Movie Review
The Vietnam War
Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

This isn’t a very deep review. It is, however, a very deep and sincere recommendation. The eighteen hour documentary is simply the best thing I’ve seen in years. PBS broadcast the first of ten episodes on September 17. I watched it and the next one, and was hooked. Circumstances kept me from watching the remaining episodes when broadcast, but I did eventually see them all via online streaming. It was announced that the stream would only be available through October 15 but it still appeared to be functioning on the 17th. Check The Vietnam War for details and other sources.

There’s no question that one reason I found this production so engaging is its familiarity. I recall many of the described events from when they happened in the 1960s and early 1970s. There was both a refreshing of memories and a filling in of unknown details. But there was also plenty of totally new information, particularly concerning the earliest years, that made me realize things were even more screwed up than I thought they were; And I thought they were really screwed up.

Burns and company pulled together a lot of sources in an attempt to present every aspect from every angle. The result probably isn’t perfect but it’s mighty close. Recent interviews with a variety of participants help illuminate some of those angles and add insight and credibility.

I was more on the sidelines than not, but I was there. Watching this movie made me remember some of the clearly stupid and arguably evil things my country did. Someone in their 20s or 30s for whom the Vietnam War is more ancient than World War II was for me, won’t have those memories to be reawakened. We will see the history telling aspect of the movie differently. But I can’t imagine anyone watching this epic and thinking of it as nothing but a history report. Seeing the divisiveness associated with the Vietnam War in the divisiveness of today seems unavoidable to me. I believe that the twentysomethings of both the 1970s and the 2010s can’t help but see some similarities.

If you’re looking for a little entertainment that will take your mind off the world, this ain’t it. This will, in fact, press your mind firmly against the world of fifty years ago and help it remember and/or understand that world. I’m betting it will also get your mind thinking about the world of today although it probably won’t help in understanding it.  

Concert Review
Paul Simon
Riverbend Music Center

A couple of recent posts spoke of how “I’m not moving like I used to.” Neither am I going to concerts like I used to. I still like live music and often catch both local and big time performers in smallish venues but when it comes to large venues and super stars, I’ve become pretty selective. I don’t like the large crowds and the various hassles that go along with them. I don’t like the large ticket prices. Adjusted for inflation, the third row Beatles ticket I bought for $5.50 in 1966 would cost $41.64 today. My twenty-first row seat at Saturday’s Paul Simon concert was more than twice that ($91.50) though that might be justified. The sound system did seem much improved over three Vox amplifiers and some microphones. But most of all I don’t like the outrageous and unavoidable fees that are stacked on top. Those fees added more than 25% to the Simon ticket. How the hell did we let that happen?

So when I do attend a big crowded high-priced musical affair you can bet it’s someone I really want to see. It’s probably someone I’ve wanted to see for a long time but just never quite managed so that seeing them has become something of a bucket list item. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that the performer and I are both within kicking range. That was the case with last summer’s Steely Dan concert and is the case with a Van Morrison show I’ll be attending this fall. It was the case with Paul Simon.

Maybe Paul’s lost a little vocal range or can’t kick as high as he once did but how would I know? He delivered every thing I hoped for. The songs he played came from every part of his career and I knew almost all of them as did almost all of the audience. The eight piece band made me think of a cross between the Mothers of Invention and the E Street Band. They weren’t quite as tight as the E Street Band but the range of instruments and the levels of talent were pretty close. And they weren’t as loose as the Mothers but they did show a ton of flexibility. Everybody played multiple instruments — even the drummer played a mandolin at one point — and they were all good.

Paul played an acoustic guitar for “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and when the song ended a stage hand approached with a solid-body electric and they swapped. As Paul was strapping the new instrument in place he responded to shouts from the foot of the stage with “You want to hear it again?” The acoustic guitar came back and Paul and the band delivered another rousing verse or so. Maybe he’s done that before. Maybe he does it a lot. But it seemed spontaneous and we all loved it.

