June's Literary Blog

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Over the Rainbow

One of the perks of being retired is that I can, whenever I want to, indulge in my favorite obsessions: writing, reading, playing tennis—both really and virtually, either on the courts or on my Wii—talking FrankieB for long, leisurely walks, and, the past few weeks, catching up on back episodes of my favorite television series, which are downloaded to my e-reader, laptop, or television. The past few weeks, between Frankie walks, and when I am not reading, writing, or posting to this blog, I am watching such great fare as Glee; Star Trek: The Next Generation; Upstairs, Downstairs; Philly; Lost; All Creatures Great and Small; Damages; and The Grand; not to mention the first season of Lillyhammer, starring Stephen van Zandt—my most favorite actor from The Sopranos. I can't wait for the second season to start!

Besides being obsessed with watching downloaded videos., I have also become fixated upon the writings of Gregory Macguire, who is on my top ten list of best authors, which currently also includes Esmeralda Santiago, William Kennedy, Lewis Carroll, Cressida Cowell, A. R. Brimmar, Richard Paul Evans, J.R.R. Tolkien, A. A. Milne, Lisa Scottoline, and Amos Oz. Okay, if you add in Macguire, that's actually eleven. Hey, when it comes to great reads by great authors, who's counting?

Those of you who knew me back then will recall my passionate obsession with the first book of his Wicked Years series: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and the resulting wondrously fabulous and famous musical, Wicked , which opened at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway on October 30, 2003 and has been a smash hit ever since1. You will recall my clandestine trips to the Big Apple and the sporting of a now well-worn souvenir Wicked baseball cap with "Defy Gravity" embroidered on the back—I am wearing it now as I write—not to mention the many refrigerator magnets, the frayed tee-shirt; and the full-page ads from the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times tacked up in my basement office. For many reasons, both obvious and subtle, the musical as well as the novel it was based upon, spoke to and, at times, with me.

I was so enamored of the show and its powerful messages of friendship as it poses and answers the question, "Is anyone really born wicked or is wickedness thrust upon them?" that for years, on Halloween, I splotched green makeup on my face and hands, donned a black cape and an "official" pointed witch hat, and carried my well-worn copy of Wicked: The Grimmerie2, a complete compendium about the musical production—including the original script by Wendy Holzman and lyrics (as well as music) by Stephen Schwartz. I claimed, as I passed out candy to the kiddies, that I, among all the neighborhood witches that came out that night, was the "original" Elphaba—disparate height, weight, and age notwithstanding.

As the years passed, though, I outgrew my obsession. No, not true. It just went into remission, but not before I nearly wore out my CD of the original cast recording and read and re-read each of Macguire's first three Wicked books at least twice, maybe three times: Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men. The ending of each was primed for a sequel  and I impatiently waited, for a while, for the fourth one. Finally, I pushed the stories of Oz and Elphaba into the dark recesses of my mind. But what absolute glee resurrected my passion last November when I discovered Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Series3 listed for just one, sole week on the New York Times Book Review as a best-selling hard cover.

For years, The Wizard of Oz, and many of the subsequent sequels, by Frank L Baum, were staples on the hallway secretary book shelf of my childhood. My father often read out loud to me at bedtime from between its faded and frayed green-clothed cover, the colorful paper book jacket having been badly shredded and thrown out years before. I am not sure if it was one of the few he had from my Dad’s childhood, but the copy, by the time I was well into my teens, was literally falling apart, so well-read and well-loved it was by us. We also made it a point each year to watch together the television broadcasts of the classic 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland. Those times together were "wonderful" and I courageously carry within my heart and my mind (brain) these fondest memories. Often thinking about them are, for me, a trip “over the rainbow” into the timelessness of my own Oz of childhood.

However, as my father read the stories to me, I often wondered what really happened in Oz before and after Dorothy came via a tornado and left with the clicking of the ruby shoes4. Gregory Macquire, as is evident from his Wicked series, wondered the same thing. What did happened in Oz, as the musical's catch phrase asks, "before Dorothy dropped in"? His four-volume Wicked series tells all, not only from the before times, but through to the after-Dorothy times: from the birth of Elphaba, through her life to her supposed demise at the hands of the young girl from Kansas; the life and times of her son, Liir; the adventures of Brrr, known to us as the Cowardly Lion, who really is more courageous than we thought; the eventual rise to power of Glinda the Good; and what happens to her and the inhabitants of Munchkinland when Shell, Elphaba's younger brother, takes over as the Wizard. There are plots and sub-plots, each with twists and turnings as dramatic and as startling as the original wind storm that first brought Dorothy Gale into our literary lives.

And with this latest and last offering in the series, we come, at last, full circle in our obsessive Ozmania. We find Elphaba's granddaughter, Rain, in the household of the disposed Glinda, whose Mockbeggar Hall is commandeered by General Cherrystone for the siege of Munchkinland by the armies of the Emerald City. Enter the Clock of the Time Dragon, pulled by Brrr and accompanied by a theatrical troupe headed by Mr. Boss, a dwarf. We are once again journeying through the country sides of Oz via the wondrous imaginings of Macquire only to discover that Dorothy, through yet another—pun—twist(er) of fate, returns. Full circle, indeed. Here is the long-waited dramatic, suspenseful, and dryly humorous conclusion of the four tales. Did I mention surprising?

