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.

Maudie

Maudie, Sally HawkinsMaud Lewis today is one of Canada’s best-known primitive painters—quite an accomplishment for a poor, chronically ill woman from a townspeck between the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay. This charming film, written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh (trailer), tells her story. At least in the way that biopics do, leaving you wondering, was Maud’s husband really so prickly? Did they really live in a tiny one-room house? Further research indicates the answers to those questions are probably not and yes.

Maud suffered from painful juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which may have stunted her growth,  and an equally painful awkwardness in social interactions. In marrying Everett Lewis, she finds a man even more emotionally and socially stunted than she is. I can’t say enough about how beautifully Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke play these odd characters. Physically, it had to be a taxing role for Hawkins, because Maud walks with difficulty and, as time passes, becomes more and more bent over. But a wide smile comes readily to a woman who can look at a window and say, “The whole of life, already framed, right there”—both to Hawkins and in photos and film of  the real-life Maud.

They find each other when Everett looks for a woman to cook and clean his one-room house while he runs his fish-peddling and junk collecting businesses. Maud is looking for an escape from under the thumb of her judgmental aunt. When he advertises for help in the general store, this tiny woman appears on his doorstep. She brings order to the house, but Maud’s real desire is to paint. She starts by decorating the walls of Ev’s house, then scrap construction materials he’s brought home. From there, her career as an artist blossoms like her paintings, but since they charge about $5 per picture, it never makes them much money.

Maudie is an uplifting story about a person who made the most of her gifts and whose efforts were recognized in her lifetime, far outside their Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, home. Because she had modest goals—“I’ve got everything I want with you, Ev. Everything.”—she found tremendous satisfaction and joy in her life, despite its challenges.

(Many of Maud Lewis’s paintings are now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, as is the Lewises’ actual house, restored after the Gallery acquired it in 1984. In May 2017, a Maud Lewis painting sold at auction for $45,000.)

Simpatico

Simpatico, Sam Shepard

John Judd & Guy Van Swearingen, photo: Richard Termine

Sam Shepard’s death in late July was “a stunning personal loss to all of us who knew him and a devastating loss for the theater,” said Artistic Director Emily Mann. Months earlier, the McCarter Theatre Center had scheduled Shephard’s Simpatico to open its 2017-2018 season, and the production has been dedicated to him. Running through October 15, it originated with Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s directed by Red Orchid’s Dado and retains much of the Windy City cast.

Fifteen years before the story begins, two longtime friends from Cucamonga, California, conspired to fix horse races. A prominent racing official tumbled to their scam, and they silenced him by threatening to reveal photos proving a particularly degraded sexual liaison, details of which are left to the audience’s imagination. One friend, Vinnie, still lives in California in squalor and an alcoholic haze, supported by his friend Carter, now a successful Kentucky horseman. Though they are tied together by the past and its criminal secrets, there’s bad blood between them, too, mostly because Carter stole Vinnie’s wife Rosie.

When the play starts, down-and-outer Vinnie (played by Guy Van Swearingen) has called Carter (Michael Shannon) in a panic, and Carter flies to California to try to calm him down. It seems the trouble is a woman Vinnie met, Cecelia (Mierka Girten), who has had Vinnie arrested. It takes quite a while to get the story out of Vinnie, because it keeps changing and because Vinnie’s preoccupation with Rosie keeps bubbling up. Carter agrees to help Vinnie with Cecilia, and when he meets her, Vinnie’s lies become apparent.

Vinnie learns that the former racing official (John Judd) is living quietly in Kentucky with his equine pedigree charts—another beneficiary of Carter’s guilt-money. Vinnie flies there with his shoebox full of blackmail pictures and offers them for sale. What was scandalous pornography some years ago is pale stuff now, and the wonderfully garrulous official isn’t interested. Nor is Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom).

The lines crackle along, and many are laugh-out-loud funny, despite the lies and deceit everywhere and the intensifying power struggle between Vinnie and Carter. Van Swearingen and Shannon play their relationship in a way that you may alternately sympathize with and loathe first one then the other. Girten is sweet cluelessness itself (“Why didn’t you tell me the Kentucky Derby is in May?”), and Engstrom’s Rosie is her polar opposite. Judd is so comfortable in his role as the racing official, he might have been recruited direct from a back room at Churchill Downs.

Shepard intended this play in part to be an homage to film noir. Characters reference classics like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, and Vinnie often poses as a private eye. In perhaps the most illuminating line regarding his character, Vinnie tells Carter he enjoys his fake stake-outs so much because you can see everything about people’s lives, like “someone cutting someone else’s throat.” One way or another.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

John Abbott’s Kitchen Boy

By Vicki Weisfeld

My name is Aaron Jeffries. I am twelve years old. I want to write what happened to me in the War of Independence, so that other boys will take note.

