Monday, August 31, 2009


Early in 2009, I got caught up in a '30s mood, what with the economic collapse and all, and suddenly got a yen to read That Scatterbrain Booky. Now it doesn't take much to put me in a '30s mood -- I don't know what I like about the decade 1929-1939, if it's the drama of a total worldwide economic collapse, the amazing fact that red-blooded Americans actually dared to try the New Deal and give us the massive public works projects we still enjoy today (Sunset Park pool!), the slimming fashions or the wonderful, wonderful movies (probably the latter) but there's something about this era that really appeals to me. Now, after finally getting around to re-reading the Booky Trilogy (I had to go home to Ontario to get it, since it's not readily available in the States), I realize it may have been ingesting these books as a child that made me such a fan of the Depression. You know, if one can be said to be a "fan" of a Depression.

But Bernice Thurman's snappy YA novels make growing up in 1930s Toronto sound downright fun. There's so much to love about these books: richly drawn characters, Booky's unique voice, coming-of-age poignancy, etc., but it's the finely-etched details of old Toronto that truly captivate me.

The Canadian specificity -- dropping phrases like "Bloor and Jane" without feeling the least need to explain that those are street names; adulation for L.M. Montgomery; rapturous descriptions of Ontario Place; references to Muskoka and Laura Secord chocolates -- is refreshing. It does a heart good to read a Canadian book, I tell you. Photographs and images from the Eaton's archives and catalogue are scattered throughout, interspersed with photos from the author's private collection (and what appear to be stills from a CBC adaptation, starring a girl who looks for all the world like Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall).

"For all the world." Well that's a Booky phrase right there.

Characters in her book talk in a sweet, sort of down-home vernacular peppered with quaint phrases and the "latest slang" (by cracky!) and after 480 straight pages of it, it starts to rub off on you. People in her books are always hollering, getting their hopes dashed, and being thrilled. It's hard to read it through and not start dropping those phrases (I think I'll ask my husband if he'll give me a nickel for a shinplaster, then go down and see a friend for a good chinwag).

While it's hard to read the books without feeling serious twinges of nostalgia for bygone Toronto institutions (The Uptown Nuthouse, Eaton's), if you aren't equally caught up in the story of Booky's family, you have no heart (I defy anyone to read the passage where Willa can't go to medical school because she's a girl without feeling enraged). The first book, set in 1932-1933 is the most nerve-wracking, set as it is in the profoundest depths of the depression. As the story wears on, the family begins to fare better financially and the books turn to rather more frivolous subjects (like boys, kissing parties, and the universal girl experience, the bad perm) and other aspects of our heroine begin to emerge: her ambition to be a writer, for instance, is touched on in the second book and fully explored in the third. When her little brother steals and reads her diary, he saves himself from a thorough ass-whooping by apologizing and telling her, "It was just like reading a real book." She stops, hand poised in mid-air. "Do you really mean that?" "Yes, I'm sorry." "No. About it being just like a real book."

And and book with the following passage has got to steal my heart, it's just got to:
"Bea..." his voice became suddenly shy like Jimmy Stewart's.
"What?" Mine went all husky like Jean Arthur's.
"Will you be my girl?"

Thurman-Hunter's descriptions of her family and friends in Swansea (a neighborhood near High Park) are, quite literally, unforgettable: Willa and Arthur and Aunt Aggie and Aunt Susan and Cousin Winn and Aunt Milly and Grandpa and Roy-Roy and Raggedy Rachel.... Seriously -- you will start to hallucinate these people on the street. Even her littlest brothers, Jakey and Billy, develop defined voices and personalities by the third book (I have a soft spot for Billy, possibly because the harrowing story of his birth is addressed in such detail in the first book, or possibly because he's just such a darn sweetheart: "You're the best cooker in the world, mum!") She's got some wonderful spinster aunts, too. Her Aunt Susan started the Uptown Nuthouse during the depression -- a double-whammy of impossibility -- and her Aunt Aggie ran their Muskoka farm singlehandedly. In the third book, Bea wins an essay contest in the now-defunct Toronto Telegram by writing about her Aunt Aggie (the title of her essay? "The Bravest Man I Know Is A Woman"). I'm dying to get my hands on that -- surely it must exist on microfilm somewhere? I wonder why it wasn't reproduced in the book. The events in the series are mostly true-to-life (though "enlivened" a bit, I'm sure) but I wonder if that part really happened.

