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Wednesday, April 19, 2017
1:22 pm edt
Night She Won Miss America
Halfway through reading The Night She Won Miss America by Michael Callahan, assuming it was purely a work of fiction, I realized that the well-written – with just a
few outlandish, perhaps impossible moments – could, in fact, be plausibly feasible. Could the young winner of the 1950s
pageant really abdicate her crown? Did she? Really? But, more importantly… Why?
In the early days of the
Miss American Pageant, an escort was provided for each of the contestants. The young men were charged with “entertaining”
the young ladies, accompanying them around Atlantic City, being their dance partners at pageant events…in short, the
girls’ dates for the week of events and festivities. They were expected to be courteous, respectful, mannerly, and,
most of all, above board (no hanky-panky). Okay. Now, picture this: Betty Jane Welch, a striking beauty from Delaware, is
a reluctant contestant who falls instantly in love with her escort, Grifford McAllister, the strikingly handsome son of one
of the contest coordinators. She decides she’d prefer him over the title…
The whys and hows of this
seemingly heart rendering event, and the incidents and episodes that led up to it, is the crux of this easy-to-read yet powerfully
stimulating novel. Callahan has taken the real story of Bette Cooper of Hackensack, New Jersey, who, in real life, in 1937,
absconded with her escort after winning the crown, and returned after 24 hours to her duties only to relinquished the title
to runner-up Marilyn Meseke of Ohio. Set in Atlantic City thirteen years later, this talented writer embellished her circumstances,
added very real-to-life characters, and factitiously sensationalized the facts, turning his third novel into a quasi-thriller,
complete with cliff-hanging chapter endings and subtle clues that compel one to read on (and on) to solve the enigmatic puzzle.
The ending, while not so surprising nor unique, is more than just satisfying. Especially since – SPOILER ALERT –
the novel starts with a near fatal accident…
I started my advanced reader copy of The Night She Won Miss America last winter, on a particularly cold, dank Sunday morning, swathed in blankets, huddling on the couch. I thought
I’d read a chapter or two, then take the hound for a walk, fix dinner, and then watch Masterpiece Theatre. I had planned
to finish the novel by the end of the following week. Well, five hours later (with only a brief break for my canine companion),
I finished Callahan’s tour-de-force, savoring every page, almost wishing it would never end. It’s that good!
No stranger to glitz and glamour, Michael Callahan is a Philadelphia-based author (practically a neighbor) who has
covered several Miss America beauty pageants. The author of two previous novels, A Swing for a Lifetime and Searching
for Grace Kelly, he is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and has written for, among other magazines, Elle
as well as for The New York Times. The perfect credentials for writing the story of Miss Cooper a.k.a. the novel’s
reluctant entrant Betty Jane Welch who will captivate your heart, stir you soul, and guide you behind and beyond the scenes
of one of American’s most dazzling and sensational national traditions.
To paraphrase the iconic song:
“Here it is, dear America… Here it is – your ideal… summer book!”
Enjoy the read!
Friday, April 7, 2017
4:42 pm edt
It’s been – what? – a year and a half
since the last episode of Season 6 first aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre… and I still suffer from the occasional
twinges of Downton Abbey withdrawal. They have lessened in intensity over time, but a week or so ago, sharp pangs
suddenly struck in the fiction section of our local library when I stumbled upon Belgravia by Julian Fellowes.
Fellowes is, of course, the multi-faceted, multi-talented famed creator and writer of Downton Abbey. I’ve
been a great fan of his ever since seeing him in the PBS series Monarch of the Glen and watching his seminal
movie, Gosford Park (2002). With scenes of his last television classic bouncing around in my head, I instantly longed
to immerse myself into yet another of his works.
Belgravia, in the tradition of Charles Dickens, was first serialized two years ago. Each of the eleven monthly episodes
was published via an online application (wwwjulianfellowesbelgravia.com) to be purchased, downloaded, savored, and digested
until the next episode was available. As intriguing as this might be, I must admit that I am a binge-reader (as well as a
binge-watcher). I like my books to be whole, complete; their plots available in their entirety, not parceled out over time.
