Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Was Comes” Wows Audiences at The Barter

Monday, September 26th, 2016

#BarterTheatre #RayBradbury #SomethingWicked

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

Breathtaking production values are both the strength and the weakness in The Barter’s current presentation of Something Wicked This Way Came. The costumes transport the audience beyond the nostalgic world of the 1950s, the time period for the play, into a fantasy world full of amazing and frightening creatures.

Act I begins ominously with Jim Nightshade (Barrett Guyton) and Will Halloway (Joseph Matthew Veale)  greeting a lightning-rod salesman who’s sleazy pitch prophesizes that Nightshade’s house will be struck and burned to the ground. A mystery fueled by dread is in the air and randomly reinforced by threatening distant rolls of thunder. Once underway, Act I is so shrill that it is almost painful to sit through. Nighshade is all for bringing on whatever trouble awaits, while Halloway takes the side of caution. Emphasizing the point that both boys are only 13 years old, they tussle and yell at one another about the intriguing arrival of a carnival. Guyton and Veale inject their roles with adolescent exuberance – no doubt as directed. They romp vigorously around the stage. As a result, several things the playwright may have intended gets lost.

Halloway is a good lad. He tries to get Nightshade to be careful, avoid cursing, and generally be more thoughtful. Trouble is, aside from the lines he recites, Halloway’s dynamics mirror Nighsade’s. Push. Yell. Push some more. Yell louder. Nightshade is a voyeur. Halloway pleads that he come away from the window in a gratuitous scene intended supposedly to dramatize the difference between the two boys. Perhaps a contrast is being established. One boy, Halloway, wants to live by the rules whereas his pal, Nightshade, wants to break out from under them. Neither character, their slight differences notwithstanding, gives us much to like. When Act I ends we really don’t care what happens to either of them. Teenagers have a full repertoire of manipulative behaviors available. Ask any parent of a teenager. The two guys on stage come off as one dimensional.  Seduction, intrigue, curiosity are not in the mix. Simple bombast carries the action.

Too Much Reflection . . .

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA

Before the carnival makes a formal entrance into town, a hall of mirrors appears. Playwright Ray Bradbury seems to suggest that too much reflection in life is dangerous. A person entering the hall of mirrors is exposed to images of the self that span a lifetime. Life is the mystery. It’s not quite clear why this is terrifying. Whether to accept where we are at any given point or pine, as Mr. Halloway (Will’s father) does, for our younger days is a universal predicament, a passage on the path to self-acceptance. But the hall of mirrors is a horror. Looking back is fraught with peril. No ambiguity here. Nightshade charges ahead disdainful of any threat. Halloway wimps out in the challenge to restrain him.

Act II, gratefully, begins with a quiet dialogue between Will Halloway and his father, played by Rick McVey. Mr. Halloway is 54, an old guy as the script would have it. Most of his life passed before he knew what was going on. His son is his principal achievement. He’d give just about anything if he could run again as his son does. Mr. Halloway is a wiser parent because he can recall his boyhood. The rapport between father and son is almost too idealistic to be credible, especially as the father vividly recalls his boyhood and recognizes how life is for his son. Halloway, for all his sanguinary recollections, becomes the protagonist, usurping the distinction from the boys who carried Act I with their hi-jinks.

Pushing ahead, Act II turns into a nightmarish extravaganza. The carnival arrives, or maybe it was there all along. The hall of mirrors, introduced in Act I, takes its place near a fantastic carousel with elegant horses – man, what elegant horses! The carousel becomes the center of action. Both attractions produce the same dreaded outcomes. They take people backward or forward in time, and if the reaction of the cast means anything, then falling victim to either is terrifying. Except for Jim, of course. He wants to become older right away. Perhaps he’s trying to out run his rage.

A Bad Dream . . .

Joseph Matthew Veale and Barrett Guyton as Will land Jim

Joseph Matthew Veale and Barrett Guyton as Will land Jim

As in a bad dream, things that are assumed at one point become not true at another, and there is no accounting for why things turn as they do. The playwright indulges all kinds of license. Miss Foley is taken back physically to her childhood self only later to appear again returned to her adult self. She brushes off the terror of the experience as if it were nothing. Jim and Will have their ears stopped by Mr. Dark but later come back onto the scene understanding everything being said. A lot happens that just doesn’t matter. One of Mr. Dark’s sidekicks, also a villain, is turned into a boy and later, after being executed in an electric chair, a zombie. It doesn’t matter. The audience never liked him. It is all utterly unnecessary.

The plot buried deep underneath the flamboyant staging is that Jim needs to be saved from the carousel, which is to say, from himself. He is so eager to grow older he removes the lightening rod protection from his home with his mother (figure that one out – he wants her dead, burned no less?). But to round up, everyone, including the nonchalant townspeople strolling by as if not a thing in the world is amiss, needs to be safe from Mr. Dark, powerfully played by Nick Koesters.

Age and wisdom ultimately prevail. Mr. Dark and his horrible minions feed on the fear the mortals in the town. Halloway, played most credibly by the able Rick McVey, puts the Act II on his back and carries it in a 10K uphill soliloquy during which he instructs the audience on everything. Good thing, too, because bewilderment reigns at this point. Dark and his entourage are so scary, it is really difficult to know what their intentions are or how they are ever going to vacate the town square. Evil, yes; but not very aggressive. Jim, Miss Foley and Mr. Halloway are drawn into the menacing carnival world but all escape unscathed. After all, the uninvited guests are wicked which is not necessarily to be equated with evil.

Readers’ Digest . . .

Halloway figures it all out. There’s an antidote for fear. Laughing past the cemetery. Right. Turns out, laughter is the cure. “Where’d you’d put the most recent Readers’ Digest, dear?” Halloway enjoys the last laugh. His son steadies his aim in destroying the Dust Witch, (got to be some symbolism there somewhere) and at 54 he finds he can run with the boys again.

The Horses from the Carousel - Magnificent.

The Horses from the Carousel – Magnificent.

The actors, to a person, turn in excellent performances. The play is a gaudy muddle. Audiences will end up dazzled and confused, reminiscent of an old salesman’s adage, “If you can convince them with logic, baffle them with BS.” The problem with the play could be in the script. Leaving an actor to explain everything in the middle of Act II suggests we are seeing a draft rather than a finished script. None of the characters draw upon the sympathy of the audience. Mr. Halloway is the only character with any depth. No tears of relief are shed in the saving of Jim. No joy in the downfall of Mr. Dark. The plot builds very little tension. Dark and his carnival finally go away. The audience jumps to its feet at the curtain because they have been wowed by the staging. The costumes are amazing. The set, except for the unexplained visage of Felix, the Cat peering over all the proceedings, is fanciful and fun. Richard Rose’s direction seems to dwell on the obvious at the expense of the subtle and the nuanced. If it is loud, then it’s got to be good. Then, again, the script may not have much that lends itself to shading and contrast.

Rose gets credit, however. His Something Wicked This Way Comes manages to be very entertaining and off-the-chart dramatic without being very good drama.

