National Booklovers’ Day

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock
Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home
with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Touted as “a day for all those who love to read,” today is National Book Lovers Day! So many ways to celebrate: reading to a child, buying a rare book, reorganizing your bookshelves (might need more than one day for that), making a donation of books to your library, or reading something you wouldn’t ordinarily read (ok, I’m ordering Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw right now!). Maybe I should finally paint the Little Free Library my daughter gave me three Christmases ago. Goodness knows, I could fill it! I took the above picture of the one outside Flannery O’Connor’s home in Savannah. Note the peacock on the side—she raised them.

Celebrate with a new five-star mystery thriller! I have just the book in mind: Architect of Courage by, well, me. Enjoy! Click here to order.

A Case for Books

Last week, Nora Krug’s article in The Washington Post described how nine best-selling authors organize (some of) their book shelves. A few years ago, I was advised, in a friendly way, to exile to some other place the towering TBR stacks that made walking through our bedroom a risk to toes and shins. How do people solve this problem?

Novelist Elin Hilderbrand has organized her shelves semi-chronologically, based on the era in which she read the books they hold, except for her “favorite books” shelf, pictured in the article. Aha! On it are some of my favorites, too—& Sons (David Gilbert). Also Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, and Margaret Atwood!

Diana Gabaldon has a rather arcane shelf of medical and healing-related reference books in her 3500-volume collection (The Curious Lore of Precious Stones sounds irresistible). Another author heavily into research is Garrett Graff, who writes about politics. His shelf is stuffed with nonfiction books about 9/11.

Vanessa Riley’s shelves display her own colorful books, along with an array of Barbie dolls of prominent black women. I spotted two of my recent faves: The Mirror and the Light (Hilary Mantel) and The Rose Code (Kate Quinn)—books that, as Riley says, “make the past come alive in new, rich ways.

Emma Straub’s collection caught my eye with a shelf from the bookstore she owns containing numerous titles by Michael Chabon (yay!), and Dan Chaon (also yay!). Then Julia Child’s My Life in France. At this point, I realized the shelf is alphabetical. Author Hernan Diaz (just long-listed for the Booker Prize) is another alphabetizer, with solid collections of George Elliot. Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the photo of Jennifer Weiner’s shelves, she’s organized the two shown by color. Yellow above, blue below, like an upside-down Ukrainian flag. This may seem an odd way to arrange books, except to someone like me, who is more likely to remember the color of a book’s jacket than its title. A refitted “gigantic closet” serves as the library for her overspill. To demonstrate that no closet is too small to be repurposed in this way, the picture at the head of this piece is my “TBR Closet.”

Chris Bohjalian’s shelves are a study in wild contrasts: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Louise Erdrich and William Faulkner. Two whole shelves of Fitzgerald’s works, including several editions of The Great Gatsby, including one in Armenian, FSF’s letters, and biographies. As in my house, he organizes his history collection chronologically.

On Christopher Buckley’s alphabetized shelves are Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction Operation Mincemeat, recently adapted for film, and several familiar history books, as well as books emblematic of their moment. I vividly remember reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Catch-22, and Deliverance. As an aside, perusing these shelves is a lesson in how unreadable a lot of spine copy is!

On your own, I’m sure you can divine the theme of this bookshelf of mine:

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey

In celebration of Bastille Day, New Plaza Cinema and film historian Max Alvarez presented a zoom program on Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey. Paris has always been a sophisticated (presumably) and popular setting for movies, but over the years, much has changed.

In the early days, films with a Paris setting provided a tourist’s eye-view of a visit to Paris. Before the end of World War II, few Americans had been there, and movies, if they saw them, were their only guides on what to expect. In the early days, Paris scenes were all shot on back lots somewhere in California, but after the War, that was no longer tenable. People knew better.