I am a firm believer in instant gratification when it comes to reading a good novel – which Belgravia is. Besides, the aggregate price for
the individual episodes was more than the average price of a whole book.
So, I decided to wait until Fellowes’ latest literary
venture was published in hardcopy. And there it was, finally, sitting on a shelf, just waiting for me to bring it home (for
free!) and cosset myself between its pages.
Seeped in Nineteen Century England history, mores, and culture, Belgravia is the story of the intertwining
of two families: Lord Peregrine and Lady Caroline Brockenhurst and James and Anne Trenchard. While the Brockenhursts are landed
gentry – peers of the realm, as it were – the Trenchards are basically tradespeople; although James has ambitions
of working his way up and into the higher echelons of royal society. As the story unfolds, he is nearly successful. Except
for one glitche…
The story begins on June 5, 1815, in Brussels. The Duchess of Richmond is hosting an elaborate ball – the
“ball of the century” – attended by the most elite of British and Belgian society, as well as English army
officers. Lord and Lady Brockenhurst and Edmund, their handsome only son – a member of the 52th Light infantry –
have, of course, been invited. As well as, by virtue of James being the victualler to the British army, the Trenchards along
with Sophia, their lively and lovely 18-year old daughter. And while the guests dine and dance in opulence, Napoleon troops
are marching up toward them from France. For, you see, it is the eve of the Battle of Waterloo and in the midst of the gala
the troops are called to arms…
Fast forward to 1841. We are in London and James Trenchard has made a fortune partnering
in the construction of large houses on Belgrave Square – Belgravia – where the Brockenhursts now reside. We learn
that Edmund died in the Battle of Waterloo, leaving the inheritance of his parents’ estates and wealth to his indigent
Uncle Stephen and John, his ne-er-do-well philandering son. We also learn that Sophia Trenchard has also died less than a
year after the battle. Oliver, her now-adult younger brother, is dissatisfied with his lot in life, wanting nothing more than
to be a country gentleman, rather than a businessman. Susan, his wife, is factious, greedy, and conniving. Or is she?
The stage is set.
How and why the lives of these two variant families and their members become entwined and enmeshed together form the intricacies
and intrigues of Belgravia’s plot and twisting – often surprising – underpinning sub-plots. Even
the servants – as in Downton Abbey – are also embroiled in their story as it masterfully unfolds. And,
of course, like anything else Fellowes and everything written about the Victorian Era, I was mesmerized by this wonderfully
written page-turner. Romance, scandal mystery, intrigue, history, secrets, and passion are all rolled up into one in this
masterfully created psychological thriller. This is Julian Fellowes at his best.
It goes without saying that the author is a fastidious
writer. He leaves nothing to chance nor, at times, to the imagination. As he did with Downton Abbey and Gosford
Park, he drew heavily upon his own experiences growing up in English society (Lord Brockernhurst is named after his father,
Peregrine). Aiding him in this endeavor of non-parallel research was a historical consultant, none other than Lindy Woodhead,
who coproduced the PBS series Mr. Selfridge, based upon her biography of the noted Ninetieth Century London department
store owner. Thus, his detailed descriptions of daily life and culture during the Victoria Age are not only scenic and well-articulated,
but correct in every aspect. It is as if the reader is transported to the places and times and becomes vicariously an integral
part of the events and moments as they unfold. I know I was. I fell in love – sometimes hate – with each of the
characters who are finally turned and molded into real-life personalities and circumstances. And, at times, so lost was I
in their lies, that I found myself talking out loud to and about them…
So, for those of you out there who, like me, are still
suffering from intermittent yearnings for the return of Downtown Abbey, Belgravia is the perfect literary panacea.
Enjoy the read!
Thursday, March 30, 2017
1:17 pm edt
Kindness Grows: Real Stories about Random Acts of Kindness
Remember the movie
Pay it Forward? It was nearly a blockbuster in 2000 starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment…
about a little boy that, given the chance by a teacher, attempts to make the world a better place. How? By doing an act of
kindness and then asking the recipient to “pay it forward to the next person s/he meets”. I loved the movie and,
of course, cried at the sad, but hopeful ending.
