trigger points release pain. I relished the sensual pleasure, but clenched my teeth when sturdy digits pressed and probed like well trained screwdrivers to relieve the longterm effects of  lifelong abuse -- a broken foot, fallen arch, and neuroma. Again, the challenge of breathing deep and letting go, to ease the ache. In the end, the prize was worth the journey -- hot nubby towels scrubbed over grateful feet, toes snapped in quick succession like string beans, and a warm embrace of thick, heated cloths  soothed my soles.

A full-body rubdown was next, signaling the end of the third act, only minutes or seconds to go. Long strokes over the filmy cover and pulsed karate chops offered a satisfying sayonara. Not to be outdone, an encore performance by the wondrous hot towels scrubbing over my arms and legs left me limp, my new torso, limbs, and feet now supple, rid of all former complaints.

"Thank you, that was amazing," I said, barely audible, eyes still closed.

"Tea or water?" he asked, ever ready to fetch one last pleasure.

"Both please."

The click of the door left me in the bliss of massage afterglow, my body returned to wholeness. One effort at a time, I rose, dressed, and slowly stepped into the hallway to retrace the path back to the front counter where clear water and aromatic tea waited. I sipped the coolness for hydration and the warmth for relaxation, my body and soul now fully refreshed.

Outside, sunlight danced through branches of young leafy trees, in playful joy below puffy white clouds. The afternoon breeze kissed my cheeks hello. Nirvana accompanied me all the way home and throughout the rest of the day, into the night. Restoration and peace, the lovely gifts of an afternoon massage.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Number 19

Photo by Rick Stewart

From my earliest days in San Diego, I knew the name Tony Gwynn. He preceded me by one year, arriving in 1977 from Long Beach to claim a basketball scholarship at San Diego State University. The following year, he played both baseball and basketball, lettered in both, and was nearly recruited by the San Diego Clippers when he left SDSU. But the Padres intercepted him in the third round of the baseball draft and the rest is history.

San Diego is not your thriving sports mecca. One columnist referred to Tony as the "lone light in an otherwise pitch-black sports town." Sorry and sad, but not far from the truth. We love our Padres and Chargers, but the foamy surf from the ocean casts a chill, like a slow wave rippling the sand. They're just way to mellow about winning. At bat, Tony was the winning factor,  and has been called the "best hitter this generation has seen," claiming dozens of titles and records during his twenty years with the Padres. He was on fifteen all-star teams and made the top ten MVPs ten times, with a  batting record that rivaled Ted Williams:  Tony Gwynn Stats

Photo by Tim Mantoani

In his post-Padres years, Tony coached the SDSU Aztecs, so he never left us.  Not that he wasn't lured.  All the big guys wanted Tony, but he was true blue San Diego, and for that, we celebrate him like our favorite son. Because he was. I'm not even the biggest sports fan, and didn't really follow his career, but what I'm reading and hearing tells me I lost out. This guy was the real deal, the genuine golden athlete, the most unassuming fella you could ever meet, and the one who made you feel good because his laugh was so effervescent.

Keith Olbermann says it best, because he knew Tony, he followed his career, and he loved San Diego's most humble, joyful sports hero, the guy we lost this week, the guy who won't be replaced any time soon. See Olbermann's tribute on ESPN:   Keith Olbermann Tribute to Tony Gwynn.

National Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit (

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Meaning of Horses and Home

Ah, the tug of the track, the horses, the feeling of home.  It's gotten to me again, but we're past the first Saturday in May. The Kentucky Derby already ran. But something is different this year. The winner is still running, for a bigger, brighter, bolder trophy in oh so many ways.

They call him the "people's horse." California Chrome won the Derby, then the Preakness, and now those four socks and oversized star with its nasal strip are going for the Triple Crown at the 146th Belmont Stakes. I'm utterly sentimental about it, go figure. Watery eyes, trickling chills, and listening to CDs -- the "Kentucky Sounds" and "Bluegrass Number 1's" -- volume high.

This weekend reminds me of the best of my two worlds -- Kentucky and California -- where I've spent the most formative and poignant years and times of my life.