There were two encores. Paul had carried a baseball cap on stage and it hung on his mic stand through most of the show. I believe he carried it off with him at the end of the first set but might be wrong. I know he did after the first encore because it was on his head when he and the band came out for the second. He held it up and explained that the lower case ‘e’ on the hat represents the Half Earth Project which will receive all profits from the current tour. I am only slightly familiar with the project, which proposes to dedicate half the surface of the Earth to nature, but do not doubt its worthiness. In  my mind, both the project and Paul’s contribution connect with “How much is enough?” One species doesn’t need or benefit from manipulating every inch of the earth. One rock star doesn’t need or benefit in any real way from grabbing every dollar on earth. Paul and many musicians continue to perform long after banking enough money for several lifetimes because that’s simply what they do and folks like me and the road crews appreciate it. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if more people accepted that there really is such a thing as enough. The band did three songs in the first encore and four in the second. Then Paul brought them all to the front of the stage for a bow. Many shook hands with fans before walking off . Paul remained on stage alone.

He picked up a guitar and stepped to the mic. “Anger is addicting,” he said, “and we are becoming a nation of addicts. Look around and see who the pushers are.” That’s what I remember and what I recorded on my phone as I left my seat at concert’s end. Another review has it slightly different and there are reports of other variations at other concerts. He then ended the show with “The Sounds of Silence” which I’d been waiting to hear live since 1965. When it was over he moved a few feet to his left and stood the guitar in front of him. He seemed to study the crowd as he allowed the crowd to study him. After a few moments he moved to the other side of the mic and did the same thing. Aloha.

Book Review
Sorry’s Run
Joani Lacey

I’ve not read a lot of fiction lately. I used to. There was a time when I sucked down a fair amount of science fiction and historical fiction along with a smattering of aged classics. Sorry’s Run is none of those. It is, however, just about everything else. If pressed to place it under a single heading, I guess I’d call it a mystery. It’s a mystery where learning what was done is at least as much fun as learning who done it. Beneath the book’s central plot is an intriguing layer of occult, a tolerable touch of romance, and frequent and appreciative glimpses of the Ohio River and the country it flows through. It is set in the real world of today although it’s a world whose edges are not always crisply defined.

I know Joani Lacy as a performer. She sings in a band fronted by husband Robin and can cover Patsy Kline as well as anyone I’ve heard. When her first novel was published in 2008, I was interested but not enough to seek it out. It was, after all, fiction and my reading stack was filled with the other stuff. When that first book turned into a trilogy it became a little more intimidating and slipped even farther down the “to read” list. Sorry’s Run is a standalone that got me to experience an author I’d been putting off for years.

I expected skillful writing and was not disappointed. Lacy’s words paint a clear picture of the fictional town of Sorry’s Run as well as provide views of multiple sides of New York City. The story’s main character was born in the small Kentucky town of the title, had a highly successful career in the big city, and gets this story started with a return to her roots. Cultural differences between the two locations are noted but not exploited. Skill is also evident in the pacing. Revelations, whether of some new insight into a character or of some sharp plot twist, seem to occur naturally and some of those twists are really quite sharp.

Even though I more or less expected Lacy’s writing to be skillful, I was impressed. I was even more impressed with her imagination. Skillfully relating a story is one thing; Creating a story worth telling is quite another. Sorry’s Run is a story worth telling. Not because it explains how to cure some disease or answers the question of life but because it’s entertaining. I’ll say no more because being surprised is a big part of enjoying this book. The reader isn’t bombarded with surprises (Pace is, as I said, one of this book’s strong suits.) but there are plenty and they never stop. The very last page both surprised me and made me very happy. That’s a mighty good way to end a book and it was, I think, no accident.

Sorry’s Run, Joani Lacy, iUniverse (April 21, 2016), 9 x 6 inches, 380 pages, ISBN 978-1491792971

Movie Review
From War to Wisdom
Daniel R. Collins & Josh Hisle

I might not even be aware of this movie’s existence if I didn’t know one of the directors. Maybe someone else will learn of it only because they know me. If so, that’s a good thing. And it’s also a good thing if someone learns of the movie by stumbling onto this blog post without knowing either of us. If either of those things happens and someone watches From War to Wisdom who otherwise would not, I’ll be a happy man. It’s a movie that deserves to be seen with a story that needs to be heard.

