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.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, as the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is not readily available. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.

 

Stones in His Pockets

Stones in His Pockets

Garrett Lombard & Aaron Monaghan – photo: T Charles Erickson

When a Hollywood film crew descends on a small County Kerry village, the locals are brought on as extras, a seemingly glamorous job that turns them into observers of their own lives. McCarter Theatre Center is presenting this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Belfast-based playwright Marie Jones through February 11. British Director Lindsay Posner puts the two-person cast through physically sophisticated and antic changes, as they portray 15 characters, never missing a beat.

The two principal characters, Charlie Conlon (played by Garrett Lombard) and Jake Quinn (Aaron Monaghan) are a bit down on their luck and skeptical of Hollywood, yet the allure it holds for them is almost tangible. In addition, they portray numerous townspeople, including the hyperactive, drugged-out Sean who comes to a tragic end—walking into the deep water with stones in his pockets, a literary whiff of Virginia Woolf—and Michael, whose claim to fame is that he’s the last surviving extra from the filming of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man. They also play several of the Americans—the movie’s director Clem, his effervescent assistant Ashley, and the big-time movie star Caroline, whose Irish accent needs serious work, but who manages to dazzle Jake and Charlie anyway.

Charlie, not unexpectedly, has a movie script in his back pocket and is ever-alert for opportunities to show it to members of the cast and crew, with the expected yawning reception. Jake recently returned from New York, with precious little to show for it. Increasingly, they become aware of the falsity of the portrayal of their town and their lives—a brazen example of cultural appropriation—but there’s nothing they can do about it. The bloom is really off the rose with the key conflict of the play: whether the film director will give the townspeople time off to attend Sean’s funeral.

The elegantly simple set by Beowulf Boritt is piled with trunks from which Charlie and Jake grab an occasional bit of costume, but these changes are lightning fast and often in service of what the extras themselves are asked to do. The principal way the audience distinguishes among the many characters is through the considerable skill and talent of the two actors.

It’s a story about community—a community of locals and a community of outsiders, and the actors, who trained at The Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, make both these discordant communities come alive remarkably well.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

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

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

***The End of Lies

lock

photo: pug50, creative commons license

By Andrew Barrett – “How can you tell if you’re lying to yourself?” this crime thriller begins, and it’s a good question. Middle-aged protagonist Becky, a librarian and the first-person narrator of the story, and her husband Chris, a police investigator in the north of England, appear to have been lying to themselves for some time.

In Andrew Barrett’s telling, Becky and Chris have been planning a crime, if not a perfect crime, one they think they can pull off, that will allow them to escape to a well-heeled retirement somewhere warm. To accomplish this, Chris will sell a stolen list of police informants to a notorious crime boss, appropriately named Savage. The high likelihood such a scheme could go wrong in any number of ways hasn’t prevented their planning from proceeding apace. That is, until Becky arrives home one day and finds Chris dead on the living room floor and a team of gangsters ransacking their house.

The gangsters want the informants list, Becky’s tears suggest she wants her husband back, and her best friend Sienna is there to help. Becky learns that Chris received half of his £2 million payoff up-front, but where’s the money now? And where’s the list? If Becky doesn’t find one or the other—from her point of view, preferably both—she is promised a gruesome death.

This is one of those “things can’t get any worse, can they?” stories, in which they always do, and author Barrett provides it with a loudly ticking clock. Becky has one week to find the goods or be torn about by trucks, in a technologically advanced version of that classic British punishment for treason, drawing and quartering, though without the drawing part or, perhaps in a concession to modern sensibilities, the disembowelment.

Becky is an unusual character. Though she understandably works hard to meet the criminal’s demands, her behavior is erratic. She cries often, and she’s foul-mouthed and profane in a way not generally associated with librarianhood. (Read more about convincing female investigators here.)

If you like crime novels of the fast-paced, page-turner variety, you may want to join Barrett’s many fans. He’s a Yorkshire Crime Scene Investigator, who’s written almost a dozen previous novels in two series featuring CSIs. The End of Lies is a standalone and his first psychological thriller.

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?

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%.