****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.

****The Long Road from Paris

By Kirby Williams – A book with Paris in the title two weeks in a row? It’s enough to make you stock up on croissants. While the title of this one echoes Dov Alfon’s contemporary crime thriller, A Long Night in Paris, the similarity ends there.

This is Kirby Williams’s second thriller featuring New Orleans jazz prodigy Urby Brown, an expat living in Paris as the dark clouds of Naziism spread over Europe.

Author Williams, an expat himself, effectively conveys his love of the city where he has lived and worked for many decades in real life.

The book begins with Brown’s early years in New Orleans as a white-skinned octoroon, son of a woman named Josephine Dubois and a white Frenchman who skedaddled back to France after impregnating her. In 1895, Josephine left her newborn in a Moses basket on the doorstep of Saint Vincent’s Colored Waifs’ Home. She later pleaded with Father Gohegan, the priest in charge of the Waifs’ Home, to contact the baby’s father who she claimed was a Count. The priest refused, and Josephine committed suicide.

As a teenager, Brown played his clarinet at Madame Lala’s Mahogany House (flaunting both Louisiana law and Father Gohegan’s rules), an infamous bordello that brought together top jazz players. These connections were renewed once he moved to Paris, joining the many musicians escaping U.S. Jim Crow laws.

Along with his mentor and fellow clarinetist Stanley Bontemps and his live-in girlfriend, Hannah Korngold, Brown lives in Paris in relatively peace and prosperity into the 1930s. Hannah helps Brown run his nightclub, but she is an American Jew whose future under the Nazis will be just as precarious as his own.

Williams writes Brown’s first-person story with an emphasis on what happens, not why or how. He doesn’t engage in lengthy descriptions of people, places or events and will even slide past significant dramatic opportunities. This spareness is both bothersome and energizing—bothersome because you don’t always know why Urby Brown does what he does. At the same time, it establishes a powerful narrative energy. The author apparently assumes readers have a pretty solid mental picture of the fascists and the threat they pose his characters and of Paris between the wars, and he relies on our imaginations to fill out the picture.

Within that general atmosphere of risk are the very specific risks to Urby Brown. His father, to whom he bears a remarkable likeness, is indeed a count, a confidant of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and leader of the Oriflamme du Roi, a group of right-wing thugs who parade around like stormtroopers in advance of the real thing. Murder, blackmail, and spying are their stock-in-trade.

With the arrival of the Nazis, Urby and Hannah desperately attempt to escape back to the United States, but every indication is they’ve waited too long.

They Shall Not Grow Old

New Zealand director Peter Jackson has accomplished something of a miracle. At the behest of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, he and his team have created a documentary about World War I using archival footage—scratched, faded, juddery—and restored it nearly to today’s standards (trailer). The process achieves more than improving watchability, it brings these soldiers to life.

When he received the assignment, Jackson didn’t know what the film would be, his brief was simply to “do something creative” with the film archive in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice last November 11.

He and his team melded the restored film with the voices of men who had served, interviewed by the BBC decades later. They went to war as ordinary soldiers, they were young (ages 15, 16, and 17, many of them), and their reminiscences of the war were quite different than what their officers’ would have been. This isn’t a movie with battle maps and arrows, strategy and tactics. It’s not about the unique or memorable incident. It’s everyday survival. Mud and lice and rats and cigarettes. I cried.

Stick around for the post-movie feature about how the film was restored. The before-and-after examples of changing the timing, fixing over- and under-exposures, how sound was added, and the colorization are fascinating. Their devotion to detail pays off. Speaking of paying off, the film has broken box office records for a documentary, and Jackson himself took no fee.

This isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s about everyday lads doing the best they can in the worst circumstances. In the most important sense, they’re all heroes.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 92%.

The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping. For the latest on this subject–Dane Huckelbridge’s February 2019 book, No Beast So Fierce.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

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

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

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

The Post, Meryl Streep

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

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

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

Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

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

****The Immortalists

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

****The Book Thief

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

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

***Midnight Blue

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

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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The Niceties

The title of this political drama by playwright Eleanor Burgess is ironic, as few niceties are demonstrated. Instead, the play, which had its opening night at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre on January 19 and runs through February 10, is an increasingly intense verbal duel between its two characters. As directed by Kimberly Senior, the tension never falters.

White college history professor Janine (played by Lisa Banes) is trying to help her African American student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) improve a paper that sets out a radical reinterpretation of the circumstances of the Revolutionary War. Janine isn’t willing to accept websites as authoritative sources, and Zoe isn’t willing to accept the conventional sources that ignore so much—regarding the lives of the slaves, especially.

They both make cogent arguments, but their disagreement is in part a matter of frame of reference. Janine is arguing from the point of view of a political historian, to whom the thoughts and actions of leaders who have left a paper trail constitute “history.” Zoe is arguing for more of a social history approach that includes the lives of all people, even those who did not and could not write their own stories. To Zoe, a few mentions of these other experiences won’t do it; she wants a panoramic approach that seeks to understand it all. The argument over Zoe’s essay soon turns personal and has significant fallout for them both.

Banes and Boatman have been doing this show since August, first at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, then at The Manhattan Theatre Club, and they have polished their performances to a fine degree. Banes epitomizes the condescension of the professor explaining how the world works, and Boatman the arrogance of youth, convinced that even her most extreme positions are true and right. As a result, the characters they play excel in talking past each other, and if there’s a profound message for society today, it’s the need to learn to listen, especially to people who view the world differently.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Production photo: T. Charles Erickson

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%