February 2008


brewster placeI’ve always loved African-American female writers (I went through a Terry McMillan phase, toting Waiting To Exhale around high school, a Zora Neale Hurston phase, but especially Tell My Horse, her book about Haitian voodoo, and so on), but I’d never gotten around to reading The Women Of Brewster Place (although I’m pretty sure I read Naylor’s Mama Day).

I first heard of it at 10, when the 1989 TV miniseries came out, starring Oprah Winfrey and (huzzah!) Jackee Harry. As a devotee of 227, anything with La Harry caught my eye, and I remember begging my mom to let me watch it.

I don’t remember being able to follow it, although the finale, where the women tear down the wall that’s turned Brewster Place into a dead-end, really moved me. It was then–and still is, in the book–a powerful image: a community of African-American women rising up together to pull down a symbol of oppression.

I couldn’t put this book down. It was a quick, accessible read with a lot of power behind it, but it lacked a certain element that would’ve truly made it exceptional: “soaring prose,” as my grad school friend Stefan always said. Gloria Naylor’s a talented writer (and won the National Book Award for First Fiction with this one), but her writing is a little flat: instead of lifting you up with poetry, she prefers to glide closer to earth with characters and action carrying the weight. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that I can’t fall in love with her writing. But, we can go out every so often for coffee, which is better in some ways!

The book’s fantastic, though, and is broken up into seven stories (with an opener “Dawn” and a closer “Dusk”).

  • Mattie Michael – A farm girl who gets pregnant and is sent away to live in the city. Her son grows up sheltered and selfish…with tragic results for them both.
  • Etta Mae Johnson – Mattie’s friend, a flashy, sexually self-confident woman who’s made a living off dating the right (and wrong) men. She makes one last attempt to nab a prestigious marriage, but meets her match.
  • Kiswana Browne – A young radical from a wealthy family who’s working to organize a neighborhood association, and struggling to reconcile her beliefs with what she perceives as the selling-out of her black Republican parents.
  • Lucielia Louise Turner – An abused wife whose husband’s cruelty forces her to seek an abortion…and who suffers another, even greater loss.
  • Cora Lee – Obsessed with babies, she has an enormous amount of wild kids with rotten teeth and truancy issues, she is temporarily inspired to become a better mother and person by Kiswana, but can’t break the cycle.
  • The Two – A lesbian couple–one shy, one bold–who draw the ire of a nosy neighbor, and (horrifically) the violence of some young thugs.
  • The Block Party – The death knell for Brewster Place sounds when the neighborhood women, assembled for a fundraising party, break down during a freak rainstorm, unleashing their frustration and fury with the pain and unfairness of their lives by tearing down a wall.

The lives of these women is mirrored by Brewster Place itself: a once-prosperous apartment building, that with age, neglect and the efforts of the wealthy city council, is left to struggle with no resources other than its denizens. Their stories give the book its power: Mrs. Browne’s speech about why Kiswana was given her birth name, Melanie; Etta Mae realizing that her friendship with Mattie was a love that wouldn’t betray her; Cora Lee’s brief glimpse of salvation for herself and her children.

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place. They came, they went, grew up, and grew old beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.

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boleynIn real life, Anne Boleyn was a brave, intelligent woman who had the audacity to speak her mind, and the misfortune to live at a time when the full extent of her gifts had to be used for political intrigues to boost her family’s (and her own) prestige and power. You know, instead of running the country herself, which she would have probably done a good job of, despite her huge unpopularity (stemming in great part from the rampant antifeminism of the time), she had to settle for manipulating a fickle, pampered king. (Mom?)

The movie, The Other Boleyn Girl, presents Anne as a shrewd and ruthless woman with limitless ambition, but without focusing on the full range of her impact and intelligence. (Sexual power games do play better on the big screen than religious reform.) Her sister, the forgotten-to-history Mary Boleyn, here (as in the Philippa Gregory book, which I didn’t love) is presented as more a woman of the times: kinder and simpler and perfectly happy to abide by the king’s whims. Through their alternating rising and falling fortunes, Anne’s betrayals of Mary and Mary’s devotion to Anne, a picture of Tudor life in Henry VIII’s court emerges.

