Monday, May 7, 2018

Recent reading

I haven't posted one of these lately, so this goes back to January.

Homey Don't Play That! The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution by David Peisner
A somewhat dry but very comprehensive look at the trailblazing sketch comedy show as well as the rise of black comics and actors in the eighties and nineties.

The book covers In Living Color creator Keenen Ivory Wayans's childhood and his trajectory into standup comedy, film, and eventually to the TV show that (along with The Simpsons and Married With Children) would help Fox, then a struggling network wanna-be, move into the big leagues. It also details the creative struggles Wayans had with the network that caused him to walk away from the show.

We also get to witness the career ascension of various cast members including Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, as well as Jennifer Lopez's brief stint as a "Fly Girl". There's Keenen's often brutal treatment of his writers and his sometimes contentious relationships with his contemporaries, especially where his brutal impersonation of Arsenio Hall is concerned. It was fun to learn how some of the show's iconic characters and famous sketches came to be. And I appreciated the even-handedness that the author used in addressing the race and gender factor that permeated television, the show's cast and writing staff, as well as the careers of black comics and actors. The history is fascinating, especially if you aren't old enough to have witnessed it. We also learn the fate of the reboot that never happened.

If you're a fan of the show and/or anyone involved with it you'll enjoy this detailed behind the scenes look at one of the best comedy shows that ever aired.

Keenen seemed to revel in taking shots at his friends and rivals on the show. Over the course of his time in charge, the show jabbed, among others, Robert Townsend, Marsha Warfield, Byron Allen, Chris Rock, Oprah Winfrey, Sinbad and the Hudlins. But the two contemporaries he mocked the most (and the most gleefully) were Spike Lee and Arsenio Hall.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny
I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this is the first of Penny's books I've read, and it will not be the last. Her name pops up on a regular basis when crime and mystery organizations hand out their awards and I finally decided to find out why.

And the reason is that Penny is simply a master. A Great Reckoning earned Agatha, Anthony, Left Coast Crime, Barry and Macavity Awards, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and landed on countless top 10 of 2016 lists.

This book is the thirteenth of her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series and it looks like I'm going to have a lot of catching up to do. It's set in snowy, rural Three Pines, Quebec, where Gamache lives with his wife and a gaggle of quirky friends and neighbors. Gamache has been through a major ordeal I'm not terribly familiar with due to not having read the previous books, but it was brutal and nearly killed him. Now that the dust has settled, he's been transferred from Chief of Homicide to a corrupt local police academy. He takes over with the intention of cleaning it up, but meets with a lot of resistance, especially from one of the instructors, Leduc, who Gamache keeps on the faculty despite his being dirty and at odds with his new boss.

Shortly before Gamache begins his new job, a mysterious and strange old map is unearthed from the walls of a bistro in Three Pines, and he sets a quartet of cadets on the task of solving the mystery behind it. Things go south when Leduc is found shot to death in his quarters and one of the cadets' maps is found in his room.

The characters are well-drawn and instantly spring to life. Gamache is smart and eloquent, and never bitter. One of the things I liked most about him is that he only says as much as needs to be said. And Penny knows her police and procedurals inside out.

"Professionals know that as soon as a murder is committed the weapon stops being a gun or a knife or a club and becomes a noose," he said. "It attaches itself to the killer. He might think he's being clever, taking the weapon, but murder weapons are harder to get rid of than people think. The longer he holds onto it, the tighter the rope gets, the bigger the drop."

The Magnolia Story
by Chip and Joanna Gaines with Mark Dagostino

A quick (under 200 pages) and easy read about how a home-flipping Waco couple became a TV phenomenon.

The book covers how Chip and Jo met and married, then how his home buying and selling, along with her design shop, led to them being cast in the HGTV show Fixer Upper. It's a sweet story of faith, love, and hard work amidst a life of ups and downs. If you're not a fan of that kind of stuff, you're probably not going to like this book, because it's full of it.

When they met, Chip had studied business at Baylor University and was a fearless hard worker who was running several businesses, including buying and fixing up small houses to rent out to university students. Joanna also studied at Baylor, but she was a communications major with hopes for a journalism career. Her interest in and eventual expertise at design was simply the result of how much she loved it and how natural she was at it.

The two don't always come off as equals. Chip, entrepreneurial since childhood, tends to barge into deals without first consulting his wife. Jo's response is usually to panic, then fall back on her belief in both God and her husband's expertise.  And if Chip sometimes comes off as thoughtless and clueless as to how his impulse purchases will affect his family, it's largely offset by his genuine devotion and love for them, and also for his community, especially those less fortunate than him. The fact that he's usually right about a house doesn't hurt either.

In fact, it was his most outrageous purchase that scored them their TV show, which would also eventually lead to the wildly successful branding of Magnolia and the expansion of their business to include the Silos. Jo's horrified on-camera reaction, followed by her decision to make the best of it, followed by the couple going over the purchase and enthusiastically making plans for its renovation, is what sold them as TV stars after a couple of less than inspired previous days of filming.