Oh, the sun shines bright...tis summer......the corn tops ripe and the meadow's in the bloom, in my old Kentucky home, far away...Weep no more my lady....we will sing one song for my Old Kentucky Home...far away.  

Growing up in Louisville, we usually celebrated Derby Day with a jackpot at Marty and Popa's (my maternal grandparents) house on the corner of Whitney and Southern Parkway, blocks from Churchill Downs. But the memories of the day started much sooner, when trainers or visitors rented a room from Marty, weeks before the big race. There was Tinsley Webb, the pastel artist who drew lovely, oval-shaped pastels of my sister, Mila, and me that hang in the arched hallway of my home today. Cheery Dot and Al from Florida were race fans who booked the room for years in a row and signed on as part of the family, in touch for decades after their betting days faded. And the trainers whose names I forget took us to visit the horses and barns on Churchill's backside, etched with low, green-roofed buildings and dusty roads in a village of yelping dogs, crusty characters, and grooms washing down stately thoroughbreds with a garden hose.

On Derby day, our family room front porch, with its extra-large, real-life screen of the parkway, gave the best views of the journey to the track. The perfect setting to feel a part of the festivities. Perched in the big swing that hung from the ceiling, our legs pumping, we kids could take in the sights, sounds, and fever of the pre-Derby crowd. By late morning, horns honked and traffic slowed to a lazy crawl. The Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Fords, and Buicks carried rich locals and famous visitors from all parts of the world, on their way to another race day for some, or a lifetime dream come true for others. Hands waved back from rolled-down windows as the cars cruised the four-lane road on the other side of the bridle path, which stretched from the rental stable a few houses down to Iroquois Park, dozens of blocks away, at the far end of the tree-shaded parkway. Racegoers paraded on the sidewalk too. They came in all sizes and shapes, in short colorful dresses and suits, big flowery hats, shiny high heels, dapper sportcoats, and horsey ties. They abandoned their cars on a neighborly lawn turned parking lot for the day. Out back, past the crumbling, rock-framed fish pond, the white, single-car garage and driveway rutted with grass, next to the beagles' running pen, Popa lured his own collection of American automobiles and pocketed the bills in his overalls.

Who will watch the home place.....tend my heart's dear space....when I am gone from here?.... in my grandfather's've patched this old was my place when I was quite small....I wander around, touching each blessed thing.....memories swirl 'round me like birds on the wing.... 

An hour or so before the Derby, Marty's house bubbled over with aunts and uncles and cousins, all younger than me. My sister, Mila, and I were the oldest of the grandkids. A lot of screaming, shouting, and laughing created the same joyful celebrations that were part of all the holidays of my youth, when hide-and-seek was the game du jour in the rambling back hallways that led to the upstairs/downstairs apartments Popa constructed from scratch. We knew it was showtime when the big glass bowl came out, with papers folded into tiny squares to hide the numbers penciled inside. If you wanted in, you paid a dollar for every pick you plucked from the jiggling papers. Even if you drew a long shot, you held it tight in your fist throughout the race and rooted for it to cross the finish line first so you could win the jackpot.

Speaking of winners...on my dad's side, his Uncle Roscoe won the 1913 Kentucky Derby riding Donerail, a 92 to 1 long shot. A two-dollar bet paid $184.90, which was probably more like a million bucks back then. Earl Ruby, a well known Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter, told Roscoe Goose's story and called him the Dean of the Derby in The Golden Goose, a biography with a foreword by Eddie Arcaro, the five-time Derby winning jockey. In 2013, the Tuesday before the 100th anniversary of his win, which still holds the record for biggest long shot to win the Derby, the Louisville newspaper ran a giant front page photo of Roscoe on Donerail. The article continued inside with a full-page, six-column story and photo of his wife, Fanny, and him. Though small in stature, Uncle Roscoe was a gentle giant of a man. He went on to become a trainer and owner and one of the first inductees into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. But even greater than his racing record was his achievement in the department of human rights, long before it became a liberal cause. Roscoe took black jockeys and trainers into hotels and restaurants where they weren't so welcome and stood up for them in the jockey rooms at racetracks. He and Fanny also brought young men from Ormsby Village, a place for wayward boys, to live with them in their home. A legendary figure in racing, he's a hero whose bloodline I'm proud to claim.

