Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)

A Question of Time

James Stejskal’s debut espionage thriller takes place in 1979 in a divided Berlin. Located in the heart of then-Communist East Germany, Berlin was notoriously fertile territory for spies. In East Berlin and the country surrounding the city were the Soviets and the Stasi, East Germany’s repressive secret police. In West Berlin, some 180 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain, sat the Allies, with sectors of the city allocated to Britain, France, and the United States. Cold War tensions only intensified in this island of Western influence with the construction of the wall between east and west in 1961.

By the time the novel begins, the written and unwritten rules governing the strange minuet between spies and diplomats have been largely formalized. One key practice is allowing “freedom of passage patrols” by the Western Allies and the Soviets to tour the other side’s occupied zones. By treaty, those patrols could not be stopped or searched.

But what are rules for, except to be broken or at least bent? Chief rule-breaker here is Master Sergeant Kim Becker, a Vietnam veteran and now a member of the US army’s elite Studies and Operations Group. He has a team of creative and not-by-the-book operatives around him, and they receive a special assignment: A CIA asset, an East German high up in the Communist state’s security apparatus, believes he’s come under suspicion. He wants out. It’s up to Becker and his team to develop and implement a plan to extract him.

Stejskal convincingly establishes the riskiness of the mission and its various ingenious stages, as well as the suspect-everyone mindset necessary for people living under such a difficult regime. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary flourishes and detailed description, but you will be turning pages too quickly to miss them. Despite the impressive number of contingencies Becker’s team is prepared for and their attention to espionage tradecraft, the unexpected still occurs. Even then, the rescuers aren’t victims of their plan, they have a powerful capacity to improvise.

Modern warrior-hero stories are often either too far-fetched or too poorly written to recommend. In this one, though, the action is described with just enough detail to make it believable and not so much to bog the story down. The writing is clear and compelling and doesn’t get in the way of the telling.

James Stejskal spent thirty-five years serving with the US Army Special Forces. After his military service, he was recruited by the CIA and served as a senior case officer in Africa, Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. He is now a military historian who has written several nonfiction books. I’d definitely read another about Becker!

Order from Amazon here.

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Deep in the Mosquitia region of Honduras—an area of steep mountains and impenetrable jungle—is some of earth’s most remote and still-unexplored mysteries. Yet within this forbidding area, according to legend, lay the abandoned White City, The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Act 1

Over decades, various expeditions had tried to find the city, mostly using the rivers and their many tributaries, without notable success. In 2012, aircraft equipped with laser-guided Light Detection and Ranging technology (LIDAR) become available. LIDAR could penetrate the jungle canopy for the first time and its images revealed a city’s-worth of  plazas and structures. At ground level, these were invisible, fully camouflaged by dense overgrowth. Finally, an expedition could be mounted whose destination was more than guesswork.

Thriller writers will recognize the author of this true-life adventure, Douglas Preston, as the author with Lincoln Child of the Prendergast and Gideon series of suspense novels, as well as a number of stand-alones. His first love was science, and as a journalist, he’s covered archaeology, paleontology, and other -ologies. The first work of his I read was The Monster of Florence, the true crime story of a serial killer and the case’s botched prosecution. Its invaluable insights about the Italian legal system informed my thriller set in Rome.

A long-time acquaintance, the filmmaker and adventurer Steve Elkins, invited Preston to participate in the Honduran exploration team. Due to limits on the availability of helicopters to transport the team and their supplies in and out, they had only a very few days on site. Although they managed to clear away no more than a small portion of the dense jungle, the LIDAR findings were validated.

With the full backing of and (one hopes) ongoing site security from the Honduran government, discoveries are still there to be made. The book conveys the team’s profound thrill of discovery as they faced drenching rains, freeze-dried meals, jaguars prowling outside their tents at night, and an encounter with a six-foot fer-de-lance, the most deadly snake in the Americas.

Act 2

Unbeknownst to several members of the team, once they scattered to their home communities, they were on the cusp of a new and undesirable adventure. One by one, they began to suffer mysterious physical symptoms. In Preston’s case, it was a bug bite that wouldn’t heal. It was painless, so he ignored it until he learned others were having problems too. U.S. doctors rarely see tropical diseases, so it took some time for diagnoses to coalesce around leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease acquired from the bite of an infected sandfly. The way the disease manifests in different individuals—and their responses to the available treatments, such as they are—vary widely. They may never be free of it.

This part of the experience allowed Preston to explore the significance of infectious diseases in human society and the inevitability (this was written in 2017) of pandemics, past and future. It wasn’t a prediction about our present situation, but a useful reminder. Because of global warming, the natural range of vectors like sandflies is expanding steadily northward. Scattered cases of leishmaniasis are now being found in Texas and Oklahoma, and these are not associated with travel to endemic areas.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is about exciting discoveries in a region whose perils were more numerous than expected. An engrossing and worthwhile read, it was widely regarded as one of the best books of 2017.

Photo: StanVPeterson for Pixabay

The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.

My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.