Book/Film Reviews

"It is impossible to discourage the real writers - they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write." ~ Sinclair Lewis

“Whiplash”–Disturbing or Inspiring?

Clapboard & cinema reel

As Oscar season approaches us again, I want to draw attention to a fine movie that was nominated last year for best picture, an independently made film that had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive critical and box office acclaim. “Whiplash” is the story of a young, talented drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), studying at a music conservatory, and his merciless mentor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose methods of drawing out the best in his students venture into abusive territory (think Simon Cowell with singing contestants, except add blood). Although audience members may sway back and forth between respect and annoyance, and dare I say, amusement at Fletcher’s extreme personality and methods, I know of several people, myself included, who report that the movie ends up inspiring the creativity in us. We need that toughness, I think, to bring out what simply cannot be discovered in us with just family and close friends telling us, “You’re great. You’re the best.” That kind of biased critique is what leads the unsuspecting to embarrass themselves in front of crowds, or to self-publish books that have not been vetted by the professional world.

I always am in favor of accepting honest and helpful, yes, even brutal critique. Of course, it’s hard, but if you want to be a professional, you will have much harder things to deal with in your career than critique that might hurt. Suck it up and take your medicine!

There is a fine line, though, between helpful critique and flat-out abuse. The kind dished out by Fletcher would break the dreams of the most flimsy creators. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. Many who might give up under those circumstances may actually be geniuses in waiting who need not only the brutal critique but also some uplifting encouragement. My feelings about Fletcher’s methods can be summed up by addressing one telling scene near the end of the movie. Fletcher famously says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, ‘Good job.’” I would say that the seven most powerful words in the English language are, “Good job…but it could be better.”

 

“Locks” a Halloween story

Vintage key and letterToday I welcome 15-year-old guest writer Tristan Davis to the Eagle’s Quill. Here is a short Halloween story he wrote entitled “Locks”. Happy Halloween!

Antique books & keys

9:15 at night, a man enters his house, locking the door behind him and putting the key in its designated spot. Just like all the other locks in his house with keys in their own designated spots. He follows a nightly routine that he has had ever since this house became his, which must have been so long ago that it’s as if it has been erased from his memory.

The house never felt like home. It never felt right. He didn’t know why, but it didn’t really matter anymore. A house was a house, his job was a job, and life was life.

It’s 9:30. After reading the paper and eating a small dinner, at 9:45, he prepares himself for sleep. 10:00, the air feels cold tonight, but maybe an extra blanket will help. 10:30 he is lying awake, 11:00 is the same, 11:30 is darker, and 12:00 comes sleep. Nightmares wake him at times during the night, and the sound of his newspaper crashing to the floor downstairs must have been caused by the wind coming through the window last night…wait. Why was the window open last night? This man never forgets to check the windows and doors each night.

Another day happens. The man enters his house, locks the door, puts the key away. Routine again. Now sleep. Late this time: 10:15. The feelings that come during sleep this time are just nonsensical. Sometimes there is that slight change of the air currents which lets a person know of a presence in the room. So why do the air currents tell him there is something blocking the doorway to his room? Something standing in the doorway. Crossing the threshold. No, he can’t open his eyes now; he has to get the needed sleep for tomorrow’s day. But how, when there is company? How can he sleep when there is a small draft tickling his nose? When the draft feels warm, a gross kind of warm, like breath, and starts to feel exactly like breath that maybe it is?

Okay, he opens his eyes and to his surprise is greeted by nothing. Well, of course.

And then a shadow rushes past and the door slams, and why was the door open in the first place?

Another day and he can’t stop thinking. Of his…dream last night. But he knows it wasn’t a dream, that’s just what he is forcing himself to accept it as.

Back in bed at 10:30. Off schedule again. That never happens. Is he losing his punctuality or his mind?

Well, if sleep won’t come then he might as well sit up and read. Scratch that, the lamp is broken. The batteries were replaced three days ago. Maybe he accidentally bought the kind that are only good for three days. And he didn’t know such a battery even existed until now. Wait, not batteries. Light bulbs.

Another day. Not even a blink of sleep last night. He doesn’t leave the house today.

Another night. Now he is constantly shutting that stupid door that keeps opening. He locks it, hurling the key out the window which was already open, but that doesn’t stop this thing that opens the door anyway.

He is losing track of how many days he’s been in this house since he locked himself in, secluding himself from the outside world. But at this point, he can’t comprehend the existence of an outside world.

It’s getting worse.

The man tries to do the unexpected to see how the thing reacts. He unlocks every lock in the house. Doors, chests, cabinets. Then suddenly everything is locked up again, every key back in its designated spot.