It is primarily a story of Afghanistan and Iraq combat veterans. To some degree it is a new version of the oft told tale of guys going off to war then having difficulty returning to the civilian world. It’s a view that the tagline “When the war ends, the real battle begins” encourages and the movie’s general organization supports. The film’s front end focuses on the war and the second half focuses on the return. The “off to war” part is made extra effective through the use of gripping footage shot by embedded journalists Mike Cerre and Mike Elwell. The “difficulty returning” part is made personal through excerpts from interviews with those having the problems. But excerpts from those interviews also appear in the film’s early scenes and create a solid connection between the two halves.

Creating a marker between the halves is a text only shot. In front of the shot we see returning soldiers marching between welcoming signs and banners then being dismissed to reunite with their families while veteran Hans Palmer describes the time as “the proudest I’ve ever felt in my life.” Following the text is a scene with Josh Hisle talking about needing a “place to decompress — every day.” He’s sitting outside his apartment waiting for everyone else in the complex — his “area” — to go to sleep. “It’s not insomnia,” he says. “It’s duty.”

Five panels fade from one to another in that near midpoint text shot. The number of troops killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is mentioned along with the average number of veterans — a gut-wrenching 22 — that commit suicide each day. The last phrase is “many veterans are taking it upon themselves to help their fellow warfighters to truly come home.” That’s what this movie is about. It’s what makes this more than another war sucks story.

War does suck and From War to Wisdom makes that clear. It also makes clear the serious damage that war can inflict on those who survive it and it tells the stories of some of the veterans who overcame that damage. Then the stories go a little farther. Some of those veterans not only overcame their own issues but have made major efforts and established ongoing organizations to help others overcome theirs.

There’s Common Ground on the Hill’s Veterans Initiative that Josh Hisle was instrumental in establishing after he personally benefited from the Common Ground experience. There’s The Battle Buddy Foundation that veterans Kenny Bass and Joshua Rivers created to help other veterans obtain service dogs like Atlas who makes a normal life possible for Kenny. There’s New Directions for Veterans that was established in 1992 by a pair of Vietnam veterans and is represented in the film by Iraq veteran Matthew Lorscheider. Matthew does a pretty good job of capturing the spirit of this film when he says “That’s what we did in the military. Help a buddy out. I’m not going to stop now.”

There are many other examples of veterans helping veterans both in the film and out. They are bright spots and their successes are to be celebrated but they aren’t enough to make From War to Wisdom a feel good movie. It is, however, an encouraging movie and an informative one. Most of the veterans that appear in the film fought in either Afghanistan or Iraq. There is one notable exception. He’s a Vietnam vet who’s legal name is now Ragtime. He is a stained glass artist who teaches at Common Ground and started 1,000 Points of Peace back in 2006. The warriors recorded in this film say many wise things; The “wisdom” in the title is there for a reason. But I found a couple of Ragtime’s utterances particularly memorable. I don’t really think it’s a generational thing but maybe. From Ragtime: “America forgot what it was supposed to be doing… but I remember.”

The movie’s website lists a number of ways to see it. They include purchasing a DVD or watching online as either a rental or purchase.
DVD Online


This is my third movie review. When I did the second, I had actually forgotten the first (which I called a video review) and repeated a line about being even less qualified to review movies than books. I had done a few book reviews before starting this blog so doing some here didn’t feel too awkward. I wasn’t quite as comfortable with music reviews. I remember the circumstances behind that first one. Josh Hisle was working on an album and I knew I wanted to review it when it came out. I reviewed other albums so it would not be the first. Josh got distracted. Not by something shiny but by this movie. Between it and his work with Common Ground and being a full time husband, father, and student there was no time left for an album. That’s OK. It’s a lot more than OK. The album still hasn’t been released but we instead have this movie which I have a hunch is going to do a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people.

Even though I’m still waiting for that album and this is the first chance I’ve had to review a Josh Hisle product it is not his first mention here. He was the subject of this blog’s ninth post (There’s Something Happening Here) in 2011 and appears in at least three trip journal entries: February 19, 2010, July 23, 2010, and October 10, 2011.

