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.

When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

*****Ill Will

Cemetery

photo: Andrew, creative commons license

Written by Dan Chaon – Past and present crimes haunt the two main protagonists of this beautifully crafted new literary thriller. In the present day, psychologist Dustin Tillman lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. One son is away at college, and his younger son, Aaron, is supposedly taking college courses locally. In truth, he and his friend Rabbit are heavy into the drug scene, and part of the story is told in Aaron’s spot-on voice.

Dustin grew up part of a closely knit family in small-town western Nebraska. Two brothers had married two sisters, and Dustin was the child of one pair, and his twin cousins Wave and Kate the daughters of the other. In addition, his parents adopted a teenager, Russell Bickers, whose previous foster family died in a fire. Rusty and Dusty.

Dusty is a dreamy, highly suggestible kid. Rusty and the twins entertain themselves with manufacturing Dusty’s memories, putting him places he hasn’t been, including him in scenes he hasn’t observed, making him not trust his own senses and memories.

Dustin’s parents are oblivious to all this, boozing and using, and the siblings may be careless about which spouse they sleep with. Early on, you learn that when Dustin was thirteen and the girls seventeen, all four parents were shot to death. Kate believed Rusty did it. Wave did not. And Dustin’s memories are, well. Thirty years later now, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, and he’s released from prison to lurk on the fiery horizon of the story like a rising sun.

Interwoven with the exploration of these past events is a narrative about mysterious present-day deaths. Dusty’s patient Aqil Ozorowski—a police officer on medical leave—is obsessed with the accidental drowning of a series of male college students. Over a period of years, young men’s bodies have been found in lakes and rivers of the Midwest, some with what Ozorowski deems significant dates of death, like 10/10/10. The authorities are frustratingly unconcerned, saying the students simply fell into the water, drunk, but Ozorowski rails at the lack of proper investigation. Eventually he inveigles Dustin in some unofficial research.

Aaron thinks his dad is a fool. The whole family mocks the “astral traveling” when Dustin’s attention just . . . goes. Dustin suffered bouts of sleepwalking after his family’s murders, and in some respects, he still sleepwalks through life. Chaon typographically expresses the tendency of minds to wander, through blanks in the middle of         You get the idea. After a while, this technique establishes a dreamy disconnect that seems not just real, but really dangerous.

Chaon is a widely praised short story writer and was a National Book Award finalist for an early collection. He has no trouble here sustaining interest in the actions and fates of his fascinating, flawed characters. If you tire of thrillers where the characters are no deeper than the page they’re written on, you’ll find this richly presented family a welcome change.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com. You can order a copy with the affiliate link below.

***The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

market, Myanmar

photo: Eustaqulo Santimano, creative commons license

By Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty – I guess this “international best seller” was just not to my taste. While the premise was intriguing, as was the exotic Burmese setting, the author never went deep enough to engage me.

One day Julia Win’s father leaves his wife and grown children and disappears out of his life as a prominent Manhattan attorney. The authorities lose his trail in Bangkok. A new lawyer herself, after a few years, Julia determines to find him and is drawn to a remote village in Burma named Kalaw, based on the only clue she has, an unmailed love-letter addressed to a villager named Mi Mi.

With more than a little trepidation, Julia travels there to find out who Mi Mi is and whether she can tell her where her father has gone.

Before even settling in, she’s approached by an “old man” who seems to know who she is and who her father is. “You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country.” It seems she’s followed the correct path, all right, but the man, whose name is U Ba, won’t reveal more about her father’s whereabouts until she listens to his story, which makes up most of the rest of the book.

That set-up strongly reminds me of the beginning of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Just as Martel’s narrator meets an elderly man who says his story will “make you believe in God,” U Ba at the outset asks Julia, “Do you believe in love?” It’s clear that Sendker’s tale is intended to make sure that she—and the reader—do.

If you’re looking for a sweet read, one that skates across the surface of relationships and emotions, perhaps something for the beach this summer, you can order it through the affiliate link below.

