Author Archives: Kyle Williams

Breadcrumb Trail: Music

The Breadcurmb Trail and a brown path with bread crumbs making a trail

Ever wish your favorite song would never end? Instead of replaying it on an endless loop, try diving into the stories behind the songs. Welcome back to the Breadcrumb Trail! In this edition, we take a look at the tales that go into making our favorite tunes, as well as the power of music to affect us and shape the stories of our lives.

Covers of Pitch Perfect, Whiplash, A Visit from the Good Squad, and Norwegian Wood

When listening to a talented musician, what can often go unrecognized is the tremendous effort and practice necessary to make them sound so good. Often this education takes place at a specialized school where intense training and nerve-wracking performances are the norm.

Looking at the lighter side of learning music, the 2012 film Pitch Perfect follows college freshman Beca, played by Anna Kendrick, who begins her journey into the drama-filled world of a cappella. Reluctantly entering college, Beca only wants to pursue her passion as a DJ. Rather than study, she spends her time making mash-ups of her favorite songs and interning at the school radio station. When she is overheard singing in the shower, she is enlisted to join the Barden Bellas, the all-female a cappella troupe. Here she meets the other members, made up of classic stock characters typified by college and high school films.

               As she learns to navigate her way through the drama and politics of the group who are seeking to beat the all-male troupe, the Barden Treblemakers, at this year’s competition, after an embarrassing defeat at the previous contest, Beca’s new ideas about what songs the group should perform get her in hot water. But as the group and the audience comes to love the mash-up styles she favors, enemies become friends on stage and off.

Loosely based on a biography of a collegiate a cappella group, Pitch Perfect is part musical, part comedy, and part classic college flick. Filled with a star-studded ensemble cast the film is a dazzling display of singing and performance as well as a story of how music can bring together even the most opposing personalities.

Where Pitch Perfect looks at the struggles to perform through a heartfelt and humorous angle, the 2014 picture Whiplash tells a much darker tale. Following another first-year student, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City, the story revolves around his relationship with his abusive yet inspiring teacher and conductor of the school’s highest jazz band, played by J.K. Simmons. Dreaming of becoming one of the greats like his hero Buddy Rich, Andrew is a drummer who only wants to play with the best. After being overheard in a practice room late at night, he is invited to try out for the top jazz band.

Once a part of the band, Andrew learns the hard way how to become great at the hands of Terence Fletcher, the cruel perfectionist conductor of the group. An intensely dislikable character, Fletcher berates his students into playing better or quitting in tears, justifying his style as a way to motivate his students and weed out those who don’t have what it takes, namely an all-consuming obsession for talent. He uses the story of Charlie Parker, a legendary jazz saxophonist, who became so after a band leader threw a cymbal at his head. Miles is determined to rise to the occasion through any means necessary, leading to fractured relationships, a traumatic accident, and eventual withdrawal from the school and drumming. The film ends with his and Fletcher’s reunion, initially in conflict but brought together in the end through music.

The film received the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons portrayal of the terrifying teacher Terence Fletcher, as well as Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing, both earned for displaying the hectic and wild patterns of jazz with special emphasis on close-up shots of instruments.

After learning to play and getting some gigs, the next and most difficult part of being in a band is getting a record deal. It can seem like luck or even fate that some bands should be discovered while other great acts never break through. In her book A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan tells the disparate stories of those connected to record executive Bennie Salazar. Spanning generations, from Bennie’s days in an upstart punk band, to his top of the world executive office in downtown L.A., and many characters the he knows or are only related through a string of others. Egan’s novel tells humorous and heartfelt stories about different facets of the music industry and those closely related.

One chapter follows Bennie in his earliest days of trying to get in a band and falling under the influence of an older, cooler record producer. Another chapter finds this producer on his deathbed in his luxury mansion, once the site of outrageous parties and now nearly desolate. An entire chapter consists of a PowerPoint on silences in music, laid out in presentation style that note songs that the narrator found particularly moving, calculating time of break versus emotional impact, interspersed with funny commentary on her family in pie charts and bar graphs.

