“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier

I came to “The Birds” by the following convoluted path: I encountered the movie Psycho in two books at once (Body Toxic and Memento Mori), and made a note that I wanted to see it. I realized I’d not seen any Hitchcock, in fact, and he so famous! (You know I’m underexposed to movies.) I looked up Hitchcock and his long list of films, and noted a few that I’d like to see (and realized I have seen one, Strangers on a Train). The Birds made my list; so I thought I’d read it, first. I got my full-text version here (with only a few typos).

"The Birds" was first published in the 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Wiki image

“The Birds” was first published in the 1952 collection The Apple Tree. Wiki image

It’s been a while since I read Rebecca, but I felt like du Maurier’s tone here was more simply and straightforwardly narrative, like there was less sense of foreboding. Nat works part-time at a farm on the English coast, and receives a pension for a wartime disability. (Which war? I’m going with the First World War.) He and his wife and two small children live just nearby. They live a simple life which is simply described; although, the very first sentence does offer a note of warning.

On December third, the wind changed overnight and it was winter.

It is on that night that the birds first attack and, well, the story grows from there.

Nat’s family is isolated and ill-prepared for an unexpected but extraordinarily powerful enemy (and in this way, actually, parallels the zombie apocalypse story concept that’s so popular just now). Their world immediately shrinks to a very small area that they hope to secure against foes so numerous as to be irresistible, and this I think is what makes it terrifying – that, and the possibility that they are alone in the larger world as well. It is stark, sudden, and total; the situation beyond Nat’s line of sight is unknown to him, and his final fate is unknown to us, which is quite unsettling. I found it effective as a short story, and so austere. Also short: and that is the challenge for the movie, which I can only guess expands generously upon this story. I look forward to it. And acknowledge du Maurier’s skill, as ever.

Rating: 7 wrens.

musings on “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean, from Tassava

In reading and rereading some pieces by and about Maclean recently, I was struck by the certainty that my buddy Tassava would love him. He told me he’d read none, so I set out to remedy that. Unsurprisingly, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was a big hit.

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

He follows with some photos that reflect his personal connection to Maclean’s writing.

Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014), photo by Tassava

Read the rest here.

Thanks, Tassava. I hope you love Young Men and Fire as much as I did, too!

The Old Globe presents In Your Arms

I was so lucky last week to get to accompany my Grammy to this outstanding theatre production, which is a little hard to describe, but of course I’ll try.

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar's Powerhouse Theater

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater

In Your Arms is a dance-musical production with very little dialog. It is a series of shorts, mostly unconnected, but with a theme of romantic relationships. These vignettes range through time and geography, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, as with “The Lover’s Jacket,” in which dates and locations (Spain in 1939 and Argentina in, I’m pretty sure, 1940) are projected against the wall. This is one of the finest and most communicative pieces of nonverbal storytelling throughout the whole, although all of them were impressively clear in their messages and emotions despite being mostly wordless. Details might be blurred, of course, but the feeling and action of each piece was perfectly plain.

The exception was Carrie Fisher’s contribution, “Lowdown Messy Shame,” which is voice-overed by Fisher as she is seated off to one side at a typewriter, composing the action we see played out across the stage. The players act out Fisher’s imaginings but also comment upon them, in a cute innovation. One review found this one overly wordy – and indeed it was almost the only spoken theatre of the evening – but I enjoyed it as much as any other, despite its differences. (“The Dance Contest” also uses some voiceover.)

As I said, these shorts had a shared theme, but remained distinct. I loved the survey over time, space and culture. And then they are tied together by opening and closing pieces featuring a singer expressing nostalgia for loves past. Here I agree with the Union-Tribune (link above) that less song would have been fine; but I think these scenes served well nonetheless to emphasize the loose links between all the pieces. Overall, this nearly-wordless hour-and-forty-five-minutes of music, dance and theatre was profoundly emotional and moving, over a wide range of topics but centered around affairs of the heart. I was deeply impressed; it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.

I was further pleased by stage settings and costume. No set stands out in my memory as being particularly complex or elaborate, but each was distinct and evocative, and the transitions were smooth and easy; I love seeing a change of just one or two elements transform a stage and introduce a new setting with perfect clarity. I think that kind of subtle-but-clear set design is more impressive than elaborately complete stage dressings. A unique element here, too, was the use of shadow and projection throughout; the time-and-place cues in “The Lover’s Jacket” were projected on the screen, and shadows were a major feature in “A Wedding Dance,” while projected home movies were central to “Life Long Love.” The costumes were great fun, too, and well designed for showcasing the dance as well as helping to tell the story. I liked the protagonist’s costume in “Life Long Love” for what it emphasized and revealed, while also looking demure at the appropriate moments.

I do want to say briefly that I wasn’t sure about the racial tones in “A Wedding Dance”, which tells the story of an African couple’s immigration or… kidnapping? I don’t have enough information to be certain whether this was a well-told realistic story, or an ugly appropriation of stereotypes. Likewise “White Snake,” which tells the story of a white businessman who reads comic books and fantasizes about his Asian assistant. It was a great piece of theatre and movement, combining dance and martial arts and a lovely representation of the blurry line between fantasy and reality. But I wasn’t sure how much fun we should be having with certain stereotypes there, as well. I haven’t worked out what’s okay here, in part because of the lack of details in wordless theatre. Just something I wanted to note. On the other hand, the same-sex couple in “Artists and Models, 1929” was represented with sensitivity and realism and I found them delightful. I want to say that this was one of my favorite pieces, but gosh, I want to say that about nearly all of them.