I had almost forgotten how Macguire lyrically constructs his phrases, using just the right—and often archaic—word to describe the aura and atmosphere of Oz as well as express the demeanor and actions of his protagonists. It's like a movie with true-to-love characters being graphically projected onto my mind's eye, or the magical, mystical unfolding of the meaningful plot of the original musical on the live stage. His text is laced with political commentaries, juiced with real-to-love characters, sprinkled with modern aphorisms that are not so seemingly out of place in the Land of Oz, and is replete with puns and pundits that keep the reader mesmerized and enthralled well into the wee hours of the morning.

A word of caution, though. Macguire's books are not quick reads. They, like the original musical, are to be savored—like a very fine wine or a well-aged single malt—requiring careful scrutiny, consideration, and thought to garner the more subtle nuances of plot and character interrelationships. It took me two performances—and soon to be a third—to realize that Wicked is a musical not about a woman being wicked, but about friendship and how others, with their personal desires, ambitions, and actions, affect our lives (“Because of you, I’ve been changed for the good.”). Like its predecessors, Out of Oz is a novel of just as deep questioning of the basic tenets of life as the musical. Even more so. And like the first three books before it, it is taking me a second reading to reap the full benefits of Macquire's masterful talents and his powerful messages,, written on many interlaced levels. The second time around, by the way, like all of his books, is just as wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking as the first time.

Reading Macguire is actually like being over the rainbow, with time obsessively suspended, listening, to my father once again relating the stories of Oz.
1Although, in my opinion, indeed, the best performances were given by the original cast headlined by Idina Menzel (Elphaba Thropp), Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda the Good). and Joel Grey as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

2 ©2005 Wicked LLC, text by David Cole. Published by Hyperion, New York, NY.
3 To access the books in the Wicked Series, as well as the Grimmerie, please click the links on the left pane of this Web site under "Picks of the Week".
4 They were originally silver slippers in the Baum tale. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer changed them to ruby shoes in the 1939 movie, "The Wizard of Oz".

1:57 pm est          Comments

Monday, February 20, 2012

Obedience School

How fitting it is that this is the Chinese Year of the Dragon, since the mythical creatures are all the rage in literature these days. Eespecially in kiddie-lit.

I have just recently discovered that most of the children in my neighborhood are especially enamored of extolling the virtues of the How to Train Your Dragon books written by the young Viking, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, and lovingly and amusingly translated by the (real) author, Cressida Cowell. The series is sub-titled Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock, III, although I find nothing amiss about them.

I am jumping to the chase here because the first book, How to Train Your Dragon, was an absolute delight to read. I had picked it up from the local library on Friday afternoon and raced through it that night. It was witty, informative, and chock full of wonderfully imaginative illustrations, including a map of the Norse Islands that look vaguely reminiscent of the British Isles, where Cowell lives. Coincidence, or what? The pictures look exactly as if a kid drew them. Well, I suppose, if we are to really (make)believe that the text is actually a translation from the Old Norse, one did.

The content, text, and humor, not to mention the dangerous, but comical, adventures of Hiccup and his small dragon, Toothless, are just the right combination of wry wit and a tad of raunchiness that will appeal to any child—or childlike—reader from age six and up. Who won't chuckle at the concepts of actually capturing a baby dragon in a backpack basket or the whimsical names of Hiccup's schoolmates (Fishlegs, Dogsbreath the Duhbrain, Clueless, and Snotlout) or learning Dragonese with such inventive phrases as
Mi Mama no likeit yum-yum on di bum1 or Nee-ah crappa inna di hoosus, pishyou2? A little bit of potty humor always appeals to the younger set, especially the pre-teens! I, myself, was literally laughing out loud; especially at the overall, total cleverness of the imaginative writing. Would that I had just two ounces of Cowell's, er, Haddock's talent—I'd be the toast of eastern Pennsylvania. Suffice it to say that I had—am having—just as must fun reading his, er, her books as I hope s/he had writing them.

I must also tell you that I found the actual training of one's dragon quite analogous to training one's puppy—especially if he is a Basset Hound. The personality of Toothless, Hiccup's dragon, is very similar to that of one of the most noblest breeds of dogs. The dragon and my own canine are both stubborn, spoiled, and a tad bit selfish; yet, both are also kind, loyal, and loving. Now, according to Professor Yobbish, in his book How to Train Your Dragon,3 which Hiccup consults,  the best way to train your dragon is to “YELL! at it”. Hiccup disagrees, as I—and many dog trainers that I've consulted over the years—also do. Dragons and dogs, like human children, do not respond well to being shouted out. But they do respond to love and kindness tempered with a firm hand. And this is precisely the technique that Hiccup uses in training Toothless. The results are adventurously rewarding not only to the main characters, but to their readers, as well.

As a newcomer to this fantasy series, I have also just become aware of two movies from DreamWorks Studios that are based upon the HTTYD books: "How to Train Your Dragon", and "Gift of the Night Fury"4. I have to ask myself how I, a devotee of children’s flicks ever missed them. And from what I understand from the young lad down the street, a third one is due to be released in the next month or so. Well, now we know how I will be spending at least two of my evenings this week.

But, I think, for a while to come, I will also be indulging my forever-after-childlike nature and immerse myself in reading the rest of the How to Train Your Dragon books. From what I've ascertained on the author's Web site page, How to Train Your Dragon,  there is a whole lot to more to learn from Hiccup about training and living with a dragon.

Almost like taking your dog to obedience school—but a whole lot more enjoyable!
1 My mother does not like to be bitten on the bum.
2No poo-ing in the house, please.
3© 2003 by Cressida Cowell. Little Brown and Company--Time Warner Book Group, New York, NY.
4 Please click the links on the left panel of this site.
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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,