Have you ever wondered what novels Charles Dickens might have written if he possessed a sunnier disposition? Meet Wobbly Barstool.
Jane Lowy‘s Wobbly Barstool puts a clever spin on the Victorian novel. The plot shares common elements with Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, including hidden and mistaken identities, adults scheming over the lives of their children, thwarted lives and passion, rough changes of fortune and jaw dropping revelations. Wobbly, Lowy’s hero, lives in the same world as Pip, but, due to his happy rural upbringing, he interprets that world far differently.
He’s a solid, simple lad, far from stupid, but not at all brilliant, raised by two solid and dependable parents, Horace and Nelly, in the pleasant hamlet of Restinstump. Some of you townies might find it dull, but Restinstump provides a calm and relatively idyllic alternative to London, which remains as Dickens painted it. The most heartbreaking moments of the novel concern a trip to London in which Wobbly’s father, Horace, has to work hard not to let the rough conditions of city life, especially that of poor children, drag him into depression.
Seven Dials, by Gustave Dore, 1872, depicts a busy London street full of shoe shops and swarming with children.
The Barstool family is ebullient, taking on whatever life gives them with laughter and twinkle in the eye. When Wobbly makes friends with an unfortunate orphan, Tobias, who is residing in the woods with a band of dogs, they take in the newcomer (and dogs) with open arms, as we know they will. This happy friendship and familial closeness will shape the bulk of the novel even as it is tried and tested.
Life gets most interesting for Wobbly, and for us readers, when the attractive and intelligent Prunella Baddonschilde appears in Restinstump, along with her best friend, Marigold. Wobbly is smitten with Prunella from the beginning, and he doesn’t waste much time in telling her so. She’s been raised in London and her mother has groomed her to marry into the moneyed class. Pru, as she calls herself, is far from thrilled at that prospect, but she’s not ready to rush into anything with an awkward coutry boy a few years younger than herself either. Echoing the desire of Pip for Estella in Great Expectations, Wobbly vows he will make something of himself so that he may win Prunella’s hand. A great many twists and turns ensue. There is even a sea voyage that culminates in several folks plunging overboard. Between unexpected events and extremely lovable characters, Wobbly Barstool is quite a page turner. I guarantee that there is at least one revelation you won’t see coming. Not everything is as clean and tidy as it seems.
The charm of the novel lies in its humor. Wobbly’s employment woes are hilarious, especially when a lonely older woman comes on to him, encouraging him to practice kissing her so that he’ll be an expert by the time he kisses Prunella. Unfortunately, her husband comes home unexpectedly and Wobbly is forced to escape, aided by a disgruntled goat. Humor can be very difficult to put down on the page and often falls flat, but not Lowy’s. Her dialogue positively sparkles. It is the comic qualities of the protagonists that are most endearing, from Wobbly’s almost empty-headed good humor and naiveté to Prunella’s terrible attempts at writing poetry. Many of the character names are worth a chuckle, including the Irishman Fewan Farbetween and, my personal favorite, the loathsome Harry Backanall. This is a book you read with a smile on your face.
While humor is the hook that kept me reading, the strength of the book lies in its characters, particularly Prunella, Wobbly, Marigold and Tobias. They suffer disappointments and betrayals, but are able, ultimately, to hold on to their faith in one another and make decisions that keep them from disaster. They do something that Dickens was loathe to let his characters do–succeed through self determination. Their definition of success is different from what many people of their era, or ours, for that matter, might espouse, having little to do with the grasping for social status or cash that so often motivates Victorian characters and leads them to their ruin. Turning their back on London and the Industrial Revolution, our heroes choose the farm life of Restinstump, where they feel a connection to the community, a cast of wonderful supporting personalities, people who inspire faith in the human race. It is the hint that we can make the same choice that gives the novel its power.