Born in the valley, and and raised in the trees, of Western Kentucky on wobbly knees,
With Mama beside you to help you along...could never prepare you...
And it's run for the fast as you can...It's the chance of a lifetime...In a lifetime of's high time you joined in the dance....It's high time you joined in the dance.

When we were in high school, Mother and Daddy took Mila and me to the Clubhouse area on Derby day.  Enthusiastic race fans who grew up in the Churchill Downs southend neighborhood, our parents usually went to the Oaks, the big fillies' race held the day before the Derby, when locals show up. But they wanted us to experience the excitement of Derby day first hand, maybe even a few sips of their mint juleps. I remember long, winding gardens overflowing with brilliant roses and flowers, and paved walkways and patios with friendly strangers who gasped when the gates banged open like a gunshot, and shoved their fists in the air when the horses rounded the bend toward the final stretch. Daddy loved to tell stories about Derby days when he was a little rascal, sitting on rooftops to watch the races, sneaking through broken boards to wander the backside and infield, or paying off somebody to get good seats when he was older. One year, he and his buddy, Jimmy, played the horses with the aim of winning enough money to follow them around the country to all the famous racetracks. Somehow, that one fizzled faster than the horses ran because they kept losing bets

During college, my first husband and I went to a medical student party with his classmates the night before the Derby. The entertainment was injecting a pile of bright oranges with straight vodka for the picnic coolers we'd carry to the infield the next day. Alcohol was prohibited, so necessity became the mother of our invention and inebriation. The Derby infield was an all-day sun festival, reminiscent of future concerts sans pot, with a few sightings of fast horses. An ocean of colorful blankets, outfits and hats became ever more dim as the afternoon sun lowered toward the horizon, and scattered orange peels and empty mint julep glasses announced a successful day.

Jimmy Linehan, Daddy's childhood buddy, was the family friend who always had a box at Churchill. It was Jimmy who gave Mother his box for the Oaks when I took my California husband back for the Derby. When my daughters turned 18 and 21, each of them made a trip with me to experience Derby day in Louisville, which included a meetup with my uncles, aunts and a cousin at the track, and a stop at Marty's house afterwards. Rod Stewart, Joan Rivers, the first President Bush, Phyllis George, and many others filled the list of our celebrity sightings. In 2011, Dan and I were thrilled to share the Derby and Oaks with friends Fay and Denis from New Zealand. Denis' father owned horses, including one of the biggest long shots to win a race in New Zealand, so it was his lifelong dream to attend a Derby. Jimmy worked some magic and secured a box for us, adjacent to his. What a weekend, in the company of my dad's childhood buddy, with his family and friends. Nostalgia and tears flowed with all the memories. It was another Derby Day that will be embedded in our hearts and minds forever, until we enter the great big Derby in the sky.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Normal Heart and And the Band Played On

If you missed it, see if you can find it on HBO or Netflix -- The Normal Heart, which is the sad story of early HIV/AIDS cases in NYC based on a true story of activism.

Mark Ruffalo did an amazing job sharing Larry Kramer's story and dispelling any stigma that could still linger 30 years later. Thank God Kramer lived to see it air after all the years he spent trying to get it produced by Hollywood (following successful stage productions).

For even more HIV/AIDS history, read "And the Band Played On" if you haven't already. It's a gripping murder mystery that opens with the Tall Ships Bicentennial parade in NY Harbor, and tracks the individuals and agencies who played various roles (or not) in identifying who/what was responsible for unexplained deaths among gay men in NY, LA and other places. Politics up the ying-yang. This is a story close to my heart, since I worked at CDC and UCLA, both major players in this saga, and helped identify expert consultants and a lab tech from France for HBO producers when they turned Randy Shilts' book into the movie.

