About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance as the King

What a treat to see Mark Rylance in this new play, written by his wife Claire Van Kampen, playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Rylance is one of those superb actors who can communicate a galaxy of information with a raised eyebrow or a stutter. (Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall and as the preternaturally calm Soviet spy in the movie Bridge of Spies).

This play is based on the maladies of Spain’s French King Philippe V (Rylance), who lived from 1683 to 1746. He stayed in power for nearly 50 years, despite crippling depression and delusions, and his psychic demons could be tamed only by the soothing sounds of music—specifically, the angelic, ethereal, and genderless voice of castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane)—a sound, thankfully, now lost to us. In the play, Farinelli is lured to the court by the king’s Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove—now there’s an appropriate name!). His courtiers, not surprisingly, would far rather he abdicate. But he does not.

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

The actual singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davis (read more here), in New York after a season at the Met. He appears behind or alongside Crane in an identical costume, as a sort of corporeal alter ego, a device that works fine. It is theater, after all.

In addition to Rylance, Grove, and Crane, we enjoyed seeing Simon Jones again, a blustery Col. Pickering in McCarter Theatre Center’s My Fair Lady a few seasons back.

The play opens with the king fishing for a goldfish in a bowl. No wonder his ministers have their doubts! Isabella is devoted to him, but her devotion is constantly tested and found to have limits. The preoccupations and imaginings of the king are sometimes brilliantly on point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes clear only to himself. He seems genuinely to want to do right, but has lost the capacity to know how.

This sad and antic drama plays out in a rich setting, filled with period music. Adding to the intimate feel, a number of audience members have on-stage box seats, and the players interact a bit with audience members in the aisles. The audience plays its own part too, as the audience for a Farinelli concert. In addition to the play itself and the music, the beauty of the staging, the costumes, and the exquisite set design, with candles!, all contribute to a truly “theatrical” experience.

Lady Bird & I, Tonya

Both these movies have garnered impressive award nominations, but if you have “mommy issues,” you may want to make a different pick.

Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (trailer), Lady Bird is beautifully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (Golden Globe winner) as teenage Lady Bird and painfully so by Laurie Metcalf (Golden Globe nominee) as her mother. The mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, has a remarkably limited array of skills in dealing with her adolescent daughter. She certainly knows how to criticize and brow-beat, though, even as she hates the words coming out of her mouth.

Tracy Letts is a huggable, mostly ineffectual father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet are Lady Bird’s early, disastrous loves, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush are sometime high school besties at opposite ends of the cool-kids spectrum.

Attending a Catholic girls school and desperate to escape Sacramento, Lady Bird’s determination to fly to more receptive, less suffocating surroundings will resonate with many (especially female) viewers. For economic and so many other reasons, her mother is determined she stay. The importance of this quest must have touched a chord with critics and with audiences, as it won the Golden Globe for best comedy, and Gerwig was nominated for the screenplay.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: a whopping 99%; audiences: 82%.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Director Craig Gillespie’s Golden Globe-nominated biopic about national figure-skating champion Tonya Harding—who never fit the little princess image of the figure skater, nor wanted to—takes the mommy problem to another level (trailer).

Tonya (Margot Robbie, Golden Globe nomination) is raised by a chain-smoking mother (Allison Janney, Golden Globe winner) who never gave an inch and wasn’t above hitting Tonya when her words didn’t cut deep enough. Tonya’s eventual “escape” was into a violent marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

This movie is also billed as a comedy, oddly, though Gillooly’s inept friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s convinced himself he’s an international terrorism expert, and the media personality played by Bobby Cannavale are hilarious. The plans to mess with Tonya’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan go wildly awry—but would be funny only to people who don’t understand the many sacrifices and tremendous effort necessary to skate at her level.

The script written by Steven Rogers is compassionate toward Tonya and based on lengthy current-day interviews with the principals—do you wonder, has she changed?—who promise to reveal what “really” happened in Tonya’s life. Their conflicting stories are, of course, riddled with self-justification, leaving you to decide whom to believe. It’s not much of a spoiler to say you won’t believe the mother.

