On a Screen Near You: Julia and Belfast

We saw two movies last weekend, and if your area is like ours, there are no covid concerns. There couldn’t have been more than 10 other people in the theater for either showing.  Good for infection control, bad for the continued viability of our nonprofit movie house, the Garden Theater.

Belfast

We were really looking forward to this autobiographical film about the Northern Irish childhood of writer and director, super-star Kenneth Branagh (trailer), and we were not disappointed.

Branagh’s  parents were Protestants, but no Belfast resident of either religions could escape the tribal hatred of the late 1970s that ripped neighborhoods asunder.

Nine-year-old Buddy (played convincingly by Jude hill) had a dad (Jamie Dornan) working in England, who comes home occasional weekends to face his family’s deteriorating security situation. His absence leaves Buddy’s mother—in an unforgettable star turn by Caltriona Balfe—to cope as best she can. She has lived in Belfast all her life. She (and her kids) know every street, every person. Can anything persuade her to leave?

Beautifully directed by Branagh, it shows how hard in the moment are decisions that seem obvious in hindsight. Predictably wonderful portrayals of Buddy’s grandparents by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. Music by pre-off-the-deep-end Van Morrison, et al.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 92%.

Julia

This documentary about foodie icon Julia Child is well worth seeing for anyone who has experienced (or benefited from—and that’s every one of us ) her tornado-like arrival on the American culinary scene (trailer), directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

Born in Pasadena to conventional, conservative parents, Julia McWilliams got her first taste of other possibilities when in World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), which took her to Ceylon and China and, more important, introduced her to interesting, unconventional food and friends, including her eventual husband, diplomat Paul Child.

When Paul was stationed in Paris after the war, she fell in love with French cuisine and decided to attend the mostly male Cordon Bleu, the premier French cooking school. As a woman, she wasn’t welcome, but she persisted. Eventually, she teamed up with two Frenchwomen and produced Mastering the Art of French Cooking (two volumes of which are on my kitchen bookshelf today). This led to an interview on the then-barely-watched Boston Public television station, WGBH. The result is history. Episodes of The French Chef still appear on public television 50 years later, and generation of American cooks abandoned jello salads and Spam in favor of, well, real food. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences 92%.

Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.

Love Power

By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.

Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!

Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!

Order Love Power here from Amazon or order it here from IndieBound.

Under the Blood Moon

By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.

Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).

What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.

Order Under the Blood Moon here from Amazon or order it here through IndieBound.

A Feast for Book Lovers!

Last week, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, current staff and contributors presented an entertaining look back at books where reviewers got it dreadfully wrong and reviews that sparked particularly pointed letters to the editor.

Contemporary authors read scathing sections of reviews panning books now considered classics. Catch-22, reviewed in 1961, was deemed too long and too episodic—a collection of incidents, not a coherent novel. Though the reviewer of Anne of Green Gables considered her “one of the most extraordinary girls to ever come out of an ink pot,” she was deemed far too clever, well-spoken, and much too wise. (That’s why we readers loved her!) Fahrenheit 451, reviewed in 1953, was dismissed as a polemic. The reviewer believed Ray Bradbury had “developed a hatred for many aspects of current life,” and showed what would eventually happen if the tendency to treat reading as a heinous event went unchecked.

Book Review editor Tina Jordan called the letters the review has received “the Internet message board of their day,” containing praise, complaints, grievances, and corrections. In one from 1962, an author pointed out a mistake in the review, and the reviewer agreed she’d mis-read something (a bit unfathomably when they read us the disputed passage). Norman Mailer was mentioned in the review of a book by a different author, and Mailer wrote to dispute the comparison and in the process, assuring that more people heard about the controversy.

Best was Jack London’s response to a 1905 review that criticized the “unrealistic” fight scenes in his short story, “The Game.” A devoted boxing fan and amateur boxer himself, London felt obliged to respond, saying, “I have had these experiences and it was out of these experiences, plus a fairly intimate knowledge of prize-fighting in general, that I wrote The Game.” So there!

The 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, received only condescending praise from its reviewer, which instigated a fiery letter from Susan Sontag, who called it “a thrilling, subtle literary achievement.” Clearly, opinions differ.

This month, the Book Review will be publishing its list of finalists for the best book of the past 125 years—and you can nominate your favorite here! Meanwhile, you can read reviews and interviews selected from the Review’s amazing archives. The Book Review’s anniversary celebration isn’t ignoring the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Included in its retrospective content—linked above—are a 1912 review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and commentary from over the years on such classics as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and, one of my favorite books, not technically a crime novel, but filled with crimes, high and low—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. A feast for book lovers!

Killer Nashville in the Rearview

Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.

The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.

Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.

Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

“Shunning” Books by Women? What FB Users Said

reading

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post based in part on findings of research done by Nielsen Book Research. As you may know, the Nielsen organization is “a leading global data and analytics company that provides a holistic and objective understanding of the media industry.” This particular research was for a new book by MA Sieghart, titled The Authority Gap (reviewed here), which explores the social conditioning and unconscious bias that belittles and undermines women. Half the population is a lot of people to not take seriously.

The author investigated the many guises in which bias occurs, but of most interest to me were her findings on how authors are treated. Much past research has dealt with women authors’ difficulties, which culminate in reduced readership. Using the Nielsen research and other sources, Sieghart found considerable evidence that these difficulties continue and that men “shun” books by women. I actually think this may be less prevalent in the crime and mystery genre, but the research was dealt with best-selling authors, all genres.

I’m gratified that my post it received abundant Facebook likes from both men and women. But in the comments, sharp differences emerged. In general, women cited specific experiences they’d had; many men denied the problem and questioned the data.

