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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Strumming for Dummies

About thirty years ago, I spent a wonderfully relaxing three week vacation in Hawaii. Even after all these years, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still feel the ocean breezes against my cheek, smell the succulent aromas of an authentic luau, sense the perfumed tinge of wildflowers in the air as we climbed into the mountains of Oahu to catch the variegated rainbows, and hear the lilting strains of Aloha 'Oe  sung and strummed as hula dancers flowed across the beach in front of our lanai. Hawaii, to say the least, has always intrigued me, especially the music.

So it comes as no surprise in this stage of my life that I wish to reconnect and perhaps re-live, albeit revive some of the experiences of those three weeks. And the best way for me to do that, short of actually going back to Hawaii (someday, folks, in the near future), is to learn to play the ukulele. Please don't laugh. I already play a number of instruments, including clarinet, Irish flute, penny whistle, kazoo, drums, a smattering of banjo, and am truly aces on the guitar. It's only natural, with a bit of extra time on my hands, that I now want to learn to play yet another musical instrument. Especially one that I've always wanted to master.

Spurred on by reading The Aloha Quilt , number fifteen in the Elm Creek Quilts series of novels by Jennifer Chiaverini, I got on-line this Sunday and ordered one Kala Melaka wood-grained soprano ukulele (correctly pronounced you-koo-lay-lay) complete with gig bag, tuner, a set of replacement strings, and, wonder of wonders, a how-to-pay book
Ukulele For Dummies*, written by Alastair Wood, himself a master ukulele player and founder of www.ukulele.com.

I am psyched! This is going to be just the thing to idle away a few leisurely hours while tunneling through yet another horrifically torrid heat wave until, hopefully, the cooling calm of September arrives.

The uke is to be delivered tomorrow—I can't wait—but the book, complete with a 96-track play-along CD, arrived yesterday via USPS. I spent the better part of the evening reading the first few chapters, and was thoroughly engrossed and excited. Who knew that reading a book for dummies could be so interesting and so much fun?

Besides his mastery of the instrument, which has been native to Hawaii since the late Nineteenth Century when it was first created and introduced to the natives by Portuguese furniture makers and readily adopted by King David Kalakaua, Wood is a creatively funny writer. You would think that any instructional book about, well, anything, would be technically dull and dry—I should know, I wrote hundreds of the duller ones as a technical writer. But this is not the case with
Ukulele For Dummies, which is not only enlightening and instructional, but just down-right plain entertaining to read. There are helpful icons to point out salient facts and things you really ought to know and remember, as well as pictures and chord diagrams, to guide you along.

Thanks to Woods’ easy-to-read explanations, already, my mind, I can strum and sing along to L'il Liza Jane—F-F-F-C-F; down-down-up-down; down-down-up-down—and am looking forward to conquering the other fifty or so strains, songs, riffs, and strum styles about which Wood writes, not to mention a few favorites of my own. All of this is written in Wood's uniquely gifted and almost tongue-in-cheek style. Always, however, conveying his awe and wonder at the uniquely versatile little four-stringed modern-day lyre that has, over the last two centuries, captured the hearts and minds of just
about everyone who hums a tune. He makes it sound so simple. Yet, looking at the last few more challenging chapters encourages one to tackle the harder, more complex lessons that with a bit of dedicated practice, will raise even the novice, like me, to the level of being a proficient player.

Apparently, the ukulele is not just for Hawaii’ an music. It is quite conducive to playing not only jazz, be-bop, folk, the blues, but Jawaiian, rock, rap, and classical music, as well. Just about everyone from the Beatles to Bo Diddley has played and composed for the ukulele, not withstanding the 1960s jokey repertoire of Tiny Tim—Tiptoe Through the Tulips—and the various spots on the Lawrence Welk show. I am now learning that the greater players include Ernest Ka'ai, May Singhi Breen, Roy Smeck, Jake Shimaburkur, and Julia Nunes—just to name a few of the more famous ukulele virtuosos.

It's not that I would want to be included at some point amongst them, but since I've been known to have written the lyrics and some music for a few songs of my own—especially for my many musicals—and have played a few guitar gigs in my much younger days, I, with the help of Alistair Wood and his book written for dumbed-down neophytes like me, would certainly like to give it a whirl.

*© 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, West Sussex, England. 338 pgs; ppbk. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Chichester, West Sussex, England. Available on amazon.com and through Dummies.com.
5:08 pm edt          Comments

Monday, July 23, 2012

Literary Opera  

The Blue Ridge Parkway, wending its 469-mile way from Rockfish, Virginia down to the northern tip of North Carolina, is the most beautiful stretch of highway in the United States. Winding through the Appalachian Mountains as it borders the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, it offers spectacular, panoramic views of green fir-capped mountains and cloud-wisped valleys that are graced with many, many local legends, myths, mysteries, secrets, and folklore. The mountains abound in history, playing an on-going prominent role in the founding, settling, and growth of our country. To capture the true flavor of what lies between and amongst the ridges of these mountains, you not only have to visit them, you have to delve into the non-fictional accounts of many generations. More importantly, you need to read the fictional narratives that are inspired by the beauty, majesty, and mystery of the mountains.

Charles Frazier grew up in these hills of North Carolina, where he still lives with his family, raising horses and writing novels. I was first introduced to his work via his first novel, Cold Mountain, based upon the experiences of his great-great-grandfather and great-great-uncle during the Civil War. First published in 19971, it was listed as one of the top ten reads suggested by the New York Times Sunday Book Review and randomly selected as the July 1998 read for a local book club of which, at the time, I was a member. We had no clue what it was about, but the title sounded interesting and the cover looked intriguing enough—so we gave it a go. The next meeting, we unanimously admitted that we were all hooked from the very first page; not one of us could put it down. Halfway through its first scenic descriptions of the Appalachian Mountains, in which most of the action takes place, I dubbed it the "great American opera of literature" and, after a lively discussion during the group's follow-up session, admitted that I was a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Frazier fan. When will his next book be out? I just couldn't wait.