He died years later of AIDS, but not before he wrote Conduct Unbecoming, the "thoroughly researched and engrossingly readable history on the subject" (New York Times Book Review) of gays in the military.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Canyons and Fires

Workers are clearing overgrown bushes and brush in the lush canyon where I walked this morning. Glad to see them chopping down the dry vegetation near the top, after fires raged through hillside canyons in Carlsbad last week, threatening hundreds if not thousands of homes along their borders. My development was spared. It was once a California ranch owned by TV and film  actor Leo Carrillo, with the original buildings and property around the homestead now maintained as part of a city park. A deep canyon runs right through the middle of the ranch, which includes thousands of acres of housing plus rolling hills dotted with low, crisp brush. Sure would hate to lose any of this, plus all the homes occupied by families. We're lucky since our house isn't right on a canyon or ridge, but with enough heat and wind, who knows what could happen.

Last week was a wake-up call, with smoke clouds popping up in every direction during the blazing hot Santa Ana.  Temperatures rose to a hundred or more degrees in some parts of the County. What we know as May Gray, with a marine layer haze and cool temperatures, was nowhere to be seen. This morning the paper reports that the three fires at Camp Pendleton, just north of us, are mostly contained, but eighteen percent of the base, about 27,000 acres, burned.  San Marcos and Carlsbad fires are all contained, but firefighters continue to watch "hot spots." We were so blessed to have so many dedicated firefighters, but sad to have one loss of life, a homeless man whose remains were found in a canyon of the Poinsettia fire, closest one to our development. Here's to safer days ahead, with lots of brush cleared to reduce fire risk.  It will be a long hot summer, since we're in the third year of a drought.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Losing a Loved One

Since the character center stage in my unpublished novel, Abandoned, is still in grief from the loss of her brother when the story opens, early in the research and writing process I immersed myself in novels and memoirs that deal with the untimely death of a loved one. I wanted to see how other writers and their characters cope with death, especially when the character is a teen who's already navigating the turbulent years of adolescence.

Two exemplary young adult books which feature teenaged characters in search of new lives after an untimely family death are Jennifer Castle's The Beginning of After and Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life. Both describe their teen characters' heartfelt yearnings for a new normal in the midst of emotional chaos.

In Castle's book, 16-year-old Laurel is the sole survivor in her family after both parents and a younger brother are killed in a tragic automobile crash. The driver was Mr. Goldman, a neighbor and family friend who had a few drinks under his belt. He survives, barely, but his wife wasn't so lucky. Their 16-year-old son, David, like Laurel, was not in the car and is left to face the horror and cope with the aftermath.

While Mr. Goldman lingers in a coma, Laurel and David attempt to avoid each other at school and in the neighborhood, but eventually must face the cold hard facts of an event that changed their lives forever. Laurel's grandmother moves into the house and becomes the catalyst to temper her granddaughter's anger toward Mr. Goldman and David, who babysits his comatose father daily at the hospital. The two teens suffer through awkward encounters, and at least one disastrous one, before David bails on a road trip to "find himself." Eventually, they realize they must come to terms with their parallel lives and the anger and blame that wedge them apart.

Castle's portrayal of teen life is true to the angst, social pressures, academic demands, and romantic rawness that dominate the story. Difficult to navigate on their own, they blow up to monumental proportions when fueled by an undercurrent of grief. Laurel's story is heartbreaking, but she muddles through stages of grief with honest abandon. There is a light at the end of her tunnel, and maybe David's, too.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr catches up with Jill and her mom, Robin, ten months after the death of their husband and father from a sudden heart attack. The story opens as they stand at the train station in Denver, waiting for Mandy, who responded to a note Robin posted on a website called Love Grows. Robin expressed a wish to adopt a baby and give it a loving home, and Mandy responded that she was pregnant and interested. They agreed that she should come to Denver a couple of weeks before her due date and deliver at a local hospital.

Unfortunately, Robin didn't consult her daughter before posting the note, so Jill, a senior in high school who works at a bookstore, is pissed. Still lost in grief, Jill rejects everyone who reaches out to her, including old friends, a boyfriend of two years, and her mom, whom Jill claims has a history of making impulsive family decisions. We learn that Jill was closer to her dad, with his looks and candid personality, but she worries she's missing "the piece (of her dad) that matters most: his heart."

