Sunday, October 30, 2011

'Nightwoods' worth a look

Had something of a "circle of life" moment over the weekend, at least in a literary sense.

Read Charles Frazier's new novel, "Nightwoods," while enjoying R&R out of town at the lake for the final trip of the season.

(P.S. I am still thawing out. Thirty-degree mornings will do that to you in lieu of central heat. But I digress.)

I flashed back to spring 1998 -- incredible as it seems, 13 1/2 years ago -- when I spent a week at the lake reading Frazier's breakout first novel, "Cold Mountain." I found the book by chance, before the hype. Back then I used to read USA Today while on campus at UT. A reviewer had raved. So, I put it on my Christmas list and saved it for spring break.

"Cold Mountain" was one of the first books I ever read for pleasure that I had to fight with. ("For Whom the Bell Tolls" is the other that comes to mind.) I needed a dictionary through half of it, looking up words on the internet in those quaint dial-up days.

Even though I thought Frazier was hitting the reader over the head with the Homeric parallels, I loved "Cold Mountain," though he tended to write like Thomas Wolfe on speed.

Over the weekend I finished Frazier's latest. Compared to "Cold Mountain," "Nightwoods" is downright slim at 250 pages. Unlike his Civil War-era novel and his somewhat disappointing follow-up, "Thirteen Moons" (to which I'm going to give another chance later this year), "Nightwoods" is set in the 20th century. Sometime in the early '60.

It focuses on Luce, short for Lucinda, who has been beaten down by small-town life and a traumatizing event from early adulthood. Her mother left her years ago, her father is a distant, deadbeat deputy, and her sister has just been murdered.

Luce is living a hermit's existence as the caretaker of a rundown, shutdown lake resort. It gets lonely, the 3 a.m. kind of lonely, but she has her freedom and the glow of the late night radio. That life is shattered when the state shows up with her dead sister's kids in tow.

She gets another unexpected guest in the person of the grandson of the guy who owned the resort. It's his inheritance and he's thinking of selling. But he does a double take when he sees Luce, suddenly remembering the teenage girl at a swimming pool who briefly but brightly stirred his pubescent soul.

Meanwhile, her sister's husband, who is also her sister's killer, shows up, thinking Luce might have some cash he thinks should be his. Then he learns the kids are around, too. Can't leave any witnesses.

The last thing I was expecting from Charles Frazier was a page-turner, but that's what he delivers with "Nightwoods," in the best sense of what that means. He reels in his literary flourishes long enough to craft a taut little thriller. Frazier fans will find plenty to cheer, as will any newbies.

I enjoyed spending the better part of Saturday with him, even if it also stirred up memories of a long-gone spring, and a novel I enjoyed a little better than this one.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, October 27, 2011

'Moneyball' a winner

My friend Matt Shelton summed up "Moneyball," the fantastic film starring Brad Pitt based on big-league baseball general manager Billy Beane and the unlikely success of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, by saying, "This will have to become a permanent second half of a 'Major League,' 'Moneyball' double feature."

I'll back up long enough to tell you that "Major League," the late 1980s baseball comedy, has been a staple at our laid-back get togethers for years. To put "Moneyball" in that slot, for us, is high praise, indeed.

And, of course, it's a better film. A wonderful film, in fact. Brad Pitt gives his best performance to date as the complex, self-conscious Beane. Jonah Hill manages to ditch enough of his "immature obese kid" persona to actually make himself likable as the Yale grad who helps Beane use player statistics to put together a winning team on a shoestring budget. Philip Seymour Hoffman is fine, if physically far-fetched, as manager Art Howe.

You probably know the film is based on a true story. Beane did take a Bill James-esque approach to fielding a team on a tight budget. The abridged version is he stressed the importance of on base percentage -- getting on base -- filling his roster with has beens, could bes and never was-es, looking for those who come cheap. The veteran scouts laugh in his face and manager Howe doesn't want to play along.

But, in its way, it works. Sort of.

Baseball movies have to be somewhat sentimental -- it is a romantic game, after all -- and I wondered how they'd pull that off in a movie dominated by data. I needn't have worried. The film digs into Beane's failed career as a major league player and the regret that haunts him over opportunities missed.

Pitt has been a likable guy for years but never anybody you'd name as a top-of-the-line actor. But he reaches down deep here and pulls off a grand slam of a performance. He makes this movie work, plain and simple.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is based on a story by Stan Chervin, as well as the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball." It zips and zings and holds your attention despite the film's longer-than-expected running time. You even get the ending you want without the usual sports film cliches.