It’s a fascinating time, one that changed history forever (thanks, in great part, to the machinations of Anne, born out of a lifelong interest in religious reform acquired in the French court and also the universal-in-the-Tudor-world desire for power), but the movie doesn’t quite have the enormous emotional impact it could have, based on the subject matter. Hell, Anne is destroyed in the end by the corrupt system she rose to rule: betrayed by her family, her husband and her society, she’s beheaded in front of a crowd that includes Mary. This should be the stuff of epic drama. Instead, it’s sad, but in a “Mom, do you have a Kleenex? After this, let’s go to Chick-Fil-A” type way.

Playing the sisters, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are both great, and I think the film will go a long way in adding luster to their careers. Visually, they’re a great match: Portman’s dark intelligence vs. Johansson’s more dreamy-eyed blonde, and the script gives them some excellent back-and-forths. Their scenes together are the best in the film.

That said, I think that Natalie Portman had an impossible task, and although I loved her in the movie, the challenge of truly channeling a maligned, misunderstood historical figure is a little bit too much. A great deal of that is probably the movie’s attempts to stay accessible to all audiences–with more of a glossy surface approach, there’s not many opportunities for her to disappear into the character. Although you feel for her (especially during a horrible rape scene, her trial and her final scene), it’s hard to forget that you’re watching Natalie Portman.

Scarlett Johansson fares better, probably because of how, lost to history, Mary Boleyn is pretty much a fictional construct. Quiet and emotionally complex, she internalizes everything around her instead of firing off sharp bon mots like Anne, and this mystery makes all the difference. Johansson’s is the performance of the film, and my respect for her (one of my favorite actresses) increased tenfold after seeing it. As we left the theater, my friend and I were discussing how she almost seemed to physically look different than she normally does–she truly becomes a living, breathing character different from her 21st century self.

Eric Bana’s hot, yes, and looks good shirtless, boffing ScarJo and wearing the shoulder-padded linebacker-y clothes, but this isn’t his story. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as the strong-minded mother of the Boleyn girls, who comments (a little anachronistically, but thankfully) on the action from a feminist viewpoint. And whoever played Katherine of Aragaon: could that Penelope Cruz-accented-broad ever monologue! (It’s all she speaks in.) And the costumes are amazing–I wish women today wore the same headbands/crowns/tiaras that they do in the flick. I wish I wore them!

While I really enjoyed the movie, it suffered from the same problem so many other historical epics do: not trusting the real story to be interesting enough on its own terms. Instead of showing the real Anne, an intensely polarizing figure of her time who nonetheless exercised amazing power in England and abroad, it presents us a simpler version: the rise and fall of a scheming vixen. 

 Tudor England was definitely a difficult place to be a strong woman, and I applaud the woman-positive slant the movie takes. There’s a fire in Mary’s eyes after Anne dies, and she grabs her baby and marches towards the camera, hellbent on escaping the court, and it ends on a lovely, forward-looking note that vindicates Anne. After showing the fates of several of the main characters, it ends with a shot of children playing in a field and a sentence like this: “Henry did have an heir, who would rule for 45 years: the strong, red-haired daughter Anne gave him: Elizabeth.” Nice.

Anne herself is a more than worthy mother to her more-famous daughter. She lived in times that were harsh to all women, especially ones who attempted to affect change, but one of the most amazing things about Anne is that she did what few have truly done–successfully pulled off a revolution.

So, while I liked the movie a lot, the other “Other Bolyen Girl” is the one who’s the most interesting: the real-life Anne Boleyn.

latoya“Today, La Toya is her own woman and a superstar in her own right. To be both she had to pay her dues. This book is her final installment.” 

 Umm, what?  

I remember watching some talk show during the ’80s or ’90s…maybe it was Donahue (OMG, Donahue), and La Toya Jackson was the guest. She was wearing some horrible black outfit, all straps and studs, and her face was incredibly pale, corpse-like and overly angular. (So you know, a typical weekday look for a Jackson.)

I don’t remember what she was promoting–maybe this book–but the “interview” consisted of her just sharing Jackson family secrets to the outrage of the audience.

“Janet? Oh, she’s married,” La Toya said, and everyone in the audience (myself included) was like, wh-wh-WHAAAT?