Book Review
Exceptional Ordinary
Jim Grey

I’m guessing that most people buying this book do so because of an interest in old cameras. Or an interest in film photography. Or an interest in photography as art. Those are all reasons that I bought it but none of them is the primary reason. Or even the secondary reason. It might seem a little crude to admit it but my number one reason for buying Exceptional Ordinary was that I know the author. The number two reason was curiosity. Old cameras, film photography, and art were reasons three, four, and five for the purchase but turned into my top reasons for enjoying it.

Knowing the author really needs no explanation as a reason for buying the book. We all buy things from friends and relatives simply because they are friends and relatives. I first met Jim through a mutual interest in historic roads then learned we also had mutual, but not quite identical, interests in cars and photography. That we both blog probably helped; That we’ve both been involved in software development maybe not.

Buying the book out of curiosity might not be so easily understood. In my limited experience, print on demand photo books were either really expensive or really crappy. By going with a “magazine” format and keeping the page count down, Jim had kept his book from being expensive. I wanted to see if it was crappy.

It’s not. The photos are crisp and the colors look right on the semi-gloss pages. I don’t doubt that offset printing with an expert spending some time on color matching could produce something better but it might not be much better and I — and maybe you, too — might not know the difference. Construction and general quality seems good and the book was nicely sealed and packaged when it arrived.

So Blurb, the company doing the printing and order fulfillment, did their part of the job properly. What about Jim’s contribution? There are thirty photos in the book plus an un-cropped (or less-cropped) version of the cover image and a small photo of the author. Each of the thirty main photos is accompanied by a paragraph or two describing the picture and something about its creation. Sometimes the picture gets a page all to itself with text on the opposing page and sometimes picture and text share a page. No page has more than one photo. The lens and film are always identified. More often than not, the text will include what it is that Jim likes about the picture. In other words, why it’s in the book. There seems to be a roughly even mix between color and B & W. Subjects range from buildings to people and from automobile trim to pets. Surroundings range from sunlit outside spaces to dark interiors to midways at night. It’s really quite the sampler and every image is worthy of study. Jim also did his job properly.

I know that part of what Jim wanted to accomplish with this book was to satisfy his own curiosity about publishing one. A more general goal was to show that art can be produced while having fun and that high priced gear isn’t required.

The book’s subtitle is “Everyday Photography with the Pentax ME”. The reason that only lens and film need be identified for each picture is that the Pentax ME is used exclusively. Jim talks about the camera in a short introduction and explains that, while quite capable, the ME is usually overshadowed by the better known Pentax K1000 along with some other popular 35mm SLRs. As a result, the ME can often be found for under $50 which not only gets you a very good camera but includes access to a large selection of extremely good lenses. Jim put this very ordinary equipment to work producing some exceptional images. Goal accomplished.

The book can be previewed and purchased here.

Jim’s blog, which is typically but not exclusively about photography, is here.

Exceptional Ordinary, Jim Grey, Published via Blurb (March 21, 2017), 11 x 8.5 inches, 44 pages, ISBN 978-1366200280

Book Review
Vigilante Days and Ways
Nathaniel P. Langford

This book was first published in 1890. The link at the end of this article points to a version published barely a month ago. Despite it being well over a century old, some think it worth reading and someone considers it worth republishing. Why others consider the 127 year old writing worth reading I cannot say but I know why I enjoyed it. It’s filled with stories I’ve watched unfold on TV or in a movie theater or read as fiction. Those tales of frightened town folk, evil bullies, crooked sheriffs, and cowardly henchmen that thrilled me in my younger days were all legitimate. The basis of many plots played out in the numerous TV westerns of the 1950s and ’60s can be recognized in the real world events that Langford documents. This book is filled with characters very much like the assorted outlaws encountered by the horse riding heroes of my youth. Men similar to some of those heroes are also present although they don’t stand out quite as clearly. Few real world heroes wear a pair of pearl handled revolvers and a white hat.

