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.

Weekend Movie Picks – 1/18-1/20

Green Book

By now you may have heard of the Shirley family’s reservations about director Peter Farrelly’s movie, despite its winning a Golden Globe for best motion picture (trailer). Based on a true story, the script was written by Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie, who won a Golden Globe for best screenplay

There’s no faulting the acting, Mahershala Ali (Golden Globe) portraying sophisticated jazz pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as his rough-around-the-edges and racist chauffeur, (Nick Vallelonga in real life), are both tops.

They embark on a concert tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights movement, and encounter all the expected restrictions, slights, and prejudices. And that was part of the problem. I’d already imagined, known about, and seen these situations in many other films back when this type of content was an eye-opener.

I fear it gives today’s white people a too-easy win, encouraging us to think “I’m sure glad I’m not like those Southern racists.” Racism can’t be just put in a drawer as if a piece of the past that no longer needs attention. Black Americans traveling today still encounter racism.

Perhaps a new generation needs these reminders, and perhaps younger people will take from the film the powerful lesson that connection and friendship and respect can grow between people who are so unlike each other. That’s something to hope for.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 94%.

On the Basis of Sex

Having seen and enjoyed the documentary RBG, I was prepared tro be disappointed in Hollywood’s version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, directed by Mimi Leder with a script by Daniel Stiepleman (trailer). To my delight, I was not. Felicity Jones as RBG and Armie Hammer as her devoted and amazingly patient husband Marty do a fine job, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU is busy being political, and the courts are against her, but Ruth soldiers on to victory (as we know beforehand). I particularly liked the scene where opposing counsel waved a list of the hundreds of U.S. statutes that applied differently to women, thinking to show how “normal” the practice was, and RBG instead used it to show the practice was pervasive and pernicious.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 71%; audiences 72%.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Haven’t heard of this one? Me neither, until I found it in the Academy Award shortlist of nominees for song and music. This Coen Brothers experiment appeared ever-so-briefly in theaters then went straight to Netflix (trailer).

It’s an anthology of six short stories, alike only in the brothers’ trademark dark vision and black humor, and it won the best screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival. There’s music too, of the cowboy lament variety.

Each of the six tales has its own cast, including Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, and Bill Heck.

There is violence, of course, but most of it is cartoonish. While there’s humor, there’s wistful sadness as well. Most memorable, I think, is the story “Meal Ticket,” in which a young man with no arms and legs but a wonderful voice for oratory (Harry Melling) performs for a dwindling audience of shantytown residents. In the story, “All Gold Canyon,” featuring Tom Waits, you’ll see the most beautiful valley imaginable.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 77%

Resurrection on the Cutting-Room Floor

scissors, blood, editing
(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The first draft of one of my novels was 135,000 words—1.5 times what was remotely saleable. Since I didn’t plan on writing solely for myself, I couldn’t risk being thrown in the circular file before my doorstop even reach an editor’s desk! So I began to cut. In the many subsequent drafts and rewrites, I’ve always had one eye on shrinkability.

When my editor—the stellar Barb Goffman—suggested I beef the novel up in some areas, I knew we weren’t just talking addition, we were talking subtraction too. A number of characters were easy to jettison altogether, but a few that had to be trimmed still spoke to me. The three most promising I’ve turned into published short stories, something J. Todd Scott may have done with a character from High White Sun (a short story in, I believe, Mystery Tribune).

One character I didn’t want to lose is a murdered Roman priest who thinks his classic migraines are communications from God. Although his death remains in the novel, his backstory is repurposed in “The Penitent,” published last year in Bouchercon’s Passport to Murder.

A mafia fence launched his career by masterminding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston, a resume-enhancing crime unrelated to events in the novel. That story became “Above Suspicion,” appearing in the current issue (#26) of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Another priest, Anglican flavor this time, intervenes in an assault on my protagonist, no doubt saving her life. While this priest has only a minor role in the novel, his giddy nonstop talking charmed my beta- (or perhaps I should say gamma-) readers, and I worked him into a story—“What Saved Them”—published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

The transformation from novel excerpt to complete short story turned out not to be as easy as I expected, and each presented its own challenges. If you’re ever tempted to resurrect one of the darlings you’ve just killed, here’s what I learned.