Several women (teachers) said prejudices against women authors begin at an early age, and others said they identify themselves with initials, not their names, as a result. One woman said, “A while back, a large writers’ group I belong to researched this from several angles, and concluded that in most genres, male authors significantly outsold female. Possibly the roughest moment was a friend’s husband admitting to his writer wife that he too avoided books by women because he assumed they wouldn’t interest him.” That “he assumed” is what author Sieghart is trying to get at.

Some men said they don’t pay any attention to the author’s gender. I hope that’s true. But if all that interests them are stories about former Navy SEALS with advanced martial arts skills who like to blow things up, following their preferences will naturally lead to one type of author. One said he didn’t know any women who write the action thrillers he prefers (a woman author responded by suggesting one of her books). Sieghart’s point is that readers who read books by only one gender (however that happens) miss out on understanding a lot of what goes on in the world.

Apparently, several men didn’t bother to read my post, much less The Guardian article it was based on, both of which described the research. One skeptical man asked, “Is this based on any factual research?” Similarly, men wrote, “I don’t take much stock in people’s surveys or stats,” and “I think these surveys/polls are utter nonsense.” The Nielsen research wasn’t a poll; it was an analysis of actual buying patterns.

Mysteriously, one man said he didn’t see that the problem is about gender. “Most crime fiction is written by women, so are you suggesting men don’t read crime? They certainly do.” No, the post did not suggest anything like that at all.

The ad feminem argument also surfaced: “One issue is that society conditions men to expect female authors to spend most of the time excoriating men. So why bother?”

And, this clincher: “Who cares? Move on. Write because you love writing.” Not because you want to be read or because it’s important to you that your books bring in the income that will let you eat, put a roof over your head, and buy shoes for the kids.

Heartening, by contrast, was some men’s unqualified support for women authors, like: “There are way too many high quality female authors to ignore. Especially in the mystery genre.” And “I love English mysteries, and many of the best writers are women.”

Top Crime Writers Salute the Classics

Around the world, crime fiction is a top choice of the reading public. And there are SO MANY of these books, to the despair of every writer pondering how to promote their own new book in such a crowded field. But, what’s worth reading?

Let’s turn to the experts. Though publishers and others produce lists of the 20, 50, 100 “best” crime and suspense novels of all time, easily googlable, what do the real experts—authors themselves—say? The Guardian asked 25 top mystery writers for their picks and recently reprinted their replies—the article itself being a classic from 2018. (Purists will cringe at this carefree interchange of crime, mystery, and suspense, as if they are all one thing, but the categories are broad and their edges fuzzy.) Here are the first eight:

Val McDermid, who writes impeccable police procedurals, recommends On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, which she calls “the perfect crime novel,” one that acknowledges the author’s roots in the traditional English detective novel, but also the “complexities of contemporary life.”

Lee Child, whose recommendations you will find on so many book covers, he must never say no to a request, suggests The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis. “The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways it’s the target I still aim at.”

Ian Rankin’s choice was Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I’ve read this one! Against the background of a family fortune being frittered away by endless legal proceedings, Rankin wrote, “As in all great crime novels, the central mystery is a driver for a broad and deep investigation of society and culture.” Its strengths are a “mazey mystery,” shocking murder, slippery lawyer, and large cast of memorable characters. Dickens reportedly modeled Inspector Bucket on a real-life detective in Scotland Yard’s newly formed Detective Branch.

Sophie Hannah picked The Hollow, her “current favorite” of the Christie canon. She said the outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is “the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction.”

SJ Watson suggested Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Another check-mark! He called it “a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot.” While it superficially appears to be a romantic drama, it is “an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t.” Timeless? I hope not.

James Lee Burke picked Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. I can’t claim to have read this one, but the movie was terrific. Burke said it’s “the best crime novel written in the English language.” Lehane’s poetic lines, reflecting to Burke’s ear an affinity for Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins “somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves.”

Sara Paretsky’s choice was The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose novels “crackle with menace.” This one plays out in a bleak New Mexico landscape. “Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror.”

Dreda Say Mitchell, in a sort of ouroboros, recommended Lee Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor. She cited its parsimonious style, a lead character both traditional and original, and a plot “put together like a Swiss watch.” Plus the x-factor of righteous anger that leads Jack Reacher to single-handedly “dish out justice and protect the underdog.” Read this one too.

Some interesting choices among the remaining 17—including two authors who picked Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Time to reread it, apparently.

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.

A Place of Paramount Peace?

Sometimes a long-ago web post urgently needs an update. In September 2016 I wrote about the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir the beautiful new Hindu temple in nearby Robbinsville, New Jersey. I’ve taken visitors there. It’s fantastic (in both senses) and a multimillion dollar operation.

But, there’s a dark side. Brought to the United States to construct the temple and associated buildings were Dalits, members of the lowest caste in India, also called “untouchables.” The temple has been open since 2014, but only last week was a lawsuit filed in federal court changing that the BAPS sect had recruited the workers under false pretenses, then exploited them. The FBI and other federal agencies are now investigating, according to Annie Correal’s story in The New York Times. It also revealed that the BAPS organization “has strong ties with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi gave a eulogy at the funerl of the sect’s spiritual head.

According to the lawsuit, working conditions were severe. Workers were told they would be working four to seven hours a day and 20 to 25 days per month. Instead they were required to work 13 hours a day and rarely had a day off. For this, they made about $1.20 per hour. Workers had to live in trailers on BAPS’s 162-acre property and not talk to anyone. The lawsuit claims they had to pay their own way to the U.S. and, upon arrival, their passports and visas were confiscated. They were stuck.

“Because so many Dalits are socially, politically and economically disenfranchised, they are more easily exploited by duplicitous individuals and powerful groups,” said Johan Mathew, director of Rutgers University’s South Asian Studies Program.

You can read my original article here.

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore