"...Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion." ~Madonna

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Bookshop

Comments about THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald have run from “a little gem of a book” to “what was the point?” I fall someplace in between.

In the late ‘fifties, in an isolated seaside town, Florence Green decides to use her small inheritance to open a bookshop. The town of Hardborough has never had a bookshop, or much of anything else for that matter. Her decision barely is made before she runs into opposition. The other shop owners are barely seeing a profit and resent competition, plus Mrs. Gamart, the local expert on all things cultural, is venomously determined to keep the bookshop from happening.

THE BOOKSHOP is almost an anthem to how hard a small town, or small minds, will go to stay ordinary. It was hard for me to understand why people, especially the leader of the local social scene, would go to such great lengths to put a bookshop out of business.

The book is full of great but slightly underdeveloped characters. I am sure that was a deliberate move on the part of the author. The only person in town that Florence formed any relationship with was her very young assistant, ten year old Christine.

I loved the very subtle British humor of the author. So many of the throw away lines summed up people so well, especially Mrs. Gamart. People were kind to Mrs. Gamart because it made life easier.

The decision whether or not to carry the new sensation Lolita also told us much about the town residents. I was so afraid that Florence had ordered way too many copies for a shop in a small town; I was surprised how many she sold.

The style of writing is not one of my favorites, but it suited the book. The sentences had a tendency to ramble and jump around a bit. This seems to be the style of many modern British authors.

I also had real problems with the ending. In so many ways kindness is not well paid, but seems to be punished. Although short and easily read, this is not a book that I will be recommending to my friends.

Monday, April 28, 2014


The choices for high school drama clubs should never surprise me any more. When I heard that Bellefonte High School was doing Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA, I was skeptical to say the least. Well, Luke Skerpon and Shaun McMurtrie, co-directors and producers, did it with style.

The stage was the first impressive point of the evening. The sets were beautiful. I like a play that makes use of multi-levels and this set included raised platforms and ramps that were quickly and unobtrusively changed The lighting was beautiful. The colors of sunset and the serenity of the starry nights added so much to the mood of the production.

Costumes were also perfect from the magnificent gown that  Amneris wears in the prologue and epilogue to the slaves’ tattered garments. Even the props were well thought out.

This was the year for Mr Skerpon and Mr McMurtrie to tackle such a large undertaking; the senior class has two powerful ladies for the two powerful leads.

Jessica Brown already has an impressive list of credits and was a natural as the flighty Amneris who has to mature to make the life and death decision for the two people she loves.  Jessica sparkles on stage and is always believable in upbeat roles, but she proved that she could handle the growth that this role required.

Cat Rokavec also has earned her acting reputation. I was mostly familiar with her dramatic work though I knew that she sang. I was not prepared for the power of her voice as Aida. Her regal bearing kept us aware that this young woman was a royal princess.

Christian Hopple, who played Radames, was the perfect leading man. He had to be a strong presence to play against his leading ladies. We have seen Christian play lighter roles, so it was good to see that he could handle heavier roles.

Bellefonte will be losing these talented seniors, but I keep my eye out for  up and coming talent. Although the three leads dominate AIDA, several featured actors also are worthy of note.

Stephen Giacobe played Aida’s fellow Nuian and friend, Mereb. Good voice, good stage presence, we will see more of Steven. His fatal duel scene was especially well choreographed.
Zoser, father of Radames, was played by Jordan Emely. This was freshman Jordan’s first play with Bellefonte, but he has had some basic training someplace. He owns the stage, not to mention a good voice. I wish makeup would have aged him a bit more, but I never would have guessed that he was a freshman.

The extras were all excellent at keeping character, especially since many of them played various roles. Their very large contribution was the excellent choral work.

The orchestra was one of the best I have heard at a high school production. Many members appeared to be beyond their high school days, but the music was a character on its own. My only problem with the night was that the music over shone the voices at times. This was particularly annoying to me during dialogue. It might have been where I was seated, but I hate to miss lines.