Kindness Grows: Real Stories About Random Acts of Kindness by a local (Phoenixville) author,
Barb Walters, employs and a very similar
philosophy. Barb, who collected most
of the stories and put them on paper, wrote a very poignantly heartwarming introduction in which she says: When you put
kindness out into the universe, you will help someone. They will pass it on, and help someone in return. Kindness will keep
growing and growing… Like her – and like the young boy in the movie – I firmly believe this. I have
seen it happen in my own life, and in the lives of others. What goes around, truly, indeed, does comes around.
The anecdotes in Barb’s
slender volume are diverse, ranging from a young couple on a road trip stopping to help an elderly woman to a young child
who learns the lesson of kindness when his father stops to fix a stranded driver’s car. Each is headed by a concise,
meaningful title and ends with a poignant quote. It is quite evident in the exacting details that this fledgling, but talented
author took great care in the creation of her work. And… chatting with people and asking about their experiences, positive,
random acts in their lives, then putting them into a book for everyone to read is, in itself, an act of kindness.
I found a copy of
this little treasure at the Ideas Bookstore in Kimberton, PA – a snug little place crammed with a diversity of books.
Novels, children’s books, philosophy, history… every genre of fiction and non-fiction that you could imagine.
I, of course, instantly felt at home. [If you’re in the area, do stop in. Here’s the website: ideasbookstorekimberton.com.]
Grows in hand, I immediately wanted to help myself to a mug of hot tea and settle on one of comfortable chairs
in one of Idea’s cozy nooks to read it straight through. But this is not a book to inhale from cover to cover. Rather,
it is one that should be kept by your bedside or in your backpack, purse, or satchel and whose pages are to be savored one
at a time. A story a day to not only enjoy, but to inspire the promulgation of kindness…
I bet that if everyone took a few
minutes out of each day to read one of Barb’s poignantly cheerful stories and then did just one act of kindness –
like the butterfly effect – it will make the world a better place.
Pay it forward, folks, and enjoy the read!
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
4:12 pm est
The Poetry of Monty Milne
Although I used to write it, the last
time I seriously read any semblance of poetry was about a year or so ago. I guess I’ve been too busy cranking out prose.
You know, my series of historical novels about Phoenixville… And, besides, what very few poems I have of late come
across in The Sunday New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, were insipid, meaningless strings of words
that lacked any semblance of the reality of current relevancy. So, I swore off reading verse.
Then, about two weeks ago, I see
a posting in a Facebook group dedicated to this community that Monty Milne, a fellow local writer who claims the sobriquet
of “space poet”, had just published six chapbooks of his poetry on amazon. Hmm… Of the belief that local
authors should support one another, I replied that if he would send me some samples, I’d be happy to write a Blog entry
about him. Provided, of course, I liked what he wrote. Which, to be honest, given my past record with much younger contemporary
poets, I didn’t think I would.
I spent the better part of this afternoon reading – and enjoying – the healthy
sampling of Monty’s work that he sent along with a promotional picture of him holding an orange book of which is, eponymously,
the title of one of his works, The Orange Book. He also sent links to his two websites; one about his poetry (http://www.tiltedpoet.com)
and the other about his music (http://bit.ly/2lUx5wq ), which I am listening to right now as I write. What a talented guy!
Okay, now, about
his poetry. It’s rich and robust, varied and, yes, relevant, especially to younger generations, drawing astute insights
and attention to the realities of our constantly changing culture. Monty has a flair for words, using them not for the sake
of creating rhythms, but to eloquent express his inner ideas, thoughts, musings, and commentaries. I especially like his short-crisp
haiku-styled poems. One book, the year haiku is a compellation of those he wrote for each day of 2000. An amazing
feat of dedication to his art. However, I must point out that they are not strictly haiku, deviating from the standard of
three lines with 17 syllables (5/7/5). Let’s attribute this oversight to “poetic license”, because he tersely
captures some fine images. Here are a few samples:
slush snow ice wind
hooves stomp snow
See what I mean? You can almost see the cardinal in the snow, hear the horse snorting, taste the cold icicles melting.