Another chapter is an article on a movie star whom the interviewer finds so uninteresting he is forced to lash out and assault her just to get a story. The interview is written from jail and the interviewer plays a role in another chapter after he is released and tasked with writing about the career revival of an aged rock star. Like Egan’s other work, The Candy House, the novel is humorous and insightful, delving into family and relationship issues, tragedy and the will to live on that can only be captured in a work that spans decades. It even features characters from The Candy House, placing both works in the same universe, allowing the reader to trace the evolution of characters over multiple works.

Often listening to music can open a whole world of memories inside us, connecting the past to the present through a single song. This is the premise for Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood, named after the Beatles song. After Toru, the narrator, hears a muzak rendition of the song on an airplane he finds himself driven to write down the story of his relationships in college, namely with his friend Naoko and their connection through their deceased best friend, Kizuki.

Inseparable in high school, the friends’ lives change drastically after Kizuki commits suicide. To cope, Toru and Naoko bond over long walks and sharing silence. But when they attend different universities they become estranged, Toru leading a life of an anti-social outcast and Naoko suffering a nervous breakdown, eventually moving into a sanitarium in the mountains. While at school in the city, Toru enjoys his solitude, spending most of his time reading and taking aimless walks. He is uninterested in school life and the civil upheavals on campus. His few connections to others are his womanizing friend Nagasama, with whom he goes out drinking, and Midori a classmate who becomes Toru’s girlfriend, though he still harbors feelings for Naoko.

After Naoko moves to the mountain retreat to focus on her mental health, Toru often visits her, also finding the remote landscape healing. He meets her roommate, an older woman who teaches piano and plays guitar. It is her renditions of Beatles songs that becomes in immovable memory for Toru as he reflects back on his life filled with sorrow, heartbreak, and love. Norwegian Wood tells the story of friends whom tragedy forced to grow up too fast, their relationships, and their struggle to overcome their sorrowful pasts.

Music can contain a world in itself, and listening can shift your mood or match it perfectly. The stories behind the music can be equally as compelling, whether in film or novels, and can create an even larger world filled with emotions and ideas unheard in the original song.

Star Wars Psychology

book cover of Stars Wars Psychology

Are you as obsessed with Star Wars as the rest of us? Have you ever wondered about what makes its characters so intriguing? Now you can find out with Star Wars Psychology, a book of essays focusing on the iconic characters, treating them like real people and examining them like psychiatry patients.

Star Wars Psychology examines the philosophical underpinnings of the classic series through the lens of current psychology. Featuring essays on various characters, psychologists, and theories, the book uses real teachings and analysis on fictional characters and stories. The biggest issue addressed concerns the dichotomy between the light and dark sides of the force. Using theories of evil from Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm, William James, Philip Zombardo, and others, as well as scientific research into psychopathologies and clinical pathologies, the book attempts to define each character’s true nature.

When Han Solo rescues Luke from the wastelands of Hoth, he betrays his cool, uncaring demeanor to reveal his truly heroic nature. Lando Calrissian’s return to help his friends after he realizes Darth Vader’s betrayal is not altruistic enough to make him a hero. Even the great Sith Lord Vader has a final moment of redemption when he selflessly saves his son. The book hypothesizes that the strict separation of light and dark that the Jedi order teaches may not be as clear cut as they like.

Luke Skywalker embodies the essence of good, even when he goes against the teachings of his mentors. His defining trait – his devotion to his friends, even at the risk of courting influence from the dark side – makes him the true hero of the story. After learning his friends are in danger, Luke cuts short his training with Master Yoda. He is told this puts him in great danger, for without finishing his mastery of the force, he is in danger of falling to the dark side. Luke rejects this rational way of thinking, instead doing what he feels right. In the end, he is proven right as he is not only able save his friends but also redeems his father’s life of power-hungry embracement of the dark side.

Other characters discussed include the hero’s journey of Princess Leia, Darth Maul’s self-actualization, the empathy we feel for droids, and Yoda’s mentoring methods.

Star Wars Psychology, along with several Star Wars films, are available at the Bellevue University Library.

Image description: Blue cover of Star Wars Psychology

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Breadcrumb Trail: Sports

Despite cultural and national differences around the world, there is one that unite these differences while celebrating the individual nations and citizens – sports. Despite the things that make us different from nation to nation, state to state, and city to city, sports bring us together under one set of rules, allowing us to showcase our pride in our home in a healthy way.

books and media about sports

               Welcome back to the Breadcrumb Trail, where this month we will look at the exciting tales of sports from both the journalistic and imagined angles. Sports journalism has been around as long as sports have, allowing those who were unable to witness the game partake in the thrill of the competition. Before the advent of radio and television, sports journalists make these games available to the public at large, often giving their own commentary and insight into what happened on the field.