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The Honeymoon – A biographical novel of the life of George Eliot

Friday, May 6th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer


#georgeeliot #marianevans #engishlit

George Eliot’s Silas Marner was required reading in English lit when I was a sophomore in high school in the 1055. Written in the previous century, there was no way we guys would admit to liking the book. It was so old. Nothing in the days of George Eliot had any bearing upon our current time. Richard McCormack was our teacher, a gentleman through and through. We nicknamed him “Silas” because of his affection for Eliot’s novel. (I wonder if he ever found out.) By the time I began teaching sophomore high school English in 1962, a profession I undertook thanks to men like McCormack and my senior year teacher Richard Bisbee, Eliot had been dropped. Thorton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey had taken its place along with Hawthorne‘s Scarlet Letter (“How come she had the baby if she wasn’t married, Mr. Hohn?”) and an abridged version of Melville‘s Moby Dick.

I suppose the change was for the better. Kids took to the new selections readily. But I remembered McCormack and Silas Marner. My senior year in college, I represented my school at the annual Minnesota English Majors Convention and delivered a paper on George Eliot’s Middlemarch which is revered today as one of the great novels of the English language. I hoped I could produce a copy of my paper in preparing for this post, but alas, it vanished somewhere along the way. Prof Stephen Humphrey* helped me prepare the work for presentation. At the end of the conference, he said, “Your ending was especially strong.” I was surprised. He had never seen the ending. I had gone over most of the paper with him on at least two occasions. But the ending,  I had written it in my pajamas the morning of my presentation.

Prof had reason to be pleased with my ending, or at least relieved. The year prior, a senior with the first name of Paul  presented a paper on Shakespeare‘s King Lear at the convention and pretty much embarrassed Prof and the school by failing to draw any conclusion in his report or resolve it with closing remarks. “That’s it,” Paul said unapologetically as he stopped without abruptly with his unfinished paper.  To this day, I thought Prof should have checked Paul’s work. But then he never checked mine to make sure I finished it. I can only guess that Prof trusted us as scholars to do our utmost. Why I postponed writing the last two-and-a-half pages until the very last minute mystified me for years. Now that I write frequently, I have come to realize that I learned a great lesson from the experience.

Cinch Everything  up . . .

George Eliot - Marian Evans

George Eliot – Marian Evans

Much of writing is exploratory, a poking and probing in the hope that the ideas just beyond my reach are viable and worth my time to run down. Once into a piece, however, I know that it must go somewhere, not ramble along like this posting is at the moment. I have learned patience. It is important to yield to impulses, apparent non sequitors that actually do lead somewhere after all. Some become sequitors, but like so many random articles throughout the house, all the ideas need finally to be rounded up to a conclusion. Readers expect closure. Sustaining ambivalence can lead to madness. So, as a piece feels as it wants to close, as I find myself exhausted of whimsy and inspiration alike, I try to embrace everything that found its way onto the screen (yes, the screen; not the paper – ah technology). Then, like a draw string on a large plastic bag, I cinch everything up. Pull it together with a knot of finality and pitch it out — out in front of others for their judgment.

I’m not there yet with this posting.

Prof Stephen B. Humphrey was a major influence on my choice of the teaching profession also. Students admired him. He taught courses in the modern novel and in modern poetry. Both were favorites. We called him the “silver fox,” hardly original, but word reached us that he was pleased. His choice for his class of an early novel was The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Anthony Trollope also worked his way into the syllabus, although I can’t recall which of his novels we read (a bad sign, I’d say). Trollope, however, was cited by George Eliot as one who had tremendous influence on her and she said Trollope’s Barchester Towers inspired her to write Middlemarch, which brings me  full circle and back to the real topic of this post.

I was pleased recently to note that a new book has come out on the life of George Eliot. Richard McCormack would be pleased,. may he rest in peace. Dinitia Smith’s wonderful new book The Honeymoon, recently released, is a biographical novel of the life of Marian Evans.

Whisperings . . .

Dinitia Smith, Author

Dinitia Smith, Author

The Honeymoon opens with Evans as a wealthy widow at age 60. Evans gained fame as a novelist under her chosen nom de plume, George Eliot, during a time when women writers could not expect to be well received. Johnnie Cross, an elegantly handsome bachelor of 39, moved gracefully among the better circles in London society. Never much of a ladies man, whisperings drifted about whether he might be a “Nancy man” in the terms of day. Johnnie kept a secret certainly, one few knew. He withheld it from Evans even after they married.

Author Dinitia Smith sets up her biographical novel with the two unlikely newlyweds starting their honeymoon in Venice. Readers sense immediately that something is going very wrong. The stench of the canals, the sweaty, sneering gondolier taking them to their hotel, brown knots of feces bob in the water, all register with Evans. The canal is an open sewer – hardly a romantic setting.

When they arrive at the hotel, the manager recognizes Evans as George Eliot, the famous novelist, and the anonymity she hoped would keep their time together private is shattered. Cross becomes angry. He begins pointing out the sites of the city to his bride. He is so obsessed with the task that his wife cannot coax a smile to his lips. The next morning, she awakens to find him still in his evening dress (they slept in different rooms) which he insists on wearing to the beach regardless of how inappropriate his apparel may be. When he wades into the water fully clothed, Evans pleads with him to return to shore. The honeymoon is turning into a nightmare. With the irony of her title established, author Smith leaves the newlyweds and backtracks to explain how this mysterious state of affairs came about.

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

Marian Evans was born on the estate that her father manages for the wealthy owners. She and her father were very close. Very bright, Evans’ finds herself at home in the company of some of the greatest liberal minds of the time. Her androgynous physical appearance leaves her yearning for love, especially after her father dies. Free love is in fashion among the literati of England. Evans yields to several men, but as they have other alliances, she is abandoned, heart broken and lonely. Seemingly resigned to her fate as a single woman, she begins to write, first for periodicals and eventually publishes a novel which becomes popular and favored by critics. She meets George Lewes, who is married, and the two leave for the continent where they set up household and pass as husband and wife – a la Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley a generation earlier.  Lewes becomes the love of Evans’ life. Smith presents their relationship with poetic sensitivity, a fulfilling relationship for both of them.

Evans is devastated when Lewes dies,. She returns to London to find whatever comfort she can among friends who include the greatest minds of the time. Her novels are praised by Turgenev, Ruskin, Dickens and Spencer, to name a few. One who attends her during her grief is Johnnie Cross.  He pledges his love to her and vows to devote himself to taking care of her. Evans has misgivings because of their age difference, the awkwardness likely in any physical intimacy and sends Cross away. He persists, however, and she eventually agrees to wed and the stage is set for the honeymoon.

The Honeymoon is compelling, compassionate biographical novel, a story best told by a woman of Dinitia Smith’s abundant talent and insight. The author describes her protagonist’s experience in finding the joy of her own writing voice as “. .  . arriving at the point where the words became a melody, took on life, filled the page, became, finally, a symphony.” The phrase could only come from another writer, one who knows the joys of gaining entry to the flow a piece, and the same phrase applies to The Honeymoon as Smith demonstrates her mastery of the language. Her phrases flow. They entrance. She slips into her heroine’s thoughts so unobtrusively readers do not recognize the change in perspective. Evan’s thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page with stunning authenticity. Smith transports her readers with the sights, sounds, scents and textures of her scenes. Marian Evans’ life story is well worth the read. The author’s style in presenting The Honeymoon is a masterpiece of contemporary writing – a study in itself.