Yes, the audience was outraged, but mostly because they wanted to hear more secrets. As she revealed each “shocker,” people could get worked up over her selling out, but only after they’d heard all the good stuff.

Anyway, I had never read the world-shattering tell-all, La Toya: Growing Up In The Jackson Family, and decided to check it out, and it was more than readable–I tore through the entire thing in one afternoon.

Before I get into what I really thought, I have to share THE. BEST. STORY. EVER. of the wacky Jacksons. During a section where Toy Toy talks about scary fan encounters the family had, she mentions a morning they woke up to find a crazy woman back by their swimming pool, toppling solid-marble statues and turning on all the gas valves. When she saw the family watching her:

[She] lifted her skirt, and in a deranged voice declared, “My name is Pussy, and I’m gonna give it to all of you! All of you! And I hate you! Because you’re close to Michael!”

Lifting her skirt! A deranged voice! “My name is Pussy”! Give that broad a reality show.

Anyway, I’ve always liked La Toya. The camp value of her Psychic Friends Network, the camp value of her name, the camp value of her being the craziest of a really crazy family…she makes an easy punchline. And yet, I’ve always hoped she’d have a breakthrough of sorts: a big musical hit or a movie role or something to vindicate her. Her resilience though, is impressive–she’s managed to have a career over the last 30-or-so years without ever having a hit.

But let’s back up a second. This book came out in the early ’90s, before the child molestation charges. The most shocking thing that La Toya alleges (besides some unflattering swipes at Janet) is that her father abused them all, and her mother enabled it. Sad, yes, but in terms of Jackson family scandal, the worst was yet to come.

Well written and quickly paced (more thanks to Patricia Romanowski, the “co-writer,” no doubt), La Toya comes across as sweet and kind-hearted, which I would guess is pretty accurate. What isn’t accurate, looking back through the lens of history, is a great deal of the perspective and perhaps even some of the events.

There are a couple of awesome stories in here, including how Paula Abdul and Jackie Jackson began an affair, and La Abdul had decided to confront his wife. She welcomed her in, and then tied Paula to a chair and began screaming at her. Paula only escaped when MC Skat Kat showed up with an assault rifle. Just kidding–she convinced the wife that she thought Jackie was single.

 The other great story occurs when La Toya goes to Phil Spector’s house. After locking her in and having his butler repeatedly ask her if she wants to go to the bathroom (apparently he has peepholes in there), she wanders around and starts browsing in the library. As she does, she notices that the paintings have their eyes cut out, and Phil’s staring at her through them!

She tries to leave, but Phil comes in and out five times, each time affecting a different voice and accent, and finally brandishes a motel key, telling her that it’s the key to the Bates Motel. Sheltered La Toya has never seen Psycho, so he fails to scare her, and instead, he rushes to the piano and starts banging it discordantly  and demanding that she sing. (How Ursula!)

“But Phil, I don’t know the melody–”

Sing!” So I sang, any notes that came into my head, while Phil stamped his foot to keep time and raved at the top of his voice, “We’re gonna make good work together! We’re gonna be the best team ever! Your fucking brother Michael is nothing! He has no talent! I’ll show him! Everything he’s done is shit!”

After a lot of this, she talks him into letting her go to her car for a second, and then she peels out for the gate. Phil tries to shut her in, but she escapes. If this is true (and I’d believe it is), how can anyone doubt Phil murdered Lana Clarkson?

Anyway, Jack Gordon, La Toya’s manager/husband/all-around bad guy is presented as a friend, nothing more, who is trying to prevent the Jacksons from kidnapping La Toya and returning her to live a virtual prisoner. We know now that Gordon, with his mob ties, rap sheet and possible murders (!!!), supposedly brainwashed Toy Toy and forced her to do things she didn’t want to that harmed to her career (probably irreparably) and her relationship with her family (happily, not so). (Although, she did do the Playboy spread and wore that fantastic earring on the cover, but whatev.)

She’s said since that her forced her to include false details in this book, and reading about the “kidnapping” attempts by her family to extricate her from Gordon’s clutches, you see that the story presented isn’t the truth.

But that’s always been a gray area for La Toya: since this book, she’s sold out her family and especially her brother, Michael, but there’s always a reason: she did it under duress from Gordon, to gain a modicum of freedom from her incredibly repressive family, etc. I believe that.