The naiveté of the young residents of Restinstump, as they seek a balance between their dreams, many of which are quite modern, and their love for their traditional community and peaceful existence, makes their choice possible. How many dreams do we deny daily out of a sense of practicality, out of a jaded view of the world? Life is a combination of our projections meeting reality. Sometimes we short change ourselves by expecting too little. That being said, if anyone else had tied the knot during the course of the novel I think I would have been overcome by the immense rosiness of outlook. But what a sweet way to be overcome!
If hot were cold and cold were hot
And time ran backwards too-o-o
I’d give a shrug and say, “So wot?”
For I’m head over heels for you.
If cats should bark and dogs meow
And horses start to moo-o-o
I’d think it just their usual row
For I”m head over heels for you.
from Wobbly’s Song
Wobbly Barstool, a winner of the BRAG Medallion for outstanding self published books,is a splendid first novel, one that makes you ponder human nature without realizing it. Houstonians, Jane Lowy is a local talent. You can catch her and her husband reading around town and, of course, at Synkroniciti Open Mics. For the rest of you, Wobbly is available as e-book or in hardcover.
Spirits soared at last week’s Open Mic. Would you like to be part of the community we are building?
Some of the offerings at synkroniciti’s Open Mic: Gratitude
Last Sunday, synkroniciti hosted our second Open Mic, exploring the theme of gratitude. I was so grateful for our first experience in September, and November is a traditional time to express thankfulness, so it seemed an appropriate choice. That didn’t make it an easy one. It can be hard to feel grateful when we feel cold, unhappy or lonely. Those are the very moments when gratitude can make the most difference, when we can inspire one another to live more deeply. As we came together, some of us had more difficulty with gratitude than others, admittedly grumpy and uncomfortable to a point that we had struggled putting together our pieces or committing to being there. And yet, here we were, ten of us–eleven if you count Lisa the cat, who listened attentively to more than half of the presentations, despite the fact that we started them at her dinner time–about to open ourselves up in unexpected ways.
After mingling and getting to know one another a little better over snacks, we began our exploration. I read a poem which I wrote several years ago for a program sponsored by Houston Grand Opera called Houston Artists Respond. People from community centers in Houston shared their stories in videos which were presented to artists, musicians and poets who were asked to respond. I wove the stories of three Latin American women who had immigrated to the United States with my feelings to make three poems. The one I read here is called Nubia’s Shoes, and tells the story of a woman who grew up in Nicaragua and received her first pair of shoes at the age of sixteen, when her mother’s employer gave her a used pair of baby blue plastic shoes. They were several sizes too small, but Nubia wore them proudly because they made her feel like a normal person. You can read the poem here. From the beginning of our evening, Nubia assured us that we can be grateful for a life which pinches and blisters us.
This was followed by a beautiful piece of silent performance art by Orion Lowy entitled Politeness. Orion presented us with what appeared to our eyes to be an empty box. After he tapped it soundly, the box revealed small slips of paper. Each of us took one and shared it with the others. Mine read, “I don’t know how to thank you”. They all contained particularly humble and lovely expressions of gratitude, from “You shouldn’t have” to “Well, this was unexpected”. A gentle work of subtle humor and simplicity, it was delightful and really explored the wonderful and yet awkward nature of gratefulness.
In Find Yourself…Give Thanks, Laura Bourdo used a combination of collage and poetry to find imagery of gratitude. The process involved cutting out images from magazines which drew her eye, pasting them together on to cards and then attempting to find what it was that had drawn her to those particular pictures and what story they told together. If you want insight into how you think and how you experience life, this is a particularly rich exercise that makes beautiful art. We passed the images around as Laura read each poem twice, each one beginning with “Find yourself” and ending with “give thanks”. Sitting at the end of the line, I found it wonderful to imagine what would be on the card coming toward me. It was always a wonderful surprise.
