Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Musical Rites of Spring

Over the weekend I performed one of my rites of spring: I reread my favorite parts of The Secret Garden and listened to the soundtrack from the original Broadway cast recording of the show. As far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t get much better than seeing a musical of one of my favorite books. Even if I don’t agree with parts of the adaptation, it’s usually pretty exciting to see everything I had imagined come alive on stage. With singing and dancing!

I prefer adaptations made by writers, composers and directors who stay faithful to the spirit of the book and use their creativity to develop storylines that were subplots in the original. The musical adaptation of The Secret Garden does an excellent job of this, particularly in the way it portrays the sad love story of Archibald and Lily Craven. In the book it was a subtext. In the musical they get a beautiful song about how Archie and Lily met (in a garden, of course) and how their relationship unfolded.

Another thing I appreciate about the musical is that a lot of the language from the book is in the lines of the play. There’s one wonderful scene in which Mary Lennox and Mrs. Medlock are taking the train to Misselthwaite Manor. Their lines, in the musical, are almost exactly as written in the book.

A more difficult musical for me to watch was the adaptation of Little Women. The musical did something interesting. It interspersed Jo March’s writing process and the sensational stories that she wrote with the plot of the book, which follows the March sisters and their friends. The musical had some wonderful moments, namely the song that Marmee sings after Beth dies, a duet between Beth and Mr. Laurence and a big production number where the entire cast acted out one of Jo’s stories.

But there were two points that I thought the show stumbled on. First they weren’t true to the spirit of the book. Mr. March, Jo’s father, was written out of the show. I found that strange, particularly considering that the March sisters are consumed with Mr. March coming home from the Civil War safely in the book. More troubling, Laurie was presented as a kind of geeky, pompous twerp – not the handsome, athletic, generous character that every fan of the book loves.

What do you think makes a good adaptation of a book into a musical? And what is your favorite one?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Popcorn Phenomenon

I learned about the popcorn phenomenon in Farmer Boy, one book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. The book covers the childhood of her husband, Almanzo Wilder. According to the book, it’s possible to fill one glass with milk and another glass of equal size with popcorn then pour the milk into the glass with the popcorn and it won’t run over. Wilder writes, “You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go in the same place.”

As soon as I read this, I had to find out if it was true. It is. It also works with caramel popcorn.

This wasn’t the first time I had tried something out that I read in a book. I learned how to make paste from flour and water in Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books. I also learned, like Anastasia does, that you have to use the paste quickly or else it starts to smell. In Anne Digby’s Trebizon series, I learned about how to score tennis matches and about cricket from Antonia Forest’s books about the Marlowe family.

I was really pleased a few months ago when one woman in my writing group said that she tried something that I had written about and found out that it worked. My narrator, Sarah, is goes out for her school’s bicycle racing team. At one of her first lessons on racing, the coach tells her to get off of her bike and walk next to it, steering it only with her hand on the seat. At first, the front wheel flops around and the bike falls over. Then she feels the bike’s center of gravity. At first, she’s able to go a few feet at a time. Then she’s able to push the bike for a long way by the seat. When the woman in my writing group read about the drill, she went out to her bike shed to try it. It worked!

Monday, March 7, 2011

My Life As A Super W.A.G.

For the past five years, I’ve spent every weekend in March and April at bike races. It all started when my husband, a longtime professional cycling fan and lifelong athlete, asked if I would be interested in helping him to coach a collegiate cycling team. I said, “What am I going to do? I’ve never raced a bike in my life.” He said, “You’re good at organizing. They need help with the basic logistics so they can concentrate on the racing.” I said, “Okay, I’ll try it. And I’ll make some banana bread for them.”

We’re now entering our sixth season as the coaches of Columbia University’s cycling team. My role has evolved from a W.A.G. (wife and girlfriend) to fully fledged coach, confidant and supporter. While I still haven’t ever raced a bike, I’m a much more technically proficient rider than I was five years ago and I’ve learned a lot about racing just by watching. I can help new riders with their skills, talk to them about their races and give them advice about how to warm up and cool down.

Coaching our team is a volunteer job. While there's no pay, we are compensated. The road trips up and down the East Coast every weekend are really fun. Sometimes we laugh so hard it hurts. We also enjoy introducing people to the sport and helping more seasoned riders to improve their performances. We share in the disappointment and sadness if someone has had a bad race or is going through a tough time at school or at home. And then there is the exhilaration and joy when someone who has trained hard all winter wins a race!

When we started coaching the team, I never dreamt that I would write a book or that some of my experiences in coaching would be so important to it. But when I wrote that first character sketch of my protagonist I saw bike racing as the perfect physical challenge for her.

Do You Re-Read?

There are two kinds of people in this world: people who re-read books and one-time readers. I am a re-reader.

A re-reader is someone who loves a book so much that she must re-read it on a regular basis. Sometimes, she loves a book so much that she reads it and then starts again from the beginning. These are books that she must have copies of and they must be neatly shelved, by author, in alphabetical or chronological order if it is a series. A one-time reader is someone who reads a book and thinks, “Wow, what a great book!” but doesn’t see the need to experience the pleasure of reading it more than once.

One of the problems with being a re-reader is that the list of books that you like to re-read on an annual basis grows on an annual basis. It used to be that every year, I would read all 58 books in Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, all of Antonia Forest’s books about the Marlowe family, Anne Digby’s Trebizon series and an assortment of other books such as and an assortment of other books such The Great Gatsby. I tend to dip in and out of books these days, reading my favorite parts when I think about them. With a job, a baby, a cycling team to coach and a book to write, I don’t have the luxury of time of being able to re-read the way I used to.

There’s nothing wrong with being a one-time reader. Clearly, if you spend less time re-reading, you have time to read more books. A one-time reader might also have fewer books than a re-reader but that’s not necessarily the case. Some people just like to have books around, even if they never plan to read them again.

I think I’ll always be a re-reader. I still love the experience of the plot unfolding, even if I know what is going to happen, and then savor the beauty of my favorite scenes and lines.

Which one are you? And what is your favorite book to re-read?