Movie Review: BLUE JAY

This made-for-Netflix indie movie is filmed in black and white, shows only two characters on screen, is slow-ish and has no soundtrack, except for a few tunes. Normally, that would be the kiss of death for me—I’d rather watch car insurance commercials or those pharmaceutical ads where they tell you how great a drug is, followed by someone mumbling at the speed of light about the myriad ways that product could kill you.

However, the only thing I knew about Blue Jay ahead of time was that Mark Duplass wrote the screenplay and starred in the movie. I love his writing and acting, so I hit “play” and am glad that I did.

The movie is about former high school sweethearts who, twenty years later, run into each other at a grocery store back in their hometown. Amanda, played by Sarah Paulson, has returned to visit her pregnant sister. Jim (Mark Duplass) is back in town because his mother has died recently. He’s at his childhood home, sorting through belongings and trying to decide what to do with the house. When they initially see each other, they hesitate, neither one sure about acknowledging the other’s presence. The ensuing dialogue so painful and awkward, a viewer might reasonably assume that the movie was going to end right there and then. But it doesn’t.

I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the beauty of this movie is that its story is revealed slowly as the characters talk and interact with each other. I liked the choices Duplass makes in telling his tale. He gives viewers much to talk about. Most of all, the story felt authentic, both deeply sad and somehow redemptive.

Alex Lehmann does a good job directing these two fine actors. The lovely chemistry between them carries the movie. Apparently, filming took only seven days and the screenplay was more of a sketch than a delineation of specific lines. Much of the dialogue and action of the movie was improvised. Rather than being wed to lines, my understanding is that the actors absorbed the sense and meaning of a scene and ran with it. The result was fascinating to watch—and you’re hearing this from a person who prefers fast paced movies with lots of bright color and engaging music. Let me know if you see the film. I’d love to discuss it.

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Book Review–The One-In-A-Million Boy

 

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood is about an eleven-year-old Boy Scout who visits and helps 104-year-old, Ona Vitkus, a Lithuanian immigrant.

I can almost hear you yawning right now—stop. This book is not like anything you’d expect.

For one thing, the boy (who remains nameless throughout the book) loves Guinness World records. He talks the woman into trying to win the world record for Oldest Licensed Driver. He is an engaging, fascinating and unusual child and I’ll leave it at that, so as not to spoil any surprises for you. (Note—the book is full of surprises.)

At 104, Ona is bright, feisty, opinionated pistol of a woman. Wood does not succumb to the temptation of presenting Ona in a patronizing way. Her portrayal of Ona is respectful and tender, fully exploring Ona’s flaws and vulnerabilities. So many times elderly characters in books and movies appear more as caricatures, cartoonish and predictable. Not so in this book.

Quinn, the boy’s father, is a musician and a lost soul, who is filled with regret and longing. Reluctantly, he develops a friendship with Ona that changes both their lives.

As I mentioned, the plot is not predictable, which I appreciate. The book did not shy away from presenting heartbroken people in heartbreaking situations and did not gloss over the pain and suffering of old age. However, the ending, in its own strange way, proved to be redemptive and uplifting. I loved the book.

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From Charlottesville, With Love

This essay just appeared in the Sunday newspaper:

One morning, as I drove down a narrow country lane in Charlottesville, I spotted an African-American boy, about eleven years old, perched on a small bike. He sat in the middle of the road, precisely at the center of a blind curve.

Several thoughts rushed through my mind. If a driver speeds around that curve, that child will be killed. I need to tell him to get out of the way.

Racial tensions in our town have been high, which informed my second thought: Wait! He’s black. I’m white. Maybe he’ll think I’m harassing him.

But then, my third: Doesn’t matter. He’s in danger.

So, I pulled over to the right, far off on my side of the road, and said,” You’ve got to move now. You’re going to get hit.”

The child flashed a smile and immediately dashed off to a lawn on the left, away from my side of the road. Instantly, a car charged around that curve, then zoomed past us, going at least thirty-five miles an hour.

I looked at the child and he looked at me. I drove off, thinking, “That was close. I probably saved a life today.”

The next day, as I headed past that same stretch of road, I re-played the incident, this time from the other driver’s vantage point. If I were coming around that curve fast and I had a big tree on my right, a child in the middle of the road, and a car facing me off to my left, I’d have swerved left to avoid the child. I’d have crashed head-on into the vehicle on the other side—the car with me sitting in it. In retrospect, the life I may have saved was my own.

The incident got me thinking. Straight out of college, I served as a Peace Corps/VISTA volunteer. I’d accepted an impossible assignment. My job was to “deinstitutionalize” some teenaged wards of the state. These kids were unadoptable for one reason or another and had spent their first seventeen years bouncing around: foster homes, mental health facilities, detention centers. They were months away from being placed on the curb by the state when they turned eighteen. I was supposed to equip them with all the life skills they’d missed the previous seventeen years. Informed by ignorance and idealism, I attempted the task.

By the end of my stint, I realized the impossibility of the job. My reaction? At twenty-three years old, I sent around a proposal, asking for donations for me to set up and run a halfway house for these teens. Of course, no one gave me money and the kids wound up on the street.