But, sadly, I had to. And, subsequently, lost a bit of interest in the author.

Nine years later, Thirteen Moons was published2, after Cold Mountain was made into a movie, released in December of 2003 starring Jude Law (Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada), and Renée Zellweger, who won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Ruby. Naturally, I saw the movie when it first came out, loved it—crying all the way through—and bought the 2005 two-disc Collector's Edition DVD to watch it for at least the next three months over and over again3. I still hadn't read Thirteen Moons, although now I have added it to my end-of-summer reading list.

However, Frazier's second novel, apparently a sequel to his first—a National Book award winner—was not as well received. A few critics called it "American hokely-dokely" while others found it a bit trite and "over done"; although it, too, had a brief listing on the New Times Bestseller List. Some suggested it was just as an equally amazing read as Cold Mountain, and it is to these critics that I am trusting my later August reading fate. Thirteen Moons was a generous gift from a neighbor a few years back and, truth to say, has, until now, graced the shelf next to my copy of Cold Mountain, having succumbed to the dearth of my waning interest in its author.

And then, aha!—at last!—just last year, along came Nightwoods, which instantly became one of the many choice reads in my Christmas Box of Books. It was selected because of two book reviews; one in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the other in a now issue of The New Yorker Magazine. Besides, it had come up as a "suggestion for June" when I had signed on to amazon.com AND it was by Charles Frazier, by whom I was so enamored a mere fifteen years ago. I clicked on the link, and saw that, yes, indeed, it did look like a winner of a read. And so, I added it to my 2011 Christmas collection4.

Nightwoods since last December has sat in my every growing stack of "books-to-read" on top of the vinyl record credenza in my living room until yesterday morning when, after finishing the New York Times Sunday Crossword over breakfast, realized I needed a break from my steady month-long diet of Jennifer Chiaverini (Elm Creek Quilts novels) and Jennifer Winspear (the Maisie Dobbs mystery series) and that I had, indeed, promised to write a posting about Frazier for a July blog entry. And thus I has hoping, as I settled in with it after a lengthy jaunt around the neighborhood with our Basset, that this would be yet another great Frazier read, remembering the intellectual and inspiring joy I had in reading—and watching—Cold Mountain, yet recalling the somewhat biased disappointing reviews of Thirteen Moons. And, true to Frazier form, thank goodness, it was.

I was heartened and please to discover that Charges Frazier has over the years matured in his writing. He is just as lyrical of his descriptions of the Appalachian Mountains—of which he is so enamored (and rightly so)—as in his previous works, but uses them more poignantly as a mystically mysterious background to this, his latest intriguing tale, blossoming him into an end-of-the seat, nerves-almost-on-end writer. You just can't put the novel down without wanting to desperately know what will come next. Nightwoods, as I gluttony ingested yesterday afternoon, evening, and most of today, is a purely pristinely enjoyable melding of Stephen King's best with the finer strains of Mozart's operas. Add a dash of Wagner, and a soup çon of Alfred Hitchcock, and you have a great American operatic drama set in the higher realmed arena of the mountains of North Carolina.

I admit I am not so sure into what genre to place this great read. It is not a horror story, per se, although terror oozes out of each of its pages. It is not altogether a romance, although two of its main characters all too willingly and all too quickly fall in love despite desperate backgrounds. It is not even mainly a historical novel, although it is set in the era between World War II and the budding conscientiousness-raising turmoil of the late 1960s, with the many requisite references thereof. It is neither certainly not a roman à clef nor a memoir, nor either is it a classic mystery. No, it is not any one of these, but a finely seasoned motley stewed combination of all of them. It is, in fact, a great American literary opera, true to Frazier form, just like his very first offering to the reading world.

Here is Luce, a recluse, almost a hermit heroine living in an abandoned mountain lodge who takes custody of the twin children of her murdered sister. The children do not talk to anyone, yet communicate between themselves in a bizarre form of both sign and vocal language. Add the murderer, Bud, the father of the twins; Stubblefield, the inherited owner of the lodge and surrounding lands; Maddie, an elderly neighbor, the owner of Sally, the wonder pony; and Lit, the local sheriff, who is, to add a bit of spice to the olla, Luce's estranged father. Mix these in with Frazier's brilliant, linear plot line and more-than-life-like characterizations and interactions and you have the makings of a really enjoyable, cannot-put-it-down novel that will carry you wide-eyed through a sleepless evening on through the longer spell-binding wee hours of an awe-struck morning. I do not know if Frazier intended this to be a tear-jerking romantic, suspenseful mystery, com historically hysterical thriller, but, in all intents and purposes, it is. In the grandest operatic sense of its words.

Consider the works of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini and Wagner, which, needless to say, always enthrall me. If I could put these three novels—hoping Thirteen Moons is just as equal to the task—of Frazier's into similar music, they surely would equally enthrall, resound, and echo within and throughout the hallowed and cherished halls of my literary theater. Which, in fact, they already have.

This is American literary opera, indeed, at its best.
1 © 1977 by Charles Frazier. 356 pgs hdbk. First Edition. The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY.
© 2006 by 3 Crows Corporation. 420 pgs hdbk. First Edition. Random House, New York, NY.
3 This will be tonight's entertainment after I post this entry, have a bit of dinner, and take FrankieB for his evening constitutional between the raindrops of the casually fleeting thunderstorms that are bumbling overhead. Much like those in Nightwoods.
4 © 2011 by 3 Crows Corporation. 259 pgs hdbk. First Edition. Random House, New York, NY.

4:44 pm edt          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,