The Bellefonte Drama Club can be very proud of their production of AIDA I will never doubt Mr McMurtry again.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: Shrek, The Musical

SHREK, THE MUSICAL is an ideal choice for a high school drama group and Bald Eagle Area Drama Club did it proud. The show requires a large cast with several fun featured parts, giving some up and coming “stars” a chance to shine. The problem for a reviewer is that it is hard to give everyone as much space here as he or she deserves.

Sets kept with the fairy tale theme, simple and easily moved. I loved the fabric draped trees. If the idea has been used before, it was new to me. Costumes also kept to the traditional fairy tale ideas. It was easy to spot the Wicked Witch, Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pan, The White Rabbit, etc.They also provided good choral music.

Shrek and Fiona were played by seniors Cody Mandell and Abby Crago. Both roles demanded a lot of stage time and even more energy. Their best number though was “ I Think I Got You Beat”. It reminded me of   “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun only with belches.  We will miss the two of them in future plays.

Two of the featured players who really stood out were Matthew Blaylock as Lord Farquaad and Colton Lucas as Pinocchio. Matthew not only captured the little lord, but played the role on his knees throughout the show. His dance steps had to be seen. Colton channelled Pinocchio perfectly. I have heard Colton sing on other occasions and was amazed how he kept Pinocchio’s voice true to character.

Virginia Hillman was the voice of the Dragon and it was the voice of a dragon. Virginia is a sophomore so we should be seeing much more of her in the coming years. The dragon puppeteers need special recognition; they were Virginia as well as Kate Snyder, Emily Jozefik, and Sarah Torres. It was actually believable when Dragon “flew” over the crowd.

I loved the energy of the show, especially Tyler Bickle’s Donkey. Shrek’s fast- talking, all-over-the-stage best friend could easily have stolen the show. Tyler is another senior who will be missed.

There were so many neat little touches. The choreography was fresh and fun. I loved the “ What’s Up Duloc?” number.The sets were well designed. Everyone stayed in character while having fun. And, of course, Shrek has one of the best curtain calls in theatre. The night that I was there, the packed house joined the cast and crew in “ I’m a Believer” because we were.

Good job Ms Allison and Mr Brinser, as usual.

Friday, April 25, 2014

THEATER: Les Miserables

On April 4th the Bald Eagle Area High School Drama students went to New York City to see LES MISERABLES. I was lucky enough to go along.

It was a very full day, starting at the high school at 8:00 A.M. and ending back at the high school at 4:00 A.M. The bus was full (55 students and adults) and after some welcoming words from Drama Coach Eric Brinser, everyone sat back to watch the movie Frozen.

After one stop for a lunch break, we reached New York City with time to spare so the bus driver drove around the city while Mr. Brinser played tour guide. This was the first wow moment for me; the bus driver wove that big bus through the snarls of traffic as if it were a go-cart. It has been a few years since I have driven in NYC and I was very impressed.

The real action started with an improvisational workshop for the students. Jane, the instructor, was very good at getting the students to feel at ease. It must have been a little intimidating for the younger attendees  to be in New York City, on Broadway, in a professional rehearsal hall and with a stranger asking them to improvise bits of business. They were terrific. It did not take them long to get into the swing of the exercises and for them to show what a creative group they are. I wish that I had learned Jane’s last name. She was good.

The session ended with the appearance of Cathryn Basile, a member of the LES MISERABLES cast. Ms Basile is a swing in the show and not always sure that she will be going on until the last moment. After a brief sharing of her life in the theatre, she opened the floor for questions. Shortly before we left the rehearsal room,she came bursting back into the room with the news that indeed she would be in that evening’s show. This gave all of us someone that we knew to watch for.

After dinner, we finally made it to the Imperial Theatre to see the new production of LES MISERABLES. This is one of my favorite shows and having seen it several times, I was eager to see the new version. Naturally the story sticks to Victor Hugo’s original novel and the score was the same beautiful music and lyrics that we all know. The impressive sets seemed to be richer than I had seen in the past and some of the changes in directing were beyond brilliant. I especially loved Javert’s suicide scene. If you go to see the show, watch for it.