Fifty-five years have passed since I delivered my paper on Middlemarch. There something very reassuring in realizing George Eliot’s work remains under discussion and that she as an author still commands the attention that she deserve.

* An internet search produces nothing on Stephen B. Humphrey except notes on the theater named after him on the campus of St. John’s University. Prof was very self-effacing. It is a credit to St. John’s that they honored him by naming the theater after him. Nevertheless, somewhere amid all the historical photos, one would hope to find a photo of Prof.

This review first appeared in in a somewhat condensed version.

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Michael Sears’ “Saving Jason” Doesn’t Raise the Bar

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Saving Jason by Michael Sears is a faced-paced, contemporary mystery that most readers will find hard to set aside. Sears covers all the bases for the genre in this, his fourth novel. Jason Stafford, his hero, is a wealthy New Yorker with a tragic past. His first wife, a model (of course), was murdered, leaving him to raise their autistic son who carries his father’s name. Stafford himself is an ex-con, having done time for some shady brokerage dealings. He handles his wealth with ease, and upon his release from prison finds himself another model to take up with. She becomes pregnant and he gets on board again with an old boss at Becker Financial who pays him seven figures just poke around and make sure nothing is beginning to smell like trouble in the firm.

Stafford encounters a suspicious aroma in the small brokerage firm, something to do with penny stock, which true to its name, usually sells for less than a dollar a share and is not subject to oversight by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Stafford’s boss, Virgil Becker, is not convinced anything is out of line but gives his super snoop free rein to follow his instincts. Stafford checks in with the firm’s compliance officer to make sure that he is not at cross-purposes with them. The courtesy puts him in the presence of yet another beautiful gal, who despite her svelte looks and manner, is really a tough cookie who runs a tight ship. She’d rather Stafford just stay out of her way.

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Michael Sears, Author of Saving Jason

Stafford, however, is his own agent. Compliance be damned. The trading activity in penny stocks bothers him, although on the surface everything appears completely legit. He quickly discovers that there is more than what meets the eye to the suspicious transactions. Nosing about, he gets chased out of a Long Island pasture by two bull bison, his life threatened by thugs he doesn’t know and stalked by a politically ambitious District Attorney who insists Stafford knows more than he is letting on. Truth is, Stafford doesn’t know all of what’s going on. His investigation is spelling trouble for everyone including Virgil Becker who’s arrest in a sham publicity stunt by the DA but scandalous enough to put Becker Financial in play as a takeover. It’s a perfect storm and Sears orchestrates everything magnificently.

In the middle of everything, Stafford maintains his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. She’s a physical therapist and a looker that might have a guy consider throwing his back out. Marriage is not in the wind, not with an independent contemporary New York City woman. She helps Stafford care for his seven year old autistic son, and it is the relationship between the father and the son that becomes the soul of the story. Sears is at his best with it. The crusty, cynical exterior to Stafford gives way to a genuinely caring, nurturing father. The son, referred to as “the kid,” is realistically depicted with just the right touch of humor and a large measure of compassion and understanding – and endearing picture of both.

Saving Jason - Book Cover

Saving Jason – Book Cover

To escape the threats and harassment, Stafford and his son are taken into the witness protection program. They are whisked out the wide open spaces of the southwestern dessert. The plot, complicated as it is, bogs down a bit as this point, or perhaps it’s Stafford’s own boredom at being so far away from the action that makes it feel that the story has come to a standstill. But wait. Whoever wants a piece of Stafford is on to him and his son. They are found in hiding and are forced to move — just what the book needs to keep the story going. And if being charged by bison seems a stretch, or a throttle-to-the-firewall chase of semi-trailer tractors (Stafford had never driven one before), how about a herd of javelinas (forty-pound stubby wild dessert pigs) charging the shooter drawing a bead on Stafford. The little buggers knock the guy down. He misses his shot, and to top it off, the dude breaks his leg in the attack so he can’t continue in pursuit. Javelinas have been known to attack, but the timing on this is too contrived. Sears charges on with detailed machinations that have one hacker genius cause the stock market to drop. It’s fiction, right? The concepts and the terminology are all there, but bank ownership of penny stocks on margin and an artificially induced drop in the market to trigger margin calls? Sorry. (Too much for this retired stock broker.) Authors fail anytime a reader is forced to recognize that a story is fiction

None of the credibility issues matter, however. Why? Because Michael Sears can write. He has Stafford coming off as a well-rounded, completely credible protagonist. Sears’ narrative is fresh, sensitive, full of humor and human understanding and thoroughly engaging. Saving Jason is a very entertaining novel by a writer who has the capacity, talent and the insight to produce a classic. For all of its charm, however, Saving Jason slides under bar rather than forcing it to be raised.

This review first appeared in slightly altered form on the web side

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Helicopter Parenting – Overparenting an Epidemic

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

#overparenting #childrearing #parental

Helicopter parenting is the term for it. In The Overparenting Epidemic, George S. Glass, MD and David Tabatsky cast a wide net. The authors want to engage parents in an examination of their own parenting practices. Toward that end, the authors gently guide readers with self-assessment exercises and oblique anecdotes about some of the outlandish things others have done. They want readers to buy into the possibility that, yes, they too might be guilty of overparenting.

Because of the amount of time Glass and Tabatsky spend on explaining the syndrome, it is obvious he realizes most parents will not see themselves in the mirror that is being held up to them. Parents with unruly, self-absorbed, disobedient children seem overly confident that their approach is the right one. They know. Everyone else is unenlightened. Perhaps they have formulated their helicopter parenting style in reaction to the way they were raised and that adds unlimited energy to their quest. The outsider, even if a family member, can only guess at what drives them. The subject of raising children is one of those volatile issues that almost never gets discussed.

Parents of today are the progeny of the boomer generation, a generation that has enjoyed the highest standard of living, even at lower economic levels, than ever before in our history. An era of technological abundance challenges parents today in a manner none could anticipate twenty years ago.  A boy’s father years ago could help his son fix an electric train. Doing so provided an opportunity to be together and bond. A father today cannot be expected to repair a handheld device that puts television, games, a camera and a telephone into a child’s shirt pocket.

The authors give a quick history of child raising theories from Victorian times through the current time. Dr. Spock, the oracle of the mid-twentieth century, is cited by Glass as often misunderstood. They also provide a summary of the parenting styles; i.e. authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.

"The Overparenting Epidemic" by George S. Glass and Book Cover

“The Overparenting Epidemic” by George S. Glass and David Tabatsky-  Book Cover

Overlooking the phenomenon of self-deception, they offer a multiple choice instrument to help a parent-reader identify his or her parenting style. This is all very helpful material, but the cure only begins with the diagnosis. Commitment to making a change is the next step, and it may involve profound adjustments in how an adult sees the parenting role. Deep personal reflection, no small undertaking in itself, is part of the process. Some parents pour too much of their own well-being into succeeding at raising their child. To compensate for their own unfulfilled aspirations, some raise the bar too high for their youngsters. The consequences are never apparent in the moment. Children are to be delivered into adulthood as stable, productive, secure, happy individuals. With the finish line always in the future, denial comes easy. Until that day arrives, the parents know best, for good or ill, and push ahead ignoring the signs that common sense might tell them that they could  be taking the wrong approach.