               Some journalists go so far as to put themselves in the stories, not only giving a description of the event, but relating their experience, thoughts, and opinions. Journalist and novelist Norman Mailer approached one of the biggest sporting events of the twentieth century in this manner. Not only was it one of the biggest sporting events, it was also a massive cultural happening – the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which at the time was renamed Zaire after a revolution of independence from the French in 1971. Mailer takes his inquisitive and opinionated views to bear on the new country as well as the match that brought the attention of the world to focus on it.

               Mailer uses his book, The Fight, to examine African culture and the burgeoning interest in it in America with the rise of the Black Power movement. He uses the two fighters as representing opposite poles – Ali as the galvanizing and vocal proponent of Black Power, and Foreman as the quiet and dedicated fighter. After hanging around Ali for a few weeks, even going on a 4 A.M. run with him, he relates the exciting fight which pits Ali’s technique against Foreman’s power. The match ends in an upset and the following day the stadium is flooded by a downpour.

               Much like the Ali-Foreman fight, sports events can often coincide with a wider cultural or political milieu to give the event added weight. Possibly the biggest example of this was the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The hockey series between the United States and the Soviet Union pitted the two biggest superpowers in the world at the height of the Cold War. This infamous matchup was made into the 2004 Disney film Miracle.

               The underdog American team, consisting of young amateur players, continued to shock the world as they advanced to the finals against the Soviet squad, who had won the gold five out of the previous six Winter Olympics. Through head coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, the team is pushed to their fullest potential in grueling practice, dedication, and commitment. The film captures the uplifting power of sports to rise above national differences and compete in a bloodless way. The in-the-rink camera work puts you inside the epic match and the dramatic acting and moving score work to heighten what was already a great story of competition.

               While sports can often bring out the best in an athlete, it can also bring out the worst in the desire to win at all costs. Portraying another infamous event on ice, I, Tonya tells the story of figure skater Tonya Harding, played by Margot Robbie, and the dramatic assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 National Championships. The mockumentary depicts Harding as a victim of events out of her control, and features fake interviews of Harding and her ex-husband who masterminded the assault, both contradicting each other to create a dubious air around the question of guilt of Harding.

               The film tells Harding’s story, including her relationship with her domineering, perfectionist mother and her abusive marriage. It looks at how the media portrayed her negatively because of her poor background in an elite sport, despite her incredible ability. Her frustration with her losses because of her unwholesome image leads her to questionable actions, which inevitably lead to the assault on Kerrigan. The film plays with the serious event in a humorous manner, with unreliable interviewees casting doubt on what actually happened.

               Even though true sports events have enough excitement and drama for a good story, it is often fun to make up our own sports, sometimes casting them into the unknown future. In his short story collection The Infinite Arena, author Terry Carr brings together seven science fiction stories about sports in space. These sports slightly resemble those that we know now, but tweak them to represent the possibilities of the technological future. In one, polo is played with spaceships instead of horses. In another by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, solar-powered ships compete in a race to the moon.

The classic poem about baseball, “Casey at the Bat” is skewered to depict an alien planet where Earth lore and culture has been adopted, melding wannabe gangsters and pirates as they compete against a team of snakelike competitors in a game of baseball. The aliens rely mostly on their star, who has taken on the persona of Casey, going so far as to believe that the infamous day in Mudville actually happened to him. The sole human on the planet takes the task of helping the imbibing ewok-like inhabitants win the regional pennant and prevent the tragedy of Mudville from repeating itself.

               No matter if you are an athlete or not, sports can be an exciting event that captures the human spirit in all its competitiveness and determination. Whether true or not, the physical feats of sports cause awe in the viewer and pride in the participant, showcasing the potential of us all through hard work and persistence.

Face of a Naked Lady

cover of The Face of a Naked Lady

Families are often full of dirty secrets, hidden from younger generations. One may not learn the truth about a relative until after they have passed, when it is deemed safe to bring the dark parts of their life to the light. In a similar manner, a city’s shadowy history can be unknown to those living in it today. In Michael Rips’ novel The Face of a Naked Lady, the author explores his family’s history, which inevitably leads to a history lesson on his hometown of Omaha.

