24 January 2009

Truth, Comedy and videotape

There are two books which I reference for improv advice when needed: Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater
and Charna Halpern's Truth in Comedy.

I just finished a reread of Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation
and again found it a really insightful look at the improvisation process. For improv players struggling to find their sweet spot onstage, it is a great refresher. Each chapter can stand alone, with take-away points neatly bulleted at the end. (Hint: read the bullets at the end first before the chapter to know what to focus upon in the chapter.) Halpern's description of the Harold and the development of the Harold technique is the best around.

Spolin's book is an essential tome for any improv actor, and should be considered from within its proper context. Note first that Spolin was working with children and the games that are presented are most appropriate for child players and audience. Second, many of her games are simply frameworks, and work best for the stage in combination with one another.

15 January 2009

Twittering Authors

I'm a twitter fan because successful twittering requires you to be concise and interesting, and I hope that practicing these traits through tweeting will improve my writing and my improv. There is a group of people who figured out long ago that your value-per-content ratio had better be pretty high in order to be successful: published authors. How neat it is to see a few of these authors twittering.

Felicia Day, an avid twitterer herself, compiled a Twitter Author List - what a great public service as these authors can be hard to find for oneself. Also this serves as an excellent case study of the power of twitter; in order to create her list, she reached out to her substantial twitter network to find out the twitter addresses of these authors. Together we know all that is known; twitter helps make that accessible.

My recommendations to follow are:

Someone let me know if George R R Martin starts twittering updates about A Dance With Dragons, ok?

Photo credit digitalbear.

05 January 2009

Witch Child Reviewed twice over

Witch Child by Celia Rees was the prize for my Giveaway Carnival event in November, and the lucky recipient agreed to provide her review to be posted alongside my own here. Thanks to Asli of the Proudbookworm blog for extending and strengthening an act of generosity into becoming an act of creativity!

For more info on the book, please also see the Witch Child website or see the Excerpt of Witch Child available from the Barnes and Noble website.

Eva's review: Witch Child is an interesting blend of researched history with paranormal overtones - generally lumped into the genre of 'speculative fiction'. The main character, Mary, is shuttled off to the colonies after her grandmother and primary caregiver is hung as a witch.

And through this trial and trauma, Mary has to hide her own identity as a witch.

Calling herself a witch, I first thought, referred to the simple herbal poultices that were the forte of wise-women and midwives since time immemorial. Nearly ever village had someone who was considered gentle-handed, skilled with the delivery of babies, the easing of fevers, the setting of bones. Yes, these women were targeted by the witch-hunters. So it would seem that Mary's poor grandmother was targeted as well.

In the colony, she tries gamely to blend in but is extremely fearful of being found out. An adventurous spirit, she takes off to explore the countryside and does other things that would be highly unusual for her gender and place in time. Gradually, the suspension of belief required for me to treat this as an alternative work of fiction ebbed, and I started to think less well of the book. When Mary actually evinces some paranormal tendencies, I became completely disengaged.

I love science fiction and fantasy, and if this book was going to go there I was ready for Mary to summon a nightmare, ride it back to England and have it out with the witch hunters. Instead of that, there was a rather tepid venture into divination on Mary's part, and an embrace of native culture and eco-friendliness that seemed very anachronistic for its day. In a time when the colonists, historically, lived in fear of the darkening forest and the real dangers therein, young Mary treats it as one might an Arboretum. In a time where survival depended on the community pulling together and working fearfully long hours to bring in the harvest, Mary has quite a bit of time for her musing.

This book showed a lot of promise, and presented much that was thought provoking. For a reader who was after a tale that introduced the witch hunts of the 16th century, this would fit the bill. But I would hope that none who came to the book for that reason would stop there, but would instead also seek more material of depth to show further the complex social relations of that time. Or, that they might go on to read further witchy science fiction.



Poppin's review: Witch Child is a fun read about the witch trials that plagued the nation before. After reading another YA book about the witch trials, The Burning Time by Carol Matas, I've been interested in the subject. The whole situation then must have been a stressful one, where you'd always have to watch your back. If someone doesn't like you, then you're a witch. If a boy likes you, but you get married to someone else, guess what you're a witch as well. If a baby dies while you are the midwife, you are a witch. If you look at the cattle in the wrong way and it dies, then you are a witch and a very evil one at that.

As I said before, you'd always be wary because you don't want to be called a witch and you definitely don't want to be tortured, because the torture methods for determining who was a witch or not was gruesome and completely stupid.

Despite all that, the witch trials were very interesting to read and I was excited to read this book, which I won from Evagation. Witch Child is told in diary form, which sometimes poses as a problem since you feel like you don't get the whole story, but Mary is a very observant young woman and that problem didn't arise. Mary is a good narrator and her journey from Britain to the States is one filled with hardship and many trials. Including the death of her grandmother, the only family Mary has ever had.