In The Orange Book, Monty tackles several universal themes, including love, mortality,
even politics with a sense of spiritually that is often missing in the works of other contemporary young artists. He calls
himself “a philosophical poet; an artistic historian”. And if you read his inspiring and thoughtful lines (and
between them, as one must do with good poetry), you can readily see why.
Just as a picture might be worth a thousand words, good
poetry is best read rather than talked about. And Monty Milne has many very good poems to share in his Innocent Madness, The Hallucination Continuous..., haiku dawn, the year haiku, The Orange Book, and The Power of Three, a very interesting poem that explores, as Monty explains, the Trinity of Civilization: Art, Government, and Religion.
Enjoy the read!
Thursday, February 9, 2017
2:57 pm est
When you stop
and think about it, every book starts out as a blank page. A tabula rasa, waiting for someone to think of an idea, put it
into words, and then write it down. I have spent countless hours staring at a blank page in a notebook or a computer screen,
waiting for inspiration to strike… I am not as fortunate, like Lori Shepherd, to have an Aunt Dimity to fill up the
pages of a blue leather notebook. Which is a dead (pardon the pun if you’re already familiar with the series) giveaway
and the key to Nancy Atherton’s amazing mystery series.
Set in the small rural village of Finch in the English Codswolds, each of the now twenty (and counting) novels
is a mini-cosmos depicting human nature at its best…and worst. The universal themes that transverse the series and
shroud each story include the effects of past actions on the present; family values and traditions; a smattering of English
history; and wonderfully uplifting (often moralistic) happy endings. Each is told with flavorful humor and the welcomed elements
of surprise plot twists. And, of course, sprinkled with the musings and wisdom of Aunt Dimity, who really isn’t a character
so much as a presence…
You see, Aunt Dimity
really isn’t Lori’s aunt. But she was her mother’s best friend and who, explained in the first novel Aunt Dimity's Death, has left Lori her a whole lot of money and a honey-colored cottage a mile or so from downtown (if you could call it
that) Finch; just over the humpback bridge spanning the Little Deeping River. Lori, of course, is the amateur sleuth who solves
and resolves all sorts of askewed circumstances in and around Finch with Dimity’s guidance, written from the vast beyond
in a large blue tome using calligraphical script, which only Lori can read...
At first, when explained to me by a dear friend and fellow avid reader, I thought the premise a bit bizarre.
I mean, why start a twenty-book series with the death of the eponymous title character? “Makes no sense,” I said.
“Try it,” my buddy urged. “Go to the library…try a few…” I took her advice and found
a whole shelf devoted to what is now my most favorite whimsy mystery writer, picked up three of her latest and settled in
for some delightful binge reading.
Finch is a
place I would love to actually live in right now. Which, in a spiritual and literary
sense, I have been for the past three days. It’s a friendly, laid-back village, with everyone being friends, knowing
everyone else’s business, but chipping in to help whenever, wherever help is needed. The homes are centuries old; its
history ripe with secrets and skeletons; its people delightful, diverse, down-to-earth, and varied. Exactly the sort of folk
I’d love to have as neighbors…and their community is my idea of a perfect retreat...the ideal getaway. The author,
who lives in Colorado Springs, writes in the first person, using a very chatty-Cathy style. It’s like sitting down with
a close friend you haven’t seen for a while and catching up on all the news over a cuppa (or two of Earl Grey).
Atherton’s characters are true-to-life, each with
their own quirks and back-stories. While each novel is a standalone enabling you to read them out of the order they were written,
the characters do grow and change as the series progresses. I first read three of the latter ones – Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Aunt Dimity and the Buried Treasure -- but now, having been totally immersed in Finch, I am eager to start the series from the beginning, which I
did last night. If, for no other reason, then to see how the residents of Finch progress. And what earlier conundrums Aunt
Dimity has guided Lori into solving.
So, if you
don’t see or hear from me in a while, it’s because I’ve "moved" to Finch, disappearing into the
pages of the Aunt Dimity (the paranormal detective) Mystery Series… meandering through the thoughts and ruminations
of Atherton’s and my own imagination. The perfect escape.
Won’t you join me?
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
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
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
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 fourth novel.