By this point, I'd learned to adjust my way of thinking quickly since I never knew what Chip would come up with next. I wanted to stay comfortable, but I finally started to realize that with change comes new opportunity. Even though I was sad to leave our home, I quickly got on board with Chip and thought of all the new memories our family could make in a new place. There was a part of me that was challenged to create beauty in a house that seemed to have no potential.

Harvey by Mary Chase
I've been a big fan of the classic James Stewart film Harvey for years, but had never read the play until now. It's always interesting to me to see how stage and film versions differ. In the case of Harvey, the dialogue was transferred pretty much intact, although a few locations were added in the film. The play alternates between only two locations, the library in the Dowd-Simmons home and the reception room at Chumley's Rest, a sanitarium.

Harvey debuted at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre in New York City on November 1, 1944. In 1945, it earned author Mary Chase the Pulitzer for Drama (the Tony Awards did not begin until 1947).

The titular Harvey is an invisible, six foot tall white rabbit, seen only by Elwood Dowd, an otherwise harmless, forty-ish alcoholic. Dowd lives with his widowed older sister Veta Louise Simmons, and Veta's grown daughter, Myrtle Mae. Elwood has a bad habit of introducing Harvey around as if he's visible (and not a human-sized rabbit) and after this behavior ruins a party meant to launch Myrtle Mae into society, Veta decides to have him committed to an asylum. But Veta isn't exactly the model of normalcy herself, and her and Elwood's trip to the sanitarium causes confusion among the doctors as to which one of them really needs psychiatric care.

Most of what was in the movie is in the play. Myrtle's party takes place offstage (only Mrs. Chauvenet is actually seen). Elwood's conversation with Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly in the bar, where he describes meeting Harvey, takes place in the reception area at Chumley's. And as I mentioned earlier, the hilarious dialogue from the film originated in the play.

ELWOOD: I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: "Good evening, Mr. Dowd." I turned and there was this great white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of it because when you have lived in a town as long as I have lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.

The next two books I downloaded on Kindle for research for the short story I wrote and submitted for the upcoming Bouchercon anthology. Due to Bouchercon being in St. Petersberg, Florida this year and the theme and guidelines for the anthology, I decided to set the story in Key West. I know little about the Florida Keys outside of what I've seen in the media since the most recent storms knocked them around, and also the fact that at times Key West was a beloved residence of both Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. I was pleased with how the story turned out, but unfortunately it wasn't selected for the anthology.

Moving to the Florida Keys: It's an Island Paradise, Right? Right??? by Capt. Fritter
A humorous warts and all look at the realities of relocating to Key West, written by a guy who actually did it. And he did it by going minimalist, and doing it ruthlessly. It's not a lifestyle for everyone, but unless you're filthy rich, it's a way to actually reside in a place like Key West, where the cost of living is high but most wages are low.

I found this guide to be pretty comprehensive. Capt. Fritter goes over the differences within each of the Keys, and which island will suit you - or not suit you - depending on the lifestyle you're seeking. He gives detailed information about the job and housing markets. He gives you both the good and bad of life on his island paradise and I think if you are considering making this move, this book is required reading. Capt. Fritter loves Key West, but wants you to know there's more to life there than sunshine and rum. Also, the book was self-published and could have used an editorial pass, but that doesn't make it any less useful.

I also found it interesting that when I checked out the author's website, Manatee Fritters, it turns out that since publishing this book in 2015, he has relocated to Maui. I haven't read enough of it to find out exactly when or why he moved, but he's still doing it as a minimalist.

VISIT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE BEFORE MOVING...More than likely, most of what you know about the Keys comes from the sunshine and Buffett crowd. White sandy beaches, happy people drinking rum, relaxing in the shade of a palm tree, eating shrimp on the back of your boat...oh wait, I actually do that last one. The high cost of living, the low wages, the bugs, the heat and the bums. Paradise may not be so paradisey once you get down here and all the new and shiny wears off.

Key West Dos and Don'ts: 100 Ways to Look Like a Local by Mandy Miles
This "book", on the other hand, is pretty worthless. It's best described by this one-star review on Amazon:

This book, and I hate to describe it as such, is a collection of one sentence bumper sticker pearls of wisdom that will in no way add to a visitor's experience coming to Key West. Having lived in Key West previously, I still tend to read things about the rock. This was a waste. Gems like "Don't argue with bouncers at the bars" or "Don't give the cops on Duval Street a hard time" give you a flavor. The author also shamelessly shills for her relatives' businesses and the paper where she works. You'd be much better off reading one edition of the Citizen (the local newspaper) than this book. 

Another review suggested this publication should have been a pamphlet, not a book, and I agree. I also found some of what the author seems to think are hilarious little nuggets of wisdom to be kind of snotty.

Don't...Believe anyone who says you can see the lights of Havana from the Southernmost Point. Cuba is 90 miles away and the Earth is round, genius.

And this:

Do...Learn the story of the Conch Republic.

But despite lecturing you to know this part of Key West history, she can't be bothered to actually share the story of the Conch Republic in her "book". You know where you can find the story of the Conch Republic? In Capt. Fritter's book. Or here. Check it out, it's actually kind of hilarious. But the fact that I wasted a few bucks on this? Not so funny.

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