The story begins with a mysterious nude painting done by Rips’ father, discovered in the family basement after his death. Michael only knew his father as a quiet, thoughtful man, bookish and prone to naps. But with the discovery of a series of risqué paintings, Michael takes it upon himself to learn who the woman is, and who his father really was. He hires a mysterious private investigator to assist him, who ends up giving clues rather than answers to Michael’s search.

After speaking to old friends of his fathers, Rips learns that he was the first to smoke, drink, and court women among his friend group. He discovers the meaning behind his father Norman’s nickname “Nick,” which was shortened from “Nicotine” due to his smoking habit. But his father was also a lover of literature, frequenting a local bar to read – and flirt.

The more Rips learns about his father and the older generations of his family the more increasingly bizarre the stories become. His father was born in a brothel owned by his grandparents and raised in part by the women who worked there. Rips explores the old city of South Omaha, which before incorporation was the fastest growing city in the country due to its main industry – the stockyards. As immigrants moved to the city to work, the population boomed, and as most were men, brothels and bars were the next biggest businesses.

Rips tells the story of his family alongside the history of Omaha, including mob boss Tom Dennison and his connections to Al Capone during prohibition, the tragic 1919 race riot, and the development of the suburbs. He tells of his own youth and time spent working in his father’s optical factory making eyeglasses. It is here that Michael believes his father met the woman who would be the subject of his paintings.

Part memoir, part history, and part magical realism, Michael Rips tells an entertaining tale twisting light and dark, humor and death, sex and adventure into a search for a man he knew his whole life, yet only truly learned about after it was too late.

The Face of a Naked Lady is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

Image source: https://www.amazon.com/Face-Naked-Lady-Family-Mystery/dp/0618711899

Michael Rips, Nebraska Author

Man with white shirt, dark suit jacket

Omaha native Michael Rips splits his time between supporting the arts and practicing law. Living in New York City, he is executive director of the Art Students League of New York, as well as writing on constitutional law and the Supreme Court. He served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He has written three books of nonfiction, including one, The Face of a Naked Lady, about his family and his hometown of Omaha. His stories are based in truth, but stretches the limits of credulity to humorous effect. He has also written about living in a small village in Italy, and the legendary Chelsea flea market in New York City.

Two of Michael Rips’ books are available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

Image source: https://dauntbookspublishing.co.uk/authors/michael-rips/

Sources: https://lithub.com/author/michaelrips/

https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/rips-michael-1954

The Breadcrumb Trail: TV

This winter break will most likely find us in front of a television at some point. Americans spend an average of three hours a day watching. This month we will be going down the Breadcrumb Trail of fictions about one of our favorite pastimes – TV.

Copies of Sellevision, Slumdog Millionaire, Network, and The Candy House in front of a television. 
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News programming has been a staple of television since its inception, allowing for faster coverage than newspapers and quickly reaching a wider population than radio. With the advent of cable and the exponential growth of niche markets, TV news has become increasingly sensationalized to attract maximum viewers. Possibly the most famous work of fiction about television examines this trend toward the extreme in news, the film Network. The story centers around aging newscaster Howard Beale, a no-nonsense reporter who learns he is to be fired for declining ratings. This prompts him to take drastic action, declaring on air that he will commit suicide live on the following night. When the nation tunes in, Beale instead delivers a tirade against the larger forces of capitalism and the government that work to keep the citizens in their place. As Beale’s rants increase alongside his ratings, he becomes more than the network can control, leading to a stalemate as they can’t justify removing him from air due to his high ratings yet can’t leave him on when they are the very thing he is railing against. Network satirizes the tendency toward the extreme common today in news cycles, now seen as click bait headlines online, revealing the hypocrisy of news outlets and their supposed dedication to delivering simple news stories.