Most of the cast was new to me; quite a few were making their Broadway debut, but I expect to hear more of them. Ramin Karimloo ranks with the best Jean Valjeans that I have heard. It is worth the trip to New York and the price of a ticket to hear his “ Bring Him Home”. I also want to see more of Will Swenson who played Javert. His credits are extensive so I should be able to check out his other roles. As usual Petit Gervais, played by Gaten Matarazzo, was a big favorite of the audience.

By four o’clock in the morning, I was beat. Would I do it again with these kids? You bet! I have to admit that they really were the most impressive part of the trip. Now I have proof that there are many, many fabulous teenagers out there. The world will be in good hands.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: She Who Remembers

I wanted to like Linda Lay Shuler’s SHE WHO REMEMBERS. It was publicized as doing for America’s prehistory what  Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear  did for prehistoric Europe. Since I had  enjoyed Auel’s series and I am fascinated by our early Southwest. especially the mystery surrounding the Anasazi tribes, SHE WHO REMEMBERS seemed to be a good choice.

The brief Prologue sets the scene of an Indian watching god-like beings in an area known to be occupied by spirits. These gods had unusual clothing and a long bow that actually held the arrow in place. They had hair not only on their head but also on their faces. The hair was the color of falling leaves and their eyes were blue.

Years later, in 1279, blue-eyed Kwani has been accused by her tribe of being a witch. Her mother helps her to escape death and tells her to travel the great distance to find the gods with blue eyes. They will accept her as one of their own. Kwani ‘s journey is full of hostile tribes, wild animals, and harsh weather.

Along the way she is found by Kokopelli, the flute player. Kokopelli is a well known trader who brings magic to the tribes and he takes Kwani to his next stop, the Eagle Clan’s cliff dwellings. In this village, far above the ground, Kwani meets the old wise woman, She Who Remembers. A large part of this elderly woman’s job is to teach the young girls all that women must learn. She sees something special in Kwani and at her death appoints Kwani the next She Who Remembers.

This, however, does not put a stop to Kwani’s troubles. After Kokopelli leaves, she has to face the jealousy of the Medicine Man and of the beautiful Tiopi who thought she would be the next wise woman.

If you think that the plot sounds a little like the Perils of Pauline set in the ancient Southwest, you are right. Never has a young girl been attacked by wild animals, raped, kidnapped, and generally been mistreated as Kwani. The character did show some growth, going from the frightened girl escaping the only home she has known to the self-confident She Who Remembers, but she also is unwittingly responsible for many of her own problems ...and she does have a lot of problems.

What I did like was the amount of research that the author did. There is evidence that the Norse were in America long before Columbus. What happened to the Anasazi and the cliff dwellers is still a mystery.  Linda Lay Shuler makes it very clear that this book is a book of fiction, but based on extensive fieldwork.

Kokopelli, the flute player, is still a large part of Native American artwork and stories. I found him to be the most fascinating character in the book. He was a trader, but also a bit of a con-man. I liked that he had convinced the people that his magic “seed” would guarantee that the tribe would have good crops. Each village had young girls waiting to be the chosen one to receive his seed and if she carried his child was treated as blessed by the gods until his next visit.

There were many likable parts of this book, secondary characters were well developed, the Native American way of life interesting, and the locations colorful. I did get tired of Kwani always  being in peril. The story could have moved as well without resorting to so many dramatic hardships for our heroine.

Although there are sequels to this book, I’ll pass.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Jacob's Oath

So many books, good and bad, have been published about the Holocaust. It is a time in history that the world would probably prefer to sweep under the proverbial carpet, but it is also a time of great, and simple, universal themes. JACOB'S OATH by Martin Fletcher is set in Germany at the end of the Second World War, but is a tribute to survival and the strength of the human spirit.