By telling the story in two unique voices, Jill's and Mandy's, Zarr paints a picture of complicated relationships unfolding over the next several weeks (Mandy's due date is more than a month away when she arrives). While Jill struggles with her mother's decision to replace her father with a baby, Mandy strives to shed an abusive past, by relinquishing her baby to a better life. Robin becomes the mediator who helps Mandy though the last weeks of pregnancy and tries to support Jill in her dad's absence.

Mandy's innocent, tender retelling of her new, but temporary life in the comfort of Robin's home contrasts sharply with her own sad history and Jill's reactions to her. Faced with Mandy's honesty and courage, Jill is forced to reconsider her life and where she's headed. Like Mandy, she faces an uncertain future and must navigate it on her own.

Zarr is a master storyteller, layering shades of gray at every turn. Her leading characters are three-dimensional beings with human flaws who breathe authenticity into a story rooted in grief, but reaching for a better tomorrow. Mandy's voice is distinctly hopeful, even naive, but she refuses to go backwards. Jill's is filled with pain, resistant to letting go. Robin's steadfast grip on her own situation grounds the girls and her in an unlikely, but daring future brimming with possibilities. We can't help but root for all of them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

For the past five years, I've been gorging on novels for teens and preteens as well as my usual diet of adult fiction. Not a relapse, well, maybe a partial one, but an important one. In January, 2009, I attended a writers conference at my alma mater, SDSU, and immediately started to draft a novel for teens. By fall, I enrolled in the first of many UCSD writing courses. Now, five years later, I've read dozens of young adult (YA) books, completed writing a teen novel, and drafted two more novels along the way.

I launch Book Nook to share some of my favorite reads, from current authors of adult and YA fiction who give up days and years of their lives to create stories that entertain, inform, and challenge us. As a result, we are terrified, fantasized, seduced, maybe educated, and sometimes transformed.

The following is a favorite book I read last year that will be released as a movie this summer.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

It was on Amazon's Best Books of the Month list in January, 2012, and the rest is history. Time Magazine and the New York Times Bestsellers List loved this story about two high school kids who attend a support group for teens with cancer and discover a connection that goes far beyond their diagnoses. If they weren't such spunky smart kids, with clever brains and undeniable bravery in the face of illness, this might not have worked so well. But Hazel and Augustus (great names) transcend everything around them to spin a cocoon of their own making, with books, fantasy, friendship, romance, and ultimately, love. She's the one who's depressed, "a grenade" with advanced cancer and a breathing tube. Try making something positive out of that. He's the knight in shining armor and remission, with a prosthesis for one leg. His persistence leads to the gold medal, Hazel's reluctant heart, thanks also to good looks, fast quips, and irresistible charm. The irreverent dialogue and narrative embolden the story and characters to light up our hearts. Hazel tells us: (my) "diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You're a woman. Now die." When the pair sits side by side in his bedroom, during her first visit to his home, she explains that her hands are cold because they're "underoxygenated." He responds: "I love it when you talk medical to me." So the story goes, with inevitable ruts and bumps that make it all too real. But these lovebirds reject their predicaments and fly from the nest for an impossible dream come true. If only it could last. The ups and downs of life-threatening disease, the constant shadow of death, and the sheer joy of living make John Green's tale a miraculous gift for readers of all ages.

The movie trailer:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oscar Worthy Contenders -- Part 2

Now that the Golden Globes and other awards programs have had their say, and the Oscars are chomping at the bit, time to weigh in again on Academy Awards contenders. See my November blog on earlier releases (Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Butler, Blue Jasmine, All Is Lost, Before Midnight, Mud, and Blue Sapphires). Below is my take on a few year-end movies that are worth noting, some with and others without Oscar nominations.

Nebraska is one man's last-ditch effort to claim elusive joy from a mediocre existence that finds him wandering the mental and physical highways of his loneliness in old age. Bruce Dern brings a lifetime of acting experience to a role that fits like an old pair of jeans, for a film set in director Alexander Payne's home state. The main character's hesitant delivery, aging frame, and unflinching determination to claim a million-dollar prize by walking to another state drives the story right into our hearts. Poignant, humorous scenes keep us laughing and nearly crying at the same time. We want something wonderful for Woody Grant, who could be our uncle, grandfather, or former neighbor. And it does finally come, but with no thanks to the relatives and former acquaintances who buzz like vultures, eager for handouts to fill their empty lives. The loyal son joins the journey his father refuses to abandon, and seeks to understand and eventually deliver the simple joys of his father's dreams. Like an unfulfilled life, Nebraska is slow at times. In the end, we're reminded that the journeys we take may not lead to what we seek, but to what we truly desire. (As a final note, June Squibb offers a wonderful portrayal of the curmudgeon wife, Kate, whose cemetery scene is sure to become a classic.)