Four Tips for Authors

1. If the characters involved in the short story remain in your novel (that is, if you haven’t gotten rid of them altogether), you need an eagle eye for continuity. You can’t have your character driving a Porsche in the story and relying on Uber in the story. More important, they cannot do anything in the story that would affect the action of the novel.

2. Originally, I’d engaged in vigorous head-hopping in the scene where the priest dies. I found I could park the novel’s point of view in the head of the assassin, yet write the short story from the priest’s perspective. Same events, two points of view. That was fun.

3. The story of the fence had a strong core from the get-go because of the extensive detail about the ISG theft. I wrote new backstory—waybackstory—about the character’s childhood in Fez. And of course more extensive setup and denouement.

4. OK, it’s fun, but is it a story? The Anglican priest was a character. His story had to be developed from scratch using the dialog I’d salvaged. But who was he? How would he behave? What changed for him? The rescue of the woman would plausibly have a long-term impact on him and it became a source of reflection, laying the groundwork for his subsequent actions.

Because you don’t have a blank page when you deal with bits excised from other works, there are many more than the customary limits on your degrees of authorial freedom. Whether the resurrected short stories prove useful in marketing or whether they are just good stories in their own right, you can feel good about creative recycling!

*****Best American Mystery Stories – 2018

reading
(Pedro Ribeiro Simōes, cc license)

Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies, and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring Sanders).

Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful. Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.

Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with “Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad choices and the men who exploit them.

Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).

The selected authors found clever and creative ways to deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).

A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,” in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.

This talented collection of authors fills their stories with great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone so you don’t get in trouble.”

If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for (and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).

Which publications brought these stories to light in the first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published four of the stories, Mystery Tribune (two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar and Snowbound) produced a pair of them.

*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

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Windjammer

By Vicki Weisfeld

When Bruce Pritchard unlocked the door to his weekend Cape May, New Jersey, cottage one Friday early in June, the wind crowded in behind him like a presence, gusts of rain snapping at his heels. He flipped the light switch and shed the old-fashioned boots, oilskins, and sou’wester he affected, a fully wired city boy summoning the crusty New England sea captains of his imagination.

He lit the fireplace to exorcise the weekday shadows and dispel the ocean’s powerful breath, swirling about him like a salt-tinged mist. In the kitchen, he unpacked provisions — steaks for friends, a purple cluster of mussels for himself, a bottle of prosecco, ditto. This he opened at once.

He toured the four downstairs rooms, glass of wine in hand, shedding the week’s frustrations like a sodden overcoat. The cottage’s renovations were finally, finally finished, and the next evening his six best friends — and investment clients — were driving down from New York to help him celebrate.

A line of sand-clouded puddles tracked from door to fireplace disturbed the perfection of the moment, and Bruce chided himself as he fetched a towel to dry them.

After dinner, he sat in front of the fire and paged through a musty volume of nautical prints — oversized engravings of merchant ships, three-masted clippers, an artist’s impression of The Flying Dutchman. Tonight he’d skip the blood-soaked ghosts of the Stephen King he’d been reading, the book slumbering like a serpent on his beside table.

He’d rescued the book of engravings from the attic, a farrago of yellowing volumes, framed pictures, half-empty chests, and broken whatnots he’d barely glanced at as yet. The elderly sisters who sold him the cottage said they’d never been up there and exchanged a secretive look. “Noises,” one said, and the other said, “Best not to be too curious.” “Or disturb things,” the first one nodded, but her sister cut off further comment with one glance. Of course they didn’t want to call attention to how they’d left everything “undisturbed,” and unrepaired, and unpainted, un, un, un, which was why the place was crumbling around their ears and why he’d been able to buy it at such a good price.

Well into the night, the storm provided a soundtrack for dreams of howling seas and wind-battered sailors, decks slippery as glass, whiplashing ropes and renting sails, so that he awoke feeling he’d tussled with the elements for hours. From the bedroom window, he watched the morning sun chase the ocean waves, a quarter-mile away. His prize view.

Mary Benaker’s station wagon pulled into the smoothed patch of sand next to his BMW. He threw on a robe and met her at the front door. Mary was the real estate agent who kept an eye on the place for him, arranged his cleaning service, and oversaw any weekday workmen. She’d been a godsend during the renovation. All 18 harrowing months of it. Now she greeted him, holding a flat of annuals.

“Thought you might want these,” she said, too cheerful for the hour. “I just drove past the farmer’s market. They’ve got strawberries.”

