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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Albany State of Mind

From Labor Day Weekend through the first or second week of December, I order the books I want for Christmas—those that I want to read during the first six or so months of the coming year. When the various and many packages are delivered, they are stashed, unopened, in the back of the coat closet, waiting to be gaily wrapped and placed under the tree by "Santa" on Christmas Eve. By then, I will have forgotten some of the titles I ordered, but most definitely will be eagerly anticipating opening the boxes containing them, as well as those that I do remember and am most eager to begin reading. Normally, I can contain my excitement and anticipation until Christmas Morning. But this year, please forgive me, I just can't wait to open the covers of one of them: William Kennedy's latest book, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (© 2011 William Kennedy, published by Viking Penguin, London, England).

This is the eighth book in Kennedy's fictional collection1 and is part of his Albany series, which includes Quninn's Book, Roscoe, and An Albany Trio. The latter volume consists of Legs, Billy Phaelan's Greatest Game and, what I consider his most popular novel to date, Ironweed, which was made into the 1987 movie of the same name starring Jack Nickolson and Meryl Streep. Both were nominated in their outstanding roles as Frances Phelan and Helen Archer for Best Actor and Best Actress by the Academy Awards but, unfortunately, neither one came away with the Oscar. Incidentally, Kennedy wrote not only the book upon which the film is based, but he also wrote the screenplay--a rarity these days for the original author to pen the script when movies are adapted from novels.

Since, obviously, I haven't read the book yet--but am about to, between episodes of The Starcatcher Series and a reading of the selection for my next review2--this posting is, thus, not about one book, but about one author, William Kennedy whose eighty-third birthday, by the way, is on this coming January 16th. 

I first "met" Kennedy a number of years ago at a community yard sale where someone was peddling "gently read" and "slightly used" books, stacked tightly together, knee-deep in large cardboard boxes. Some of them were library editions, withdrawn from various collections in the tri-State area. I bought a smaller boxful, thinking that for $10.00 I'd find one or two "gems"; and one or two, I did. The "gems" that I found included Quinn's Book, which sat in my library for at least a year until, one early evening while looking for a bedtime read, I starting scanning its first few pages. And thus, I became acquainted with the orphan Daniel Quinn in 1847, who goes on to become the scion of an Albany family that features prominently in other Kennedy novels. After reading Quinn's Book, I moved on (rather, backwards, if you follow the sequence in which Kennedy wrote his books) to An Albany Trio, paused to download and watch (three times) the movie, Ironweed, then proceeded to devour Roscoe, a tale about the brains behind the Albany political machine in the turbulent years between World War I and World War II. 

Kennedy was born in Albany, spent some time after graduation from Sienna College in Puerto Rico, where he met and was mentored by Saul Bellow, and returned to Albany a few years later to become an investigative reporter for the Albany Times Union where he wrote exposes of the O'Connell political machine. He uses Albany as the setting for eight of his novels and, as cited by book critic Jonathan Yardley in his The Washington Post Review in September of this year, paints "a portrait of a single city perhaps unique in American fiction." Kennedy is also the author of two nonfiction books about Albany, O Albany, and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, which I hope to get to this coming Summer.

There are three things that I most admire and like about Kennedy's work. One is that his lyrical, almost stream-of-consciousness writing easily takes the reader on imaginary journeys through the streets of Albany and its environs. While it does seem like this thoughts are streaming, much like the style of James Joyce, Kennedy’s usage of words and phrases is focused, controlled, and often concise and terse, reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. i have not read any of Saul Bellow's works yet, but I understand that the construct and descriptions of Kennedy's characters--we learn most about them through their actions and believable dialogue--parallel the same, basic style.

The second is that Kennedy writes about what he knows; one of, if not the cardinal rule in writing: "Write what you know most about..."—whether you learn it from experience, innate knowledge, or through thorough research. He uses his knowledge and evident love of his hometown, its surroundings, and its interesting, speckled history as the capital of New York State as the backdrop—and often as a character—in his works. When I read An Albany Trio, I was transported to Albany's streets, easily picturing through the rich details the shops, the scenery, the true-to-life protagonists and anti-heroes that inhabit the city—almost as if I had been, and still was, living there myself. Now, I am originally from New York and while I grew up in lower Westchester County, my family summered for a number of years in Saratoga Springs, which is close enough to Albany for us to have occasionally visited on a warm evening a relative or friend of my parents. Kennedy's portrayals of the city and its residents refreshed memories of younger days and exciting times. 

Thirdly, besides the fact that he is a prolific and, obviously, very talented writer who is dedicated to his art, Kennedy is, after all, about to turn 83! In these modern times when ageism is going out of style and one's older age is becoming less and less of an obstacle to living one's life to the fullest, continuing on with one's chosen life's work (Is 60 really the new 40?), I still find this incredibly refreshing and inspirational. Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes may be Kennedy's latest novel, but I certainly do hope and pray that it will not be his last.  

Like all fine wines and great authors, William Kennedy's writings get better and better with age.

1Here are links to three of the most popular of Kennedy's books: 
An Albany Trio , Roscoe , and Quinn's Book .
2The Robber Bride by Jessica Knight-Catania.

12:52 pm est          Comments

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"I'm Flying!"

As a child, I was the consummate tomboy and my hero, of course, was Peter Pan. I was first introduced to this enigmatic of all characters at the most impressionable age of seven, when my parents took me to the Winter Palace Theater in New York City to see the musical, Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Richard1. It was during the post Christmas season, when visions of Santa Claus, reindeer, and elves were still dancing in my young head—I was primed for more magical wonder and fairy-dusted anticipation.