The edition I read was published in 1996 by American & World Geographic Publishing. The front cover is pictured above. On the back in an excerpt from the introduction that Dave Walter wrote. He speaks of the “flowery, often melodramatic Victorian prose”. He calls for it to “be relished rather than disdained”. I agree but I have seen reviews that call it distracting so it’s clear that the “relish” is in the eye of the beholder. To me it adds yet another layer of authenticity to the first person accounts. I guess I just plain enjoy reading about villains who “vociferated” in a land that “swelled gradually into a circumference of heaven-kissing mountains”.

By definition a vigilante is without legal authority. Today, in most of the world and certainly in the USA, that is universally and entirely a bad thing. That was not quite the case in the Montana Territory of the 1860s and 1870s. Yes, US laws technically applied but enforcement was at best sparse and often non-existent. This was especially true in the instant “cities” that sprang up around gold and silver discoveries and those “cities” attracted plenty of men ready to do their prospecting with a gun rather than a pick and shovel. So, even if you want to call all vigilantism a bad thing, there can be no argument about it being the lesser of two evils when the other is rampant robbery and murder. Langford was a vigilante and is undoubtedly a key participant in many of the events he documents although he never identifies himself. He doesn’t, in fact, identify many of the vigilantes and it seems likely that the only names mentioned belonged to men no longer living at the time of writing.

Yes, it’s an old book filled with archaic Victorian prose and characters that you might think of as stereotypes. But its stories were recent history when written and those characters weren’t stereotypes but prototypes. If names like Alan Ladd, Randolf Scott, and Glenn Ford bring back pleasant memories, you just might like this book.

Vigilante Days and Ways, Nathaniel P. Langford, Independently published (January 20, 2017), 9 x 6 inches, 411 pages, ISBN 978-1520424460

Book Review
True Tales from a Cemetery Cop
Jaimie Vernon

I’ve never met Jaimie Vernon but we’re friends. We’re the kind of friends that didn’t even exist a dozen years ago. Yes, we’re Facebook friends. It’s because of music. Vernon runs Bullseye Records which represented the band Klaatu through part of their career. I’m a Klaatu fan and stumbled onto a related online group in which Vernon played an active role. The e-group eventually became more or less dormant but we remained e-friends in the Facebook world. I’m sharing this, not because it has anything to do with the contents of this book, but to explain how I even know of the book’s existence. I am not in the habit of chasing down either cop books or cemetery stories.

For most, I imagine the phrase “cemetery stories” is associated with tales of hauntings and the supernatural. The tales in True Tales from a Cemetery Cop are not those. I knew that going in. I’d read the earliest versions of a few of them on Vernon’s Facebook page when, still freshly amused or appalled, he related them initially. While some of the behavior documented in this book might not seem exactly natural to everyone, it is decidedly not supernatural.

Even though Vernon has written other books, including the two volume
Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia, this was the first time I’d read anything of his beyond a few liner notes and those Facebook postings. I was happy to discover that he is a very competent writer and often a thoughtful one as well.

The book comes from Vernon’s one year stint as a security guard at Toronto’s largest cemeteries. It was a job he took to keep his family afloat through some rough times. Like many jobs of this sort, guarding cemeteries has plenty of short periods of hyperactivity separated by long periods of no activity at all. Being alone with your thoughts is something that most guards, patrolmen, and motel clerks experience but the thoughts that come while waiting for the next speeder or call for more towels are not the same as those that come in the middle of the night in the midst of thousands of people not one of which is living. Vernon shares some of these thoughts without being overly spooky or preachy.

But the “true tales” promised in the title come not from his time alone or non-existent interaction with the dead but from his interaction with the living. Sometimes it’s with living critters like raccoons who call the cemetery home but more often it is with living human visitors. The human residents present no problems at all. There are some funny incidents and some incredibly sad ones and some that are simply frustrating. Along with those lonely night reflections, the tales provide a glimpse at a job we all know must exist but which we have probably never even thought about.