I am a single orphan since 1775, when my father cut his hand hauling ammunition boxes at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He got poisoned blood and Died. When he went to join up with General Washington, I asked why he did not side with the Tories, so he could stay here in New Jersey with us. He was a powerful admirer of Doctor Franklin and quoted him back to me: “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

I surely do not want to rise up with fleas, but I miss my father and blame the Redcoats for taking him. Our mother was hard put to feed four children, so in the spring of 1776, when I was eight years old, I and my older sister had to quit school and be put out to work, while the babies stayed home.

John Abbott House

John Abbott House; photo: Blake Bolinger, creative commons license

Mother sent me to Mr. John Abbott. He has a fine big house about two miles away, and I could walk home on weekends. So that you will not think I am too much of a Braggart, some of what I tell below I copied from letters Mrs. Abbott wrote my mother. She said I could.

Mr. Abbott was away most days, being active in Politicks. Mrs. Abbott and her sister ran the place and were very regular in their ways. I helped Gus, the hired hand, take care of the chickens and the garden, which I did know how to do. A lot of things I never done before and had to learn about them. They had me polishing the brasses and the silverware and carrying dishes back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. I was working for Mrs. Abbott only about two weeks when a greasy dish slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor. That broke one of Mrs. Abbott’s fancy plates!

She gave me a Broom and told me to take the pieces to the cellar and put them in a big pan she used for broken dishes and glassware and the like.

“My mother buries them in the yard,” I said, thinking to give her helpful advice. “Behind the chicken shed.”

“I can’t be planting a new flower bed and be cut to ribbons by a buried piece of crockery,” she said. I understood that. She did not want Poisoned Blood.

I found the pan and set the pieces in it like she said. After that, on hot days, I’d go down to the cellar and study those broken pieces and pretend they were treasure in a treasure chest.

Mrs. Abbott wrote to my Mother about it: “One day this week Aaron dropped a dish that broke, and I know he sorely regretted it. If he mentions it to you, please reassure him that we understand accidents happen. He moped a bit, so I think it troubled him. There’s no need. He’s a very good boy, always helpful and interested in everything that goes on around here.”

Boy in Snow

photo: Chris RubberDragon, creative commons license

That fall we harvested and preserved the farm’s fruits and pickled the vegetables and stocked the root cellar. We had meats in the smokehouse too. Mrs. Abbott sewed me a warm jacket, and her sister knitted me a sweater. Once when it snowed on Saturday, Gus took me home in the wagon. After that, Mrs. Abbott got me some Boots.

Mrs. Abbott likes inishativ. She said she does not want to have to tell me every little thing. If I see something that needs doing, I should just do it. I told Gus she was complaining her kitchen knives were dull, and he said we should get busy and sharpen them.

“You be careful,” she hollered out the door when she saw us with the grindstone. “You can cut yourself to ribbons doing that.” That was true, and I Was careful.

One night in early December, a long while after dark, we had a Visitor. A wagon pulled up out front and we heard a knock. I ran to the door and opened it wide. It was Mr. Samuel Tucker, who is a friend of Mr. Abbott.

I knew him because he came to the house a few days before and brought boxes full of papers. He and Mr. Abbott hid them in the Attic under my bed. Mr. Tucker was the State Treasurer for New Jersey. Mr. Abbott said that meant he was in charge of all the Money for the state. He told me that that money would help us win the War. I brought Mr. Tucker right into the front parlor.

They sent me to bed, and I did not know any more about it until the next day when I was in the cellar fetching a pot of jam and saw a big Barrel that had not been there before.

I asked Mrs. Abbott about the barrel, and she started talking about the Chores I had to do that day, so I knew she did not want to discuss it. I would have to see about it on my own and I did.

Barrels

photo: Pixabay

I went down to the cellar that afternoon and had a peek. A ways down, there was some straw, and I pushed it aside. Underneath were more gold coins than I ever hoped or thought to see and paper money. Later I found out it was more than twenty-five hundred pounds, the whole treasurey of the State of New Jersey! Mr. Tucker had been dessprit to find a good hiding place for it.

As things turned out, it wasn’t such a good place, because a Woman in Trenton knew what he’d done and pretty soon hundreds of Redcoats marched up to Mr. Abbott’s house. He was in Philadelphia.

I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when I heard their racket, and I did not need to think twice to know why they were there. I took a candle down to the cellar, thinking to guard the state treasurey if I had time and could figure out a way.

I heard soldiers stomping overhead, and soon one of them came down to the cellar. He was very tall and had to bend over because of the low sealing.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“The kitchen boy.”

“What are you doing down here?” He pointed his Brown Bess at me, the bayonette close to making a hole in my new winter shirt.

“Fetching a pot of jam,” I said and pointed at the full shelves. “Do you want some?”

