Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Joan Bauer and My Warped Summer

I just read a fun new book -- CLOSE TO FAMOUS by Joan Bauer.

I've been a big fan of the author since her 1992 debut novel, SQUASHED -- the story of a teenage girl desperate to win a pumpkin-growing contest. Most of the author's subsequent stories concern determined protagonists pursuing a variety of surprising talents -- which include photography, pool-playing, journalism, even shoe-selling -- while simultaneously dealing with family and romantic issues. Joan Bauer is especially good at creating a sense of community; her books contain large casts of supportive friends and neighbors, as well as the occasional nemesis standing in the way of the protagonists' success.

Though written for a somewhat younger audience than usual, Ms. Bauer's latest novel features another narrator with an unusual talent: twelve-year-old Foster McFee is a baker and food philosopher ("Sometimes just sitting with someone you love and having a warm muffin can help make things right") whose tasty cupcakes have the ability to win friends and influence people. And right now she needs all the friends she can get. She and her mother have randomly landed in Culpepper, West Virginia after fleeing Memphis -- and Mama's abusive boyfriend, an Elvis impersonator. In Culpepper, Foster hawks her cupcakes and meets a variety of colorful characters, including a young documentary moviemaker and Miss Charleena, a retired Oscar-nominated actress who ends up tutoring the reading-challenged narrator. Loaded with incident, the book reads like a breeze and, while the final chapters may strain a bit to make most of the dreams of most of the characters come true, CLOSE TO FAMOUS is a fun, likable book as inviting as one of Foster's chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter icing.

On a purely personal level, the book held a nice surprise for me.

The dedication page (poignantly dedicated to the author's recently-deceased mother) also includes a "WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO" list. Ms. Bauer thanks a woman "who walked me through the world of challenged readers" as well as another whose understanding "of a singer's mind, heart, and soul" helped Bauer with the characterization of Foster's singer mother.

Then I came to this thank you:

...and suddenly I was flipped back in time, watching the fate of the world be determined on a twenty foot stage.

I hadn't seen the name "Catrina Ganey" in years, but there it was -- on the first page of CLOSE TO FAMOUS. And it immediately took me back to 1983 when an epic science fiction drama called WARP played at the Attic Theatre, a small professional playhouse in downtown Detroit. Bursting with superheroes, monsters, acrobatic stage battles, fireworks, a million special effects, and the skimpiest costumes this side of a peep show, WARP was a Marvel Comic come to life. Think of it as everything Julie Taymor's current Broadway bomb SPIDERMAN could have and should have been. Presented as three separate shows which opened weeks apart but later played in repertory, WARP remains one of the best plays I've ever seen.

Though already an inveterate theatre-goer at the time, WARP made me realize that a tiny, in-the-round stage didn't have to be confined to intimate human dramas...but could instead create worlds upon worlds upon (alien) worlds in a space smaller than the size of an average bedroom. I went to see each play in the WARP saga twice -- first with my parents and later with my friend -- and wished I could have seen the season-ending "WARP-a-thon," which featured all three episodes presented over the course of a single day, but it cost something like $100, which seemed as elusive as a million bucks to me back then.

I've never forgotten the summer of 1983: those orange summer twilights driving downtown, then coming out of the theatre into the thick night air, talking nonstop:

"Wasn't it great?"

"What was your favorite part?"

"Wasn't it cool when--?"

"And what about when--?"

If I close my eyes I can almost hear the live synthesizer music that accompanied the play.

You're probably wondering what all this has to do with Joan Bauer's book.

Nothing, except that Catrina Ganey, who helped inspire the character of Miss Charleena in CLOSE TO FAMOUS, was once a local actress here in Detroit. She played a leading role in WARP -- Sargon, Mistress of War -- with a blend of power, danger, and tongue-in-cheek sass.

The nature of theatre is ephemeral. Shows open, shows close. Unlike a book, which one can revisit again and again, theatre exists only in the moment. But it can also live on in one's memory, as WARP has done for me. Over the last three decades, I've found myself thinking of this play a lot, not just for its exhilirating stagecraft, but also for its storyline, which I found sort of profound (hey, I was in my early twenties when I saw it.) And I've continued to think about the performers who brought it all to life. That's another rule of theatre: actors come together to create magic moments and then drift apart to regroup in different combinations. Sometimes they disappear, never to be seen again. I've often wondered what happened to the hugely-talented WARP cast when the summer of '83 ended and they were un-Warped....

Who knew I'd discover one of them within the pages of a book by a favorite author?

It's like I always say: you never know what -- or who -- you may find in a children's book.


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P. J. Grath said...

Mind if someone leaves a real comment? I love your story of being stage-struck. Wasn’t (isn’t) it wonderful? It reminds me of the first time I took my son to see a real, live adult play. There was no curtain, so while other people were finding their seats and chatting before the performance, my 12-year-old was able to take in every detail of the set and watch the props being placed. There was not a peep out of him during the first act. I don’t think he moved a muscle. When the curtain went up, he turned to me and said in a hoarse, charged whisper, “I love it!” Magic, indeed.

hschinske said...

Okay, it's got a headless girl and cupcakes. Could there BE a more dated cover? (I mean, of course, dated to current fashions -- in twenty years it's going to scream its approximate decade, if not its approximate year.)

Helen Schinske