Another time (night, day, no difference now), the man hears footsteps running all over the house.

His hair has grown long. He has a full beard and crazy, red eyes that have crusted themselves open.

Eventually the man has turned his whole house upside-down. He has unlocked everything. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Differences maybe? But how can he spot differences now that his house is in complete disorder?

One night, he sees it. The thing is standing right in front of him. Like a person. It is a person, a man who looks unlike anything he had ever seen. Long hair, crazy eyes, and a bullet hole in his forehead. The ghost looks so extremely angry that he would kill someone just to take out his anger.

GET OUT! The ghost is yelling. GET OUT!

The man’s ears are melting, at least he feels like they are. GET OUT! The same words are echoing throughout his brain. His ears are painfully ringing. He is getting cold. He tries to escape his house, but the front door is locked. The key has a designated spot, but it never crosses his mind to look there for it. Maybe the key isn’t even there anyway. Maybe it’s somewhere in the rubble of his house. Or the door is unlocked and he doesn’t have the strength to turn the knob. GET OUT! His head might explode. He crawls his way up to the attic, shutting the door behind him. No time to lock it. The attic reeks of dead bodies. He is focused on only one thing right now. He shuts his eyes as hard as he can while the ringing in his ears continues, takes the gun he grabbed, points it at his forehead, and pulls the trigger.

Everything is gone. The feeling of freedom overwhelms him. He is not a helpless animal anymore, just a ghost. He floats around his attic and realizes he is still in his house. He wanders around, finding that everything is back in order. Everything is locked again and the keys are where they should be. He’s finally alone. Nothing will harm him.

Then he hears someone fumbling with the front door. A man enters, locking the door behind him and putting the key in its designated spot.

Focus on Poetry: “The Elk”

The icy, cold gray post-holiday winter season can be made so much more warm and beautiful with a cozy blanket and a powerful, gracefully written poem. To that end, I bring you “The Elk”, a brand new, original poem by my husband David Davis, who goes by Harley Davis. It’s a fine example of using alliteration and lilting rhythm to conjure up a serene, wild setting and a frozen, magical moment in time. I love how the final stanza brings the reader into the ‘now’, almost making one wonder, did it really happen or was it a dream?

 

Bugling elk in Yellowstone

“The Elk” by Harley Davis

The breaking of crusting snow
and the chill of rushing wind
the clatter of brittle leaves below
I pulled my wrap tighter in.

The frozen moisture of my deep breath
obscures my stealth uneasy walk
it forms a veil upon my chest –
like a winter scarf where warmth is not.

I steal around the weathered wood
too close as a snag takes my arm
now gray from days it has long withstood
in the woods near my grandfather’s farm.

The snag gives a snap and me a start
and a jabbing finger is the thump in my chest
adding threat upon threat to my now racing heart
and angst in this challenging quest.

Yet I find the majestic creature there
and my deep breath is held within
while a snort from the beast parted the air
as a loud unpleasant din.

He raised his massive head my way
I raised my lens to meet his glance
and shuttered to think would spook him away
and lose my stealthy wooded chance

to capture the beast and there mount him
on the wall in the hall of my home
but I shifted my weight on a weathered limb
and at once stood in the deep woods alone.

He sprang into life and targeted me
as the clattering shutter fired on
the view in my finder of him running free
as my words condensed on the air, “he’s gone”

I put two fingers between my teeth
and placed my tongue the way I was taught
the shrill whistle arose beneath
and stopped the beast where he did not

advance deeper into the thicketed wood
and spoil my last and rarest and best
I took aim again and frozen stood
brought the lens slowly down on his chest

and fired the trigger that shattered the air
with shutter-clatter that day in the wood
when I stole the creature’s majestic heir
the image is silent but the memory was good.

That memory now hangs in the hall on the wall
of my cabin near the home of my kin
the beast still reigns and bugles his call
inviting me to come back again.

 

Good Reading for Christmas

Poinsettia card

For those who enjoy my numerous classic book recommendations, here’s one more–Christmas classics, a whole category unto themselves! We’re all familiar with the smorgasbord of inspirational and entertaining holiday movies, so I don’t need to address that, but the holiday season can be an especially fun time to enjoy read-alouds as a family, or private reading as well. And some of these Christmas-themed books are great for catching the Christmas spirit and maintaining it throughout the season. Here are some our family has enjoyed in past years.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg – the book that inspired the movie. It’s a keeper.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson – Let the Herdmans endear themselves to you.

Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge – Does anyone even know about this story anymore? My first introduction to it was when my class performed it for the parents when I was in fourth grade.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Of course, everyone knows this story. Besides live action films, dozens of cartoon characters have performed it as well, but have you ever read it in Dickens’ original words? It’s pretty entertaining. My kids liked it.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry – Okay, this one’s my personal favorite–a short story with a beautiful and memorable message.

Little House Christmases by Laura Ingalls Wilder – my other personal favorite. You can search through all the Little House books for stories of her Christmases, or there is a book in which they are all collected. I love Laura’s humble Christmases and how, despite their simplicity, they were just as fantastic and magical as any Christmas you can imagine.

The Mansion by Henry Van Dyke – especially appropriate to set the mood for the season.

The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck – My husband read this to all of us a few years ago. He doesn’t usually do the reading, so it was a good time with a good story.

The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans – a sentimental favorite for many.

Happy reading, and Merry Christmas!

Remember This Good Courtroom Drama?

Clapboard & cinema reel

My library’s discard shelf has been changed forever. On a particularly lucky day (for me), I cleaned out the shelf of all the John Grisham novels. These weren’t ragged, falling-apart copies; these were hard copies with clean dust jackets in good condition, probably a patron’s donation that the library didn’t need. My life has been elevated because of it.

It put me in mind of the many movies that have been made of Grisham’s books, in particular, the one that made Matthew McConaughey a star. If you haven’t seen this 1996 film, it’s still just as engrossing as it ever was. A Time to Kill is based on Grisham’s first novel, which was rejected by a bevy of publishers and only dusted off once more after he gained a name with later novels.

A Time to Kill, as other Grisham stories, is set in the Deep South, this time targeting the issue of race relations and asking the pointed question, ‘Can an African-American man who has murdered two white men get a fair trial, or even a jury of his peers?’  Of course, it’s not all so simple.  The two dead white males were violent scum to start with and show no remorse for their actions.  Although they committed the initial crime, the rape and attempted murder of the African-American man’s little girl, the issue for debate is, can justice prevail in a situation like this?  Even though vigilantism is against the law, who among us would not entertain the thought of meting out our own punishment if our loved ones were victimized?

That is the position taken by defense attorney Jake Brigance, played by McConaughey. He is incessantly driven by the specter of such a heinous crime befalling his own wife or little daughter, not by cash (what a concept!) which his client, Carl Lee Haley, doesn’t have.  His perseverance is admirable in the face of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and of the very real possibility that his budding law career could go up in flames faster than the cross burned in his front yard.

Despite a lot of advance publicity to live up to, McConaughey carries the lead well with his down-home Southern charisma and natural ability.  And he is surrounded by great supporting players here—Kevin Spacey is remarkable as the self-assured prosecutor aiming for career-boosting headlines in a case he knows he can’t lose.  The large cast includes Sandra Bullock as an ambitious law student who likes to flirt; Oliver Platt, a sex-starved divorce lawyer who provides plenty of comic moments so essential to this film; Donald Sutherland, a brilliant but alcoholic disbarred attorney who took a wrong turn somewhere; and Ashley Judd as Jake’s loving wife.  McConaughey and Judd’s scenes sizzle, quite possibly because the makeup department overdid the sweat.  Or maybe the Brigances need to invest in an air conditioner.

At two and a half hours, A Time to Kill is gripping courtroom drama with fine acting, thought-provoking realism sprinkled with many fun-to-watch characters.

 

Suspend Their Disbelief

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

Back in the mid-‘90s, I really enjoyed The Bridges of Madison County, a bestselling book at the time that resulted in a good movie as well. What’s surprising is that everything about it was stuff I normally wouldn’t like. It was a romance, and those are always cheesy to me because it’s always women authors writing about how they would like romance to be, not how it is. Interestingly, this one was written by a man, Robert James Waller. It concerned adultery, a detestable subject. And the premise was completely unrealistic—the idea that a couple could meet and only spend four days together and never see or hear of each other again and it would have such a profound effect on them every day for the rest of their lives. The fact that Waller could, in spite of those three elements, suspend my disbelief and make me like it and even remember it twenty years later, THAT’S writing. And that’s the standard to which we should rise in our own writing. If your goal is to become a bestselling author, you must strive to suspend the disbelief of not only your target audience, or your “ideal reader”, but also those who don’t think they would like your book to begin with. Sure, it’s a challenge, but if you’re like me, it’s a challenge that totally excites you. Happy writing!

“Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?” Makes Economics Understandable

 

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Does economics seem like a distant, difficult-to-grasp subject to you? Do you have a hard time really, I mean really understanding the basics of our American free enterprise system? Do you have a hard time explaining it to children and teens? I did, till I read the book Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury. It is part of his Uncle Eric series, in which the fictional Uncle Eric explains to his nephew Chris, through a series of letters, all about history, government, justice, and economics.