Helicopter parenting is not by definition permissive. It can be authoritarian, restricting children from activities their peers enjoy. No TV with parental approval. DVDs likewise. No fast food. The parenting style can be intrusive. The American culture is gross and course, and children need to spared from experiencing it. Parents become directive at school, at scouts, on the pee-wee sports field.

Parents can be permissive in some areas and non-negotiable in others. An uncle reported that he called his brother’s family during the Christmas season to extend his best wishes. “The boys liked their toys,” his sister-in-law reported.*

“Can I just say ‘hello’ to them?” uncle inquired.

“Hans. Dillon. Your uncle wants to talk to you. Come to the phone.”

A long pause.

“They said they don’t want to talk to you.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do then?” the uncle concluded in relating the event. “Tell her that she should put her little punks on the phone to teach them politeness and concern for others?”

George S. Glass, MD - Author

George S. Glass, MD – Author

“Their mother fixed three meals for six people when we were there,” a grandfather reported. “A separate meal for each boy because the mother knew that neither one would eat what was placed on the table for the adults. They also would not eat what the other wanted. Then, finally she set the meal for the adults. Whatever happened to ‘clean your plate?”

To counter the energy driving parents in their mission, Glass admonishes over-protective parents to “let go.” The regrettable truth is the message may not be enough to bring about the changes to help both parent and child find every day a happier place to be. Too many parents are driven to make up for the perceived failures of their own parents. They establish their own approach out of their own feelings of insufficiency and low self-esteem. Their children will do so much better. The tragedy is, of course, as children attain legal age, the unhealthy entanglement goes on and on. Glass, himself, suggests at one point that parents may need their own twelve-step program to disengage from an obsessive and damaging parenting style.

The damage done, as mentioned earlier, will become more apparent as the children move through adolescence and into early adult life. Those who have not learned who to relate to others, even if it means insisting on traditional conventions of polite behavior in the home, will continue to find it difficult to connect with others. “I might as well not bothered,” an aunt reported. “I hadn’t see those two girls in at least a year. There I was, in the hone, and they didn’t so much as say ‘hi,’ let alone give me a hug. They walked right by me as if I wasn’t there.”

Children who grow accustomed to having parents jump in and save them from failure or a difficult relationship often grow up expecting rescue rather than fending for themselves. They may have difficulty handling the complex feelings of failure when it occurs in real life — and failure is part of life. Glass urges parents allow children the freedom to experience life within the manageable dimensions of childhood, even if it means occasional disappointment and failure. The doctor has a contemporary message that echoes Kahlil Gibran, Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.

Author David Tabatsky

Author David Tabatsky

Children who are not taught to respect boundaries and the property of others may find it difficult maintaining proper decorum as adults. “The minute they entered the house,” one man reported, “my grandsons disappeared. We found them when we heard them jumping up and down on our bed in the master bedroom. Imagine! When I was a kid, you didn’t go into a parent’s or a grandparent’s bedroom, let alone jump up and down on it. ‘Get off the bed,’ my son ordered. They stopped jumping but they didn’t get off the bed. They sprawled out on it and looked at him. He didn’t say another word. I guess that was good enough for him. They didn’t obey him and he didn’t insist on it.”

Estrangement of grandparents from grandchildren often results when the family elders lose patience and find they cannot agree with the way the home is being run. “The inmates are in charge of the asylum,” one grandmother remarked in grim humor. At its most destructive, the rift can carry through to creating distance between the parents and the grandparents. “When they finally left,” one grandfather reported, “I needed to get massage therapy to take the knots out of my upper back. I was that tense. You can’t tell anyone what your really think, you know.” A conflict in values is the most difficult to resolve. It often results in limiting contact and remaining distant.

Author Glass appeals to parents to use common sense. He realizes that helicopter parenting is as damaging for the adults as it is for the children. He urges parents to take a minute and consider what they are doing. The chapters toward the end of the book give advice that is tailored to the various scenarios that can be found in the home of parent who does not let go, use common sense, and trust that their child has all the resources necessary to him or her to deal with the day-to-day world.

The weaknesses in the book lie not in the message but in the delivery. The book needs to be tighter. Examples of overparenting abound, to the point of numbing redundancy. Rhetorical questions are over used. Readers will consider Dr. Glass’ analysis and recommendations because of his experience and credentials. They don’t need to be goaded into thinking by a barrage of rhetorical interrogatives.

Most readers will get past these shortcomings because the book is timely and important. Glass avoids jargon and psyche-speak to produce a work that is clear in its message. Dr. Glass is preeminently qualified as the author and his work should prove to be an important guide to parents everywhere.

*Quoted statements are fictitious and for illustrative purpose. They are not from the author’s book.

This review initially appeared in somewhat reduced form in

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Powerful, Profound Novel Looks at Racism in America Today

Friday, October 2nd, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer

John J. Hohn, Writer

#leonardpittsjr #grantpark #racism

Malcolm Toussaint is a haunted man. He was in position to save Martin Luther King from assassination but failed to move fast enough get The civil rights leader out of harm’s way. Only nineteen years old on that fateful balcony in Memphis in April, 1968. The tragedy lodges in his subconscious. Its sting charges back into his awareness whenever he feels he hasn’t tried hard enough – which is most of the time. In his role as an internationally recognized Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Chicago Post, Toussaint exhausts himself trying to bring enlightenment and understanding into the racial strife rampant in the United States. Forty years of trying wear him down. Frustration finally wins out.

Grant Park by author Leonard Pitts, Jr. follows Malcolm Toussaint, a young, bright African-American, along with several of his contemporaries, through the decades beginning with the King assassination and culminating in Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph as the first African-American to be elected President.

The book begins on the eve of the election. Convinced Obama cannot win, Toussaint rips off a column that screams of his despair with white America. When his white editor, Bob Carlson, refuses to print it, Toussaint goes over his head to Lydia Barnett, the African-American Editor-in-Chief. “ Do not play more black than thou with me,” she scolds, realizing the Toussaint piece is too inflammatory. Toussaint storms off, downs a few beers and returns late at night, armed with Carlson’s password to the composition room, and plugs his column into the front page despite his editors’ rejections.

Pulitzer Prize Winning Author and Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Pulitzer Prize Winning Author and Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Readers, especially those whose first vote was cast for JFK, will be gripped immediately by this fast paced story. Toussaint’s inflammatory column may leave some liberal oldsters wondering why the fuss. Haven’t we all tired of the bullshit? Perhaps that’s easier to write in 2015 than 2008, but for those dreadfully disheartened over Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, the continued rash of police shootings, Toussaint’s column speaks for everyone who has hoped for more.