Bruce regarded the banal mix of orange marigolds, red salvia, and purple and white petunias. Nothing he would plant. Certainly not in that color combination. “No thanks. I’m headed to the garden center today myself. Very generous of you, but, no.”

She looked a bit sadly at the unwanted annuals, but said nothing.

As an afterthought, he said, “One thing, though. Was the maid service here last week?”

“Next week. First and third Wednesdays. Everything OK?”

He looked past her, head cocked. “Yes, but …” He paused to focus a thought. “Everything looks moved, slightly, like someone dusted. And, it just feels like … someone’s been here.” He’d had a parade of unsettling feelings when at the house in the last few weeks, but he wasn’t going to tell Mary about the worst of them — that someone was watching him. That he chalked up to urban paranoia and, possibly, too much Cabernet.

Now she hesitated. “Anything missing?”

“Nothing like that. Probably my imagination.” The uncertain way he said this made it clear he didn’t believe it was his imagination at all, and he turned to go back inside the house. “Thanks, anyway.” He indicated the plants.

“Suit yourself,” she said to the closing door.

Bruce leaned his back against the door, annoyed. Throughout the endless renovation, she always managed to slip in a dig. “If that’s what you like,” “Of course, that’s up to you,” “Suit yourself.” Her distaste for his choices, his polished style couldn’t be clearer.

“So what!” he scolded himself, then gasped. He took a step forward, then another, transfixed by what he saw over the fireplace. In place of his prized large-format Robert Mapplethorpe photograph — ambiguous portions of two male torsos, one black, one white, so rich in tone it seemed a color print, but wasn’t — sailed a four-masted windjammer, sheets unfurled and running with the wind, straight at him.

He wheeled and opened the door. “Mary!” he shouted, but the station wagon turned onto the road and disappeared behind a stand of beach plums.

The frame of the Mapplethorpe peeked above the back of a low sofa. He pulled it from its hiding place and marched to the fireplace to switch the two. And stepped in a puddle of seawater containing a miniature beach of sand and trailing a seaweed thread.

Maybe a shower would clear his head. But in the bathroom, he found scrimshaw ornaments cluttering the glass shelf. Where the hell did those come from? Figuring they were cheap plastic souvenirs, someone’s idea of a joke, he picked up a piece to toss it into the trash, and noticed the weight, the fine detail, a map he recognized as Nantucket Island, and the date: 1846. He set it back on the glass and contemplated it.

* * *

A piece of toast in one hand and his smartphone in the other, he called Mary. “Who lived here before me, do you know? Before the sisters.”

“Let me ask Chuck. If he doesn’t know, he can find out.” Chuck Benaker was her husband, another realtor and a past president of the county historic society. These combined interests could generate a dizzying amount of genealogical detail about any parcel of local property. Bruce found Chuck tiresome, but Mary was right. He’d know.

Bruce was planting herbs next to the kitchen door when Mary called back.

“Chuck says your house was built by a retired sea captain. This would have been about 1850. The house was in his family for 75 years or so until the Darby family bought it. The parents died soon after World War II, and they left it to their daughters — the sisters who sold it to you. Not many owners.”

“What does he know about this sea captain?”

“He said the historic society has some papers and such. They open for the season in a couple of weeks, but wait.” Mary put her hand over the receiver and spoke to someone. “Chuck says he can meet you there about three.”

* * *

The historic society headquarters and museum occupied a simple clapboard house on Washington Street. Chuck Benaker looked up from a pile of mail. “So, your house? Quite a history.” He handed Bruce a folder. “Captain Newsome was a true legend. You have there the original deed to the property and records of some purchases. Stuff found after he was murdered, I suppose. Plus the registries kept by his nephew, who lived with him and let out the upstairs rooms to lodgers. The Darbys —”

“Murdered?”

“Newsome? Oh, yeah. Made enemies like Dunkin’ makes Donuts. If he hadn’t died, he would have been charged with a murder or two himself. Beat the rap by bleeding to death. The clippings are here somewhere,” Chuck walked to a file cabinet and rattled a drawer open. “We’ve been closed since fall, and the girls left everything a mess.” He slammed the drawer. “But I remember the story.”

Bruce leafed through the folder, mesmerized. So much for his house as a peaceful place, a refuge. He held up a green feather.