About the only thing I can criticize is some of the casting choices. Stephen Bishop is supposed to be David Justice well past his prime, but looks like he's in his late 20s. Hoffman isn't going to fool anybody if he dresses up as Art Howe for Halloween. But, these misfires are minor and don't distract you too much.

I haven't enjoyed a baseball film this much in a long, long time. Even if you forget the sports angle, it's one of the best movies I've seen this year, second only to "Midnight in Paris" as my top pick for 2011.

Somehow I have a feeling that in the years to come this one will get pulled from the DVD shelf on New Year's Eve or Labor Day weekend or just on a lazy Saturday at Shelton's, when nothing's on TV and "Major League" has been given yet another look.

Heck, we might even watch it first.

"Moneyball" is now playing. It is rated PG-13.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Today would have been the 99th birthday of comedienne and "Grand Ole Opry" star Minnie Pearl, born Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, Tenn., which is also the hometown of Shopper-News coworkers and sisters Carol Springer and Judy Tharpe.

Reportedly, her "Minnie Pearl" character was based on a real woman she met while touring in Alabama.

Here is a collection of "Howdys!" to remember Miss Minnie on her birthday.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, October 24, 2011

I've stuck with the new 'Five-0' (and made it through the rain?)

Last fall I had my doubts about the news that CBS had decided to reboot one of my all-time favorites, the TV police drama "Hawaii Five-0."

While it comes in second to "Magnum, p.i." in my book, the original "Five-O" is considered sacred ground. After all, it's the series that single-handedly created Hawaii's TV and film industry, thanks in large part to generous donations of time and money by the show's star, the late, great Jack Lord. Lord and his "Book 'em, Danno!" catchphrase are a cherished part of TV history.

Still, Hawaii looks good in HD, that catchy theme song is back and Grace Park has been thrown in as an added bonus. What the heck, I thought.

It took a few episodes, but I quickly came to look forward to 10 p.m. (Eastern) on Monday nights. I particularly enjoyed the so-called "carguments" between the new McGarrett and Danno, as well as the latter's glib sense of humor (wonderfully played by Scott Caan).

And then somewhere toward the end of the first season, something seemed to be going horribly, horribly wrong. Out of nowhere, the last episode of the first year blew reality right out of the water. McGarrett was arrested for "murdering" the governor (try to imagine that happening to Jack Lord), the Five-0 team was disbanded, Grace Park's Kono had her badge taken away and I had no idea where all this had come from.

"Don't panic," I said to myself. "Maybe all this means Danno dreamed the entire last episode." (See "Dallas" circa the fall of 1986 if you don't get the reference.)

Season Two premiered last month and I temporarily forgot my frustration because we were headed over to Oahu on our honeymoon. In fact, we were staying right next door to the Hilton Hawaiian Village (where a lot of the new show is filmed) and would be visiting downtown at both the old and new Five-0 headquarters. So I wanted to see some scenery to whet my appetite.


Sure enough, they quickly explained last season's cliffhanger away (it wasn't a dream, thank God), but it also appeared the writers had no idea in which direction they wanted to take the show. Kono was apparently disillusioned, off the force, in league with bad ex-cops. New characters were popping up left and right while Grace Park's screen time had been vastly diminished.

What the heck 'em, Danno?

"I don't know if I'm going to stick with this or not," I kept telling my wife, who is also a fan. Had it not been for DVR, I probably would have given up.

"I think you and I could do a better job writing for this show," I emailed a pal, David Romas, in Michigan, who likes all things Hawaii but isn't keeping up with the "Five-0" redux.

FINALLY, last week's (10/17/11) episode explained a few things and righted the ship, so to speak. I won't give away too much more other than to say all is right in Honolulu, we were treated to a great, old-fashioned shootout at a bank, and it seems the show can take back up where it left off, mainly trying to nail McGarrett's arch enemy Wo Fat (Mark Dacascos, who's pretty slimy here, but can't hold a candle to the original's Khigh Dhiegh).

I'm glad I've hung around, if only to see what happens from here. I've heard the ratings for this season have been shaky, and if nothing else, I'd hate to lose an opportunity to spend an hour solving crimes in Hawaii each week. (New York, L.A., Philly and Miami, or what passes for them on other network cop shows, just don't have the same appeal.)

More importantly, despite trying to fill some big shoes, the new "Five-0" has shown promise. It could still survive these relatively early bumps and go on to have a decent network run.