Finally, I must note that this event took me back to San Diego’s Old Globe theatre, where I saw what I’m pretty sure was my first Shakespeare production, in 1992, when I was 10 years old. The theatre and surrounding park still felt familiar, and it was such a treat to be there again with my Grammy, thoroughly aside from the quality of the show.

If you have a chance, definitely make a point to see In Your Arms. It was a rare treat for me. There are rumors it might be Broadway-bound, so maybe a larger audience will get an opportunity at it.

Thanks, Grammy, this was so special.

Rating: 9 memories.

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg

Extraordinary, brief, true stories of the Deep South that are funny, haunting and redolent.

my southern journey

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South showcases the singular voice, humor and perspective of Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’), in short, entertaining stories. As he introduces it, “this book is a collection of Southern stories, but it is not a litany of pig pickins and frat parties and cutthroat beauty contests.” Rather, these are fervent, funny, heartfelt memories of places and cultures that need remembering.

Bragg shares his experience of the Deep South, from his family home in northern Alabama to Florida, Louisiana and the Alabama coast. Readers quickly become acquainted (or reacquainted) with his large and lively family, as Bragg brings immediacy and intimacy to his setting and cast of characters. His mouthwatering descriptions of the food of his homeland–centered on various forms of pork but with a heavy emphasis on Gulf Coast seafood as well–are flavorful and evocative. He occasionally claims that “I can’t write well enough to tell you how good it was,” a risky writerly trick that Bragg easily pulls off. He considers the red dirt of northeastern Alabama as both physical and symbolic. Bragg’s tone is self-effacing and often hilarious, which belies his ability to approach serious issues, like his treatment of overfishing and the Deepwater oil spill.

In exploring family, a sense of place or home, and the distinctive details of Southern food and culture, Bragg exhibits an exquisitely nuanced, clever voice, partly disguised by a down-home accent. Readers will laugh, and cry, and yearn to head South.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 9 paper bags of cracklin’s.

Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole

This memorable collection of reflective short stories about commonplace tragedies showcases a gentle, painstakingly accurate writing voice.

father brother keeper

Nathan Poole’s debut collection of short stories, Father Brother Keeper, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and is an emotionally evocative and varied experience. Its contents are rarely connected, as when two consecutive stories follow one family through generations of gentle conflict. However, even stories that don’t share characters do have in common their settings in rural Georgia and a series of small towns. Each is a miniature masterpiece of perfect, often tragic realism, featuring men, women and children dealing with everyday trials: illness, death, divorce, financial hardship.

An old man fights his dementia–“he was losing traction”–when his estranged daughter leaves her two small children with him and drives away. A young man finds more than a dozen bait dogs (fight dogs past their prime) abandoned on his family’s property and accuses the wrong man of the brutality. Two brothers react in different ways toward their mother after their father leaves. Two young neighbor girls who are friends contract the same illness but with different outcomes; mapping this divergence is a challenge for each family. In the stories labelled “Two from Sparta,” four generations live off their land in slightly different ways, each father learning how to make his way with his son. A young man sets out to find the oldest, biggest tree of each species in the country, to honor a death. “It would be an easy thing to do, and good… a dedication. The year I would learn the joy of calling each thing by its proper name.”

Poole’s achievement in this collection is just that, calling each thing by its proper name. Though perhaps simple in their subject matter, each story is weighty in its emotional impact, and sharply, poignantly real. The stories all feature people living simply, accommodating change if not embracing it, and struggling to move forward through whatever life hands them. Poole’s voice is original, authentic and starkly honest; he is clearly compassionate toward his characters even as he walks them through terrible everyday calamities. Father Brother Keeper is a slim book but one that demands to be read slowly and thoughtfully, so that the hints of redemption can percolate. Meticulous, gorgeous and brooding, these stories will appeal to connoisseurs of the short story as well as fans of traditional Southern ways of life and literary fiction.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the February 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 barrels.

Teaser Tuesdays: Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

father brother keeper

Usually I pick out these teaser bits for you especially, but with this lyrically wonderful little book, I opened at random and found these striking lines.

All night long the dealership lights gleam in the madness of the razor wire. Large violent curls, beautiful and intricate, hang in bobs up the tall inverted parabola, and it makes you wonder, seeing all that razor wire, seeing it shine all night long, just who is living in there, and why all that fuss, and what would they do to you if they met you on the street. Would they say warm, strange things to you? Would they tuck you in, hand you the gift of a story, an old knife, kiss your forehead softly like a mother?

I think it’s a fine test of poetry, to open a book and fine something like this. The content is excellent, too.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Killdeer: And Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

There is something for everyone in this very special collection of moving stories about the farming life, and the human experience.


Michael Cotter, born in 1931 on Minnesota land his family had farmed since the 1870s, was scolded from an early age: “Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” As a hardworking livestock farmer, his natural inclination toward storytelling had to be suppressed. He was nearly fifty when he attended a workshop that reactivated his artistic side and began his storytelling career. The Killdeer and Other Stories from the Farming Life compiles his stories, full of simple humor and pathos of his life experiences and storytelling prowess.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on November 6, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.


My rating: 8 kittens.

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