Vernon’s writing is enjoyable and easy to read. He provides all the details necessary without being burdensome. He avoids specifics that could embarrass anyone although I found myself hoping some of the players were embarrassed at the very least. The book is self published and there are some “typos” that might not make it to print with a full publishing house team involved. With today’s spell checking technology misspelled words rarely get through but they do sometimes get turned into the wrong word. That has happened here in a few cases. An example is the word ‘undo’ appearing rather than ‘undue’. The rest are of the same caliber. They never prevent understanding but they might cause some readers to pause.

I won’t claim that the book made me cry or laugh but the job had Vernon doing both along with shaking his head at what some of the living consider appropriate behavior around the dead. As I was reading the last part of this book, publication of a second volume was announced. It’s on my list.

Signed copies are available directly from the author at CemeteryCop.com

True Tales from a Cemetery Cop: To Serve and Protect the Dead, Jaimie Vernon, Bullseye Publishing/CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (September 18, 2016), 9 x 6 inches, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1537138022

Book Review
Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen

It’s exactly what you’d expect. That’s not to say that there is no new information and no surprises but the sometimes almost poetic writing style is exactly what I expected from a man who has produced some of the most notable English language lyrics of the last four decades. It’s no secret that some of those lyrics were just a bit autobiographical so it’s possible to think of this as sort of a much longer and more detailed version of the story he’s been singing since he first greeted us from Asbury Park.

It’s all intertwined, isn’t it? Central to the story that he tells so compellingly is the fact that he is a compelling story teller. The reason we know the name Bruce Springsteen and the reason we are interested in his biography is that he is a phenomenal performer, talented musician, skilled song writer, masterful band leader, and… compelling story teller.

As a long time fan, I knew the basics so the book really did do a lot of detail filling in for me and most of those details weren’t surprising. They were just additional and better information that fit what I already knew about his family, early bands, management squabbles, and the like. To a lesser degree that’s even true about the battles with depression. There’s no doubt that one of the highest highs in the world is being Bruce Springsteen on stage so it’s not hard to accept that being Bruce Springsteen off stage can sometimes be one of the lowest lows. He writes candidly about it as he does with everything else.

Although not all do, an autobiography, besides being able to include some otherwise unknown details, can include intimate thoughts and attitudes not available to biography writers. I had read almost the entire book before it finally registered with me that this was the case with Born to Run from the very first page. By “almost the entire book” I mean the last sentence of the next to last chapter. In a paragraph that may have been the final one in some not quite finished version of the book, Springsteen tells us that “Discretion and the feelings of others…” have kept certain things out of the book but that the inside of his head isn’t one of them. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that.”

The book contains plenty of insightful serious glimpses into that mind but a couple of insightful fun ones really registered with me. Both were in the relatively recent past. One shows his unstoppable ambition  and the other his sheer love of rock and roll.

The E Street Band’s 2009 Super Bowl appearance has been cited as the seed for this book. I’d seen the four song performance and kind of assumed it was no big deal to Springsteen. It was and he was extremely nervous in the days and minutes before show time. He had played to plenty of filled stadiums but not to 150 million TV viewers. He still had worlds to concur. “I felt my band remained one of the mightiest in the land and I wanted you to know it.”

In 2012 the Rolling Stones were playing in Bruce’s neighborhood and asked him to join them for “Tumbling Dice”. There’s a video online and in it Bruce never stops grinning. It’s possible he hadn’t stopped grinning since the night before when they rehearsed it — one time! — in a warehouse. “…these are,” as Bruce explains it, “the guys who INVENTED” my job!”

The last chapter, titled “Long Time Coming”, could serve as an epilogue if a labeled epilogue didn’t begin on the next page. It begins with some thoughts about the Springsteen generations immediately before and after his own. Writing this book helped him understand his parents and he has some hope that it will help his kids understand him. The sentence that begins the chapter’s second paragraph is “I work to be an ancestor.” Like so many magic snippets of his lyrics, those half-dozen words say more than most people can say in a full page. Almost everything he’s written about his own ancestors throughout the book and about his own offspring in its most recent chapters is brought into sharp focus with that one sentence.

The epilogue follows and there is even an essentially unnecessary “About the Author” page. The book ends with several pages of photographs that begin with baby Bruce and end with Bruce and wife Patti on horseback leaning together to share a kiss. My guess is he’s going to be a pretty good ancestor.