My newly released eighteen-year-olds, didn’t stand a chance as they entered the community. Several died within a year or two. A few wound up in jail. I don’t remember all that happened to the rest of these kids, but nothing good.

Back then, the state I lived in did not invest much time or many resources into their wards. Yes, a few of the people in power cared about the teens, but some did not, enacting policies that reflected that lack of regard. We failed them. Some came to great harm and some caused great harm. And, we in the community, one way or another, paid for our collective negligence.

I know that life is complicated, but I also know that we are all connected. What I do and say affects you. What you do and say affects me. That August morning, I chose to stop and warn a child. Most likely, my stopping shielded me from great harm.

Working to improve the wellbeing of others will cost us in time, money, comfort and possibly personal safety. Choosing to improve the wellbeing of others enriches our own lives and ultimately will create a better world for all of us to share.

Perhaps this year as we wish for peace on earth, we can come closer to experiencing that peace by being intentional about showing good will toward all people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE GIFTS OF GRIEF–A RETREAT ON WRITING THROUGH YOUR LOSS

The Gifts of Grief: A Retreat on Writing Through Your Loss

February 10 @ 10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Instructor: Lisa Ellison and Deborah Prum
$80 Members | $87 Nonmembers
Saturday, 2/10/18 | 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
*This retreat will take place at the instructor’s home.

To register, go to: http://writerhouse.org/class/the-gifts-of-grief-a-retreat-on-writing-through-your-loss/

There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be. –Leon Bloy

Grief and loss are universal human experiences frequently associated with suffering and darkness. But there are gifts hidden in these difficult times that transcend the painful narratives we often tell. Join us for an in-town, offsite retreat that combines experiential activities, writing prompts, and discussions that will help you find the gifts in your grief and loss.

This retreat is limited to 8 participants. The in-town location will be provided once payment has been received.

Deborah M. Prum’s award-winning fiction has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly ReviewAcross the Margin and other literary journals and anthologies. Her audio book, First Kiss and Other Cautionary Tales, is a collection of essays, which have aired on NPR-member stations and have appeared in The Washington Post and other publications. She’s written on writing for Writer MagazineThe Writer’s Handbook, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Magazine.
Lisa Ellison, Ed.S. is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach with a background in mindfulness and mental health. She has an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from James Madison University and is an experienced teacher and facilitator. Recipient of a 2015 VQR Conference scholarship for potential literary excellence, Lisa’s essays have been published in Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Rumpus, Streetlight, Gravel Literary Journal, and The Rusty Nail. Her short story “A Bit of Heaven” was the runner up in the 2015 C-Ville Weekly Fiction Contest. To learn more, please visit her website: www.lisacooperellison.com

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Book Review: THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW

            The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The novel is dripping with magical realism and reminded me (in a good way) of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, which I also loved.

Set in New Orleans in the 1950’s, the novel is about a small boy who is born without a voice. Although he is mute, he is not deaf, if fact he can hear the sounds of the universe, both present and past: By June of 1956, six-year-old Bonaventure’s hearing went beyond vibrations and out and away from frequencies and wavelengths. It sliced through pressure. It defeated time and space. He like to curl up in his favorite chair on the sunporch and listen to exploding sunspots , and sometime on nights he just couldn’t fall asleep, he listened to stars being born.”

I hadn’t heard/read anything about the book, so I wasn’t expecting much, but the gorgeous writing immediately drew me in. Here’s an example. The author is describing cemeteries in New Orleans: In those cities of the dead, statues and etchings mark resting places, and a populace of angels stand in constant pose directing the departed toward heaven. Broken flowers and weeping willows pay reverent homage, while poppies bestow eternal sleep. Doves bequeath peace, Christ’s bleeding heart wears a crown of thorns, and lambs mark the graves of children. Every statue and every design keeps vigil over the dead.”

Lately, I’ve read a fair number of books that were interesting, but I didn’t much like any of the characters. They were realistically portrayed, but often  by an author whose view of mankind seemed jaded and cynical. In these books, I couldn’t warm up to anyone. With this novel, I felt sympathy for and empathy with many of the characters–Bonaventure, his mother, his dead father, his paternal grandmother, that grandmother’s boyfriend, Trindidad, the housekeeper. I cared so much about everybody, that at the end of the book, I found myself weeping, not just a little sniffle, but downright sloppy weeping. I don’t remember the last time that’s happened.

After reading the book, I listened to an interview of Rita Leganski, the author. For most of her life, Leganski worked as a secretary. At age 49, she decided to go to college, taking courses at night. One of her last courses before graduating was a creative writing class. The last assignment for the class was to write an interesting short story. Leganski came up with a humorous tale about a mute child named Bonaventure. Some time after graduation, she saw her professor who said she should do something with the story. Eventually, Leganski expanded the short story into a novel. She sent out 70 queries, before she won representation with her 71st query and I am so glad she did.