While things on screen have become increasingly outrageous, so have the workings backstage. In his comedic novel Sellevision, Augusten Burroughs takes a look behind the scenes of a shopping network where indiscretions, backstabbing, and petty feuds play out to hilarious effect. Following several characters from a veteran salesman fired over an on-air wardrobe malfunction to an up-and-coming starlet having an affair with the head of the network, Burroughs dives into the foibles of those obsessed with being on screen and their pride in their ability to hawk anything from faux diamonds to mechanical tie racks, as well as their crippling anxiety over physical appearance and aging gracefully. Despite their perfect display on air, these salespeople suffer from neuroses enough for a team of psychiatrists, including one who is targeted by an obsessed fan who turns on her after ignoring her emails and begins pointing out her minute flaws beginning with the faint hairs on her earlobe on display while selling a pair of earrings. Throughout the novel each character is forced to confront their imperfections and learn to live as a real person rather than a perfect image on screen.

Television is a medium that can make or break people, and ordinary viewers can get their shot through ever-present game shows. One of the most famous and drama-filled is Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in which contestants who can answer fifteen questions correctly can walk away with one million dollars. With panning spotlights and tense music, the show is prefect fodder for real life drama on television. Using this tension and drama, the film Slumdog Millionaire follows Jamal Malik and his successful stint on an Indian version of the game show. Born in the slums of Mumbai and orphaned, young Jamal is an uneducated chaiwala, or tea seller, in a call center. The story centers around his time on the gameshow with flashbacks to his tumultuous life and specific instances in which he learned the answers to his questions. Featured prominently in these memories are his brother Salim and their friend Latika who become entrenched in Mumbai’s criminal world as they struggle to survive. A story of brotherhood and long-lost love, Slumdog Millionaire is at times humorous, tragic, and uplifting.

With the rise of social media, television at times takes a back seat as an entertainment form. Reality TV is subsumed by live-streaming and nostalgia takes the form of going over old social posts. It is this dynamic that is explored by Jennifer Egan in her novel The Candy House. The narrative centers around a new technology of the not-too-distant future that allows people to externalize their memories, including all of their feelings and thoughts at the time of the event, into a drive for others to view. The novel begins with Bix Bouton, the tech genius creator of Own Your Unconsciousness, the program that solidifies memory into a computer, but quickly abandons his plot to spread out over an array of characters, all of whom are somewhere within the six degrees of separation from Bix. The advent of the technology leads to a further program that allows you to submit your memories to the world in exchange for access to everyone else’s. The novel reads as a skimming through the collective memories of several loosely related characters, including stories ranging from international intrigue to petty feuding neighbors, never staying with any one long enough to reach a conclusion. The novel explores how deeply embedded technology has become in our lives, including a character who works as a “counter” who reduces human traits to numbers to predict behavior for the tech company he works for, as well as “eluders,” those who refuse to participate in the oversharing commonplace on the new internet and instead seek good old-fashioned solitude. Directly referencing the increasingly irrelevant world of television, one character works to turn TV tropes into algebra equations, draining the life from the narrative and leaving basic formulas for human interaction.

No matter the content, television is always a world of drama, real or imagined, on screen or off, that may or may not be replaced by the arena of social media in the near future. Whether you watch for information or entertainment, TV always aims to deliver the most bang for your buck, sometimes to its detriment. Nevertheless, it is a cultural milieu that is informed by and has created the zeitgeist since its inception, and the world has never be the same.

King of Broken Things

               Omaha in the years of World War I represents a microcosm of the nation at large. In 1919 a race riot broke out in the midst of a meatpacking strike and largely flamed by the city’s criminal establishment, led by mob boss, Tom Dennison. It is in this legacy of local and global violence that Ted Wheeler’s novel, Kings of Broken Things, takes place.

               The novel follows three central characters. One is a European immigrant, Karel, a young boy who becomes infatuated with the game of baseball. Another, Jake, has a checkered past and finds himself drawn into the criminal world, led by Dennison. The third is Evie, a servant who passes for white in a hostile time, who seeks to escape her dreary life.

               Wheeler writes about the events that caused the riot, including tensions brought about by labor reform, soldiers returning from the war, and the melting pot of the city that becomes a tinderbox fueled by corrupt politicians and underhanded criminals. Each character becomes involved with Omaha’s underworld, getting drawn in even as they actively seek to extricate themselves.

               In the manner of historical fiction, Wheeler not only writes about the real events of the times, but injects his characters of differing backgrounds in order to reveal the emotions and feelings involved in the tumultuous times.