If you remember the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national figure-skating championships in Detroit (I was there!), orchestrated by Gillooly, the movie may make you think differently about that incident. Tonya was never loveable; now we know why.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%.

****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?

Weekend Movie Pick: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriOn a drive through the American South some years ago, British writer-director Martin McDonagh saw a set of billboards that challenged the authorities similar to the way the sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri, is challenged in this film (trailer). The rage they embodied stayed with him, and although this film is billed as a black comedy, don’t go looking for belly laughs. Its true subject is heartbreak.

With an intelligent script that’s perhaps a few minutes too long, McDonagh’s characters’ actions impinge on others like billiard balls knocking about on the table. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand—a genius at portraying tough, uncompromising women) intends for her actions to affect others when she pays for three billboards to be pasted up on a remote stretch of road outside town, blood red and anger-filled: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?” Guilt and anger are written just as clearly on her unsmiling face.

The sheriff’s deputies, accustomed to have their way in all local matters, great and small, are offended. They want her to take them down. Of course she won’t. One of them, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is an overgrown boy, prey to his every violent whim and McDonagh gives him a complex character arc.

Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has other troubles on his mind and, while it’s true he hasn’t made progress in solving Angela Hayes’s murder, it isn’t true that he hasn’t tried. Although his place in their world is the slipperiest, he has the best sense of what that place is.

Several supporting roles are equally powerful (I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and there are some laughs—people being their natural selves can be hilarious, usually without realizing it. Though a broken heart manifests itself differently in all three main characters, it’s Sheriff Willoughby who points the way to healing. Already the film has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Martin McDonagh (screenplay) winners too. Well worth the time.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 87%.

Fictional Female Investigators

Helen Mirren, Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison channeling Hamlet

“A bit of a boys’ club,” says Kristen Lepionka about the place of women detectives in the world of crime fiction. In her new novel, The Last Place You Look, she took on the task of creating a credible female private investigator and immediately discovered the female point of view involves “much more than just a difference of chromosomes.”

Women’s life experiences, and their interaction with crime (either as police, private investigators, or  amateur detectives) is just so different from men’s. In detective fiction, she says, they battle “rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed.” Oh, and they also must solve cases.

This lesson is oh-so-clear to me having just read a crime novel with a female protagonist, written by a man, which would have been much better had he named his main character, say, Sam instead of Samantha, and recognized he was writing a man. This character never seemed like a woman to me, though he gave her one annoying trait meant to symbolize the feminine sensibility. Every other page, she started crying.

Lepionka created a list of ten fictional female detectives she thinks really work and they’re written by both men and women. From her list, I’ve read books featuring: Antoinette Conway (a character created by Tana French); Alex Morrow (Denise Mina); and Smilla Jasperson (Peter Høeg). To her list, I’d add Nikki Liska (Tami Hoag), Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear), and Karin Müller (David Young). And, never forget Lynda LaPlante’s development of feisty, put-upon DCI Jane Tennison: “Don’t call me Ma’am; I’m not the bloody queen.” Now I’m excited to read crime-master Michael Connelly’s new book, The Late Show—his first to feature female detective Renée Ballard. Can he do as well as he does with Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller?

Thirty-five years ago, Sara Peretsky faced the same issues as Lepionka in creating her iconic female detective, V.I. Warshawski. In a recent LitHub essay, she describes imagining a new type of detective, one who would be “neither victim nor vamp,” one “who would reflect the experience of my generation . . . who could have a sex life without it defining them as wicked. Women who could solve their own problems.”

Peretsky took her character’s ardent spirit a step further. In 1986, speaking at a conference on “Women in the Mystery,” she spoke out about the disturbing increase in explicit violence and sadism against women. Her remarks fell on receptive ears, coinciding with growing awareness of women writers’ ignored role in the mystery/crime genre, despite the continuing quality of their work. Thus was the organization Sisters in Crime—of which I am a member—born.

Not that essays like these nor a single organization can overcome all the ingrained attitudes and expectations. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the same new book I mentioned above with the weak female characterization includes a graphic, sadistic, and totally unnecessary threat to the investigator. More work to do. Write on!