Jacob has been liberated from a concentration camp where he had witnessed inhuman conditions. His beloved brother Maxie had been the favorite victim of a camp guard nicknamed “The Rat”. As Maxie died in Jacob’s arms, Jacob swore an oath to avenge his brother’s death by killing The Rat. After his release, he starts to walk the long journey home to Heidelberg, which also happens to be The Rat’ s  home town.

For the years of war, Sarah has been hiding in basements, cemeteries, any place where she is invisible. She has gone mostly without food, water or companionship. With the help of Lieutenant Brodsky, a Russian soldier, she is able to get to her home town of Heidelberg.

The story really begins in Heidelberg. Jacob is the first one we meet there. Through his skills of bartering it is possible for him to survive rather well. Sarah’s arrival makes the Jewish population of the city a total of two. Knowing that they are the only Jews left in this once thriving city draws them together. Jacob has not forgotten his oath to kill Hans, The Rat, and spends a large part of his day watching for him.

The plot summary does not begin to give a taste of the richness of this book. The characters are so complex. Jacob, Sarah, Hans, and Brodsky are fascinating for different reasons. Watching each of them develop made the book special for me.

I would not want to under emphasize the suspense in the story. The decision of how and when to kill The Rat is the force that drives Jacob. Sarah is aware that such an act could ruin what is basically a good man. The night of the planned murder had me holding my breath. By this point in the story, I really cared what would happen to Jacob and Sarah, the only Jews in the city.

I also have to admit that the plot threw me a curve. At one point I told myself that I knew how it would end. I was wrong.

JACOB'S OATH is a warm story, told with some dark humor, that you will find stirring your heart. It is one of those page turners that will stay with you after the final chapter.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Packing For Mars

This year’s Centre County Reads is PACKING FOR MARS by Mary Roach. I was not sure if it would have the universal appeal to be chosen as the book for an entire county. The reaction among my reading acquaintances has been very mixed, ranging from “loved it” to “could not get beyond the Fourth Chapter”.

PACKING FOR MARS is an excellently researched book written by an author who is first of all a scientist, but with an eye for the humor in serious situations. Roach has the ability to make any scientific subject accessible to everyone.  There is a reason that she makes best-seller list with each new publication.

PACKING FOR MARS takes us up close and personal with the astronauts: Russian, Japanese, American, dogs, chimps, in fact anyone or thing that has entered space. We learn that the Japanese test a man’s talent with origami for eligibility into their space program. The United States puts great emphasis on the ability to spend extended periods of time either alone or with others in a cramped space.

It never occurred to me that motion sickness would be a big challenge in a space capsule or helmet. I thought that proper training would take care of that problem. Throwing up in zero-gravity is more than just messy; it is dangerous. There is the danger of choking, suffocation, and if inhaled, the acid will eat the lining of the lungs. Those little nuggets of grossness just float around. The information in this chapter was very informative, if a bit disgusting.

It was also interesting to know that male astronauts do not wear a diaper, but rather a device built along the idea of a condom. For vanity reasons, the sizes come only in L, XL, and XXL. An interesting footnote to this is that four “urine collection assemblies” have been left on the moon, two large and two “small”. Which one belongs to Neil Armstrong and which to Buzz Aldrin remains a mystery.

For all of you who dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, Mary Roach does much to de-romanticize the idea of going into the Void. Still, to me, the people who have gone into space are indeed heroes; they went into the complete unknown. Ideas could be tested on Earth, but that would not prepare them for the actual event.

There were times when I felt that Mary Roach took particular interest in the scatological material in her research, but that may be what we are all secretly interested in. No subject was too repellent to deserve minute detail.( I had never thought that cadavers played such a large part in our space program)
PACKING FOR MARS is very full of detailed information. Even though written in an entertaining style, it reached the point of overkill for me by the fourth chapter. I would suggest that it be considered the book that you read one chapter at a time while reading a less stressful book. Reading it that way also gives the information time to be digested.

After reading and discussing the book with my book group, I understand why PACKING FOR MARS was the Centre County Reads for 2014. The book pays homage to the things that Americans hold dear, traits like bravery, the search for knowledge, and exploration of the unknown.