Book Review
Transforming Cincinnati
ArtWorks Cincinnati

It would be nearly impossible to spend any time at all around Cincinnati and not notice that its mural population has been increasing. I’ve noticed but I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand that ArtWorks Cincinnati, a name I sometimes noticed being associated with a new mural, wasn’t just a company hired to paint some pictures on some walls. I started to understand that aspect of Cincinnati’s murals just a little when ads for Transforming Cincinnati started to appear that included pieces of the back story. At that point I thought I understood the book’s title but, as I learned when I attended the big premier nearly two weeks ago, that was probably what I understood the least. The official launch took place on November 18 at a “Book Premier & Artist Signing” hosted by Joseph-Beth Booksellers. I attended with the idea of getting a copy with a few autographs in it. I got so much more.

Part of the back story I was starting to hear concerned Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory challenging ArtWorks to create murals for each of the city’s 52 neighborhoods. That was in 2007 and ArtWorks was already well established. Their previous projects included 2000’s Big Pig Gig where 425 full sized fiberglass pigs were decorated and displayed around Cincinnati. For those who don’t know, Cincinnati was once the largest pork-producing city in the world and was known as “Porkopolis”. In the decade since they accepted the mayor’s challenge, ArtWorks has completed 147 murals in 37 neighborhoods.

That is essentially what I knew when I arrived at the launch. John Fox, the book’s editor, served as MC for a panel of artists who answered his questions and told some stories. Thinking I understood the book’s title, I expected to hear about how a mural had transformed an ugly building or brought some brightness to a dreary corner, and how all those murals worked together to transform the city. I did hear a little of that but I also heard about how the projects had transformed people. It wasn’t long before I grasped the connection between ArtWorks and “creative job-training”. The fact that I don’t live in Cincinnati proper is the only excuse I have for not seeing this earlier. ArtWorks doesn’t just go into a neighborhood and paint a mural they think is cool. They work with the neighborhoods to design a mural that is appropriate and they do it — and create the mural itself — with the help of young apprentices. When possible, those apprentices come from the mural’s neighborhood. As ArtWorks founder Tamara Harekavy explains in the book’s introduction “These usually are the teens’ first paid jobs, certainly the first time they’ve been paid to make art.” That is creative job-training in every sense of the word.

As I listened, it became apparent that it wasn’t just the teen apprentices who were transformed. Designers, project managers, and teaching artists were all affected by the projects. Even famed nature artist John Ruthven, who helped reproduce his painting “Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon” on a six-story building, talked glowingly of working with the teens and seeing his work on such a giant scale. The mural was painted in 2013 when he was 89. That’s Ruthven on the left side of the photo. Tamara Harekavy is on his left, then mural artists Jonathan Queen and Jenny Ustick, and book designer Christopher A Ritter.

So what about the book? All I’ve talked about so far is my buying experience. Well, it’s a fairly large format (9 x 12) photo book about murals. Therefore the bulk of its pages are filled with pictures of murals and more pictures of murals. These are typically accompanied with the names of everyone involved and that includes the Youth Apprentices. But there are also descriptions (and pictures) of the process, extra information on some murals, and a couple of maps showing mural locations. Many of the mural pictures are, as might be expected, an accurate as possible recording of the actual mural and nothing else. Others show a considerable chunk of the mural’s surroundings. This is something the book’s creators made extra effort to do since the murals are intended to fit into and enhance their locations. There are also several fold-outs that provide wonderful four-page views of selected murals including the aforementioned “Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon”.

Transforming Cincinnati, ArtWorks Cincinnati, Orange Frazer Press (November 2017), 9 x 12 inches, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1939710-765
Available from ArtWorks CincinnatiOrange Frazer Press, and in store at Joseph-Beth Booksellers Cincinnati.

Book Review
The World from My Bike
Anna Grechishkina

Wow! This is one of the most captivating books I have ever held in my hands. It is the product of one of the most determined woman I have ever met on one of the most exciting adventures I can imagine. Claiming to have met Anna  Grechishkina is actually something of a stretch. At the 2014 Route 66 Festival in Kingman, Arizona, she joined some festival attendees for dinner. Our “meeting” consisted of a second or so of eye contact and a group hello. But I learned of her dream and her plans to fulfill it and I have followed her journey from that point on.

That journey had started just over a year before when she left her home in Ukraine to travel the world on a motorcycle. In that time she had traveled east through Russia then south through Asia and Australia. From Kingman she would cover much of the US then turn south and ride along both coasts of South America before jumping across the Atlantic to Africa. I believe she was in Tanzania when The World from My Bike was completed. As I write this, Anna has just reached Sudan.