The tragedy of La Toya Jackson (a great title!) is that she’s never really done anything on her own, anything that she can claim is solely her accomplishment, anything that she hasn’t explained away later.

She worries about being treated like a child by her family–and it seems that that’s the case, since her mother leans on her as a “best friend”–but that still seems to be the case. There’s a sweetness and delicacy to La Toya that’s both attractive and sad. Without the fire and independence of some of her other siblings (i.e. Janet), she never really broke away on her own, to fail or succeed on her own terms, and instead, she wasted her credibility and talent (small or large) on a series of low-budget, low-quality projects.

She has a sweet voice, and there’s a definite charm to some of her videos, especially this one. (I absolutely love it.) Sure, she’s not the best singer in the world, but neither is Janet, and with the right songs, she could’ve notched a couple minor hits. 

In 2004, under the name “Toy,” she released this song, which actually kinda almost charted (on the Hot Dance/Club Play chart, but still), and seemed to point at the fact that maybe she had found her niche, finally. Sadly, the album (optimistically titled Startin’ Over) has never been released. She grabbed the national spotlight again in 2007 when the reality show Armed & Famous seemed on the verge of taking off (and this clip was getting huge laughs and responses), but the show was canceled after just two episodes.

I’m still hoping for a huge La Toya comeback. Every year it gets more doubtful, but as The Church Of La Toya’s “Toy Soldiers” might say, don’t ever count Toy Toy down. Still, it’s sad that someone positioned so well to make it in the entertainment industry, with performing talent and so truly beautiful (check out her pre-surgery pics), never lived up to her potential.

The most poignant moment of it-might-have-been occurs in the book when La Toya, reflecting on what a sheltered, innocent young woman she was, talks about meeting Prince at a roller-skating party. We all know Prince is a fan of thin-voiced beauties, and helped some of them achieve fantastic music. La Toya would’ve been the perfect Prince protege, and who knows what they might have accomplished together.

Still, even though it represents a lost opportunity for Toy Toy, it does reflect how truly sweet and naive she was in the early ’80s, probably wearing that horrible headband and looking gorgeous.

Shortly after Prince released “Soft and Wet,” he shyly introduced himself to me at a roller-skating party. “Hi.”

“Hi,” I said nonchalantly.

“I’m Prince.”

“Yes, I know.” There was no mistaking his large brown eyes, downy moustache, and straight black hair. Although I was sitting down to put on my skates, he was barely my height.

“I just want you to know that I’m madly in love with you,” he whispered passionately.

“Oh.” I thought this was his way of complimenting someone. I had no idea of his real intentions until he said, “I have all your pictures and everything, and I like everything about you.” His voice trailed off as if he had run out of words.

“Oh…that’s nice.”

Most girls would have kissed him or slapped him. Me? I stood up, offered a cheery “Well, hope you have a nice time tonight!” and skated off.

coverI loved whenever my parents would go out and my sister and I would get a babysitter. Suddenly, our house seemed new and exciting—who knew what kind of adventures we’d have while they were gone? Although this never happened, it was just exciting to have a babysitter: someone young enough to know all the pop culture references we loved, but also just old enough to be a little mysterious and cool. “Wow…Kat McNiel goes to HIGH SCHOOL! She has a BOYFRIEND! She went and saw Vibes in the theater and painted her room walls…BLACK!”

 

My parents, sweet and loving as they were, just didn’t have the same mystique that the Beastie Boys-loving Kat did when she’d show up on our doorstep (she drove!!) with the board game Sorry! under her arm and wearing a fedora. We’d sit around the kitchen table, playing, while she’d turn on the radio or MTV (forbidden when my dad was around), and my sister and I would just kind of stare lovingly at her: she was the coolest girl we’d ever seen.

 

One of the reasons why I love, love, love Eating Ice Cream With A Werewolf (besides the title) is that it reminds me of those days so strongly.