I highly recommend this novel and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

 

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HOMEGOING–A Book Review

With regard to racial strife in the US, have you ever wondered, “How in the world did we get here?”  Written by Yaa Gyasi, the novel, Homegoing, provides one answer. The story traces the lives of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born in the 1700’s in Ghana. Separated while young, they each experience radically different adulthoods. One marries an Englishman and lives in relative wealth in Africa. The other is captured and sent to America, where she and her descendants are enslaved.

The book follows two story lines, one is about Effia’s descendants in Ghana, their struggles with intertribal warfare and hardships under the British. The other story is about Esi’s descendants in America and describes enslaved life in the South and also touches on life during the Civil War, the Great Migration and life in Harlem during the twentieth century.

The writing is wonderful, the characters are memorable and the content is informative. The structure is a challenge. Keep a close eye on the family tree at the front of the book or you will be thoroughly confused. Each chapter is about a specific descendant of either Effia or Esi. As the book progresses, you are cruising through time as well as switching from one family tree branch to the other—so you have to pay attention. Overall, I liked the structure. I liked seeing how the lives of one generation affected the next. However, sometimes I yearned to stay with a character and know more fully about his/her story.

This is a great book. I highly recommend it.

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Christmas Present Ideas

Desperate to find that perfect book for your relative or friend?

 Check out my Amazon Author page:
https://www.amazon.com/Deborah-M.-Prum/e/B00AY6XBXI

If you think they might be interested in an iBook: check out my iTunes listings: https://itunes.apple.com/…/…/czars-and-czarinas/id708346432… or https://itunes.apple.com/…/back-talking-on-mou…/id827847896…

Have a great holiday!

Deb Prum

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Movie Review–MUDBOUND

 

I just watched the movie Mudbound. Set in the 1940’s in the Jim Crow south, the story is about two families who live side by side on a Mississippi cotton farm. The McAllans (white) own the failing farm and the Jacksons (black) work on it. A man from each family goes off to fight in World War II. Both survive. The black man returns to the same oppressive situation on the farm, but his worldview has changed.

Dee Rees does a splendid job of directing the film. I read about her techniques in Backstage. She works with the actors in pairs, which gives them the opportunity to figure out their relationship without having to keep in all the other elements of the movie. When she gives her directing comments, she speaks specifically and quietly to each actor. She feels that method creates a safe space for the performer. Rees doesn’t care if the actors recite their lines exactly right; she is more concerned about them conveying the intent of the words. She will often ask the performers to act in character in improv scenes. The end result of her directing efforts is wonderful acting by a talented ensemble. Although the story includes some excruciatingly painful scenes (WW II battles, a KKK gathering), the acting is a pleasure to watch.

The movie is based on a 2008 Hillary Jordan novel of the same name. Dee Rees and Virgil Williams wrote the screenplay. The movie provides an insightful look at race and class in 1940’s Mississippi.

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JFK, Daddy and Me in VWC Centennial Anthology

My short story, JFK, Daddy and Me, has been included in The Best of the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, 1918-2018. Other local writers in the anthology include, Jody Hobbs Hessler, Becky Mushko, Sara Robinson and Elaine Ruggieri. For more information, please check out the Amazon listing.

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Interview–SHARON HARRIGAN–PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE

 

Sharon Harrigan’s memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, has just been released. I asked Sharon a few questions.

  1. Which authors have most influenced your work?

So many! But for brevity I’ll just name Joan Didion. Aren’t we all influenced by Joan Didion? One of the things people have told me is that even though the frame of my story is only two years—the time when I’m searching for my father—that by the end they feel as if they’ve been given the whole arc of my life. I’m pleased by that comment because it’s how I felt about The Year of Magical Thinking. Even though Didion’s frame is only a year, at the end we feel as if we’ve experienced the arc of her whole decades-long marriage. Using time that way is a technical nightmare, but I hope I pulled it off.

  1. What would you like your readers to take away from your memoir?

Most of all I want them to be moved. I want them to allow feelings to float to the surface about their own fathers. Their own mothers and brothers and sisters, too. I want them to think about lost family connections, second chances, and the stories we tell about ourselves.

  1. Were there events you didn’t include for fear of offending someone?

When I was writing the first draft, or even the second and third drafts, I didn’t think about how people would react, about whether they would judge me for the things my narrator does or whether they would be offended by the way I portrayed them or how I described their house or transcribed their speech or whatever. It’s like writing with your hands tied behind your back if you’re always worrying what people will think. But after I got a contract, I did take some things out. Not about me, but about other people. There was one thing in particular I was really scared to tell people about myself. I almost deleted that scene, but in the end, the impulse to do so felt cowardly, so I took some deep breaths and did some yoga and let it stay.

  1. Have any reactions to your memoir surprised you?

Maybe the most surprising was an e-mail from a friend who said in the first sentence, “I had to stop reading your book.” He said he would finish it later, but he had to take some time to process all the emotion my story was bringing up about his own life. It took me a minute to realize he was paying me a compliment, saying the work was that powerful.

  1. Would you tell us a little about your next project?

A strange novel that does what I don’t think any other novel has tried to do before (and correct me if I’m wrong): use a first-person plural point of view with two people speaking in one voice. And after that, I swear I’m going to tackle something less technically difficult!

Check out Sharon’s book on Amazon.

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