I confess to being surprised by the book even though I certainly should not have been. Pre-publication descriptions made it clear that the book was not organized either chronologically or geographically. I know I read that, and have to think I understood it, but it apparently didn’t really sink in. Until I actually opened it and started “reading”, I foolishly expected a standard model travelogue with dates and miles and maps and such. As Anna herself explained in those pre-pub descriptions, The World from My Bike is organized “…according to the emotions I felt at different stages of my journey.”

On the other hand, maybe I intentionally resisted that understanding. I must also confess that I might have turned away from a book I thought was nothing but personal emotions. But regardless of whether I accidentally or intentionally sidestepped the description, I’m sure glad I did. My silly preconceptions might otherwise have caused me to miss out on something wonderful.

There are 365 photographs in the book. I didn’t count them. That number is given in the book’s preface. That three paragraph preface is just about the largest collection of words in the entire volume. It might be exceeded, but only slightly, by the five paragraphs that appear on the back cover. A date and location is given for every photo and most are accompanied by a bit of text. Sometimes the text relates to a specific picture.

The town was alive, rich and arrogant. But diamonds which were the main reason for the town’s existence started to deplete , and the town of Kolpanskop in Namibia eventually turned into a ghost town as its inhabits left all their possessions behind and rushed for another shaky hope. Little by little sand took over what was once the subject of admiration and luxury

But more often it expresses a thought that is augmented by the picture.

Everywhere I go I am a stranger. Well respected, welcomed and even admired, but a stranger. No matter how many interesting stories I tell, I am a passer-by and observer, and soon I will be gone. The most I can expect is to leave good memories behind me.

And sometimes it simply provides some practical real-world advice.

If you wait a few more minutes and don’t rush back home straight after the sun went down you’ll see kaleidoscope of colors and forms which might surpass even beauty of the sunset.

The photographs are beautiful by themselves. There are, of course, numerous images of stunning scenery, but there are also street scenes and photos of people including several riveting portraits. The word “exotic” popped into my American mind many times.

There are 150 pages in the book. Those I did count. They are not numbered. There are four sections — Happiness, Challenges, Lessons, and Fun — but there is no table of contents. It would be meaningless without page numbers. This is not unique. In fact, the organization is very similar to that of Hues of my Vision by Ara Gureghian, another motorcyclist. It no doubt registers more with me here largely because of my own faulty expectations of something linear. This organization is clearly the correct one. There are a few places where two or three pictures work together to complete a thought but, for the most part, the book can be opened anywhere and happily experienced without turning a page.

The book can be purchased at The World from My Bike and I absolutely encourage you to get one. It’s a dandy.

Book Review
50 @ 70
Denny Gibson

This could be the charm associated with third attempts, or it could be the out associated with third strikes. Seriously, though, I doubt it is either. Neither of my first two books, By Mopar to the Golden Gate or A Decade Driving the Dixie Highway, were hits, but neither were they whiffs. They were, to stay with the metaphor, fouled off and I’m still at bat.

50 @ 70 follows the others in form. It’s a travelogue with lots of pictures and it documents a particular accomplishment. The accomplishment it documents is the visiting of all fifty of the states that make up the USA. That, of course is the “50” in the title. “70” comes from the fact that I hit my fiftieth state just days ahead of my seventieth birthday.

Not all states are covered; Thirty-four were already logged before I started paying attention. The sixteen states that are covered are not covered evenly. After a couple of chapters to set the scene, each chapter deals with a trip that led to one or more new states. The last two trips led to Alaska and Hawaii and together fill about half of the book. North Dakota was reached on the way to Alaska, while the rest of the book is shared by the other thirteen states.

50 @ 70 is available as a Kindle download (with color photos) as well as a paperback. Either may be purchased through Amazon and the purchase of a paperback there includes the ability to acquire the Kindle edition for a couple bucks. I’ve also set up an eBay listing in order to make providing signed copies easier. I can’t offer access to the Kindle download or the potentially free shipping of Amazon but they can’t ship books with my scribbling in them.

50 @ 70, Denny Gibson, Trip Mouse Publishing, 2017, paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 142 pages, ISBN 978-1976189371.

Signed copies available through eBay.

Reader reviews at Amazon are appreciated and helpful and can be submitted even if you didn’t purchase the book there.

Book Review
2 for $6 on Route 66
Debra Whittington

I wish I had $6 or even 6¢ for every time I’ve stood by an old motel or diner and wished that the aging walls could talk. There are no talking walls here but 2 for $6 on Route 66 does contain the memories of someone who spent a whole lot of time with some very interesting walls. Author Debra Whittington married into the motel business; The man she married was born into it.