 

When Brad and Nancy Gowan’s parents go to Bermuda, they leave their kids in the care of wacky babysitter Phoebe Hadley, who brings along Dr. Curmudgeon’s Book Of Magic. Spells, zaniness and surprisingly touching moments follow. I always really identified with Brad to the point where I really felt like this book could have been about me. He’s quirky and goofy with a sweet, sensitive side. He struggles with the fact that he’s different from his former athlete father, he loves and takes care of his little sister (who’s inherited said athleticism) and he’s got a great, wry sense of humor. Okay, maybe an idealized version of me. Also: they live in Madison, Wisconsin.

 

The mother is a housewife/freelancer writer who hates housework (more inspiration!). What aspiring writer can’t identify with this passage:

When she sells a story, she throws her arms into the air and exclaims, “I may be a failure as a housewife, but I’m a success as an author!”

Whenever I enjoy a small success with writing (such as actually doing it), I feel that way: my life and apartment may be a shambles, but the dream’s alive!! This book inspired me then (and now) to want to be a writer, maybe, even to write kids’ books (I hope) as wonderful as this.

 

werewolf2Brad walks to school with his older, friend/semi-crush Julie Bugle, and he tells her about their previous adventures with Phoebe:

  • Cooking for crowds, which ended up with Nancy covered in cookie dough
  • Judo lessons, where she flipped the mailman
  • First aid, where she bandaged Brad so tightly they had to go to the emergency room to have him cut out
  • Lifeguarding, where she kept throwing Brad in the water to save him

Sadly, there are no pre- or sequels to this book, so these other adventures only exist in the mind. I have always wished that Phyllis Green would’ve written another book about these characters. This time, Phoebe shows up in a lavender jumpsuit, matching cape and huge purple tote bag. “I’m a mod, part-time witch,” she says, and pulls out a stuffed cat (she’s allergic).

 

Over the few nights they’re together, Phoebe and Brad cast:

  • A picnic spot spell
  • A barnyard spell
  • An ice cream spell
  • A boyfriend spell…or is it a WEREWOLF spell?!

werewolf3The title comes in while they’re casting a boyfriend spell (for Phoebe, sadly, and not Brad. Meh!), and get interrupted. When Phoebe resumes, she accidentally casts the spell on the opposite page, which Brad realizes is a werewolf spell!There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a hugely muscled delivery man named Ned with two tubs of vanilla-fudge ice cream. He’s a grad student at the university and Ned and Phoebe start falling for each other…even as Brad realizes how wolf-like Ned looks. Could it be that he’s a w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-WEREWOLF?! (If so, he’s a sexy one.)

 

While my heart will always belong to Kat McNiel, Phoebe’s pretty freaking charming herself. She owns a plant shop called Fortunes & Fernery (she used to do free tarot card readings for patrons until they all started coming true) and names her flowers. She grew up rich in Philadelphia, but left it all to experience life…sadly becoming estranged from her family in the process.

“I just want to be happy,” she’ll say. “There are lots of things I want to do in the world. I want to do them all. I won’t go home and be little Miss Post-Debutante.”

While I was never anywhere close to that kind of life, I really could relate to the idea of needing to go out into the world on my own to find happiness and (I hoped) myself. Most gay kids who grow up in small towns do, I think.

 

There’s a really touching scene where Nancy wants Brad and Phoebe to play telephone with her. Nancy pulls out her pink plastic phone and pretends to call her parents and a series of relatives, friends and neighbors. When Brad puts her to bed (punishing her for making him play along by reading her a couple pages of Macbeth for a bedtime story), he comes back into the living room to see Phoebe holding the toy phone in her lap, dialing it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, startled.

“Making a phone call,” she said, straight-faced.

I decided to humor her. “Who are you calling?” I asked.

“My father.”

It’s her dad’s 49th birthday (so young, I think now), and, into the plastic phone, she tells him she loves him and it’s pretty damn poignant without being over-the-top at all. Brad is moved by this, and finally says aloud how he’s afraid that his lack of athleticism disappoints his father.

werewolf4Another emotional (but gracefully executed) moment occurs when Phoebe, Brad and Nancy all go to the zoo and see some marabou storks. Brad notices one in particular (Phoebe names him Hepzibah) who’s trying hard to fly, but one of his wings has been clipped. (While Phoebe and Brad are discussing living up to their parents’ expectations, Phoebe says, “I guess they want to take me back to Philadelphia and clip my wings. Like Hepzibah…[but] Hepzibah and I keep flapping!”) Brad decides to make Hepzibah wings that work out of old kites and tin foil and some other household supplies, but Phoebe gently tells him that the stork is in the best place for him. They go out for pizza, but later that night, after Nancy is in bed, he finds her putting on the wings. She helps him get into a pair of his own, and he asks what they’re going to do.