The Sunday matinee was one of the last of the musical's limited 152-performance run, but was my very, very first time seeing a live show on stage. I was mesmerized, delighted, excited, and totally enthralled. Not only was I (pardon the pun) hooked on Peter Pan and his adventures, I was hooked on theater for life. "I'm never going to grow up," I remember saying to my Dad as we walked hand-in-hand out of the theater into the dimming daylight of Broadway, slowly being lit by its famous bright, neon lights—a wondrous sight in itself any season of the year. "But when I do, I'm going to write musicals, just like that one!"

Although I had a great run for the next four or five years not only reenacting Peter  with my friends, but also playing baseball with my father in our driveway, football in the Battle Field, Spin and Marty on my bicycle "horse," and Rin Tin Tin in a neighbor's yard, I did grow up. And, as an adult, I have written a few musicals—some produced way off-Broadway in Atlanta and Nova Scotia—but none as great as Peter Pan. The plot line and music, no matter how hard I try, just can't be beat. Not by me, nor, for that matter, anyone else. The whole concept of never growing up and foiling mean-spirited pirates, having adventures while living on and flying around a secret, imaginary tropical island with your best friends has always appealed to me. The spirit of Peter has never truly left me; which is probably why, even at my "age", I am, as the song goes, "young at heart" (and forever hope to be!).

You can imagine my delight and surprise when I found and read a tattered paperback copy of Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (a graduate of Haverford College right here in eastern Pennsylvania and one of my favorite satirical writers) and Ridley Pearson2. The hardback version was first published in 2004 by Disney Editions, New York, NY, and the paperback was released by Hyperion Paperbacks in April of 2006. This is the prequel to J. M Barrie's original stories of Peter Pan, who first appeared as a minor character in The Little White Bird and went on to have many more adventures, recently compiled in The Complete Adventures of Peter Pan.

After lunch on Saturday I started to read Peter and the Starcatchers and just could not put it down! While this is, all-in-all, a children's book, it proved to be more than a pleasant diversion. It appealed to me--both to the childlike spirit of Peter within me and to my often insatiable longing for a satisfyingly adult escapist read. And escape I did, across the roiling oceans to the sandy beaches of Mollusk Island, where the natives have apropos "pun" names like Fighting Prawn and Laughing Snail; where I, along with Peter, Molly, and their buddies, met Mister Grin, who developed a taste for...well, you're just going to have to read the book to find out.

If you've ever been curious as to how Never Land got its name, how Captain Hook got his hook, how Peter "learned to fly", how Tinker Bell became Tinker Bell, and, most importantly, where the magical, sparkling fairy dust originally came from, this is the book for you. It is chock full of pirate adventures, with many a dastardly doing at sea and, eventually, on land. It is poignant with the thoughts and feelings of an almost thirteen year-old boy who, just on the cusp of learning to become a man, will perennially stay a cocksure adventure-loving pre-teen. 

The book starts off with Peter and four of his fellow-orphans—soon to become the first four of the Lost Boys—aboard a ship bound for the Kingdom of Rundoon to become servants of the evil ruler. We soon meet Captain Black Stache, the mean and vile pirate who is after the "greatest treasure in the world", link up with Molly and her father, Lord Aster, who is trying to protect the treasure, meet Fighting Prawn and his tribe, and the enjoyably spine-chilling fun begins!

While the book jacket and various online blurbs attest that this is a book for four- to eight-year-olds, I have to beg to differ. There are some scenes and references that only a mature pre-teen would understand, and a few frighteningly bloody, gory events that would scare off a younger reader. I would be very hesitant to share this out loud with a four- or five-year-old, and a bit uneasy about allowing a older child to read it on his/her own without a bit of parental guidance.

While the authors wrote this first of a five-part prequel for their children who, after being read the Barrie stories, wanted to know how Peter got to be Peter Pan, it is evident that they did so not only with children in mind, but also with tongue-in-cheek, sometimes dark humor and innuendoes that would only be understood by much older teenagers and adults. After all, Dave Barry (note the homophone of the original Peter Pan creator, J. M. Barrie. Coincidence or not?) is a satirist who writes humorous pieces geared for adults; some of his darker humor pokes through here. 

That being said, I had a great time reading it and, having finished the book at 10:30 that night, I wanted to know what happened next. So, I got online and searched to see if there was, by chance, a follow-up. To my delight, I found that Barry and Pearson wrote a whole five-book series about Peter; all prequels to the original adventures, each of which looked to be promising reads--just as equally satisfying and exciting as the first. Following Peter and the Starcatchers, they are, in order: Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, Peter and the Sword of Mercy, and, just released this past year, The Bridge to Neverland. 

And yes, you guessed right. I ordered them all! However, the sometimes anxious and impatient reader that I am, I was not able to wait for a five-day snail mail delivery of the second book, so I downloaded it to an e-reader and spend the better part of Sunday afternoon reading Peter and the Shadow Thieves. I am almost finished and am as equally enthralled with this second book as I was with its predecessor. I can't wait to finish it.

So, before I travel back to Never Land, let me finish this by saying that Peter and the Starcatchers , and its prequel sequels, will make a great Holiday Gift for not only yourself, but for just about every reader over the age of five or six on your list—especially if they have come to know and love, as I did, the original Peter Pan stories. They’re guaranteed to lift your spirits and blow you away.
1Here's a link to the Wikipedia site for the 1954 musical: Peter Pan. An earlier musical,
first produced in 1950, with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, starred Jean Arthur as Peter Pan, Boris Karloff in the dual roles of George Darling and Captain Hook, and Marcia Henderson as Wendy. The 1954 version, some of you will remember, was filmed for television and aired for four consecutive seasons from 1955 through 1960. I never missed a broadcast!
The paperback version can be purchased separately via the link on the left pane of this Web site or as part of the Starcatchers paperback three-volume set , which includes the first three of the five-book series.

1:03 pm est          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,