“Ah. Newsome’s parrot, ‘Cap’n,’” Chuck said. “According to their diaries, the Cape May ladies were more terrified of Cap’n than of Newsome himself. Stunning vocabulary.

“Newsome was captain of a merchant ship in the mid-1800s, sailed out of Massachusetts,” Chuck drawled, and Bruce could see the rest of the afternoon unwinding drearily in front of him, despite Chuck’s rendition of the despicable Newsome. Chuck pulled open the shallow drawer of a map cabinet and located a floor plan of the house. “Carpenter’s records.” He pointed to a second floor room. “Happened right there. When I unearth the newspaper stories, you can read the police description. Strong stomach?” He looked at Bruce over the top of his half-glasses.

“That’s my bedroom,” Bruce said, staring at Chuck’s tapping finger.

“Really.” Chuck paused, as if he found that fact somehow significant, and the word hung ambiguously in the air. “Newsome and his killer, Henry Carver — now that was a prophetic name — had a royal feud about your property. Came to a head one night, both of them drunk. Carver tried to escape across the Pine Barrens, but a timber rattler got him, so the police said.”

Bruce caught the skepticism. “You don’t believe it?”

Benaker shrugged. “The other lodgers didn’t believe it. The night in question they were all jammed in the doorway of the murder room, but none of them lifted a hand while Carver did the bloody deed. Newsome’s last words were, ‘I’ll come back and get you,’ and he shook his fist at the lot of them. When Carver turned up dead, they hightailed it.”

“What time is it?” Bruce startled, as if wakened from a bad dream, and checked his watch. 5:30.

“Oh. Sorry to keep you.” Chuck looked disappointed. “I get all wound up in these stories. Cape May County has a colorful history, that’s for sure.”

Bruce stood up, a little wobbly from information overload. “No, it was . . . helpful. But I have friends coming at seven.”

“You go on. When I dig up those clippings, we’ll talk again.” He rubbed his hands together, a gesture that made Bruce wince.

Back at the cottage, The Windjammer was back above the fireplace. He found the torn Mapplethorpe outside in the trash barrel, frame and glass shattered.

* * *

Bruce’s guests said the cottage was fantastic and thought the painting an inspired bit of camp. But their admiration gave him no pleasure, and he was uncharacteristically quiet all evening. He couldn’t talk to his New York friends about ghosts, then expect them to invest their life savings with him.

He gave two of the men the “murder room,” as Benaker termed it. As he stood in the doorway to point out the switches and extra bedding, he began to shake, and he hurried back downstairs. He slept on the sofa and hoped a sunny Sunday morning at the beach would expunge Newsome’s gory phantom.

Too soon he was awakened by a commotion in the kitchen. Up already before seven, his visitors prowled for coffee. He found them clustered around the kitchen table, staring at a tall bell-shaped object covered with a fitted cloth.

“Looks like my mother’s mixer,” said one, “only bigger.”

“Your mother dressed her appliances, too? I thought that was my Mom’s Midwestern chic.”

Bruce knew what the thing was. But he lifted the cover, anyway.

“Cap’n’s back,” squawked the parrot, followed by an outpouring of dark obscenities.

* * *

Late that afternoon the phone rang in the Benaker real estate office, and Chuck picked up. “Hey, Bruce,” Chuck said. He continued to listen for several minutes. “Sorry to hear that. . . . No, I do not believe in . . .” He listened some more. “Well, OK, if you’re sure.” Finally, he hung up.

He looked across the office and smiled at his wife. “Your dream house? As good as yours.”

Weekend Entertainments

It’s the season to squeeze in viewings of prospective Academy Award nominees. All four of these films and their cast members are in contention. Nominations to be announced January 22, and the awards ceremony will be February 24.

Vice

Word on the street is that this grim yet funny biopic, written and directed by Adam McKay (trailer), is slow. I didn’t find it so, absorbed as I was by McKay’s version of the dark mind and hollow soul of Dick Cheney, long-time Republican operative and George W. Bush’s vice-president.

Since everything is relative, we of short attention span might be tempted to look back on the Bush II Administration with some nostalgia, given . . . This movie is a bracing corrective to that impulse.