“Fly! We’re going to fly!” Phoebe said.

So we got dressed in the wings, and looking like two people-birds, we jumped off our front porch stoop and flapped as hard as we could. Neither one of us got airborne, but we had a fun time trying.

I love that image so much. Like that moment, the entire book is so understated, never overdoing the is-it-real-or-not aspect of the spells or the real emotion. Instead, Green gracefully pulls this all together with a charm and humor that appealed equally to the young boy I was and the man I am. Patti Stren’s illustrations play a huge part in this—charming and squiggly, they’re the perfect complement to the gentle cleverness of the book (even though I wish there weren’t spelling errors in her captions!). The book wouldn’t be complete without them. As it is, it’s beautiful and practically perfect in a quirky, sweet way that perfectly encapsulates something so personal and emotional to me.

werewolf5Phoebe and Brad part ways in a brief, tender, wordless scene, and the Gowans return. The book ends on a forward-looking note when they mention they’re going on vacation next spring, and they’ll need Phoebe again, to which Brad wonders what her hobby will be then.

Me too.

There we were that warm Sunday night, 16 of us, remedial students in the college of love; in danger of dropping out or failing.

We’d come for help to Babeland, a classy sex toy boutique on Melrose, where a love letter writing workshop promise to recharge our dying romantic batteries.

Nervously, we shuffled around a platter of vegetables and sipped Yellowtail champagne out of plastic cups; we asked shyly if a seat were taken. We sat in plastic chairs around tables; we pretended not to stare at the large collection of riding crops and whips hanging on one wall.

“I want to write with that pen,” I whispered to my friend Z, pointing to what looked like a loooooong black writing utensil with a fluffy, purple plume on one end. It would be the perfect thing to pen a love letter, and I had visions of using it at work, too.

“That’s not a pen,” he whispered back. “It’s a French tickler.”

We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Our teacher swept in, setting her iced chai down on a shelf next to some fuzzy handcuffs, and adjusting her tight green top. Her mighty cleavage strained to burst out; it added to the air of mystery, of anticipation surrounding her.

“My name is Midori,” she said, and we all sat there, taking her in: the artful blonde streaks in her brown hair, the thigh-high black vinyl lace-up boots, the sexy librarian glasses. “Artist. Author. Sex educator.”

“Feeling desired is the number one aphrodisiac,” she continued, adjusting her glasses like a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. “What does it take to feel desired?”

No one raised their hand, and Midori looked at us sympathetically: truly, we needed help.

She held up a piece of paper, and drew a line down the middle. She instructed us to title one half “Terms Of Endearment” and the other “What You Adore About Your Lover.” As we set to work, she walked among us, sharing thoughts and tossing out suggestions.

“Write everything, from the twin spectrums of fuzzy, puppy love to wild, weird, gonzo sex,” she said. “Use words that are true and authentic to you.”

I struggled to come up with a list of pet names I’ve said, both in seriousness and jest: duckling, babe, sugar, parakeet tail.

“My tentacled love monster!” Midori trilled, moving her hands around as if she could manipulate the energy in the room—and it was as if she could. “I am a fan of anime, so this is a major term of endearment.”

I looked at the other half of my paper. It was surprisingly difficult to think of a list of traits I loved in my boyfriend, even though I’m sure I knew one or two.

“If you’ve been with a partner for a long time,” she said, as if reading my mind (and perhaps she could!), “think back to the first six weeks when things were hot and heavy. You know, when you two couldn’t pass a dark alley without disappearing into it.”

She paused, and gave a worldly little chuckle.

“Been there, right?”

We all sighed in agreement—yes, at one time, we had eagerly enrolled in romance, knowing just what we were doing.

As we scribbled eagerly, she gave us more headers, more suggestions and tips on how to link them all. When we’d all filled two full pages, Midori took a sip of her tea and started suggesting creative methods of delivery.