The Cheese Course

Cheese pairings

Recently, I took a local class on cheese appreciation. Great, something where I already have skills! Having a husband from Wisconsin, how could I not be? Look up Olsson’s Fine Foods online and you’ll find that the owner, Dutchman Rudie Smit, teaches numerous cheese appreciation and cheese-making classes. He’s a fount of knowledge and lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Our small group of enthusiasts learned the history of cheese—which became popular in part because the originating people from the Tigris-Euphrates area were lactose-intolerant, and cheese is easier to digest than plain milk—why certain cheeses are the way they are, how to pair them with wine or with sweet and savory accompaniments, and how to design an appealing cheese plate. This came in very handy over the holidays, when I inflicted elaborate cheese plates on a succession of dinner parties.

But who would have thought the class would provide inspiration for my crime-writing? Such as:

  • What really happened up when Pietr was alone up at the mountain hut, supposedly making the cheese?
  • Did Lady Fauxpas seal her fate when she insisted blue cheese be served with the bottle of fine champagne?
  • Where was the characteristic tweed pattern on the rind of the “manchego” that poisoned G. Lutton?

You see the possibilities. Say cheese!

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

By CJ Carver – This is the third in a crime thriller series featuring former MI5 operative Dan Forrester and Yorkshire-area Detective Constable Lucy Davies. It takes place in the Scottish highlands, where, as a youth, Dan spent his summer vacations. His father and three university friends reunited there each year, and their four children, all approximately the same age, grew up together.

The children now have well-established careers of their own. Gustav created a clinic in Isterberg, Germany; Christopher took up genetic engineering of superstrains of rice and has a lab near Duncaid; audacious former-tomboy Sophie does something for the government in London; and Dan joined MI5. Although this rundown suggests a large number of core characters, Carver does a good job of making them distinct enough to avoid confusion.

Though Christopher and his wife are having a rough patch, their situation grows tragically worse when their thirteen-year-old son Connor dies, in what the police seem too hasty in labeling a suicide. Dan persuades his friend Lucy to take a few days off and join him in Duncaid to look into the case. Carver does such a good job describing the damp, oppressive, grey highland atmosphere, you may feel compelled to put on a jumper—or two—while you ponder why a doctor’s patients are dying too young.

Then news arrives that Dan’s father has been murdered in Germany. The unlikely coincidence that two family members of this tight-knit group died within days of each other strikes them all. What is the connection? Someone is determined that Dan not discover it, and his probing soon puts himself, his wife, and his newborn son at risk. In light of the very tangible threats, his motivation for continuing to investigate—and some of the other characters’ motivations as well—aren’t as believable as they might be.

Lucy has a form of synesthesia, and in situations of high emotion sees certain colors. She’s a bit of an oddball, trying to hide what she views as dysfunctions in her personality. Dan also has a quirk, in that his memory has gaping holes from his past work with MI5. Although Carver tends to provide a dump of backstory about characters that becomes a drag on the narrative, I wish she’d more fully explored these two interesting mental conditions, which could bear strongly on Lucy and Dan’s ability to do their work, for good or ill.

This entry into the crowded Scottish crime fiction field (Tartan Noir!) employs a straightforward, clear style, and the plot clicks right along. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for literary flourishes and subtext, which the book lacks, and it includes perhaps a few too many coincidences. However, it raises questions about biomedical technology and its possibilities well worth thoughtful consideration.

LA — Outdoor Attractions

On a January day when the winter wind’s noise is nearly constant, new snow is sheeting around the corner of the house, and the temperature forecast for Saturday is minus 5, I happily return to memories of the 90-degree days we enjoyed in Los Angeles just six weeks ago. In addition to a tour of the landscape garden at the Getty (threatened by the wildfires soon afterward), we visited these three major outdoor attractions.

The Arboretum

Los Angeles, Queen Anne Cottage

The Queen Anne Cottage – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We walked the 127-acre Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden on Thanksgiving Day, when not much else was open. Griffith Park (the largest urban municipal park in the United States), which has a zoo and an observatory just seemed too much to deal with. It probably would have been a better choice. There’s not much to the Arboretum, located west of the city. It contains large areas planted with species from Australia and Africa, small herb and rose gardens, a couple of greenhouses, and, on Thanksgiving Day, not much was going on. Gift shop was closed.