As Cheney, Christian Bale gets better and better as the film progresses and Cheney ages, from an irresponsible drunk to master puppeteer—“resilient, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, ruthlessly ambitious,” says Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times. Early on, we see the 9/11 scene in the White House situation room. (Our President, recall, was reading to a bunch of schoolchildren when that catastrophe unfolded.) While all the other national leaders sequestered in the White House basement are in shock, the narrator says, Cheney “saw an opportunity.”

He saw another one when approached by W (Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell) to be his vice president. At first he demurs, but he recognizes that Bush is a blank slate. The guy hasn’t a clue. Cheney does. And the power-grab is on. Eventually, tasked with identifying a vice presidential candidate, he identifies himself.

Amy Adams revels in her role as Lynne Cheney/Lady Macbeth, and there’s even an apocryphal pillowtalk scene where she and Dick recite Shakespeare’s lines to each other.

As he did in The Big Short, McKay breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate what he’s suggesting with visuals puns and sly humor. If this film is slow, it’s slow like a steamroller, flattening everything and everyone in its path. Stay for the credits. There’s a bit more movie partway thru.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 62%; audiences: 54%.

Beautiful Boy

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film recreation of the stories of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, and their family’s struggle against Nic’s drug addiction is tough to watch (trailer). But only if you’ve ever been the parent of a teenager or been a teenager yourself. There are times and circumstances when parental love becomes unbearable for them all. Although, like the relapses of addiction itself, the action occasionally becomes repetitive, Steve Carell as the frantic father and Timothée Chalamet as Nic are heartbreaking. Maura Tierny as Nic’s stepmom and Amy Ryan as his biological mother provide powerful performances too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 67%; audiences 77%.

The Favourite

An entertaining costume drama about three real-life women, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (trailer). Poor Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) was truly a sad character in real life, plagued by ill health, and, despite 17 pregnancies, leaving no heir. Her reign was short (1702-1714), and she was a widow for half of it. Several strong women were her dueling confidants (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone). Beautiful costumes, fantastic acting, especially by Colman. I wish the filmmaker had been drawn less to the rumors of lesbianism, which are discounted by many historians, and more to the politics of the time. It was in Queen Anne’s reign that Great Britain was formed, for example. Plus, the Worst Credits Ever.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 61%.

Roma

Beautiful black and white photography in this highly praised autobiographical movie written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (trailer). And compelling acting by the nonprofessional cast, particularly Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the put-upon maid of a four-child household in domestic turmoil. She keeps them together, literally and spiritually. I thought I’d read that she is unappreciated, but she isn’t or perhaps the filmmaker is atoning for a lapse in his own history. It’s pleasant and pretty but breaks no new ground—“quotidian and extraordinary at the same time,” said Gary M. Kramer in Salon.com. Now this one is slow.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 83%.

Genes and Genealogy

An unexpected delight of my stumbling genealogy researches has been discovering and re-discovering my cousins. Most of my father’s family lived geographically close to me when I was growing up, but as far as getting to know them–they might as well have been a thousand miles away.

My dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came separately to the United States in the early 1900s, met, married, lived in Michigan where my grandfather was a farmer and an autoworker. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. They didn’t talk about their immigration experience. At all.

Online research added to the picture. The naturalization record for my grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi (with the last name spelled six different ways on two government forms), provided the date of his arrival and name of the ship he came on (the S.S. Chicago). He applied for naturalization after being in America for some years, and it listed children’s names, leaving no doubt this record was for my family.

From the ship manifest I found his father’s name—Ferencz, or Frank, the same as his—and the village he came from. Wow! My great-grandfather’s name and a definite place, Kondorfa. Still today Kondorfa has only a few more than 600 residents. It’s in far western Hungary, closer to Vienna and Bratislava than Budapest, in a German-Hungarian area called the Burgenland. Short of learning to speak Magyar and traveling there, my researches seemed to be bumping up against the proverbial brick wall.

One additional clue from the ship manifest was that Ferencz’s destination was South Bethlehem, Pa. Probably he planned to work at Bethlehem Steel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. I found a 1923 death certificate for 38-year-old Peter Hegyi from Kondorfa who died after being struck in the chest by a bar of steel. The certificate listed his parents’ names, Ferencz Hegyi and Julianna Fabian. Now I had my great-grandmother’s name too. But there my research string ran out.

In Your Genes

People ask me whether having a genetic profile helps with genealogy, and I always say yes! I spit into a cup for 23andMe many years ago. A couple of distant cousins on my mother’s side have contacted me, all having useful connections and information. Then, a few months ago, the surprise. A woman living near Bethlehem contacted me after noting our slight genetic match and the Hegyi name, which is found frequently in the area her family came from.