“There’s origami. Why not turn your love note into a jigsaw puzzle? You could mail each piece separately,” she said, and we struggled to keep up with her flow as we took notes. “Get a fancy French lemonade bottle, wrap your note in ribbon, toss in some confetti. Sneak little notes into their briefcases, their pockets, their purses. Make a little flip book animation of hearts. Slip a fake page into their favorite magazine. Create your own fortune cookies!”

Midori tossed out ideas worthy of our finest romantic comedies, a master creating her art, faster and faster, like the part in The Little Mermaid when all the magical bottles and ingredients are flying into Ursula’s cauldron. The very air in the room had changed as she spoke; we were becoming something other than we had been before.

We were hopeless, all of us, but Midori molded us quickly and with authority.

“Can I start my love letter with, ‘Hey bitch’?” a shy girl volunteered.

“Terms of endearment are distinctly personal,” Midori said warmly.

“I don’t know what to say after ‘Dear Chocolate Bunny, I love the way we made out in the back of my van…’” a guy trailed off.

“How about,” Midori thought for a second, her eyes shining. “‘Longingly, until we find each other in another backseat’?”

“What would you say to someone who just broke up with you, but you want to get back with them, even though they have a violent temper and you’re already dating another man?” a girl in a cheerleader uniform asked. “Oh, and you want to convey a top/bottom power dynamic?”

“Thank you all for coming out tonight,” Midori said, smiling at us proudly.

It was like Dead Poets Society, except with vibrators and sexy mad libs.

“Does a love note need to be wordy?” she asked, and we looked at each other, before the bravest among us spoke out: “No!”

She smiled, nodding slowly. We were getting it!

“Does a love note need to be expensive?”

“No!” more of us called out.

“It’s up to you to update and maintain your ingredient lists. Some will work better than others,” she said triumphantly as we cheered. “Whatever you do, be sincere and authentic!”

We stood and applauded our mistress, love rejects no more.

“Romance is easy. Be creative and have fun,” she said with a mysterious smile and the barest hint of a wink. The hints she had given us were just the tip of her vast iceberg of knowledge; we could admire Midori but we could never truly know all her secrets.

She picked up a huge plate of candy: our transformation had left us starving, but, as always, Midori was prepared.

“Chocolates, anyone?”

bornstandingupWho doesn’t like Steve Martin?

I’ve loved him in many of his later period movies (Roxanne, Housesitter and, once upon a time, Three Amigos!) but have never seen The Jerk. (“You’ve never seen The Jerk?!”) He’s very likable, sharp-witted, classy and I kind of thought Bringing Down The House was funny…I know, I know.

When it came to his stand-up comedy, though, I didn’t quite get it. I remember watching a performance of him doing “King Tut” on a Saturday Night Live rerun, and not understanding what was so funny about “he’s my favorite honkey!”

I knew that he was a talented writer–Shopgirl was slight but beautifully done–and I stayed up until early morning to finish Born Standing Up, his memoir of (mostly) his stand-up comedy years.

Written in his classic smooth, eloquent style (you can imagine him reading it quite easily), the book describes his strained relationship with his strange, angry, distant father. It talks about how he worked at Disneyland for most of his childhood right up until he was a teenager, and how he transitioned smoothly from an aspiring magician to an aspiring performer. (Comedian is too narrow a word: he sings, plays banjo, tells jokes and does a few funny tricks, including an “exploding dove” and a “bouncing baby rabbit.”)

Unsurprising, the road to megastardom was as “dark and twisty” as Dr. Meredith Grey, and even though we know how it all turned out, Martin’s gift is for making you care what happens to him. A touching sequence at the end sees him, hugely successful with a smash movie (The Jerk, of course), yet unable to get his father’s approval and burnt out, returning to the playhouse at Knott’s Berry Farm where performing was still carefree fun.

The comedy bits he mentions are both weird and wonderful: I laughed out loud at many of the bits he’d do onstage, because his persona as a comic was quite different from the affable, white- haired dad-of-Hilary Duff in Cheaper By The Dozen: mean-spirited, smart and quite (yes) jerky. He did comedy his way: stupid/smart but brilliant, and he deserves all the success he’s enjoyed.