“What’s this?” He pointed the bayonette toward Mr. Tucker’s barrel.

“Our broken dishes and glassware.”

“So much?” He looked at me, narrowing his eyes.

I kept quiet.

He lifted the lid of the big barrel with the tip of his bayonette. “I see,” he said.

“Those pieces can cut you to ribbons,” I said and held out a small pot of plum jam. He put it in an inside pocket.

“On your way,” he said.

I took my candle and he followed me up the stairs. Mrs. Abbott and her sister were in the front parlor. When they saw me come up from the cellar with the bayonette of the soldier right behind me, Mrs. Abbott went pale as milk.

This is what she wrote my Mother: “You can believe, my dear Mrs. Jeffries, that my sister and I were absolutely quaking when that Redcoat marched Aaron up the stairs. He did not look injured, nor was he crying, but we had no idea what had gone on down there. I called him to me and the three of us stood together in the parlor speaking nary a word. After a few minutes the soldiers upstairs clomped down with Samuel Tucker’s boxes and carried them out to their wagon. They didn’t know it, but the papers in those boxes will be useless to them!

“‘I hope you are finished,’ I said to the officer in charge. ‘We’ll have ourselves quite a time putting everything back in order.’

“He was not pleased with my tone, but his English manners would not permit him to be rude to a lady, and he swallowed his temper. I counted seven soldiers who had entered my home, and seven who left. Nevertheless, Aaron helped us search the house to be sure. I’ll let him tell you himself about the very good deed he did that day.”

Once the Redcoats were well away and we saw they had not left behind any spize, Mrs. Abbott put her hands on my shoulders and asked, “What happened down in the cellar?”

I showed her how I had dumped the broken dishes on top of New Jersey’s money. It looked like a barrel full of dangerous Sharp Pieces.

“So he left with nothing?”

“I gave him a pot of plum jam.”

She laughed for pretty near five minutes at that and told me how proud of me she was. And that is why I got to go back to School, with Mr. Tucker and Mr. Abbott sharing the cost of my Schooling and me still helping Mrs. Abbott and her sister every Saturday.

Broken crockery

photo: Ann Larie Valentine, creative commons license

#

Note:  The New Jersey state treasury was indeed hidden from the Redcoats under a pile of broken crockery, though not by fictional eight-year-old Aaron Jeffries, at the John Abbott II house. The house is now the home of the Hamilton Township Historical Society and available for tours. One hundred fifty years after this story takes place, Scotsman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and a small cut was no longer a potentially deadly hazard.

This short story was published in the July 26, 2017, U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

 

 

Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry

****Fateful Mornings

police car

photo: Highway Patrol Images, creative commons license

By Tom Bouman – Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the wood for new barns designed by his best friend, word-working genius Ed Brennan.

In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry, who narrates most chapters. In Henry and several other principal characters in this rural noir novel, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals. Henry also plays fiddle in a roots music trio, for example.

These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.

But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair has lost custody of their infant daughter. Though they want her back, they aren’t on a road that can lead to that outcome.

The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with nearby departments that have many more resources than he does in Wild Thyme. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see real cooperation.

Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.

Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell.

A longer version of this review appeared recently on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

Beach Reads for Shark Week!

shark, graffiti

photo: Alexis LêQuôc, creative commons license

We’re in the middle of Shark Week, and it’s prime season for heading to the shore. Beach vacations deserve beach reads. If you read the true story Close to Shore, you may decide to get your excitement sitting under an umbrella with your book and a piña colada, leaving the swimming to others. Even if it’s a staycation this year, these authors will leave you feeling sand in your shoes.

  • Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo – from before New Jersey’s sharks congregated at the state house—reportedly an inspiration for Jaws
  • Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard – a West Palm Beach/Miami stewardess tries to secure her fortune ahead of the Feds and the mob—made into the film Jackie Brown
  • Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen – down in the Florida Keys, Hiaasen’s typically hilarious collection of oddballs comes together after a faked auto accident
  • The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn – northern California surfing legends and an unsolved murder
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon – sheer craziness with SoCal beach-dweller and P.I. Doc Sportello, who works in a marijuana haze with a 60s soundtrack—the movie is impenetrable
  • The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers – 1920s Hawai`i, Charlie Chan, and the murder of a proper Bostonian—an old-fashioned classic
  • The Place of Refuge by Al Tucher – the dangerous assignments for two Hawaiian police detectives converge
  • The Beach by Alex Garland – a tourist searches for Thailand’s “perfect” beach in this suspenseful tale; his mistake may be finding it

Or, if you’re into real sharks, you can name a shark, track a tagged shark’s meanderings, and see where tagged sharks have been hanging out recently (orange dots). GPS tags ping when the dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface.

reading

(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org