               Kings of Broken Things is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

Theodore Wheeler, Nebraska Author

Omaha native and novelist Theodore Wheeler has written four books spanning centuries and countries. From the early 20th century Omaha to modern day San Salvador, Wheeler’s stories focus on the elements of humanity that unite us all despite background or current situation. Often set against important historical events, Wheeler chooses to emphasize the wide range of feeling that occurs during moments of turmoil.

His first novel was published in 2015 and takes place during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. The story follows an immigrant boy and explores the racial and historical dynamite barrel that was the first few decades of the 20th century. This novella would be adapted into his novel Kings of Broken Things, a braided narrative that follows Karel, the immigrant boy, as well as a young man drawn into the criminal underworld of Omaha and a young woman of mixed race who lives passing as white to stay safe in a volatile time.

His 2016 book of short stories, Bad Faith, tells of various downtrodden characters and their fractured families. His 2020 effort, In Our Other Lives, is a more modern novel set directly after 9/11 and focuses on a veteran who was until recently missing in Pakistan, his sister, and an FBI agent sent to Nebraska to investigate his disappearance and reappearance. His newest novel The War Begins in Paris was published this month. It is a noir set in WWII Paris and follows two women as they contemplate the war and their role in the conflict.

Wheeler is currently an English professor at Creighton University and director of the Omaha Lit Fest. He is also runs Dundee Book Company with his wife.

Several of Agee’s works are available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

Photo description: Man with dark hair, black shirt and jacket sitting with several books in the background.

Breadcrumb Trail: Travel

The power of art is its magical ability to transport us to new, exotic locations. We can see sights we never could in person, and travel vast distances in an instant. While a foreign destination my be the impetus for a voyage, sometimes the trip itself can be a better story that the arrival itself.

Welcome back to The Breadcrumb Trail, the Freeman/Lozier Library’s Media Advisory Blog. This month as many of us set off to visit family for the holidays, we will be taking our own trip through books and movies.

Some people live to travel, others become flustered at the thought of traveling across town. In John Hughes’ holiday classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, we follow two mismatched travel companions as they try to get back home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. One is an uptight advertising executive, Neal, played by Steve Martin, who is continually foiled in his efforts to get back home, beginning with his failure to get a cab in New York rush hour. He becomes involuntarily paired up with a jovial, talkative salesman, Del, played by John Candy, the very man who stole the cab from under Neal’s nose in New York. Through a continuing series of unfortunate events, the two become travel mates as weather and travel accidents keep delaying them on their way home.

The comedy plays off the two characters opposite natures, as unlucky and unhappy Neal is stuck with happy-go-lucky Del who looks at the bright side of every situation and is just happy to have someone to talk to. As with many of John Hughes films, humor turns to sincerity as the two men become close despite their frustrations along the way. In the end Neal and Del spend the holiday together, discovering that being forced to travel together is a good way to get to know someone, and even make new friends.

Traveling is usually done to get somewhere, but often it can be done to get away from something. In Alexander Payne’s dramedy Sideways, two friends set off on a trip through California’s wine country. Although the trip is meant to be a bachelor party for Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, it is also to get his friend Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, out of the slump he finds himself in as he tries to get over his recent divorce and the stress of trying to get his 900 page novel published. Again, the two friends opposing demeanors play off each other, as wild former actor Jack seeks to have one last blow-out before marriage, and curmudgeonly Miles always finds a way to find the worst in his situation.

The real reason for the trip is to visit California’s extensive wine country, with Miles the aficionado attempting to teach the classless Jack about the wonders of wine. Even though Miles revels in the complexities and intricacies of the drink, he ends up using it to cope with his depression, only making it worse to the chagrin of Jack. The two friends meet a couple women to join them as they visit the various wineries, enjoying the beautiful countryside vineyards and each other’s company. In a similar manner to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, their journey becomes increasingly upsetting as Jack falls for his new friend and Miles learns his novel is rejected by the last publisher considering it. But in a similar fashion, both stories end with silver linings, as both men come to learn to love the things they have rather than focusing on what they’ve lost.