I loved this book and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you love comedy or Steve Martin. Its appeal is summed up for me in the cover image: wearing bunny ears and his trademark white suit, a fuzzy-looking Steve seems to lean up against something onstage: dapper and foolish and charming and quirky and off-kilter all at once.

happybirthdaymrspwWhen I was checking all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books out of the library, I noticed a title that I had never heard before: Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Could there have been another sequel I had never known about? I checked it out from the library and, in my car outside, flipped through it. Apparently it’s based around one “lost” story Betty MacDonald wrote, and then the rest are written “from her notes” by her daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham.

It was bad.

Not horribly bad, but charmless, like a bad Saturday morning cartoon of a book you loved as a kid: the same basic plots, some of the same characters, but a flatness.

This time around, Mrs. P-W uses a mixture of manipulation, magic tricks and her animal helpers to help children…although the cures feel thin, as if Canham didn’t quite flesh out the notes as much as she should have.

There’s:

  • The Just-One-More-TV-Show Cure – Kitten and Sean Hanover learn not to watch too much TV when Mrs. P-W babysits and “forces” them to watch so much that they get sick, sleepy and miss out on fun with friends.
  • The Won’t-Brush-Teeth Cure – My “Radish Cure”-hating teacher is having a laugh now: I found this disgusting. Betsy Applebee won’t brush her teeth (and food keeps getting stuck in between her choppers), until Wag the dog (totally ripping off the table manners cure with Lester the pig) teaches her brushing is fun. Sure it is, dear.
  • The Insult Cure – Blake Branson keeps insulting everyone, so Mrs. P-W gives him magic black paper and a pen to write all his zingers down. They come to life and fly above his bed, glowing so brightly he’s shamed into becoming nice.
  • The Picky-Eater Cure – Will Pemberton is picky, so Mrs. P-W gives him magical rainbow crystals to sprinkle on his food to change it into the plainer fare he wants. He gets sick of “plain noodles” and starts eating regularly. He must not have figured out he could have used the crystals to turn his food into something he liked better. Idiot.
  • The Afraid-To-Try Cure – Jonathan Campbell (great name) is too shy to try anything new (basketball, skateboarding, kissing boys), until Mrs. P-W and Lightfoot the cat (always my fave) trick him into gaining confidence in himself by pretending to need his help in rescuing her from atop a tree. (Lightfoot, not the old lady.)
  • The Messy Stuff-And-Cram Cure – Katy McCloud shoves all her stuff under beds and behind drawers, so Mrs. P-W lends her parents some magical paint that turns all her furniture invisible, sending all the clutter to the center of the room, where Katy can easily clean it. Lame-a-rillo.
  • The Never-Finish Cure – Janie Beaumont is given a magic powder that makes her physically unable to drop one task and start another until the first is finished. Yes, Janie. It’s called cocaine. 
  • The 14-And-Pregnant Cure – Kidding!

While there are nice touches in the book (the way the rainbow crystals sizzle; Lightfoot winking at Mrs. P-W after being “rescued”), there are too many downright bad things about it.

The illustrations are HORRENDOUS, for example. Alexandra Boiger has a loose, anime-ish style, and in her hands, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle looks like a deformed hunchback troll, and all the animals and children look either disturbing or vaguely menacing. The drawings are terrible, terrible, terrible.

The book ends with a nice closer, where the neighborhood children and parents throw Mrs. P-W a birthday party, where she gets another letter from her long-dead husband. (His surprise to her? Materials for her to build a new treehouse and vegetable garden! Um…thanks?) It does strike a nice note of finality at the end, where everyone in the town is falling over themselves to cheer Mrs. P-W.

Even though the books are set during the same time period as the originals, this one feels especially outdated. Couldn’t Canham, in her present-day fillip on the classics, do away with the gender-based division of labor and games that persists through the series? It was understandable in the books written in the 1940s, but in a book written in 2007, it’s unforgivable.

This book is a pale echo of the originals–the illustrations themselves are UNBELIEVABLY WRETCHED while the writing is just weak–and leaves me hoping that this is the end of the series.

 But we had some good times while they lasted, didn’t we, Mrs. P-W? Wait…the illustrator was right!!!…you really are a deformed hunchback troll?!

AAAHHH!

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