But the next few weeks will probably tell the tale. Now that the aftershocks of the first season finale's misfire have simmered down, it's time to get back to business. Be funny, argue in the car, kick some butt, show plenty of Grace Park and even more of Oahu's natural beauty, get rid of the guy from "Lost" and any more appearances from either Billy Baldwin or Tom Sizemore. Work your way toward Wo Fat while keeping our most beautiful state safe from the bad guys.

Do all that, and "Hawaii Five-0" can catch a nice, big wave. Get sidetracked again and, well, you know what will happen. Aloha.

By and large I've always thought a hit belongs to its day, particularly in television. Does anybody remember the "Dark Shadows" revival in '91? Probably not, partially thanks to the Gulf War, partially thanks to mediocre writing and a time slot that never seemed to stand still.

Who stood enraptured over "The New Gidget"? "The New Odd Couple"? The early '90s remake of "WKRP in Cincinnati"? FOX's revival of "Get Smart" in the mid 1990s (even with Andy Dick!) lasted a mere seven episodes. Has anybody watched that horrible "update" of "Charlie's Angels" on ABC?

I want "Hawaii Five-0" to be the exception. It's a decent show, maybe as good as we're going to get in this disappointing new century. It's revived interest in the original series to the point that CBS/Paramount has released all but the 12th and final season of good ol' "Five-O" on DVD in a short four and a half years. I know it's kept some guys and gals employed after "Lost" wrapped in Hawaii a couple of years ago. Scott Caan has been an unexpectedly likable Danno. It's been great to see Al Harrington and some other old friends back on the tube again. And anytime you're filming in Waikiki is a good day.

New "Five-0" has reached a crossroads. We'll soon know whether all this was a good idea or whether the whole thing should have stayed back there with Jack Lord somewhere.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, October 21, 2011

Herding words is in the genes

You know, I got to thinking yesterday that, other than from my mom, my love of words probably originates at some level with my Grandmother Mabe.

I thought about this a couple of Sundays ago, when I went up to Mamaw's (as she's affectionately known) house to see relatives in from Indiana. I spotted her crossword puzzle books from across the room.

Of all the things I could tell you about Lydia (it's pronounced LIE-DA) Mabe, it's that she loves crossword puzzles. She's worked them as long as I can remember. It's one of the reasons why I believe her mind is just as sharp in her late 80s as it's ever been. And it's one reason why I think she's done so well living by herself since my grandfather died in May 1988.

I've given her crossword puzzle books as presents for birthdays and at Christmas. Her eyes light up; it never fails.

Every time we chat, I learn my grandmother knows more about current events than I do, I think. She and I love to talk about local history and politics, so when we do talk on the phone, it's usually a 30 minute or hour-long conversation. She likes to tell me about relatives I've never met and stuff that happened during World War II. FDR is still her hero.

My mom and stepfather also love to work crossword puzzles. I took it up as an on-and-off hobby a few years ago. Even bought myself a crossword puzzle dictionary. It's a good mind exercise and doctors say it also helps stave off memory loss.

Years and years ago, I sat at the long, thin green table in my grandmother's kitchen (she calls it the snack bar) and composed my own newspaper. I called it the Pony Express. Mark Padgett and Dean Harned still like to laugh about the fact that I used to sit on the playground and write about the kids and the various goings on during elementary recess.

Guess I was meant to one day do my best to herd some words.

Thanks, Mamaw.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Baseball blues

Well, the Braves and Red Sox choked and the Tigers just got beat by a better team. My baseball dreams are dead for another year.

But, I'll tip my cap to the Cards. Several of my friends love 'em.

The ALCS, when it didn't get ugly, was actually quite a contest. Extra innings, tension, clutch hits, everything you want in a playoff series. Bottom line is I ain't complaining. I can remember very clearly back to when the Tigers were losing 100 (and sometimes 119) games a year.

Ditto with the Braves. And the Red Sox? Well, they're the Red Sox. Late season choke goes with the territory.

I'm bummed they let Tito go. I don't know what to make about all those allegations of drinking in the dugout. I do know that anytime an "all-star" team is assembled, it usually falls flat.

Guess it will be a bleak fall on the sporting scene. Tennessee is terrible. The Colts are Manning-less and we don't get 'em on TV too much down here anyway. I might mosey over to an Ice Bears game or two and probably catch the Preds on the dish from time to time. I'll have to watch Cuonzo ball out of curiosity.

Otherwise, I'll slip into sports hibernation mode and see y'all in the spring.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


We were stopped at one of those roadside scenic lookouts that seem to populate Maui's coastline.

