June 24, 2008

Anatomy of a Rodeo Clown **

** Anatomy of a Rodeo Clown, Aleta Lutz

Last year I was at an open mike at The Oaks when a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday broke out for Aleta Lutz, a 91-year-old lady sitting on at a side table sipping Shiner from a small glass. After my set I snagged an empty chair at her table to chat. After all, how often do you get a chance to talk to someone who is 91?

That's intriguing enough, but when I discovered she was a writer, I was hooked. We talked until she had to go home, and made arrangements to keep in touch. A few months later, Aleta and her son Jim the Bola Man made the trek from Manor to South Austin for dinner We talked of the writing life and other things. She started out as a young girl during the Depression, writing true crime stories and being paid per word. For many years she lived down around South Padre Island and wrote a society column for the newspaper. Now she lives with Jim in a old farm house, the house where they filmed What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

After dinner, I gave her a FredBook. She gave me a copy of her book, Anatomy of a Rodeo Clown: The Story of Charley Shultz.

I've kept it by the bedside and read the short, bite-sized chapters and learned of the hard times of a Depression-era Okie who stumbled into a career as a rodeo clown. Interesting story. And autographed by the author!

June 17, 2008

Burning Bright **

** Burning Bright, John Steinbeck, 1950

Like many baby boomers, my first exposure to Steinbeck was being traumatized by The Red Pony and The Pearl in school. I don't know what these educators are thinking. High school is depressing enough without adding stories like that to it. In the 80s, I was properly introduced to Steinbeck by a cab driver in San Francisco who recommended I read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. A much better introduction. I fell in love with Steinbeck and began collecting novels as I worked my way through used book stores across the country.

I have a stack of Steinbeck in the To Be Read shelf that are not mentioned in The Stack. When the fancy strikes me, I grab one. Some are more compelling than others. I'm partial to Tortilla Flat and The Winter of our Discontent. And Travels with Charley, but that's not a novel.

So, when I was headed as a volunteer to a fund raising event where I thought I might have some time on my hands, I grabbed a Burning Bright because it is short, under 100 pages. I didn't get to read much more than the introduction at that time, which I found to be as interesting as the book itself.

Steinbeck wrote Burning Bright as a stage play and then filled in description and action to turn it into a novella. It was intended to be able to be performed simply by lifting the dialog out of the book without any significant adaptation. A production was done in New Haven and Boston. It was his third attempt at such a form, the first two being Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down. (More information at wikipedia.)

It's an unusual book. Divided into three acts, each act has the same four characters but the setting for each of the three acts recasts the four characters in different situations: the first act is set in a circus, Saul and Victor are trapeze artists and Friend Ed, a clown; in the second act, Saul and Friend Ed are neighboring farmers and Victor is Saul's farmhand. In the final act Saul is the captain of a ship, Mr. Victor, his mate, and Friend Ed a seaman about to put out on a different ship. In all acts, Mordeen is Saul's wife. If you don't know this going in, the transition to the second act is confusing.

Also, the dialog is a bit ornate and poetic for the humble characters who speak it and takes a little getting used to. However, it's an interesting story and I found the character arcs engaging.

Two stars for the general reader, three stars for students of the craft.

June 12, 2008

The Writer's Journey ***

*** The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Christopher Vogler, 1992

Three stars for the general public. Four stars for writers. I can't believe I took this long to finally read this classic and immensely valuable work. I began taking notes halfway through as the implications for my two current projects began to crystallize. When I finished, I opened it back up to the front and started again, reading the entire book through twice. I expect I'll read it, or at least skim it, again in a year or two.

If you're a writer of fiction or screenplays, you owe it to yourself, your work and your readers to read this at least once.

Highly recommended.

June 5, 2008

A Place Called Wiregrass **

** A Place Called Wiregrass, by Michael Morris, 2002

I picked this book up because it won the Christy Award for First Novel the year before I did with Welcome to Fred. I'm a firm believer in knowing the competition.

I'd like to note right up front that I rank this down at two stars not for the writing, which is good enough, but for the story, which is not the kind of thing I like to read as a rule. Too much second-guessing romance action for my tastes.

But for all that, Morris spins a worthy tale with engaging characters. I was fully invested in the main three characters, all women, being the protagonist, Erma Lee, her granddaughter, Cher, and her mentor, Miss Claudia.

If you're of a mind to appreciate well-written novels with a romantic bent, although not a genre romance novel, you may find this novel to your liking.