The most attractive feature was the Queen Anne Cottage and coach barn. The Victorian-era cottage is set on a lake and extensively restored. Charming, but closed that day. We finally found a place to get a cold drink and sat on a terrace surrounded by greenery and screaming peacocks. Kids seemed to enjoy running on the expansive lawns. Under other circumstances, this could be a gem, but wasn’t.

The Huntington

Los Angeles, Japanese garden

The Huntington – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

On another day—when, thank goodness, the marvelous gift shop and restaurants were open—we visited The Huntington. It’s near the Arboretum, but a world away in terms of interest. The Huntington combines a library, art collection, and botanical garden on the former ranch of early California railroad and real estate magnate Henry E. Huntington. Huntington began collecting rare books, art, and the specimens for botanical gardens during his lifetime.

The library is one of the world’s leading independent research libraries and has an extraordinary collection of some seven million manuscripts, 430,000 rare books, and more. Starting with The Gutenberg Bible, it has originals of The Canterbury Tales, folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, letters from the hands of the Founding Fathers, and one of the world’s leading collections related to the history of science. The exhibits of these materials are interesting and well planned. (We did not tour the art museum, home to such world-famous works as Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie.”)

The enticing grounds are laid out with many noteworthy features, including the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance, and an elaborate, multi-level Japanese garden that displays an extensive bonsai collection. We enjoyed the rose and herb gardens, and the Shakespeare garden. The heat kept us out of several other areas (the desert garden, the Australian garden), but left us with a reason to return.

LaBrea Tar Pits

Sabre-toothed cat, Los Angeles, toy

Sabre-toothed cat–OK, not a real one–photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Unexpectedly (to me), the LaBrea Tar Pits are on Wilshire Boulevard, smack in the middle of the city. The Page Museum there includes some astonishing and hands-on displays about the animals whose bones have been found in the pools of bubbling black gunk. Kids love it, and the displays are intriguing for adults too. Take a docent-led tour of the outdoor tar pit area and active dig-sites in order to get the most out of your visit. You will have questions, and the guide we had was able to answer those of visitors ages seven to seventy.

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.

****Easy Errors

Auto Crash

photo: Marcus Sümnick, creative commons license

By Steven F. Havill – This is book 22 in Havill’s Posadas County (New Mexico) mystery series and is a prequel to the  earlier books.

Demonstrating how reader opinion is more than background noise to crime fiction writers, Havill says Easy Errors sprang from a reader’s request for more information about Sheriff Robert Torrez’s early career. It’s a testament to how well Havill knows and understands his characters inside and out that he can reach back in time and conjure their younger selves.

Havill begins this book, narrated in the first person by Undersheriff Bill Gastner, with Gastner relaxing one Wednesday night (with a book!), interrupted in the third paragraph with “the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed.” A motor vehicle has crashed disastrously somewhere nearby, so Gastner alerts the sheriff’s dispatcher and sets out to find the source of the noise.

It isn’t pretty.

What follows over the next few days is the meticulous reconstruction of events that led to this tragedy. You might think an auto crash could not sustain investigative—and reader—attention for an entire novel, but Havill’s skill lies in making this police procedural absolutely riveting. It proves that a crime story doesn’t have to trot out a demented serial killer or imperil the US President and all of Congress in order to have stakes worth caring about.

Each of Havill’s characters is intrinsically interesting, and it’s equally interesting to see how they work together as a team, which includes working around some spotty (and humorous) assistance from the police dispatchers.

The care that Havill takes in reconstructing the crime and establishing the officers’ logic in developing every last bit of evidence holds until near the book’s end, when the author has the prosecutor, speaking before the grand jury, claim a type of evidence the authorities do not actually possess. While the grand jury might reach the same decision with or without this information, its decision is based on a totality of evidence, and the total is flawed. In a novel so thoroughly grounded in the step-by-step accretion of facts, this slip-up is jarring, and the book’s title, Easy Errors, turns ironic.

Still, the rest of the book is so strong, this mistake isn’t enough to discourage me from wanting to read more Posadas County mysteries. As a fan of the Longmire tv series, based on Craig Johnson’s books, I warmed to this one immediately.