The paper reacts by firing Bob Carlson, the 59 year old editor who gave away his password. With Carlson, Pitts begins another compelling story. Carlson, an idealistic, fundamentalist Christian, white kid from Minnesota, falls in love with a beautiful, bright African-American girl, Janeka Lattimore, and the two work diligently to increase voter registration. Both are children of the 1960’s, the kids that Pitts describes as:

Young men and women with big Afros and Jewfros and long blonde locks and strident voices singing songs of peace and love and revolution, a whole generation of them, fresh and raw, untainted by the failures and compromises of their parents’ generation, utterly convinced that they were something this old world had never seen, a new people thinking new thoughts that had never been thought before.

In 1968, their relationship required courage. Yet, many things go their way. Carlson’s family is gracious, supportive and accepting. It is not enough, however.

“I have to be with my people,” she shouts in breaking up with Bob.

“I thought I was your people, too,” he replies.

Janeka doesn’t break up with Carson, instead, as Pitts writes, “She breaks him.” Carlson never engages in any kind of romance again. He becomes an “inside the lines” kind of a guy. Pitts writes, “His faith seemed to have gone the way of his empathy.”

Grant Park -- Book Cover

Grant Park — Book Cover

Pitts is a master of timing. Just when the reader expects Toussaint to face his editors about the way he shanghaied the front page, he is abducted by two white low-life racists who plan to explode a bomb in Grant Park when President-Elect Barack Obama appears to make his acceptance speech. Thus begins the first probing explication of one dimension of the racial conflict examined by Pitts; i.e. bottom of the barrel whites versus top of the barrel blacks. The first bottom of barrel white introduced is Clarence Pym, a huge man because of gigantism. Pym metaphorically represents rampant, irrational, bloated white racism. Pym is the part of racism white America does not want to do anything about. All the more indicting is that Pym actually has a conscience. He befriends his Toussaint, his captive, by conversing about the neutral subjects — the no-race zone — of sport and popular music. The choice of character’s name must be deliberate. Pym is so close to Prim (as in prim and proper, a connotation reinforced by the image presented of the man’s home fastidiously maintained by his mother) it suggests that friendly banter, as exchanged between Pym and Toussaint, cannot be taken as an indication that all is well. Prejudice lurks beneath the pleasantries. Ostracized most of his life because of his bulk, is the pawn for nasty, deranged Dwayne McLarry. McLarry is the irrational, murderous side of white racism, incapable of empathy. These two severely limited human beings form the WRS, the White Resistance Army, and hold up Timothy McVeigh as an idol.

Lower economic level blacks are represented by Toussaint’s father, a Memphis sanitation worker whose singular demand is to be treated as a human being. His protest sign proclaims, “I AM A Man.” His son, a black power advocate, derides his father’s efforts as anemic. The march by the sanitation workers in Memphis bring father and son together, and though they differ with regard to how the protests should be conducted, they become reconciled. The old man says, “Seem like just recently here, first time in my life, I done finally figured out who I been mad at all the time.”

Pitts dramatizes all the diseased levels of the conflict between the races when Toussaint makes his explanation to his African-American boss, Lydia Barnett. Barnett, being black, understands what it is that has so exhausted her columnist.

Pebble in Your Shoe . . .

It is the near instinctual recognition that we differ, and the difference, despite all evidence to the contrary, is not to be trusted. Or as Lattimore explains, “It’s like walking around your whole life with a pebble in your shoe that you know you can never remover.” It is the reason the lab technician let you wait in the lobby. Why the cabbie passed you by. Why you did not get the promotion. It is still there, every day, living in the minds of white and black alike and differs only in degree. “Black people,” Malcolm reflects, “often cited race to explain stuff race had nothing to do with.” Pitts demonstrates repeatedly that the same holds true for whites.

In the same setting, Lattimore confronts the white complacency in Carlson, ” . . . white people always think having a fine car or nice clothes or money or social standing puts you beyond racism — and it doesn’t. That’s the whole point. That’s why its racism.”

Grant Park is a brilliant work. The only detracting flaw is one most readers will not notice. Park fails too frequently to maintain the integrity – the metaperspective – of his narrator. An omniscient narrator speaks about characters, but never for them. When, for example, the vicious, white-supremacist McLarry wants to shoot a cab driver, a sentence reads: “He really wanted to shoot the prick.” The sentence is in the author’s voice until the word “prick.” “Prick” is McLarry’s word. McLarry jumps the narrator’s line – hijacks it. Characters jump the narrator’s lines again and again. The result is distracting and weakens the authority of the narrator’s voice.

A thoroughly credible plot is marred only when readers need to assume that McLarry, high on meth, knows Carlson on sight when he finds the editor lunching with Lattimore in an upscale restaurant. The deranged killer didn’t know editor’s name hours earlier at the newspaper office.

Pure Poetry . . .

As to his power, Pitts rises frequently to the level of pure poetry. Consider one example: “A fatigue older than rivers rode the curve of a closed smile.” Readers are treated to lines like this throughout.

His description of the riots in Memphis from, not one, but three points of view, is riveting. Lattimore and Carlson run for the safety. Toussaint’s father despairs at the chaos that is ruining his protest. Toussaint joins in the vandalism only later to regret his actions. Pitts’ characters are believable, deep and richly human. He writes with confidence in the voices of his young, his old, his white and his non-white characters.

Grant Park is a monumental work, so all-encompassing in scope that reviewers will be hard-pressed to do it justice. Pitt’s passion for a solution holds strong to the end of his novel even as his central character seems to give up. Readers will find Grant Park is real. From beginning to end it shows us an illness that seems to defy a cure. Perhaps as our children play together, the day will one day arrive when, despite even our slightest misgivings, we will recognize the humanity in one another. Pitts is there. He, for one, has shown that we are the same.

This review appeared initially in a somewhat condensed form on the web site

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Cast Overcomes Flawed Script in The Three Musketeers at The Barter Theatre

Monday, September 14th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

The Three Musketeers was presented for the first time ever on Saturday, September 11, 2015 at The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. Artistic Director Richard Rose made sure his audience was aware of the occasion in his opening remarks. Over they years, The Barter has many notable successes in presenting dramas that were not originally written for stage. Whether the company will enjoy the same with this play was still somewhat in doubt at the final curtain, although with the audience on its feet for an ovation, all bets are on the side of a good run.

The performances by the cast are uniformly strong. Joseph Matthew Veale is perfect as the young, idealistic D’Artagnan who arrives in Paris with a letter of introduction from his father that will allow him to enlist in the King’s Musketeers. Veale is an energetic presence on stage, thoroughly the young man from the country that he claims to be. His strong voice and athletic moves convince the audience that he will succeed at whatever impossible feats he attempts. He is at a loss for words when he meets the beautiful Constance. Their encounter is delightfully humorous and goes beyond the laughter to reveal a thoroughly believable innocence in D’Artaganan – a point of contrast with almost everyone else in the story, save Constance herself.