Max himself visited France as a teenager, but because he’d seen quite a few real French movies, he did not feel “foreign,” and was very comfortable with the mores and behavior of the Parisians. Still, Hollywood had its point of view, and presented the City of Light much as a tourist might view it. Contrast Vincent Minelli’s musicals, An American in Paris (1951), shot almost entirely in California, with his later Gigi (1958), shot on location. Another director from that period, Stanley Donen, likewise shot Funny Face (1957), with Audrey Hepburn, Kay Thompson, and Fred Astaire in Paris.

The musicals were a rather romantic and sweet take on Parisian life. But meanwhile, French and other European filmmakers were giving it a bit more of a cynical edge. In the late 1950s, the French “new wave” directors came to the fore. Generally, they filmed everything on location, preferring black and white. Their focus was not on the lovely French countryside, but on the bustle and grit of the cities, often with darker themes. Examples are: François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1960), and Jean-Luc Godard’s edgier crime drama Breathless (1960). Some of these filmmakers filmed real street-scenes with hidden cameras. The everyday people you see are exactly that.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his skilled cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made three increasingly dark films in Paris: The Conformist (1970), an anti-fascist tale that took advantage of the city’s famous “blue light”; Last Tango in Paris (1972) with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider; and The Dreamers (2003), a violent film about political and sexual passions.

Alvarez says you can think of the films featuring Paris as reflecting “A Tale of Two Cities.” Most of them that come to the United States have “tidied up” and prettified Paris (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a current example.)

A few French films show the other side, the desolate, desperate banlieues, the suburbs peopled by immigrants and decrepit low-income housing. Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (below)is an example. Such films show that while Americans might want to think of Paris as a place not beset by the kinds of social conflicts that affect our country, that is a pleasant and inaccurate fiction.

Weekend Movie Pick: Elvis

You’ll hear a lot of divided opinion about this movie. When the Washington Post reviewer said watching it was like spending two hours inside a washing machine, I was uncertain, and while I sorta see what she meant in my opinion, it’s terrific!

There’s a lot in there(trailer). There’s some fast-cuts and jumping around in place and time, but it’s not difficult to follow. The film comes at you head-on, just like those times. The late 60s had the Civil Rights movement, men on the moon, the British invasion, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, Woodstock. A Lot Going On. Society was changing, and the film captures that upheaval.

I am a big devotee of the American Song Book—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all of them. But as much as I love their music, it doesn’t bowl me over with nostalgia the way the songs of my growing up do. And in this movie, you hear a lot of them.

It’s also fun seeing Tom Hanks be given the chance to stretch his acting chops. No surprise, he’s brilliant as the manipulative, self-serving Col. Tom Parker. Elvis desperately needed a business manager who was on his side, but he’s hardly the first creative talent to be ruthlessly taken advantage of. (Leonard Cohen and Al Pacino are two others who immediately come to mind.)

Director Baz Luhrmann shot the film in an interesting way. He gets very close in on Elvis (Austin Butler) and shoots his face in a dreamy, idealized way that you might associate with female film actors of the 1930s. In other shots, he leaves no doubt about what aspect of Elvis’s performances were the main draw. The energy that Butler brings to the role will leave you breathless. Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla is quite nice too.

Of course, in the end, it’s a sad tale. Unlike the many biopics of musicians who get hooked on drugs, then finally suffer through recovery to have a much longer career, Elvis (like Judy Garland) never got past it and died at 42.

If you’re looking for an authoritative biography, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for the complete story, this isn’t it (though, apparently, there IS a four-hour version rattling around). This is an artistic interpretation of a life, and, inevitably, choices were made. But if you’re looking to be reminded of the roots of rock-and-roll and to have some sympathy for a musical change-agent, see it and decide for yourself. Who wants to be persnickety when the sheer entertainment value is so high? The credits are pretty spectacular too.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 78%; audiences: 94%.

What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

How True is True Crime?

In the current issue of Wired, cultural commentator Virginia Heffernan writes about her long relationship with the true-crime tale The Staircase and its seemingly endless, Escher-like iterations.