Ofelia Adame read a beautiful testimony to the nurturing power and love of her family and friends, a journal entry entitled Supporting Hands. She acknowledged the presence of an outstretched hand helping her through every day of her life, present even when she lacks the ability to see it. “The hands change throughout your life, from your parents, to your siblings, to friends, to lovers, to teachers, to coworkers, to bosses. They change and don’t at the same time, as these participants in your life don’t leave or disappear, but just take turns in providing that helpful hand.” Her sincerity and vulnerability drew us all in.
Speaking of sincerity and vulnerability, Jane Lowy graced us with a song from her Dickensian style novel, Wobbly Barstool. We heard a reading from Wobbly back in September which was hilarious, but this was a treat in quite a different way. In the novel, Wobbly sings this song to the fiddle accompaniment of his friend, Fewan Farbetween, in praise of his sweetheart Prunella. Jane sang it for us to a pre-recorded accompaniment with obvious reference to her husband, David. “If cats should bark and dogs meow, and horses start to moo-o-o, I’d think it just their usual row, for I’m head over heels for you.” We all felt glad to be included in the love.
This was followed by the presentation of David’s new piece of music, Supersonic: The New Peace Victory March. First, we heard a whimsical recording in which he whistled the tune, which gets rather high at the very end. So high that Jane once called it supersonic and the name stuck. (You might not know that it was David who named Jane’s novel, Wobbly Barstool.) David has an excellent ear and composed this piece in the style of marches by John Philip Sousa. I helped him transcribe it before the Open Mic so that Neil could play it on trumpet and we could sing it. Everyone had such a great time singing together that we took an unplanned intermission because we were all so energized by the experience. Such is to be expected with a good march, and having a trumpet player and three unpretentious members of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus present didn’t hurt either. It was a lovely meeting of inspiration, talent and expertise that made everyone feel welcome and part of the action. Synkroniciti anticipates being able to help David expand Supersonic in the future. It’s a good tune and quite an ear worm.
After a bout of lively conversation, Laura returned with Quiet Time, a dreamy poem that recalls the depth of a fictional relationship between a grandpa and grandchild. This is a kind of relationship that we all long for but rarely experience, in which words and feelings unspoken are understood more thoroughly than those expressed in conversation. Knowing that such moments are possible in life is enough to generate gratitude and to remind us to savor and nurture the relationships we have, even if they don’t resemble the ideal friendships of our dreams.
Finally, I presented my painting, Seductive Fruit, which depicts a strange fruit hanging from a tree, entwined with the tail of a snake. Picking this fruit will surely result in a bite from the dark serpent. It recalls the story of Adam and Eve and reminds us that knowledge comes with a price. As we live, experience brings us satisfying and painful moments, which we cannot completely separate from one another. Gratitude embraces both. You can read about Seductive Fruithere.
As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” So our night of gratitude embraced both the bright and the dark, dreams and reality, pain and pleasure, the easy and the difficult, the technical and the inspired. The creative energy present was contagious and electric.
Sean, Betty, Orion, Jane and David, Laura, Ofelia and Charles and Neil, I don’t know how to thank you. I only hope we will come together again to share stories and thoughts.
Synkroniciti’s third Open Mic will happen in February 2015. Will we see you there?
Last Sunday, synkroniciti held its first public event, an Open Mic featuring works that explored beginnings. What an inspiring experience!
Some of the goodies to be shared.
As the afternoon darkened into an intense storm, listeners and performers made their way to my home. Although the weather kept some from making it, we had plenty of art to share and a circle of twelve open minds and hearts that made the soiree a true joy. Our number was actually thirteen if you count Lisa Sasabuki, our cat, who was intent on being a proper hostess. I am so proud to report such an auspicious beginning!
We began by mingling over snacks and drinks, waiting for those out in the storm to arrive. It was soon apparent that we had attracted a circle of free thinking folks who are interested in experiencing things that aren’t served up on television or packaged for us by popular culture. Our conversation grew into a discussion of art, aesthetics and creativity. Then time came to see what we had to share.