The plot gets underway quickly as D’Artagnan’s letter is stolen by the nefarious Rochfort. Rochfort is the strong-arm henchman of arc-villain Cardinal Richelieu. Nick Koester, as Rochfort, is an arrogant, cruel sociopath who takes his orders directly from Richelieu. Koester has the physicality for the role and delivers a flawless performance. Richelieu, meanwhile, is impeccably portrayed by Michael Poisson. Poisson brings a chilling surgical touch to the dark role of Richelieu as he delivers his more vicious lines with rapier precision. His final concession to D’Artagnan is a calculated acceptance of his circumstances, and the audience is left feeling Richelieu is not going away; he may have lost a battle but the war will go on.

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

Nicholas Piper as Monsieur de Treville is also perfectly cast. Piper plays Treville as the politically savvy commander of the Musketeers, a position that must have been as muddied for him as it was for the audience in that the King has soldiers as does the Cardinal, and they are often at odds with each other as well as the musketeers. Yet Treville always seems to know the score even without being entirely sure of where his own men are in the city. His Musketeers respect him, although any one of them could physically get the better of him. It must be the touch of the director, Katy Brown, that Piper, like other major characters, refuses the easily accessible melodramatic reading and chooses a more mater-of-fact delivery that makes his performance credible, perhaps all the more so because it runs counter to audience expectations of swashbuckling histrionics.

Sean Maximo Campos as Athos might bring Johnny Depp to mind for some in the audience. Personal tragedy drives the wily Athos, and Campos delivers as much as any audience has a right to ask in the final but unfortunate scene of the Act I. Porthos and Aramis, competently played by Andrew Hampton Livingston and Justin Tyler Lewis respectively, exchange quick witted repartee with their buddy Athos. Hannah Ingram’s Milady de Winter is a reserved villainess, stealthily in step with the other characters. The audience knows from the onset that she is a really bad lady. Ingram’s confident portrayal never lets the image slip.

Annie Simpson plays Constance Bonacieux, the youthful blond beauty with whom D’Artagnan is smitten. And why not. Simpson is angelic. One of the funniest lines in the show takes place when D’Artagnan falls to his knees proclaiming love to Constance upon first seeing her. Bewildered, Constance looks to her father. “He’s from the country,” her father observes as if it explains everything. The father, by the way, is played by the versatile Zacchaeus Kimbrel. Kimbrel appears in several key roles. His portrayal of the narcissistic, affected King Louis is wonderfully funny.

Derek Smith’s set design captures the darkness of the story line. Not everything turns out OK, after all, as American audiences might like. Sumptuous costume design by Howard Tsvi Kaplan dispels any notion that Musketeers is to be dismissed as mere fantasy.

Richard Rose has pushed the envelope for The Barter several different times during his years as the Artistic Director. The Three Musketeers is another one of his laudable efforts. It remains to be seen, however, whether Rose’s reach has exceeded his company’s grasp. The acting, under the very capable direction of Katy Brown, is superb. Stage combat is seriously dangerous stuff. With the season advancing, perhaps the actors will become more relaxed in the combat scenes. In the first show, however, the action was awkwardly hesitant. Audiences accustomed to cinematic portrayals may find the sword fighting to be noisy, staid and unrealistic.

The Barters Three Musketeers (l to r) Campos, Lewis, Veale and Livingston

The Barters Three Musketeers plus one (l to r) Campos, Lewis, Veale and Livingston

The program does not list a playwright. Katy Brown is named dramaturge. The weakness in the show is not in the acting, the direction, or any of the production qualities. It’s in the script. Without giving the show away, the action in Act I is sustained by the suspense that Richelieu’s plot is going to bring down the queen. The plot is resolved before Act I ends. No tension whatsoever sustains the audience in the final scene of the act which comes off as something thrown in by the playwright to quickly background the audience for the rest of the play. This is where Campos puts Athos through a tortured drunken soliloquy about his own tragic past. Athos’ intoxication as the reason for his disclosure. Drunkenness is a gimmick, in other words, because there is nothing in the story line motivating Athos to confess to anything. The entire scene has the audience wondering where the plot is going next. It’s great acting; but bad drama.

A better script would have placed snippets of Athos’ past history earlier in the act. Milady de Winter should have been handled in the same manner and it would have created more intrigue for her character. Perhaps her fleur de lis branding would be discovered earlier. Other credible means hinting at the relationship between the two could be worked into the script. Curiosity should have been building about these two major characters throughout. As it is now, the justification for the last scene of Act I is not presented until after intermission in Act II. It would have been far better to sustain the suspense of the Cardinal’s plot to discredit the queen through the end of Act I or even beyond and integrate Athos’s tragedy organically into the flow of drama.

As it stands, the drama comes off as two one act plays strung together with the last scene of Act I serving as a lynch pin. Perhaps this weakness in the story line was to be overcome by thrilling sword fights and swashbuckling action. It wasn’t. There is good writing in the script but the basic development of the story is fatally flawed and unworthy of the legendary Dumas. The entire script needs a reworking that it is not likely to get.  It would be challenging task, but if the play has a future at all, the hard work of rewriting is needed to rectify its defects.

Audiences are nevertheless likely to be pleased throughout the current season with The Three Musketeers which is a tribute to The Barter, its production staff, and its company of fine actors.

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Mystery Writing at its Best — The Collector by Steven M. Moore

Monday, December 15th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Steven M. Moore’s most recent mystery novel, The Collector, is an impressive addition to the author’s Castilblanco-and-Chen series. The book is out is of the gate on the first page as a narrator awakens to find herself bound, gagged and locked in the truck of an automobile with another unknown female companion. The trunk opens and narrator’s companion is stabbed to death.

Enter Castilblanco, Moore’s big guy detective, a rough and tumble city veteran who suffers from a chronic indigestion. The detective is called in to investigate the apparent murder of an art gallery owner, Brendan Rafferty. Accompanying him is female sidekick Chen, an exquisite beauty who has mastered the art of disguising her feelings behind what Castilblanco repeatedly refers to as her Mona Lisa smile. (Ah, the thriller tradition where female detectives are good looking. Makes one want to run a red light just to encounter one.)

Castilblanco takes over the narrative with a voice reminiscent of old radio noir mysteries like Johnny Dollar or Boston Blackie, perhaps Steve McQueen as a more contemporary example. The big guy pops Tums like M & M’s, refers to his wife by her last name, professes to be a convert Buddhism and opines about everything from modern art (hates it) to the vicissitudes of daily life in the Big Apple and contemporary politics. The detective’s raconteur style is abrupt as he presumes the reader recognizes that subject of his sentences in the breezy style of a personal letter. Found myself backing up to make sure I understood. Prefer that the subject is in a sentence. Don’t like the break in the flow. Although in Castilblanco’s case allowances are in order. He scores a lot of idiosyncratic points.

Steven L. Moore, Author and Blogger

Steven L. Moore, Author and Blogger

The plot thickens when an autopsy of the gallery owner produces a horse pill size capsule containing the names of three stolen masterpiece paintings. Art theft, kidnapping, child pornography and snuff films enter the mix. Readers share Castilblanco’s outrage and visceral repugnance at the horrific exploitation of the children. One vivid scene has Castilblanco finding scores youngsters surviving the dark stench of railroad box cars. One wishes in earnest that nothing like what described could actually take place in the world today.