Jennifer was looking for a fishhook necklace for bruddah Keith. I had a headache and just wanted to sit in the car and ogle the ocean.

I'd tuned the radio to KPOA, an FM station that plays what it calls "Hawaiian music...Maui style." A most beautiful song began to play.

A young woman sang about going one summer morning to see the sun rise at the top of a mountain. It haunted my heart.

Sista Val, the popular DJ and music director, was kind enough to end my week of frustration and send me the name of the song ("Haleakala Medley") and of the artist (Kendra). Feel free to surf over to iTunes and check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Sitting in the car, overtaken by the Pacific, overwhelmed by Kendra Fischer's haunting harmony, I vowed then and there I wasn't leaving Maui. And, well. You know how that goes. I'll have to sell the Great American Novel about as well as Stephen King can roll out another spine-tingler, or pop the Powerball prize, in order to make that dream a reality.

And, yet, here I sit at 3 a.m., finishing an excellent novel set in Honolulu (I'll tell you more about that later), listening to Kendra's sweet song on my iPod, yearning to see the sun rise on Haleakala.

As it was rising, I could see all of my dreams, on top of that mountain, called Haleakala.

The way Kendra shares it through her song, I'm up there on the mountain, too, clearing my head, dreaming my dreams.

I have a bad habit of getting caught up in the moment, declaring that whatever I'm reading or hearing or watching at the time is the best, gosh-darn, greatest thing I've ever read or heard or seen. Well, let me tell you this as I check the hyperbole at the door: Hawaii is the most beautiful paradise I've ever seen.

It may be sooner, it may be later, but we'll be back one day, climbing the mountain, seeing the sun rise on Haleakala.

Until then, I have my memories, my contentment here at home, my loving wife and my words and rhyme.

Just don't be surprised to learn my daydreams are filled with sunsets and ocean waves, out there somewhere beyond the reef.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Still livin' and dyin' in Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time

Last night after work the wifey and I met at Downtown Grill and Brewery for dinner. I was in South Knox for a late afternoon meeting, so I thought it would be a good excuse to eat downtown.

It was a nasty night, rainy and dreary, the kind of thing fall and winter usually bring with them. And, yet, it seemed to fit.

We sat by the front windows. I watched business types hurrying home in their three-piece suits, glad I could sit and enjoy myself during rush hour.

Bo Pierce, on Facebook, told us to pretend we were looking over the Pacific. As much as I still have Hawaii flowing through my veins, what I actually thought of was Manhattan. We were in such a spot where the buildings could have been skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle could have been ripped right out of Gotham. The rain added to the effect.

It put me in mind of that early February day we ate lunch at just such a brewery at the Empire State Building.

I want to go back to New York when we have more time to stay. Up and back was OK, but not enough.

After spending 10 days in paradise, though, I can tell you I'm still livin' and dyin' in Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. A New York state of mind will have to wait.

I do have one question, though. Why does the Downtown Grill NEVER have the State Street Stout in stock?

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Paradise found, and lost, and found

Well, it's back to reality this week, after 10 days in paradise.

And, I guess I'll be back to blogging regularly now that the wedding is behind us. It's funny. You spend the better part of a year preparing for an event that's essentially over in 15 minutes.

Oh, well. Can't complain. Love of my life. Great weather. Great backdrop. Bunch of friends. Best family. Even WBIR-TV showed up.

Hawaii was heaven, paradise found, perfect. I'll tell you more about it in two stories running in the Shopper-News next Monday. Meanwhile, let's just say it would take Shakespeare to do it justice and I'm not so sure the Bard wouldn't have trouble telling you just how beautiful it really is. Don't take my word for it. Go see it yourself.

But, I gotta tell you about a brief moment yesterday that made me grin.

I was actually doing a pretty good job of shaking off the Monday malaise. Life is good. I enjoyed getting back into routine. You can do that when you love what you do.

But, I could still feel the islands calling, taunting, enticing me to return to its sanguine shores.

So, I flipped on the online audio feed of a station we got to listening to while on Maui. Made it worse. Turned it off.

But, as I was walking to the car last night, a woman stopped me.

"Are you Jake?" she asked.

"I sure am," I said, flashing my best Monday afternoon smile.

"I just love to read your work. We just love reading this paper so much."

I thanked her profusely, grinned again and headed home happy.

Paradise Hawaiian Style may be hard to beat, but being back home ain't too bad, either.

Labels: , ,