Saturday, April 18, 2015

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings - The Yearling

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
While preparing an article about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, I decided to read her tearjerker, The Yearling. It has been decades since I read it, and I find the story even more depressing than I remembered.  

It’s a young adult novel about Jody Baxter growing up in North Central Florida. It takes place close to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida Gators. They have a dormitory, Rawlings Hall named after the author. There is also a Florida State Historic Park comprised of the property where Rawlings lived and wrote the book.

The story occurs around 1870, and the Baxter family farms a parcel of land they cleared. It’s a piece of scrubland in the middle of some Florida swampland. For a taste of what the Baxter’s must have endured, go for a walk in the Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park just south of Gainesville.

Imagine Jody’s life. He has no cell phone, no cable, no bug spray, and no air conditioning. He had to be fairly hardy to survive under those conditions. In the brief year we join the Baxter’s in the story, they encounter drought, disease, bear attacks, a hurricane, a rattle snake bite, and less than pleasant neighbors.

Poor Jody gets mentally and physically clobbered through out the story, but he keeps on going. He encounters death on many occasions, and each time it hits closer to home and has more impact. We watch Jody turn from a little boy into a man.

Rawlings’ uses dialect for her dialogue. It makes the story a bit difficult to read. It is very similar to the dialogue used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Be warned, in the version I read, the text hadn’t been sanitized like Mark Twain’s books. The language could be offensive.

Rawlings demonstrates her love of nature throughout the book. She describes the plants and animals in great detail and correctly. Her story follows the seasonal changes accurately. Her story demonstrates the cycle of life, and the dependence of animals, plants and man on each other.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

To Live

Northville, MI picture by Bruce G. Smith

Saturday, April 11, 2015

First Draft

Bok Tower, Photo by Bruce G. Smith

The first draft doesn't have to be perfect.

It just has to be written.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald 1921
I had finished The Great Gatsby, and was looking for something else to read when I noticed West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan. It’s about the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life. He did justice to the phrase live fast, die young, stay pretty. He died of heart complications at the age of 44.

O’Nan wrote the biography in a creative fiction tone. It reads smoothly like a fiction story rather than a regurgitation of facts. He draws the reader in, and keeps him hooked throughout the rest of the book.

The story begins in 1937. The United States starts to climb out of the Great Depression. Europe gallops towards another war. Fitzgerald’s career has ended. People are no longer interested in reading about partying, extravagance and the Jazz Age. They are still trying to put food on the table.

Fitzgerald's wife Zelda lived in an asylum, and his daughter Scottie attended a private school. Scott has become broke and homeless. He started working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway has returned from Spain, and Scott gets assigned to adapting one of Hemingway’s short stories to the big screen.

Unfortunately and no big surprise, Fitzgerald has a problem with alcohol. He can’t manage to stay off the gin long enough to put his life together. He worked on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz scripts, but got fired before the projects were completed. He received no credits and no royalties. It was sad to read about his inability to defeat his demons. He would get so close, and then plummet once again.

His friends and associates continued to bail him out. They would loan him money, find him jobs, and give him cash advances against projects that he never finished. He had tremendous talent and opportunities. Even at the end he remained charismatic.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he had a long time girl friend, Sheilah Graham. She would get tired of watching his self-abuse, but she always felt sorry for him and would come back. He had a housekeeper and a secretary that by the end he couldn’t pay, but they also adored him and stuck with him.

It’s a sad story, but O’Nan manages to keep it light and entertaining. I loved this paragraph, and I have to share.  It’s Christmas, Sheilah and Scott go tree shopping. 

“Here they drove to a used-car lot on Pico and chose from a few drooping specimens lined up against the fence like prisoners while a loud speaker hectored them with tinny carols. The salesman charged him an extra fifty cents to wrap the tree in burlap and lash it to the roof of the Ford, and then, on Ocean Boulevard, as Scott braked for a light, it slipped its bonds, sailed free like a torpedo or a body prepared for burial at sea, banged off the hood and continued into the intersection where it finally came to a stop.”