Mary travels to the States, hoping to be spared from the witch hunts but soon realizes that she'll have to be even more careful in this new world. Her new friends provide some comfort, as well as the Indians, but Mary soon finds herself in the middle of an angry priest and a group of spiteful young women.

Mary starts her diary off by saying she is a witch, which I liked, because I thought it brought her back to her grandmother. However, Celia Rees does give Mary some powers and as well as giving Mary's grandmother some perks. This part didn't sit well with me, because I expected Mary to be a regular girl trying to survive and not be an actual witch. It took me out of the story a little bit. Mary is also very open-minded and isn't too afraid of the Indians, or dressing up as a boy and heading out into the woods alone. I didn't mind this so much, but considering the context of the story, it did seem very foolish on Mary's part. Almost like, she wanted to be caught.

I did like the book and think it would be great for those who love YA novels, I just wish Mary was a regular girl.


03 January 2009

Death of Vishnu

The holiday season is one of ups and downs for many families. Angela Imming, today's guest blogger, voracious reader and a dear friend of mine, escaped the western holiday traditions with The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri.

Diving into Hindu Mythology at Christmas provided a step outside of my world and purview into the unknown. Having gone from a dry, factual and barely artful historic crime The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, which I felt compelled to read because it was a goodbye gift from a friend at my previous place of employment, I was seeking a book that would take me a little higher – further and more beyond reality.

Answer this though… how does a man whose core competency is Mathematics, as proven by his professorship at the University of Baltimore, pen an instant classic study of personalities in his second language, English?

Manil Suri, who was on Time Magazine ‘people to watch list’ in 2000 is obviously smart, mastering both numbers and words. As proven in The Death of Vishnu, he also beholds the incredible ability to understand and describe the human psyche in a brilliant array of story telling.

Vishnu- part of a multi-tenant flat in Bombay. He loves a prostitute. He does odd jobs. He is drunk but also unable to steal from the tenant mourning the passing of his wife.

Vishnu- part of the Hindu trinity. He is the keeper of balance. His karma keeps the world in order.

Vishnu- is he simply a poor man, a drunk and would-be crook? Or is he a god?

The delta between the two is fantastic. That question provides the roadmap for the novel; the path the characters journey through and across and over and down.

As day-by-day routine, Suri describes the tenants of the building with chronic detail. Most of the characters are tools used to describe the daily life and times of being in Bombay. The husbands obey their wives, in a male-dominated culture, for no other reason than the ease of it all. The children argue, one with the other; set one another up for punishment and get bopped upside the head with no lesson taught, learned or assumed. The cigarettewalla despises the radiowalla and Tall Ganga is better than Short Ganga, who has been promised Vishnu’s spot upon his death. Comic relief is abundant, in Christopher Moorish fashion, as stories of these relationships draw the average reader into their lives. Laugh out loud moments are not foreshadowed. Suri makes it impossible for us not to assimilate with people who, for the most part, could not possibly be more polar opposite than the average English speaking reader.

While the story begins a little on the Hollywood side for me, describing gyrations, nips and tucks required to host a poker party in a multi-tenant apartment flat in Bombay during the late 70s or early 80s, his story quickly paints the antagonist and would be hero, Vishnu as the cynosure.

Some of the most beautiful prose and story telling I’ve witnessed is composed by Suri through a couple of soul searching characters. Mr. Jalal is a tenant of the building whose son eloped with one of the tenant’s daughters. He is an intellect who realizes he’s wasted most of his life reasoning and rationalizing. He’s a doubter. Anything that doesn’t pass the test of reason is disregarded. His wife is one of those pushed aside.

After failed attempts to feel ‘holy’ by self-torture and deprivation, Mr. Jalal decides to lower himself enough to cuddle up next to Vishnu; to become one with the lowest form of life. Next to Vishnu, who is dying on the landing, floating through the nether world, he sleeps. His quest to find truth in his own life intersects with Vishnu’s ascent (or descent – I won’t spoil the ending) with a beautiful menagerie of Hindu Mythological characters. Upon being awakened, Mr. Jalal is convinced that he’s had a vision, not a dream, and that Vishnu has come to him to be a prophet and share the news of his godliness, lest the word be destroyed. Being an intellect and not prescribed by any religious rules, Mr. Jalal does not consider the consquences his ‘blasphemy’ brings.

Mr. Jalal’s search for the truth- his sudden disposal of reason and rationalization brings terror and sorrow.

Vishnu’s stint in purgatory – his dance with Lakshmi, his longing for his mother and his thirst for Padmini brings a colorful rapture.

Vishnu- is he simply a poor man, a drunk and would-be crook? Or is he a god? Even Vishnu isn’t sure…

The Death of Vishnu is funny and adventurous and sorrowful. It’s fiction and non-fiction. It’s domestic and foreign. It’s stoic and passionate. The characters are annoying, honorable, normal and completely out of this world. The book is enchanting and while I am not a fan of the series, I will likely read whatever Manil Suri produces. And laugh at the Dance of Helen.