The Wolf of Wall Street vibrates, undulates, regurgitates, and activates.... I could go on. If there is a sensory passion or urge to be imagined, it most likely found its way into this slice of cinematic genius. In other words, the film is a roller coaster ride through the historic debacle of the Wall Street collapse on Black Monday in the late 80s. But the true story emerges when one clever shark circles the prey and devours everything within reach -- without remorse, relief, or much retaliation from his victims, other than his wife. The Scorsese-di Caprio marriage has given birth to a family of blazing successes over the years, this one no exception. The pacing and no-holds-barred style is reminiscent of the director's gang genre films, like The Departed and Goodfellas. Instead of guns, bullets and corpses to move the story along, TWWS employs bogus stocks, coupled with excessive sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, to keep the bucks and victims rolling in. Exhausting? Yes. Repulsing? For sure. Entertaining? Up to a point. Big chunks we're cut before release, but some scenes still run too long, and some excess is gratuitous.  Nevertheless, Leo delivers an amazing performance -- full of physicality and brawny exhilaration displayed in vivid scenes that startle and stun. Jonah Hill is more than worthy as his ready sidekick. The duo and Scorsese are deserving of nods and maybe a statuette or two if the competition wasn't so stiff.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a quiet movie that rambles through the tough reality of the artist's life in America where rewards are meager and hits are few. Probably the same for artists in most other countries and genres. The film is a departure for the Coen brothers, but not all that surprising if you recall the earnest depictions of small town characters in past films. A sonnet dedicated to struggling musicians in the Big Apple and beyond, the melodious story follows the protagonist through a couple of performances, more than a couple of nights on friendly couches, news of an unexpected pregnancy, and his accidental relationship with a cat. A chance encounter with a promoter played by John Goodman offers a glimpse into the business behind the ramble, but no promises or offers to secure a future. Unfortunately, Llewyn Davis ends where he began, in limbo, and so do we.  Not the most satisfying conclusion, but maybe that's the point. The actor is so mellow in his performance that I wondered if I was watching a documentary, if he was the true balladeer, and this was his actual life. Worthy of recognition perhaps. But again, there's the competition...

American Hustle takes us straight back to the 70s, with bell-bottom pants, permed hair, plunging necklines for women, and gold necklaces for men. Apply that fashion mix to a dry cleaners owner, FBI agents, and a couple of dames played by Amy Adams (the girlfriend) and Jennifer Lawrence (the wife), and we have the perfect concoction for cooking up a heist. Bradley Cooper's character still lives with his mother when he cajoles his boss into footing the bill for a major sting operation that will take advantage of a couple of free-wheeling swindlers and bring down a batch of Congressmen to boot. The winding tale spins wilder and wilder before pairs change partners and the finale ends in a surprise twist based on the historic plot. A top winner so far, this one could be on a roll that doesn't stop until the Oscars have spoken.

Her is a magical movie that takes us beyond the parameters of film as we know it and lulls us into a hypnotic trance with a major character who never appears on screen. In the process, we see ourselves and where we're headed, if we haven't already arrived. Joaquin Phoenix does appear, and for most of the film we hang out in his head, hearing what he hears and hoping he gives up his obsession with an artificial character for the real deal. After his heart is broken, and he's penned a few more romantic notes for the day job, he wanders into the realm of the living, breathing, walking, talking reality that may just offer what he's been missing. Joaquin is cast as the sensitive, vulnerable guy seduced by Scarlett Johansson’s velvet voice. Amy Adams grounds the story with a wholesome portrayal of the girl next door, or at least in the same LA high-rise, to remind us that human relationships may just have the potential to fulfill where technology fails.