The detective wants to solve the murder, yes. But above all else, he wants to bring the scum bags behind the pornography, kidnapping, and murder to justice. His rage drives the plot as day by day an elaborate financing scheme unfolds – the stolen masterpieces serve as collateral for financing the video productions. Solid citizens, at least as far as appearances go, are backing the evil enterprise. The plot takes several twists and turns, harkens back to Nazi Germany, involves Scotland Yard, and the FBI, “feebies,” according to Castilblanco—a nickname new to this reviewer, but then Castilblanco indulges in nicknames of all sorts, acronyms and slang. He also is keenly aware of ethnic differences.

The Collector -- Book Cover from Amazon

The Collector — Book Cover from Amazon

Author Moore changes point of view, or voice, frequently. Most of the time, his hero detective narrates. When Castilblanco is not on the scene, Moore uses third-person omniscient voice, a conventional practice. The compelling mystery story line would be better served, however, if the omniscient narrator sounded less like Castilblanco and a more like a detached, discrete voice of its own. Readers may find it a tad difficult to identify who the narrator is in some passages—a minor distraction.

The Collector is vigorous, forceful storytelling at its best. Moore’s moral perspective is clear. Castilblanco’s world is rich soil for nurturing cynics and pessimists. Moore’s detective, however, is a force of one, brimming with gruff optimism and hope. An idealist thrives underneath his sarcasm and his story makes for a great read for mystery fans or anyone looking for an entertaining tale.

The above is a somewhat shorten review that initially appeared in

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Pearl Harbor Galvinized the Nation and Brought the U. S. into the War

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Seventy-three years have passed since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor The attack took place during the early morning hours of December 7, 1941. President Roosevelt declared it “A date which will life in infamy” in his memorable speech to Congress just hours after the devastation was reported. The news of the attack galvanized the nation. Few of the adults who lived through the first terrifying months of World War II survive today. They are part of the Greatest Generation that is fading away with each passing month.

Most Americans know something about the story from the many documentaries and movies about the attack. For most, Pearl Harbor is an event out of the distant past.

The shock and horror of that day in 1941 may have been eclipsed by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center September 11, 2001. Readers today who remember 911, however, can relate to how shaken their parents and grandparents must have been when the news of the Japanese atrocity reached them through radio broadcasts. They huddled together around their living room AM tube powered radio sets for news of survivors and what was to come next. Pearl Harbor was to the Greatest Generation what 911 is to the current. Uncertainly, fear and grief spread like a contagion.

Book Cover from Amazon My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook

Book Cover from Amazon My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook

My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook: A Nostalgic Collection of Memories (click on the title for the Amazon listing)presents the Pearl Harbor story in a homey, poignant and dramatic manner. Created by Bess Taubman, who is also a co-author with Ernest Arroyo, the entire story is endearingly presented as a scrapbook. Designer Ernest L. Cox, Jr. lays out all the pages as if each was carefully preserved as a personal memory by someone who lived through the events that pulled America into the war. The book tells the story in sufficient detail to satisfy an historian’s need for an accurate account of the events of the days surrounding the attack. Japanese strategy is laid out graphically. The maps are especially helpful in finding the points of the attack.

An Inspired Presentation . . .

The story is told more with pictures than with print. The narrative is imbedded in reproductions of news articles, military dispatches, telegrams and photographs. The immediacy of this inspired approach makes the retelling at once precious and profound. Readers are treated to a rich presentation of what it must have been like to be alive at the time. The events in life that are most memorable are those in which ordinary people are asked to deal with extraordinary challenges. My Pearl Harbor Scrapbook brings this truth home in a manner that is touching and thoroughly human.

Online readers considering this book need to recognize that the designation of scrapbook refers to the manner in which the volume is presented but not to the size of the book. Traditional scrapbooks usually are about the size of a daily newspaper at the top of the stack in the stand to be sold. Pearl Harbor, by contrast, is smaller, measuring approximately 10 x 7 inches.  Pearl Harbor Scrapbook deserves a place on the coffee table at this time of the year. The book can be opened to any page at random and become immediately meaningful. It is a powerful reminder of our country’s recent past and honors the sacrifices made by the men and women whose lives were changed by that painful chapter in our history.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site.

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Paperbacks Reshape American Culture

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Ah, the lowly paperback. It has had a powerful impact on American culture. Author Paul Rabinowitz delineates the role it has played since first appearing for sale on American newsstands, drugstores, and coffee shops in the 1930’s. Her book, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, examines the often overlooked influence that the cheap, pocket-sized books had on every phase of American culture.

The word pulp usually often connotes prurient, escapist literature featuring unsavory characters who live outside the moral norms ostensibly espoused by the rest of society. Rabinowitz broadens the definition, however. For her, pulp defines the character of the medium; shoddily bound coarse paper volumes that degrade quickly.

According to Rabinowitz, pulp has influenced every facet of American culture from civil rights to the feminist revolution. It set the stage for the sexual revolution of the mid-twentieth century. The paperback, more than any other medium, carried Modernist thinking, or Modernism, into cities and villages across the country. As the author writes:

This is a story of paper, or rather of paperback books, produced in massive numbers between the late 1930s and the early 1950s These throwaway items hold within their covers a rich history of literary tastes; the point to, even reflect, a democratizing literacy and the new forms of identity and community that emerged in mid-twentieth-century America.

Curiously, the above passage is very good example of the author’s rambling, verbose writing style. If, for example, the story is about paperbacks, it follows that it would also be about paper. If the period of time for the study is from 1930 to 1950, readers know it is the mid-twentieth-century. Either “point to” or “reflect” adequately carries the thought, unless the reader is being asked to resolve the author’s ambivalence.

Cover to American Pulp -- Available on Amazon

Cover to American Pulp — Available on Amazon

Rabinowitz writing reflects her passion for her subject. Some passages are truly eloquent and succinct. The highly quotable lines flutter around like canaries lost in a murder of raucous crows. What eventually wears the reader down is a tedium of overwriting. Rabinowitz slings a sentence like a hammock over seven or eight lines of text and then loads it up with subordinate clauses and phrases, modifiers galore, parenthetical observations, personal asides, multiple verbs and allusions to other authors, artists, historians and philosophers. She invariably prefers the less well-known modifiers. The phrase “The demotics of reading” appears no less the 4 times within the first 80 pages of text. (Demotics, the plural form, was not recognized by Word or  WordPress Spell check.) Demotic means ordinary, common or popular. Using the plural, Rabinowitz morphs the term from an adverb into a noun–commonness or popularity. Readers are usually accepting of a coinage when they are clever and easy to recognize. Not so in this case. This is writing to impress rather than inform.

Anomie, evanescent, quotidian, and totemic, as words, are impressive, but seldom heard in everyday conversation, even among academics and rarely found in paperbacks intended for the general population.

Rabinowitz writes around her subjects. Her definition of Modernism is there, of course, but sprinkled here and dribbled there when a straightforward presentation of the meaning in the context the author intends would be greatly appreciated.

