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.

Oscar and his Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

It’s become increasingly easy to see the Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, documentaries, and live action, and I’ve enjoyed them a great deal.

The documentaries generally give an in-depth examination of some small aspect of life or interesting person, usually overlooked and often a moving testament to the human spirit. (I’m thinking about the former prison inmates taught to staff a high-end Cleveland restaurant in last year’s Knife Skills or Joe’s Violin from 2017.)  

The live action films explore myriad stories of the human condition—last year’s film about the deaf child who wanted to learn sign language—including lighter moments, such as the absurdly funny 2017 Spanish film, Timecode.

Not this year. The Academy process resulted in nominees of almost unrelieved bleakness. We skipped the documentaries (on racism, Nazism, dying, and the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). The only film with a hopeful message was about young women in India trying to overcome the stigma of menstruation. That they needed to was discouraging enough. Maybe these films were truly outstanding, but the topics (except the last) are well-worn.

We had a similarly dubious assessment of the live action shorts nominees, noting the heavy “children in peril” theme, but made a last-minute decision to see them anyway. It would be a job of work to decide which was most depressing (links below are to trailers):

  • Madre (Spain) – the mother of a six-year-old has a shaky phone connection to her six-year-old son abandoned by his father and alone on a beach somewhere, he can’t tell her where. Great acting by Marta Nieto as the distraught and helpless mother. Director’s Notes.
  • Marguerite (Canada) – an elderly woman in failing health and her compassionate caregiver. Sweet acting, but breaks no new ground.
  • Fauve (Canada) – two children enter an abandoned, forbidden mine. Quicksand figures in. All I can say is, Why?
  • Skin (U.S.) – a heavily tattooed redneck, though a supportive father, lets his racism run rampant, which goes badly in an unexpected way. (Casting against type, FYI, the actor playing the dad is a ballet dancer.) Interesting, well-acted.
  • Detainment (Ireland)  – the most controversial of the films, it’s about a 1993 British case, in which two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old. The script is based on the police’s taped interviews with the boys. The actors playing the children and their parents do a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy for the detectives, either. The mother of the slain boy campaigned to have the film withdrawn from Oscar consideration because she hadn’t been interviewed for it; however, director Vincent Lambe wanted the actual police interviews to speak for themselves. The case has raised questions about the proper handling of juvenile defendants. In a chilling note, viewers are informed that the last two tapes from the interviews were deemed to disturbing to be heard by the jury and have never been revealed. Tough to watch but a strong contender.

Photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license

****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.

30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.

Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway

****The Bolivian Sailor

By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor

***Low Down Dirty Vote

Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote

***A Deadly Indifference

By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

Western writers have exploited the tiger, says Aditi Natasha Kini in a Literary Hub essay, that goes on to illustrate the interplay of literature and wildlife mismanagement.

Authors have been mesmerized by the elusive tiger’s beauty, stunned by its cunning, and fascinated by its ferocity. Whereas a lion is social and, according to no less a wildlife expert than Gunther Gebel-Williams, tends to want to get along; tigers don’t care about you, not even about each other at times, as the recent London Zoo tragedy attests.

Alas, our fascination has been deadly for the tigers. “Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?” Kini asks.

Hard to believe in this era of heightened consciousness that a New York Times South Asia bureau chief “a few months ago,” Kini says, started writing admiringly about the hunt for a tiger deemed menacing to Indian villages. Despite the editor’s “several breathless articles,” certainly this writing did not generate the bloodlust of a century ago, when an estimated 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925.

Kini draws a connection between this murderous spree and the vilification of tigers in literature and popular culture. They came to be portrayed as evil, monstrous, and murderous. Jungle creatures, “especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it.”

The near-extermination of wild tigers becomes another environmental depredation that naturally devolves from what Kini calls “the narrative of human supremacy.” Now, one legacy of that narrative contributes to global warming, and the habitat loss likely to result will provide a further threat to the species.

The World Wildlife Fund’s estimate that more tigers live in U.S. backyards than in the wild has received fairly wide publicity. Nevertheless, four states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—have no laws at all about keeping dangerous wild animals as “pets,” including this week in an abandoned Houston garage. The reduced circumstances in which many of these animals live is the exact opposite of the iconic creatures of fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing tragedy.

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

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****Mrs. Cox

earphones

By Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond – It’s January 1608. London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the authorities are still hiding the extent of the grain shortage. When a well respected woman of the Aldgate neighborhood dies under mysterious circumstances there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.

In Mrs. Cox, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of her story’s most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. The victim’s landlord, Mr. Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates her disappearance and discovers not a body, but the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.

The local Alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming Mayor. A number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing, but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had a motive for murder, because the victim could thwart his development plans.

Moore’s narrative is as full of colorful characters as a Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs. Gosson, so close in sound to gossip, which well describes her stock-in-trade. The irrepressible laundress Bitty is a lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice needleworkers, and persons of both sexes harboring secrets will stay in your mind long after the story ends.

Rumors suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs. Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman so described is found. She’s tried, found guilty, and due to hang, but Mrs. Cox knows she’s not guilty and persists in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of influence.

I enjoyed the book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond. She has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast and conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart. If you like historical mysteries or pre-Dickensian London, you’ll find this book both intriguing and delightful! Mrs. Cox is currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.