As the storm outside subsided, Ofelia Adame began the evening with a meditation on the elements, invoking earth, wind, fire, and air to bless our journey together. This dovetailed very nicely into the presentation of my first painting, Germination. This piece is about the need for fire to germinate seeds and the cycle of chaos and order inherent in the creative process. It was wonderful to explain the picture and then receive impressions from the group. As we were more interested in finding meaning than critiquing execution, the environment was electric with revelation and positivity. I will never forget the moment in which several people pointed out that the burning tree trunk in the center of Germination can also be interpreted as a phoenix, which encapsulates the meaning of the entire work. Somehow I was not fully conscious of it.
Laura Bourdo seized upon the theme of chaos as central to her contribution, The Seagull’s Call, excerpted from a novel that is, as of yet, nameless. This was a stunning and heartbreaking read depicting a family struggling with mental illness. Full of moments of bright humor and crushing realization, it could have moved stone. The psychological depth of the writing was further enhanced by the naturalness and sincerity of Laura’s recitation, which bristled with intention and belied an excellent sense of pace and structure. She’s an artist of many dimensions, as you can see at her website, which focuses on her visual art.
America McDaniel shared an illustration of Rapunzel gazing longingly from her tower window, waiting for life to begin. This lovely pencil sketch is complex, juxtaposing romantic longing, revealed in her wistful glance and luxurious hair, with determination, revealed in the strong set of her arm as she leans toward the window. It is this arm with which America began drawing. It remains the anchor of the piece, showing the determination and capability that make Rapunzel different from other fairy tale girls. While they are rescued by male prowess or supernatural intervention, she designs her own escape.
Ofelia returned with a poem entitled Anticipation, which explores the feelings and thoughts a performer experiences on opening night. The fear of the unknown, the knowledge that nothing is completely as we have envisioned it and the clicking into place of practiced elements to make something new and transformative are key parts of any creative process, including life itself. We could all find threads in Ofelia’s big hearted and exuberant poem that applied to our own experience.
Speaking of big hearted and exuberant, that brings us to a dramatic reading by Jane and David Lowy from Jane’s Victorian period novel, Wobbly Barstool, inspired by the work of Charles Dickens. The novel chronicles the adventures of Wobbly, a young fellow trying to better himself in order to attract the attentions of Prunella, a socialite a little older and classier than himself. This reading was the end of a chapter entitled Wobbly Falls into an Awareness of the Drawbacks of Itinerant Employment. It is a hilarious recounting of the near seduction of Wobbly by an older, unhappily married woman who promises the gullible young man experience. It features an angry husband and an ill treated goat, both of which David made completely unforgettable. Jane supplied each of us with a signed copy of the novel, which I can’t wait to read and write about here on the blog! Please check out Jane’s website.
In closing, I read Cloud, a poem about the fear and excitement of realizing a new idea, here symbolized by a cloud. Even as the cloud seems about to fizzle, it finds an open field in someone else and, miracle of miracles, it thickens and produces rain. This returned us rather neatly to our stormy world. No one was in a hurry to leave, which confirmed the night a success in my mind. I couldn’t have hoped for a better first experience.
A big thank you to Laura, America, Ofelia, Jane and David; to Robert and Trudi for not only being great listeners, but for bringing in top notch performing talent; to my brother-in-law, Eric, for being a part of our circle and for encouraging my niece, America, to present with such poise and talent; to Orion for being such an engaging and well spoken listener; to Ofelia and Charles for their help in organizing and putting together food; and most of all, to Neil who busted his tail helping get the house ready and still had the energy to be a part of everything. The experience was akin to finding my own tribe and I am so grateful.
Our next Open Mic adventure will happen in November. Any creative person is welcome to come and share their process and their creations at our Open Mics. We do ask that the material be the original work of the artist. If you live or work near Houston, Texas and would like to be a part of one of these adventures, either as a performer/creator or listener, please contact us.