Author Paul Rabinowitz

Author Paul Rabinowitz

Modernism, in its most pervasive form, represents a breaking away from the moral, aesthetic, social, political and theological values that prevailed through most of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th. Modernism emphasizes individual autonomy over conformity to established ethical and aesthetic codes. The paperback was an effective stealth medium for tearing down old standards because it was cheap, portable, and widely available.

The author strives to make the simple point that slavery is a grave sin of America’s past. Racial discrimination continues today. The paperback put a tool in the hands of writers eager to address this evil as an unrecognized crime that goes on year after year in our communities. Paperbacks, the conveyor of sleazy sex and brutal crime stories, become the medium through which the crime of discrimination is exposed. Thus, a medium that is usually about crime becomes a tool against the ignored crime of racism. That’s what? Ironic? Making this point in writing about  African-American author Richard Wright, the author explains:

Crime, as a narrative device, enabled, as had for two of his inspirations, Theodore Dreiser and Fyodor Dostoevsky, his exploration of psychological and economic forces, showing how the two collide in an individual. But it did more for Wright – or rather he did more with it – and this is the subject of this chapter: how Richard Wright’s and Edwin Rosskam’s phototextual book, 12 Million Black Voices, supplements the crime narrative, or better, inverts it, to make clear that the crime, that which the American people (or at least white Americans) have been lied to and been lying to themselves about, was the crime of slavery and its attendant Jim Crow laws and culture of racism. This is the true crime story that Wright was exploding/exposing—America’s crypt encrypted, thoroughly evident yet utterly unrecognized, its corpse not dead by haunting us still.

Rabinowitz strains to make a several points in the above passage but simply overlooks the obvious. Wright and others used the paperback because it was there, an efficient propaganda tool, cheap, and widely distributed. The point is so self–evident. The author is over intellectualizing. The passage is representative of the style in which the book is written. It speaks for itself. Rabinowitz’s propensity for leaving the choice of verbs up to the reader and telescoping qualifying phrase within qualifying phrase creates a dithering maze that obscures rather than clarifies her thoughts.

This is all such a shame. Despite the author’s lack of precision, the book has many redeeming features as it includes numerous reproductions of book covers, some in color. The notes about the artists responsible for the cover designs are intriguing. Readers will be surprised by the names of some of the artist contributors. The author’s comments about collecting and collectors are some of the best reading in the book. This is a beautifully produced volume on an engaging subject that cries out for an editor’s hand.

This article, somewhat condensced, first appeared in

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Barter Theater Stage II “Driving Miss Daisy” is a Must See!

Sunday, October 19th, 2014
John J. Hohn,Writer and Reviewer

John J. Hohn,Writer and Reviewer

Barter Theater’s Stage II performances of Driving Miss Daisy continue through November 15. Go see the show!. If you have other commitments, cancel them. Driving Miss Daisy at The Barter Stage II is a once in a life time opportunity not to be missed. You may think you know the story from the movie starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd. But there’s no way the two dimensional silver screen, or worse, the flat screen set in the living room regardless of size, can match the intimacy and power of seeing actors at the top of their art perform this amazing play in the round.

Mary Lucy Bivins is a memorable Daisy. As the show opens, she is the consummate woman of her era, the 1950’s, as she is overly concerned about appearances and what others think. A widow, she is near the top of 1950’s Atlanta society, and oddly, uncomfortable in her affluence as she reminds others of her family’s poverty when she was a girl. Her pettiness attests to the rigors of growing up poor. Bivins plays her to perfection. Daisy denies being prejudiced after reeling off a litany of stereotype traits that she finds true of all black people. Daisy equates racism to hatred. Daisy doesn’t hate anyone. Thinking less of people because of their race, however, is another matter entirely in her mind.

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

The Barter Theater, Abingdon, Virginia

Daisy’s African-American chauffeur, Hoke, is superbly played by Jasper McGruder. The audience realizes quickly that Hoke, though illiterate, is smarter and wiser than Daisy. He accepts her stubborn rejection of his services and her slights until she finally relents and allows him to help her. When Daisy discovers Hoke can’t read, she reciprocates by helping him master the skill. The common ground between Hoke and Daisy is struck more profoundly when they discover together that the temple has been bombed. Daisy does not want to believe it. Hoke, however, recognizes her victim-hood as something in common with his own. He has dealt with hatred all of his life.

Bivins is superb. She presents Daisy with all of her mannerisms, speech patterns, and nervous tics. The result is a toughly credible and moving performance. Daisy is the last of a vanishing breed, the pampered, sheltered woman of the house. Her role is enabled by her son Boolie who, despite his frustrations with his mother, looks after her dutifully. The height of Bevin’s performance is reached when, late in the play, she slips mentally back into time and frets painfully about disappointing her students. Her anguish is wrenching. Older audience members feel compelled to reach out to her and comfort her. Her fears and crushing remorse over imagined failings become a vision of what could lie ahead to the dreaded of all seniors. Hoke, rather than coddling Daisy as she has been most of her life, appeals to the woman’s stronger core and demands that she snap out of it.

McGruder is every bit the match to Bivin’s Daisy. Steady, patient, kind and selfless, Hoke takes charge of Daisy welfare. He plays Hoke with a strong, quiet dignity and becomes a commanding presence on the stage. Theater in the round is the perfect venue for an actor of McGruder refined skills. I sat within three feet of his performance. Everything about the actor – his eyes, his posture, his tone of voice, and his gestures – were thoroughly Hoke, clearly a man of generous spirit and hard-earned wisdom. Hoke is no Uncle Tom. He may acquiesce on trivial matters, but he staunchly defends his rights, his values and his prerogatives on matters affecting his dignity and pride.

Mary Lucy Bevins and Jasper McGruder as Miss Daisy and Hoke

Mary Lucy Bevins and Jasper McGruder as Miss Daisy and Hoke

Director Richard Rose puts the story of the relationship between the black man Hoke and the white Jewish widow Daisy on a precarious line in many respects. A fragility in the balance keeps the audience enthralled. At one point, the message seems to be that love needs to be protected by convention. How else account for Hoke’s devotion to Daisy and Daisy’s late-in-life delight with his company? As long as both know their place, then affection and care is possible. Surely, however, Playwright Author Alfred Uhry is not suggesting that social boundaries need to be respected in order for caring friendship to flourish. His message is more subtle, and Rose captured it by calling for restraint in his cast’s performances. The script could open itself up to thigh-slapping humor and serious social indictment, but Rose avoids these excesses and the show is much the better for it.

The message of Driving Miss Daisy is that love is always possible, despite differences in background, social standing, religious convictions, or race. It is possible when patience and understanding take a hand and little is at stake except the appreciation of another human being for who he or she happens to be.

Lighting Designer Camille Davis makes the stage seem many times larger than actual. Derek Smith’s set design hints at the vanishing Victorian era in architecture, thoroughly fitting given Daisy’s slow decline as her vitality fades with age. All of the actors age convincing, almost painfully in the case of Daisy and Hoke, as the play progresses – an achievement that the make-up artists backstage and costume designer Lee Alexander Martin deserve recognition.

This review was initially posted on the web site of, Norm Golden’s wonderful web site that provides exposure to self-published authors.

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