Thriller Writer Exposes U.S. Security Gaps

railway tanker carsReading up on how the nation’s security apparatus actually works would have spared the Trump Administration and several of its appointees some embarrassment in their first weeks in office. However, a failure of security imagination has a much darker and more dangerous side.

You may recall how, after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s CIA brought in Hollywood scriptwriters—professional speculators—to help them imagine terrorist scenarios. Using airplanes-as-bombs was not a new idea, not even an “unthinkable” one to thriller writers.

Right after 9/11 the momentum for developing anti-terrorism technologies was strong, some money was wasted, and some real improvements were achieved. (Here’s an excellent Atlantic article summarizing our post-9/11 security gains and gaps.) But that momentum has largely faded.

Along comes Matthew Quirk, author of the thrillers The 500, Cold Barrel Zero, and the recent Dead Man Switch, who thinks about our vulnerabilities a lot. He says, “We should spend our time and money addressing the obvious risks, not the hypothetical or concocted ones.” And he cites plenty of these risks. “I like to think my books are pretty tense, but they have nothing on reality,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post. “More than 15 years after 9/11, we have failed to take basic steps to address glaring threats that have already cost American lives.”

One example he cites are the risks from manufacturing, storing, and transporting deadly chemicals. The security of these facilities, he says, is simply “not adequately covered by the current mishmash of loophole-filled rules.” Rules facing potential rollback, it should be noted.

True security for our nation involves not just reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, of course, but also prevention and response preparation in the case of system breakdowns, emergence of new diseases, and, of course, severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other disruptions resulting from, oh, climate change.

The number and variety of these threats is huge, but for most Americans the most visible national security effort boils down to seizing manicure scissors from grandma during an airport screening. However, even the TSA faces significant cuts in the proposed Trump budget, with the “savings” diverted to building the wall at our southern border. The wall will neither improve security nor prevent illegal immigration. It’s a costly symbolic gesture that diverts attention and resources from real security risks.

*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

Come from Away

ComeFromAwayLogoThe affirming new Broadway musical Come from Away is lively and warm-hearted, with a special tug at the heart for every American remembering 9/11. On that terrible September morning, dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers were en route to the United States when the country closed its airspace. Those planes had to land somewhere else, and 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, the rock in the sea.

Suddenly, Gander’s population nearly doubled. The nearly 7,000 passengers and crew were from all over the world. They had all sorts of issues. They—and the 19 animals with them—needed food, places to sleep, their medications, phones, and . . . someone to talk to. Come from Away tells how the people of Newfoundland rose to this unprecedented occasion with amazing generosity.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics based on hundreds of  interviews with the people of Newfoundland, as well as many of the stranded passengers. A cast of twelve plays multiple parts—both townspeople and passengers—and most have been with the ensemble continuously since its first production at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2015. The cast is uniformly strong, with good singing voices, good energy, and a well-honed ability to switch from one role to another so there’s never any confusion.

Although the production has many characters, there are definite stories and relationships. One is the experience of an American Airlines pilot. She wanted to fly since childhood, because when she flew, “nothing was between me and the sky.” She gets a job flying corpses at first, then corporate jets, and ultimately became the airline’s first female pilot. Now, to think her beloved airplanes were used as bombs, “something’s come between me and the sky.”

The music is provided by an eight-person band, split on either side of the stage and featuring instruments you might associate with Irish music—pipes, and the Bodhran (flat drum)—as well as guitars, a violin, and percussion. Occasionally, the musicians join in the dancing, and most of the songs are sung by the whole cast, with only brief solos. This creative choice emphasizes the show’s theme of community pulling together.

Christopher Ashley directed the 100-minute show, which is performed with no intermission. Ian Eisendrath is the musical supervisor and Kelly Devine, the choreographer. The simple and versatile set is by Beowulf Boritt, with costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

Come from Away has been performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and, the program says, the hockey rink in Gander, Newfoundland. It’s now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”