I enjoyed the book despite its sad topic. O’Nan wrote descriptive narrative that treated Scott with respect, and also made the reader feel like they were living the experience with the cast.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Great Gatsby: Would it be a popular read today?

Henry Ford Museum
I enjoyed The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald spins the language with a touch of elegance not seen in the pulp fiction stories today. Our reading mimics our life style. It has become short sound bites filled with action. People don’t want the story gummed up with text. We want a story in 120 characters.

If Fitzgerald wrote this today more than likely he would need to self-publish. The big publishing houses wouldn’t touch it. They want a fast pace and lots of action. It’s an unfortunate loss for the reader. 

Fitzgerald uses the language to its full extent. He takes advantage of beautiful poetic prose and metaphors. Unfortunately, I felt most readers wouldn't get it.

At least that is what I thought as I read the book, but I checked Amazon’s sales list. The Great Gatsby is ranked 106 on the bestseller list, and number 6 on the classics list. Wow!

Then I thought, maybe it is because of the movie. Maybe DiCaprio’s role in the movie is selling books. Again I turned to Amazon. It has been reviewed over 5,000 times, and only 5% of those gave it one star while approximately 60% gave it five stars. Most of the bad reviews were because of formatting quality rather than the content.

Readers get the story. Readers enjoyed the poetic language. They didn’t mind the slow story with very little action. They like Fitzgerald’s use of metaphors. Or maybe they like a story about the filthy rich living a life of drunken debauchery. Either way the book has been around for over 90 years, and it still sells. Who wouldn’t want to write a book with that kind of track record.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Calico Joe by John Grisham

Baseball 1973, the National League won the All Star game. Teams tweaked their rosters for their run to the World Series. In John Grisham’s Calico Joe, the Cubs gave Joe Castle of Calico, Arkansas the nod.

Calico Joe came with a pedigree. His grandfather played for the Cleveland Indians, his father played for the Pirates. His brothers played for the Senators and the Phillies. The Cubs felt good about bringing him up. Joe rewrote the record books, and Cub fans visualized the World Series. Baseball pandemonium ruled the North Side of Chicago.

Eleven-year-old Paul Tracey became enamored with Joe. He listened to as many games as possible. He cut out articles from the paper and glued them in his scrapbook. Only one problem, Paul’s dad, Warren pitched for the Mets.

Warren was hard and Warren was mean. He wasn’t a good father. Warren ends Calico Joe’s career with a bean ball, a 98-mile per hour pitch to the head. Bam! Knocks the guy out, right in the eye.

In Calico Joe, Grisham writes a story depicting a slice of Americana. He gives us baseball at a point in time when baseball meant more than just money. Entwined in the story of baseball, we get family emotions, child abuse, adultery, cancer and death. We also get reconciliation and forgiveness.

Warren Tracey suffers with pancreatic cancer, one of the most painful and deadly forms. No one feels sorry for him. Grisham does a good job of vilifying the man, but maybe by the end you’ll feel differently. Maybe.

Paul tries to over come their differences, the neglect, the abuse, and the KOB (knock out by baseball). Paul wants to make things right, for Joe and baseball, not his dad. In the process, may be he does help his dad. You’re the reader, you decide.

Baseball books in general contain lots of statistics and trivia. This one has some trivia, but doesn’t overdo it. In the author’s note, Grisham admits that some of the facts have been changed to make the story flow better. Baseball aficionados will catch him on these. However, the basics are correct. It is Willie Mays last season. The Mets do make the World Series, and the Cubs are trying to catch them.

Much like baseball, this book pulls the emotional strings. At times you’re not sure if you love or hate the characters. Except for Joe, he’s perfect. It contains and revolves around baseball, but you don’t have to know baseball to enjoy Calico Joe.