Sometimes traveling can be an experience in and of itself and America offers a wide range of vistas along the way. In Jack Kerouac’s timeless travelogue On the Road, we follow the narrator Sal Paradise as he sets off to see the legendary American West, the land of open spaces and freedom from obligation. Sal is very similar to Miles, a college student working on a novel after a divorce, when he gets an invite from his exuberant friend Dean to visit the Western side of the nation. As Sal crisscrosses the nation, hitching rides, hopping trains, or taking the bus, he comes to find that the most enjoyable parts of the trip are the times spent on the road, even if it is huddled under a tarp in the back of a pickup flying down the highway with frozen ears. Each destination he has in mind never lives up to his hopes as he ends up doing the same old things he would have were he back home – namely aimless talk and vapid partying.

Set in the late Forties, the novel explores the burgeoning Beat movement with characters who are thin veils of real figures such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. The narrative follows the Beat tradition of stream-of-consciousness tale-telling filled with interesting packets of words, telling the tale of telling a tale, even if nothing of real importance occurs. A mix of dissatisfaction with the edifices of modern life and the love of the simple things finds its place in Sal who seems to enjoy the going more than the arriving. An ideal novel for those suffering from wanderlust, On the Road exemplifies the freedom of the road and the interesting turns life takes along the way.

For some travelers no destination is ever good enough, even idyllic Hawaii, the dream location for many voyagers. We meet this specific wanderer in Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure. The novel spoofs travelogues in a hilarious fashion as we follow the narrator as he reluctantly sets out for Hawaii and finds issues with the whole trip. Never grounded in reality, the Honolulu of Handey’s novel is a humorously distorted vision of the real thing, and his deadpan observations of the culture and surroundings mark him as the ultimate tourist who seems to find fault with everything he encounters.

Originally known for his Deep Thoughts on Saturday Night Live, Jack Handey is a unique writer whose one-liner observations on life are so stupid and nonsensical they come off as interesting and hilarious pontifications. He brings this pithy voice to bear on the magical land of Honolulu with short chapters filled with moronic Eureka moments and slapstick comedy. The Stench of Honolulu is the perfect book for those who don’t like to travel and seeking justification for their homebody ways.

During the holiday breaks this year, be sure to take a trip, if not in the real world then at least in a good book or movie. While it can be exciting to escape to a new land and become immersed in something different, it can be equally interesting to enjoy traveling for the simple joy of not being in one place, but constantly on the move. Even if there are pratfalls and gloomy times along the way, a humorous outlook can redeem any excursion.

Photo description: steering wheel of a car with the books and movies mentioned in this blog, behind the wheel.

Nebraska Stories by Ron Hansen

In his book of short stories, Nebraska Stories, Ron Hansen portrays vignettes of the simpler times with his succinct observational style of writing. Moving from romantic rendezvous to criminal acts and everything in between, Hansen uses the many different sides of the state, the country, and the world as a backdrop for his character studies.

He begins by sharing tales of those who survived through the blizzard of 1888. Next he tells of a massive amusement park raised out of the prairie, where a couple spends the day dazzled by the sights and each other. Another, The Killers, traces the ill-fated paths of strangers who come into contact through violent means.

A thief contemplates his lonely business with his newly stolen dog while on the lam in a cabin in the woods, going so far as to don her with earrings and a necklace to try to uncover a life unknown to him, and a family man tries to write a science fiction story about an alien abduction and his dismal existence on Earth, but struggles to come up with a point to the tale.

After stories that don’t stray from reality, Hansen moves into the world of magical realism. One concerns a tale from the Vietnam War, titled The Bogeyman, about a terrifying squadron commander and a blundering corporal. Hexes and witchcraft appear to be in use, but cannot be separated from the horrors of war. Another tells of a scaled creature mutilating cattle on a Nebraska farm. But despite the wild happenings, Hansen still focuses each story on the people involved, their relationships and unspoken thoughts.

The final titular story gives flashes of depictions of one of many small Nebraska towns, tracing it through a year and the various colors that accompany the seasons and characters that inhabit it. It could be any town, and its uniqueness is common to them all. Hansen strides the line between boring small town and everyday intrigue. “Everyone is famous in this town. And everyone is necessary.”

Hansen’s straightforward writing style and vivid imagery act like snapshots of bygone days, capturing stories fraught with intricate characters though we never get a glimpse inside their heads. Much like an old picture, we are forced to use the details of the story and the plain, minimal dialogue to see into the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life as they navigate the landscape, but even more so each other.

Nebraska Stories is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

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