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? now in its sixth edition, promises, quote, “a fast, clear, and fun explanation of the economics you need for success in your career, business, and investments.” Is there anybody who doesn’t need to learn about such things? Raise your hand. No one? Well, I recommend this little 160-page, fifteen-chapter volume that is written for tweens through adults.

Sometimes when you’re faced with a little bit of a hazy subject, you just need the right explanation from the right author to clear it up for you, and that’s what Maybury did for me and my high school son who also read it.

For instance, most of us think of inflation as an increase in prices and falling of the value of money. That is actually a result of inflation, the real cause being the printing of more money. It goes like this: Government prints money which is not backed by gold or silver, floods the market with it so that the value of each individual unit goes down, which means you need more of it to buy what you want. Goods don’t cost more because they have more value; they cost more because the units of money used to purchase them are nearly worthless.

Maybury draws extensively from the history of the Roman Empire to show the cycle of money and civilizations and how playing politics so vastly affects the economic core of all nations, past and present. The book speaks to my own motto, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Well, I didn’t originate that; it’s an adopted motto, but a most true one.

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? includes an extensive appendix of charts and graphs, excerpts and anecdotes, websites, suggestions of films to go along with the subject, and more to really give you a good, basic knowledge of economics.

With its wonderful conversational style, it is not a bit boring. It easily held my interest and I felt the more richly educated because of it.

“Choreography of Awakening” a Worthy Addition to Any Bookshelf

Faye Kitariev

Choreography of Awakening by my friend Faye Kitariev is now available on Amazon, and I sincerely hope you will get yourself a copy. I had the high privilege of helping to edit this book, and I found it so empowering and beautifully written that I couldn’t wait to tell people about it.

Faye has loads of experience as a world-class figure skating coach. Her success was tied to her unique ability to bring out the hidden potential of her skating proteges. She shares that, what I can only call “superpower”, with her readers. She uses her vast experience to help all of us, in whatever walks of life we follow, realize our own potential. She uses skating terms to show us what we are capable of and inspires us to achieve our own greatness.

Her writing style is impeccable, her words lilting, as they touch the reader’s inner soul. Check out this great book and awaken yourself to your possibilities. Find out more here, and buy a Kindle edition or paperback on Amazon.

Choreography of Awakening

 

Where Do I Start My Story?

Old library chair

Recently I watched the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” again with my son. It’s based on the true rags-to-riches story of entrepreneur Chris Gardner. I had remembered the story as nothing but inspirational, but on a repeat viewing, I was starkly reminded that it’s quite depressing…until the very end. But the end is spectacular enough to make watching two hours of his misery VERY worthwhile. In fact, it’s the unabashed portrayal of his year of tribulation that makes the ending as satisfying as it is. My son made the comment, “I’m glad they ended it where they did, right when his troubles ended and he got the great job” the one that set him on the path to multi-millionaire status. I had to agree. It was best to stop right when he reached his goal (to give the viewers hope that things like that could happen for them) rather than go beyond into that wealthy sphere that would’ve disconnected Chris Gardner from the lives of most viewers. The viewer didn’t want a fantasy; they wanted to see something that would inspire them to seek their own goals and the ability to achieve them.

And that put me in mind of an important concept in story writing. Where you begin and end your story is every bit as important as the story itself. Look at your main characters’ lives with all their “big moments”. By sliding your timeline even slightly forward or backward, you can significantly change the feel of your story. What message do you want to get across with your story? Where in your characters’ lives are their greatest trials and triumphs? Where does their story really begin? And, as tempting as it is to keep a good thing going, know where you need to stop, so that your readers are left with satisfaction and great memories of a well-told story.

Oscar Night 2014

Oscar night 2014 was a little more bearable than usual for me, because of Ellen DeGeneres. I used to always love the Oscars and look forward to them, but in recent years, I’ve felt a bit detached from them. I haven’t seen, or even heard of many of the nominated movies, and…y’know…even the big winners seem to fade away fairly quickly, don’t they? Really, how many can name last year’s winner? Two years ago?

DeGeneres did two things that freshened up the show for me. First, she wasn’t political and she wasn’t inappropriate. Even if the nominated movies aren’t all family-friendly, the Oscar show should be. There are all ages watching. Second, I loved her jaunts through the audience. Things like taking selfies and posting to Twitter, and ordering out for pizza sort of made the stars relate to us, even if they don’t really. For a moment, we could imagine we have some things in common. I hope she’ll be back next year. We’ll order some pizza and watch. And I will now post this to Twitter.