It first came to her attention in 2005 in the form of a six-hour documentary, recorded on a set of DVDs. True-crime was less of a thing on television then, yet she found the The Staircase “among the most captivating films I’ve ever seen.” It won numerous awards, including a Peabody. And, it was produced by a French filmmaker with the prescient name, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Not quite Holmes, but a worthy investigator nonetheless.

The Staircase recounts a 2001 case from Durham, North Carolina, in which war-novelist Michael Peterson was tried and convicted for the grisly murder of his wife Kathleen. He claimed she died falling down a staircase, but the authorities didn’t buy it. They were convinced he had bludgeoned her to death and charged him with murder. An argument over Peterson’s bisexuality triggered the assault, they said.

The jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence, but in 2011, the verdict was overturned. (A prosecution witness had lied.) In 2017, awaiting a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea in which he accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to time served, and walked away a free man.

Since that time, there seems the repackaging possibilities have proliferated. In 2012, de Lestrade updated his original documentary with coverage of Peterson’s second trial (Rotten Tomatoes has no critics’ rating, though one wrote “Appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one ‘expert,’” while audiences rated it 75%). In 2018, it came to ABC as a 10-episode documentary, with more new material (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 94%; audiences 82%), and in May 2022, HBO Max aired a fictionalized miniseries, The Staircase, by Antonio Campos, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 92%; audiences 77%).

And this probably isn’t a complete list. At this point, where does reality lie? As Hefffernen says, “documentaries are filled with staged stuff, and fiction films use real names, real plot points, and often real dialog drawn from court records.” Poor Kathleen Peterson seems a bit lost.

De Lestrade criticizes the recent film for suggesting his team was biased in favor of Peterson, when through its several iterations, his Staircase attempted to leave its viewers uncertain as to the husband’s guilt. However, “taking sides” may be an artifact of de Lestrade’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Peterson and his legal team.

As true-crime television and documentaries proliferate, and podcasts gain in listenership, it may become harder to separate fact from fiction. Without taking sides on this key problem, Heffernen concedes these hybrid genres have “lived in the flicker of truth and poetry.”

A Sizzling Summer

Video of some spectacular fireworks linked here to start your holiday weekend. Though this year a celebration seems less appropriate than using the occasion reflect on what July 4 is really all about. Perhaps that’s always true. Have a hotdog for me.

Missed Me at All?

I missed you! Attentive readers may have noticed my absence from social media and blog posting for the last month. A thought that may have crossed the minds of really attentive readers is, “That’s crazy! Her book is coming out soon, and this is exactly when she should be posting like a madwoman!”

A Great Tour

You’re so right. Let me explain. My husband and I booked a 10-day trip to Portugal for fall 2021. Alas, cancelled by covid. We rebooked for May 2022. My book, Architect of Courage, was scheduled for publication June 4, and though the timing wouldn’t be great, the initial flurry of activity would be after our return home.

We flew to Lisbon a few days early in order to adjust to the five-hour time difference and see more of the city, as our tour wasn’t planning to spend much time there. We’d booked at the Avenida Palace Hotel (anything with “Palace” in the name is worth checking out. Picture above is of the lobby). It turned out to be the tour hotel too. Perfect.

Eight congenial Americans were on this Food & Wine tour, which was mostly in the countryside. We visited wineries, a cork factory, the cherry-growing region, a sheep farm where cheese was made, had a cooking lesson and—overall—a wonderful time. Our guide Matthew was brilliant. P.S. Everything in Portugal is uphill.

A Thrilling History

If you’re a World War II thriller reader, like me, you’ll recall that because Portugal was neutral, it was a crossroads for espionage, not to mention the wartime base of Ian Fleming. It was the place European Jews and other refugees were desperate to get to. There, they had a chance of escaping Europe while other departure points were closed to them. In the movie Casablanca, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband are desperate to reach Lisbon. In real life, the Avenida Palace was a Nazi hangout and, supposedly, the place where plans for a plot to assassinate Hitler were hatched.