This distant cousin has website Jane’s Genes (very useful general/tips, too), and some careful research on Jane’s part revealed she’s my fifth cousin, once removed. Our common ancestors are my great-great-great-great grandparents Janos Herczeg (b 1747) and Rozalia Horvath (b 1755).

Jane has put me in touch with other cousins in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. I learned one of my grandfather’s younger sisters immigrated to South Bethlehem as well, and I’ve connected with her granddaughter. Our Midwest cousin is another genius at deciphering the spidery handwriting in the old Hungarian and Church records. Thanks to her diligence, I can now trace my grandfather’s family back six generations, to ancestors born in the early 1700s.

I’ve shared my written history of the Hegyi family, sparse though it is, with about a dozen first cousins—children of my father’s generation—and now regularly visit several of them in Indiana and Michigan. I didn’t have addresses for them all, though, and again 23andMe came through. The granddaughter of my Uncle Bill got in touch and, through her, I’ve communicated with her mother, my first cousin.

When I started working on family history, what I expected to explore was “history”; now I’ve learned it’s about “family” too.

Don’t forget to watch “Finding Our Roots” on PBS Tuesdays, 8 p.m., hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Every family has a story!

***The Winters

By Lisa Gabriele – The author set herself a high bar in tackling a modern reimagining of Daphne du Maurier’s classic psychological thriller, Rebecca, with its famous first line—“Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderley.” Gabriele’s first line, “Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again” is startling, if lacking the original’s poetic power.

Nevertheless, a novel is more than its opening line. I reread the set-up for du Maurier’s gothic thriller to reacquaint myself with the story and her style, so I could assess whether Gabriele’s new novel stands up to the original, since it so deliberately invites the comparison. I ended up with a mixed opinion.

As in the original, Gabriele’s (again, unnamed) narrator, a rather unsophisticated if sincere young woman, does not fit easily in the social set of her new fiancé, wealthy New York Senator Maxim Winter. Winter dismisses her feelings of being out-of-place, despite (or is it because of?) her stark dissimilarity to his late wife—the beautiful, charming, and talented Rebekah. I didn’t really warm up to the narrator—odd, since the book is written in the first-person—nor did I find her a wholly convincing character.

As in the original, most of the story takes place at a legendary and enormous family residence. The Winter estate, Asherley, was built on its own island at the far eastern end of Long Island, facing the sea.

In a brilliant move by Gabriele, the narrator’s antagonist is not the confidant of the late Mrs. Winter, the housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers in the original); in Gabriele’s version, the principal opposition to the marriage and to the narrator herself comes from Max and Rebekah’s teenage daughter, Dani. Many of us have seen how fraught relationships with step-children can be, and this was a persuasive adjustment to modern times. There is a lot going on with Dani, though her rebellious teenage machinations are hard to forgive, for narrator and reader alike.

While the set-up of the two novels is reasonably similar, their plots begin to diverge about half-way through. Even so, having Dani volunteer to help the narrator find a wedding dress evokes nail-biting echoes of disaster that play out in a completely unexpected way.

Gabriele’s writing style is, of course, markedly different from that of a novel written eighty years ago. Still, I miss du Maurier’s long loopy sentences and lush descriptions. In the new version, you see the Winter mansion through modern eyes and a more practical, less dreamy affect. In place of a wall of blood-red rhododendrons, you have a profusion of vases full of Rebekah’s favored deep red roses. Tastes differ as to whether a more florid style better fits a romantic story about a woman blinded by love—or is she?—and haunted by her dead rival.

Gabriele’s narrator is a refreshingly modern woman, appreciative of Max Winter’s extreme wealth, but not overawed by it. Even so, she finds herself trapped by circumstances. In today’s world, a difficult housekeeper would be dismissed; it’s not so easy to divest oneself of a step-daughter, even a calculating, substance-abusing, and foul-mouthed one like Dani. Gabriele, having set aside the evil housekeeper, finds new ways for Rebekah’s memory to torment the new Mrs. Winter, while the ghost of du Maurier’s Rebecca necessarily haunts The Winters.

You may recall Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Academy Award-winning film, Rebecca. A new version is in the works, starring Armie Hammer and Lily James.

Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!