Photo above: John O’Nolan, creative commons license


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Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

While a bright line has traditionally separated news and entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film historian Max Alvarez showed clips of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.

Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.

Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.

The Post, Meryl Streep

Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal decision by Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both films, the journalist is the hero.

A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger (2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer). In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect information and relentless attack.

Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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Cape May’s Off-Season Delights

Maybe not this past week, with temperatures in single-digits, but off-season can be a fun time to visit beach towns, like historic Cape May, New Jersey, which clings to the far southern tip of the Garden State, and is actually south of Baltimore and almost directly east of Washington, D.C. On a narrow peninsula, surrounded by water, Cape May is full of extravagant Victorian homes (many of them now B&Bs), impressive restaurants and a range of attractions.

Visiting off-season, you find the summer crowds have disappeared like the flocks of migrating birds you can see there spring and fall—at “one of the greats migration hot spots on earth!” The Cape May Lighthouse has a hawk-watching platform, the city has a nature center, an Audubon Society bird observatory, and several other attractions catering to birdwatchers (and the curious). Even after the big migration, there are a lot of shore and wading birds.

Jersey Shore Alpacas is a place where you can pet, feed, and find out whatever you might want to know about this interesting breed of animal (and buy luxuriously soft alpaca-wool items and gifts). The farm (whose motto is “furry fun for everyone!”). Nearby is the Cape May County Park and Zoo, which, unbelievably, is free. It features some 250 species, including lions, and zebras, and giraffes, though if the day is too cold, you may not see some of them. Just a guess, but the snow leopards are probably always on view. There’s an indoor aviary for the tropical birds, and the raptors are outside. Winters, it’s open from 10 to 3:30 and, again, not crowded.

A 10-mile drive north brings to you the town of Wildwood, whose two-mile long boardwalk is almost impassable with tourists in summer. The stilled amusement park, the silent roller-coasters, the shuttered ice cream stands suggest the set for a B-movie. Sparse traffic encourages a drive past the Wildwoods’ collection of doo-wop motels, architecture straight out of the 1950s!

The Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) at the Cape May Airport is home to an aviation museum in a converted hangar (dress warmly), which includes an array of aircrafts, engines, and interactive exhibits. It has a moving display about the 9/11 “All Available Boats” rescuers too. When I walked inside, I thought it wasn’t going to be that interesting, but I ended up fascinated. It’s not at all slick, and seems to be a labor of love.

Cape May offers some spectacular restaurants. Our favorites included Tisha’s, Union Park Dining Room, and Fins Bar and Grill. There’s pleasant shopping, and the town has been an artists’ inspiration for decades. Evidence is this bouncy Bud Nugent song and my short story “Windjammer” about a vengeful sea captain whose ghost haunts one of Cape May’s arriviste residents.

****Death in Shangri-La

India, dawn, village

By Yigal Zur, translated by Sara Kitai – Israeli thriller writer Yigal Zur skillfully uses both an exotic setting and ongoing political turmoil to create a high level of tension in this fast-paced thriller. Published in Israel in 2012, Death in Shangri-La is the first of Zur’s novels to be translated into English, and quite smoothly at that.

A trip to India after their military commitment has become rite of passage for many Israeli young adults. When one young Israeli seems bent on abandoning a future law career and immersing himself in the life of an ashram somewhere in Sikkim, his father, arms dealer Willy Mizrachi, is outraged. He complains about it to his acquaintance, former security agent Dotan Naor, familiar with India from his days working for Israeli state security.

While Dotan counsels him to accept his son for who he is, Willy is determined to bring him home. In an action that will have deadly consequences, Willy wagers that within a year, he’ll have his son happily back home, with a wife and baby.

A few months later, Dotan learns Willy has been murdered in Delhi, just as news reports are filled with stories of terrorist attacks on Israeli young people in north India—backpackers, guest house visitors, honeymooners. Most of the novel is told by Dotan in first-person. However, the attacks are told from the points of view of the Israelis and their would-be rescuers, which effectively conveys the situational chaos.

Shortly after Dotan learns about Willy, security agency agents visit his Tel Aviv apartment hoping he will cooperate in unraveling Willy’s murder. Dotan at first refuses, but when a posthumous letter from Willy arrives saying he’s being watched, the clues it contains convince him to take the job. The female agent, Maya Kfir, will accompany him. (You anticipate where that relationship is going.)

The action moves to India, and Zur wonderfully evokes a sense of place. His descriptions of the street life, the seedy hotels where Dotan and Maya stay, the markets, the food, are terrific. The elements of the setting are not just pasted on, they are well worked into the plot. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? Probably not.

In the course of trying to untangle Willy’s death, Dotan and Maya land in the heart of the current terrorist trouble spot and must draw on Dotan’s contacts with Indians on both sides of the law. The Muslim terrorists, drug runners, Tibetan freedom fighters, the Indian army—all have their agendas and guns manufactured in Israel. Are they Willy’s deadly legacy?

The main part of the story takes place in a highly compressed few days and the propulsive action keeps the pages turning. My only complaint is Dotan—a man in his forties, not a teenage boy—is obsessed with the sexual conquest, past, present, or future, of practically every woman in the story. When he quickly develops a supposedly sincere, if highly predictable, relationship with Maya, it’s hard to take seriously. This is the middle one of three thrillers about Dotan Naor. I hope the others will be translated too, and soon!

Photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

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