Now the Low-Points

I developed a little cold on the tour, but it hardly slowed me down. I generously shared it with my husband. The night before our departure we checked into the Avenida Palace again and had the covid test required within 24 hours of our departure. Both positive. So much for “a little cold.” By then I was well, and definitely not contagious, but I quarantined with my sick partner in our hotel room for the next week.

Knowing that some people test positive weeks and even months after recovery, CDC authorized an alternative: a letter from a “licensed medical professional” stating we were recovered and cleared to travel. This proved impossible to get. Every interaction with the Portuguese public health system produced conflicting advice, culminating in the candid assessment from one worker, “We can’t help you.”

Finally, I tested negative and flew home the day before my book launch, but my husband was still positive. He stayed another three days until, on Monday, I asked our primary care physician to intervene: “My husband is stranded in Portugal, and I think you can help.” He did. But would United Airlines accept a letter from a doctor who was thousands of miles away? They did, and he flew home the next day, in time for my launch party! Just a few days later, these documentation requirements were rescinded.

Topped Out? Tapped Out?

So, not only was I out of the office for an unexpectedly long time, when I returned I was under a wee bit of stress and had a long list of to-dos for the book launch (friends to the rescue!). A few projects, including blog posts, had to be set aside. Now you know.

Recommended Reading:

The High Mountains of Portugal – by Jann Martel author of (The Life of Pi). No question, this is a strange book, the middle part a little too theological for me, despite the extended comparison between religion and Agatha Christie.

Dark Voyage – by Alan Furst. The port of Lisbon features in this WWII spy thriller. Furst is a long-time favorite!

The Lisbon Route – by Ronald Weber. Real-life tales from “the great escape hatch of Nazi Europe.” (The cover photo is of the funicular car that still operates near our hotel.) Haven’t read this one, but it sounds fascinating.

Enchanted April — Last Weekend!

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey leads off its 60th season with Matthew Barber’s charming romantic comedy, Enchanted April, directed by theater artistic director Bonnie J. Monte. You may be familiar with one of the story’s earlier adaptations, including the 2003 Broadway production, with its Tony Award nomination for Best Play, or with 1991’s star-studded British film. Perhaps you even read the 1922 book, The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim, which made an Italian sojourn a rejuvenating aspiration for Britons. In creating the stage version, Barber adjusted some of the plot but lost none of the appeal.

It’s set in the early 1920s, when the devastating effects of the Great War and the ensuing Spanish Influenza epidemic have left their mark. The ebullient Lotty Wilton (played by Monette Magrath) and uptight Rose Arnott (Carey Van Driest) are very different in personality but alike in being trapped by unhappy marriages. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Greg Jackson) is controlling and penny-pinching; Rose, a highly religious woman, is offended by the scandalous books her husband Frederick (Anthony Marble) writes. The sympathetic Magrath and Van Driest are the core of the story and carry it forward brilliantly.

Spying a newspaper advertisement for a month-long stay at a castle on the Italian Riviera—wisteria! sunshine!—sounds like paradise to Lotty, compared to the oppressive gloom and rain of London. She and Rose can’t quite afford the rent and recruit two additional women to join them, the waspish Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd), firmly rooted in Victorian era mores, and her opposite, Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Bruce), a jazz age society star.

The first act powerfully demonstrates what Lotty and Rose are desperate to get away from. Mrs. Graves wants to join them and run the show according to her tastes, and Lady Caroline has her own ghosts. In Act Two, the bright and beautiful atmosphere of the castle retreat shows its transformative powers. In this optimistic play, every heart can be opened and healed, and the actors movingly portray their emergence from cocoons of resentment, fear, and grief.

Castle owner Anthony Wilding (Aaron McDaniel) also has a lacuna in his life, you discover. Meanwhile, the cook/maid, Costanza (Celeste Ciulla), whose dialog is almost wholly in Italian—as is her attitude—brings laughter to every scene she’s in. Impatient with the demanding Mrs. Graves, affectionate with the castle owner, she sees and understands all. It’s pleasant, upbeat summer fare, now in its last weekend. Don’t miss out! For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Photo: Daniel Rader