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster; September 27, 2016, 9.2 x 6.1 inches, 528 pages, ISBN 978-1501141515

Book Review (not really)
A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving

apfom_cvrI’m not really going to review this twenty-seven year old book that I’m guessing thousands of professional reviewers have written millions of words about. When I first read it, more than two decades ago, I thought it was one of the best books I had ever encountered.  A recent re-read only reinforced that. The re-read was prompted by plans to attend a performance of a play based on the novel. I’m going to say some things about that performance but this really isn’t a review of it either. In fact, I find myself stumped in trying to explain just exactly what this is. What ever it is, it was triggered by my recent experience with a book and a play.

From the moment I saw that Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park would be presenting A Prayer for Owen Meany I wanted to see it. I knew nothing about the play but recalled how much I loved the book. As is often the case, I recalled my love of the book better than I recalled the details of it and decided that reading it again would be a wise move. I reserved a digital copy at the library but the Playhouse’s announcement had obviously given others the same idea. The waiting list was long and it moved slowly. It became apparent that I might not even receive a copy before I saw the play let alone have time to read it. I turned to Amazon where money solved the problem. A little more money provided a new experience.

When I purchased a Kindle version of the book, I was given the option of adding an audio version from Audible for a few dollars more. I bit, thinking that it might help me get through the book before showtime. It did. The two versions were synchronized so that I could listen as I walked to a nearby restaurant, read while I ate, then listen some more as I walked home with Kindle picking up where Audible left off and vice versa. I don’t think it will become my default method of “reading” but it is a very effective way of using all available minutes to move forward.

So I finished the book and made it to the play. I have no illusions that a play or movie can be a complete replacement for a well written book but I do know that a well done play or movie can sometimes cut through minutia while preserving a theme and making it more easily accessible to more people. This was not, in my opinion, one of those times.

First, in defense of the production, the Playhouse cast and staff did an admirable job in staging and performing a complex script. Second, in defense of the playwright, the novel itself is certainly complex with loads of characters and locations, multiple time periods, and a narrator whose inner thoughts sort of fuel the whole thing. That this is built atop a doubly volatile core of both politics and religion no doubt makes a stage adaptation quite challenging.

I’ve just one knock on the production. The acting was excellent as was the use of space. The flying, however, wasn’t so good. The script (I assume) calls for Owen Meany to go airborne several time in a Mary Martin/Peter Pan sort of way. The problem was that, before each lift-off, actors spent on-stage time connecting the support apparatus to Owen’s body. The audience was left with a more vivid memory of the preparation than of the “flight”.

That aspects of the novel needed to be eliminated in a stage play goes without question. I don’t even question screenwriter Simon Bent’s choices of what to eliminate. Big stuff from the book that didn’t make it to the stage include John Wheelwright’s three cousins, his lengthy comments on the Iran-Contra affair, and the removal of his finger to avoid the draft. The armadillo that soloed on the cover of the first edition didn’t make it to the stage either. Nor did Owen Meany’s time as The Voice or his conflicts with school administration that cost him scholarships and led to his enrollment in ROTC. I recognize the fact that to include these or some of the many other things eliminated might have complicated things beyond reason. Whether or not the simplification made the play accessible and understandable to anyone unfamiliar with the book is not for me to say.

I expect things to be simplified when a book goes the the stage or screen. Not only must things be eliminated but sometimes thing must be simply changed. Changing the armadillo to a ball and glove makes sense. Adding the Lenny Bruce scene as a device to express some inner thoughts is reasonable. But why change the day of Owen’s death? I don’t think it’s particularly important in the book. There it is July 8 and a follow on to Independence Day but is not, as far as I can tell, otherwise significant. If there is a purpose to changing it to March 31 in the play, it’s lost on me. And it’s irritating.

The majority of comments on the Playhouse’s Facebook page are positive. Some are glowing. Only a few are really negative. Some mention language, others the flying apparatus, and some give no reason at all. It would not have surprised me if people who had not read the book found the play hard to follow but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I only spotted a couple of comments suggesting that. More common are comments from people who intend to read the book now that they’ve seen the play. That’s a good thing, I think, because I believe they’ll find that a picture — even a moving picture — isn’t always worth a thousand words.