In 1954 Mark Whittington’s parents built a motel on the west side of Tucumcari, New Mexico. They sold it after a few years, but before the decade was over they were building another one on the east side of town. Mark went off to college, met Debra, and the two were married just about the time he graduated. Another motel came up for sale just a few days before the wedding and Mark’s dad, thinking it would be a good business for the young couple, bought it. With little notice and less input, Debra found herself more or less in charge of a motel where she would interact with travelers on Historic Route 66 for nearly thirty years.

2 for $6… is divided into two main parts. Whittington calls the first part “History of the Area”. The subject area is centered on Tucumcari and the history includes that of Tumcumcari’s main drag, US-66. Some of what’s written here will be familiar to anyone who has looked at all into the history of Sixty-Six and other early highways but it is necessary background for the local details that Whitting relates. Many of those details she gathered from people who lived in Tucumcari long before she arrived. I personally enjoyed references to the town’s two Ozark Trails markers and descriptions of early cars and campgrounds.

Things get more personal in the book’s second part, “One Family, 50 Years in the Motel Business”. The first few chapters of this section give the history of the Whittington family’s motel experience before Debra arrived. It starts with that first motel, the Golden W, they built in 1954. Then on to the second, the Sahara Sands, built in 1959. The motel’s name and giant sign came from a motel in Amarillo, Texas, that was turning into a Holiday Inn.

The book’s name comes from the Sahara Sands period. A rash of motel construction in the mid-1960s resulted in Tucumcari having more rooms than tourists. During a 1965 price war, a hand-painted “2 for $6” sign went up in front of the Sahara Sands. A photo of the sign, which still exists, is in the book.

The motel that was purchased in 1978 was the Pony Soldier. It was built in 1964. Once Debra has described the extensive work that went into getting it ready to reopen, she proceeds to share lots of stories of her time there. What results is a picture, painted from the inside, of operating an independent motel in one of Historic 66’s hot spots. It’s funny, sad, scary, and heart-warming. It might be similar to pictures that could be painted of many other motels but it’s Debra’s picture and it’s unique. And it exists. the inside story of most of those other motels haven’t been recorded and probably won’t be.

2 for $6 on Route 66, Debra Whittington, 2015, 8.6 x 5.5 inches, 140 pages

I believe the book is available in several shops in Tucumcari. I bought my copy in the coffee shop at the Historic Route 66 Motel. According to a review at Route 66 News, the book is available direct from the author  “by sending $10 plus $3 shipping in the U.S. in check or money order to Debra Whittington, Debra Whittington, 923 S. Hawthorne St., Tucumcari, NM 88401″

Book Review
Onramps and Overpasses
Dianne Perrier

You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Or, sometimes, by reading the title. That was the case for me with Onramps and Overpasses and the impression I got from the title and cover pretty much explains why it stayed on the unread pile so long that I don’t remember where it came from or why I have it. The cover is a nicely done long exposure photo of cars on a divided four-lane highway passing through what looks to be a rather scenic area. The title reinforces the image of high-speed limited-access roadways. The subtitle, “A Cultural History of Interstate Travel” does a better job of describing what’s inside but the preconception created by the cover and title led me to overlook the word “cultural” and misinterpret the word “interstate”. In my opinion, Perrier goofed on the cover and even more so on the title. Those are, however, virtually the only mistakes she makes here.

A concept central to any view of American transportation history is that new roads follow old paths. As we all know, expressways superseded two-lanes which paralleled railroads which ran beside pioneer trails which followed Native American paths which mimicked animal traces. The new routes were rarely exact duplicates of what came before but they were similar. Hunting parties might take advantage of a shortcut too restrictive to be used by a herd of bison. Steam engines were simply unable to climb slopes that a man on horseback might. Paths might not precisely follow what came before but they passed through the same corridor. Perrier’s book is organized around the current set of interstate highways but her story is of what came before and why the corridors those interstates follow exist and are important.

She includes anecdotes from and descriptions of various periods in the development of each corridor. This is the “cultural” flavoring of history that I’d missed in the sub-title. That these corridors were and are the paths of travel between states is the intended meaning of the word “interstate” that I initially took to mean the multi-lane expressways we commonly identify by that word. Once I picked it up and discovered how off my expectations were, I didn’t want to put it down. As I was enlightened by plenty of details, I was entertained by stories and sidebars. I’m just sorry it took me so long to look beyond those four lanes of car lights.

You can’t judge a sister by looking at her brother.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover.

— Willie Dixon, 1962

Onramps and Overpasses, Dianne Perrier, University Press of Florida (November 15, 2009), 9.3 x 6.5 inches, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0813033983

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

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.