Well, even if it didn't really happen, it feels to me as though it did, as though I could go down to Hunter's corner store and pick up a copy of the Telly right now. Maybe it's a by-product of reading the entire trilogy straight through, but all these people and places seem so immediate.
Maybe this week at the Ex, the Swansea ghosts will rumble down to the the gates in Sandy Beasley's rattly old slat-sided truck and sneak in some free rides.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Imagination Picnic

A few days' hard work -- and some good advice -- helped me turn my POS screenplay around (yes, that's right, my point of sale screenplay) and it's not half bad now, if I may be so bold (it's amazing how letting things breathe allows them to, well, live... every time I write a new script I realize how much I cram scenes on top of one another out of a terrible fear of being boring, then I always have to go back in and rip out lots of chatter and create some quiet time for my characters). Plus, it's cold and rainy today which is so refreshing. It's definitely the perfect day for Green-Wood walks and Brit Noir. And I can cook -- in my own kitchen! -- without creating an inferno of biblical proportions. So what if it's too cold outside to have a picnic. I can create my own imaginary indoor picnic with Mad Men and booze! Rice Krispie treats for all!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Potboilers and Beach Reads

In honor of the last days of summer, and because the bright blue sky outside beckons so I simply can't stay at home scanning old maps today, here's a review of the books that topped my list this year instead.

In A Lonely Place
Dorothy B. Hughes

It's been so long since I read In A Lonely Place (I started in July) that I can't give an adequate review -- I point you to this blurb on the Feminist Press website -- but I had to mention it, if only in passing. Everyone, go out and read it. We all know I loved the movie, and the book is vastly different, but it's so good and hardboiled and suspensy and written BY A GIRL no less. And it predates Highsmith and blah, blah, blah, oh, just read it.


No that's out of the way... My second favorite summer read was "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" by Katherine Howe.

Sure, it's a total beach read, and it's kind of silly -- it's about witchcraft, how eerie! -- and so forth, but come on! It's like a Nancy Drew for grownups! If you enjoy finding secret house filled with spells and think it's funny to call it "The Phsyick Book of Danity Kane" you'll like this book, I guarantee it. The fact that you're reading something a mere step up from the Da Vinci Code? Whatever, it's summer, and it's a pretty big step. The prose, in other words, won't make you choke. Sure the third act is inane (it involves stealing pee!) but it starts off so well that I forgave it any number of missteps (like, say, extreme obviousness). Our heroine, Connie, though oftentimes oddly dense for a Harvard grad student, is engaging and awkwardly charming, and the story speeds along at a brisk clip. I also like little touches, like the Wiccan at the local magic shop being kind of useless and unhelpful, and a purveyor of expired herbs (what can I say, I respect anyone who shows restraint whilst dealing with the eminently mockable neo-pagans). Anyway, if you enjoy witchcraft and whiling away the summer hours, you could do worse.

But Danity Kane is only recommended reading. In A Lonely Place is required reading.

The Thing That Ate My Summer

"This is what I've spent the last three months on?!" That bitter lament, and some hair tearing-out, was the first reaction upon reading -- or re-reading, as it were -- my horrible, horrible, lemon horrible screenplay. Why did I think a stupid story about body-swapping teen witches was a good idea? Sigh. Someone really must stop me from doing things in the future.

Also: in the "So that's why no one came to my birthday party!" department, I found the following circa 1993 snapshot in my room while cleaning:

Those combat boots really were a bitch to tie up. No wonder I look so cross.

Sigh again. What the eff, people? Is this really how I'm to end my days? Writing absurd dialogue about a 15th century Huguenot "truth-telling" demon (protoplasmic byproduct of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre) and leafing through old photographs from my suburban adolescence? I really didn't think I'd turn out that way.

But all is not lost. I've come up with a great new name for my tippler's club: The Diddlebock Society, named after sad failure Harold Diddlebock (from this movie), who finds renewed zest for life after drinking a spectacular eponymous cocktail.

My favorite quote from this Sturges/Lloyd oddity: "Maybe they were right to fire me. I've gone soft. Your mind gets dull after twenty years working the same job, taking the same train every day, sitting at the same desk doing the same work, taking the same route home again." Find more about our club's namesake here.

And I'm still gearing up for the Big One: the post to end all posts (until the next post, naturally). I'll have to do it another night though, when I've gotten over the horrifying realization that I can't actually write, and am content to merely relay information and scan pretty maps and pictures. Yes, maps! Won't that be exciting!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Excuses, excuses

The non-bloggage of late has been due to the finishing of another script -- the imminent finishing! -- and the gearing up of a massive coupla posts that will blow your mind and make you a hypochondriac forever, guaranteed. Intrigued? Good, you should be.

There, that oughta shut them up. FOOLS!

Whoops. I said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The New Yorker is stealing my thoughts again

As this article about Laura Ingalls Wilder proves (I recently re-read the series, remember?). It doesn't add much to what we already know: Laura had a hard life, she co-wrote the books with her daughter. Fin. Who cares, really, that her daughter was kind of a nutso bitch? Laura's political leanings are somewhat more interesting, and she was apparently the first person to use the word "libertarian" in its modern political context. The author of the article points out, though, that this staunch liberation benefitted greatly from the aid of many government institutions, including the state-funded College for the Blind that Mary attended and the "boughten" goods they loved so much. No settler is an island, I guess.