Added 21-Sep-2016 8:00: A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with the narrator stating “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Questioning then embracing faith is the book’s most basic theme. What I’ve personally questioned is my attraction to a book whose message seems so different form what I believe. Skillful writing and the fact that it makes me think must be the reasons. The following quote from John Irving makes me much more comfortable with my admiration for a book that seems almost an endorsement of Christianity.

I’m not religious. In writing “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” I asked myself a fairly straightforward question — namely, what would it take to make a believer out of me? The answer is that I would have to meet someone like Owen Meany. If I’d had Johnny Wheelwright’s experience in that novel, I would probably be a believer too. But I haven’t had that experience — I only imagined it.

 

Book Review
The Jefferson Highway
Lyell D. Henry Jr.

tjh_cvrIn its preface, Lyell D. Henry Jr. suggests that this book is something of a compromise. The reason is that he once set out to write about every detail of the Jefferson Highway and the association behind it. That’s a lot of details and, especially with no known central source for records or maps, a formidable task. Henry says he “…settled on writing a book that would open with a general accounting of JHA’s early pursuit of the entire highway but then narrow its focus to the highway through Iowa.” The Jefferson Highway: Blazing the Way from Winnipeg to New Orleans is indeed a book of two parts. The first four chapters cover the history of the organization responsible for the entire highway; The last three tell the story and describe the route of the road in Iowa. The scale may be less and the focus may be narrower than what Henry once had in mind but, within that narrowed focus, there is certainly no detectable compromising of accuracy or completeness.

The Jefferson Highway was one of the more significant named auto trails of the early twentieth century. The association promoting it was created in November of 1915 and the highway, like all named auto trails, effectively ceased to be when the Numbered US Highways were established in November of 1926. A modern day Jefferson Highway Association formed in 2011.

The featured players in those first four chapters are men at the top of the Jefferson Highway Association. Men like its founder, Edwin T. Meredith, its first General Manager, James D. Clarkson, and a few others. Likewise, the routeing discussions and decisions presented are those affecting the basic overall course of the highway. Particularly with this being the first book written on the Jefferson Highway in many decades, I thought this a sensible approach. Other leaders and other decisions certainly played important roles in specific states or regions and many that affected Iowa are discussed in the last three chapters. Henry writes that he hopes others will undertake similar projects for the other seven Jefferson Highway states in the near future. When they do, the first four chapters of this book could serve as a foundation. As someone without much knowledge of this highway’s history, I saw them as a sort of JH primer.

The second portion of the book is organized as a north to south driving tour with tales of the various routeings and the points of interest beside them woven into the driving directions. There is no denying that one reason Henry writes about Iowa is that it is his home but it is a very reasonable choice for other reasons as well. JHA founder Edwin T. Meredith was an Iowan and the crossing of the Jefferson and Lincoln Highways at Colo, Iowa, gave the state as good a claim as any to being the “Crossroads of America”.

I’ll readily confess that few of the mileage measurements or specific turning instructions really registered with me as I read those last three chapters but I know they will be invaluable when I someday set out to drive the Jefferson Highway. That doesn’t mean those chapters were boring or should be skipped. Descriptions of the many small towns along the way are certainly interesting and Henry provides quite a bit of road and roadside history, too. An example that I particularly enjoyed was learning, for the first time despite driving through it a few times on the Lincoln, just how Iowa’s “Crossroads of America” escaped becoming the “Cloverleaf of America”.

The book is well illustrated with black and white photographs and drawings. Some of the photos are historic but many, particularly in the three “road tour” chapters are quite recent. A majority of these, though far from all, were taken by current JHA treasurer, Scott Berka.

There were hundreds of named auto trails when numbered highway made them all obsolete. Some were little more than a line on a map and some were outright scams. Without question, the JHA was one of what the outfit responsible for those numbers, the American Association of State Highway Officials, called “reputable trail associations”. It’s good to see it getting some twenty-first century literary attention.