Books: The Silent Patient, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell and Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Something for everyone here!  Hopefully your library will have copies!

 

Killers of the Flower Moon:  the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann ♦♦♦♦1/2

My favorite reading genre is narrative non-fiction and Killers of the Flower Moon is a one of the best.  It is the story of the Osage tribe who after being displaced from Kansas, moved to land in what is now Oklahoma. They were smart enough to get the mineral rights and through the use of “headrights” were guaranteed that they made money through oil leases.   As a result, the tribe became very wealthy and the members had mansions, cars and diamonds.  However, the government didn’t think the “Indians” could manage such wealth and assigned white guardians to manage it for them.   In the 1920s, tribe members began to be murdered.  Some were poisoned, others were shot and the headrights seemed to be falling into the hands of the whites.  Killers of the Flower Moon traces the investigation of the murders and the resulting establishment of the FBI with J. Edgar Hoover as the very young (29) leader who determined that the Osage murder investigation would be the most important case in the survival of the organization.

The author lays out the murder mystery very effectively and when the main murderer is unmasked midway through the book the reader will find it credible.  While the first section of the book is about the tribe and the murders, the second section is the hunt for the murderer by Tom White – an ex Texas Ranger who solves the case using a methodology not employed by his predecessors.  The third section of the book details the author’s own search for what happened during the “Reign of Terror”.  He was able to uncover the truth about what happened to many unsolved murders during this period in Oklahoma history.

I majored in American history and was unaware of this horrific story.  How we as a country treated the Natives is now further documented thanks to David Grann.  Everyone should read this book.

 

The Silent Patient by Alex Michailedes ♦♦♦1/2

Alicia Berenson is found standing over the body of her husband Gabriel who has been shot 5 times and the gun is on the floor.  Her wrists have been slashed and there is blood everywhere.  She obviously killed him – right?  Alicia is assigned to a mental facility.  She hasn’t spoken a word since the killing when her case draws the attention of a psychotherapist Theo Farber who thinks he can help draw her out.  He takes a job at the institution (the Grove) where she is committed.  Theo is the narrator of the story with some added diary entries of Alicia’s interspersed to create a slow unraveling of what actually happened the day of the murder.

In this psychological thriller, there are twists and turns everywhere.  I figured many things out earlier than when they appeared in the novel but it didn’t detract from the drama.  This is a great summer page turner.  It reminded me somewhat of Double Bind, that wonderful Chris Bohjalian novel in terms of the twists and the surprise ending.    I don’t want to say anything more about the book other than there is a reason for all the buzz about this 2019 novel.    If you are looking for a summer page turner, check it out.

 

The Extraordinary life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni ♦♦♦

This novel is a departure from the author’s normal legal thrillers and is about the life of Sam Hell – a boy who is born with red eyes (ocular albinism) and faces an uphill battle throughout his childhood trying to be normal.  He is tormented and bullied during his elementary school years by both the Catholic School nuns and the worst bully of all, David Freeman.  Sam has two friends in school  – an African American athlete Ernie and the nonconformist Michaela.  High School is a little better for Sam because Ernie is a star athlete and Sam is able to ride his coattails but David still lurks in the background.  Sam becomes an ophthalmologist and helps others to see but David reappears adding additional stress to his life.

Dugoni’s legal thriller writing technique bleeds through to this novel – especially the “tension” that he utilizes constantly with the bullying.  Frankly, I got tired of it.  The book also delves into the theme of faith (his mother’s Catholic faith being central to the story) and those of you who went to Catholic School may emphasize with some of Sam’s experiences – I know I did!  In summation, I found the book to be very readable and enjoyed most of the plot lines with the exception of the bullying.  I don’t read (or enjoy) legal thrillers so the style wasn’t in my wheelhouse but for others, may make the read very enjoyable.   The book isn’t particularly deep (although some of the faith aspects raise complicated issues), is very readable and has a happy ending so definitely a novel many people will enjoy.

 

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Movies: The Farewell, Echo in the Canyon and Marianne and Leonard

It is a summer of 1960s music documentaries and I saw a couple of them along with one of my favorite movies of the year so far!

The Farewell ♦♦♦♦

I loved Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians but who knew this actor/rapper  could carry a dramatic film on her shoulders but that she does in this Lulu Wang written and directed film.  She plays Billi,  a thirty -something aspiring writer living in NYC who has a close relationship with her Chinese grandmother.  When her family finds out that the grandmother (Nai Nai) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, they decide to go to China to say good- bye under the auspices of a quickly arranged family wedding.  As is Chinese culture, the family decides not to tell Nai Nai of the diagnosis in order for her not to bare the burden of the diagnosis which they will absorb.  This decision presents a major dilemma for Billi who can’t understand why her grandmother shouldn’t learn the truth about her condition.  She wants her grandmother to be able to say her goodbyes to everyone who she loves.

The movie which is semi-biographical and an expansion of the story told by Wang on “This American Life” explores the cultural differences between the East and West without imposing judgement on which is best.  Awkwafina delivers an impressive and nuanced performance as she tries to navigate emotionally in both worlds.    It is a far cry from her comedic performance in Crazy Rich Asians and she pulls it off like a pro.  That is not to say there aren’t humorous moments in the film – particularly the young Japanese woman who is forced into marrying Nai Nai’s grandson after only a few months of dating in order to facilitate the event that brings the family together.  The poor girl doesn’t speak a word of Chinese and the actress who plays her provides some of the best moments of the film.

Go see this tender gift that Ms. Wang has given us.  It will be worth your time!

Echo in the Canyon♦♦♦♦

My favorite music period is the late 60s/early 70s so when I read about a documentary focusing on the music scene in Laurel Canyon from ’65-’67, I rushed down to the theater. The canyon was where the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell and many others gathered and produced some of the greatest music of my lifetime.  The movie centers on a 2015 concert honoring the music of Laurel Canyon with music by Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son), his band and guest stars like Norah Jones and Beck doing covers of the iconic songs from the period.  In between are great interviews conducted by Dylan with Roger McGuinn (Byrds), David Crosby (the Byrds, Crosby Stills Nash and Young), Michelle Phillips (Mama’s and Papa’s), Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton and others. We see far too few clips of these musicians both from the 60s and present day but the film is still fascinating.

Echo gives us the history as told by these musicians who gathered in Laurel Canyon and made some of the best music of the century.  We become privy to the beginnings of the various groups, the types of music that evolved (and why certain groups went in the direction they did) and a feel for this community of musicians who gathered together in each other’s living rooms and created art.  I loved this documentary and went out and purchased the sound track immediately after leaving the theater.  Echo is still hanging around a few theaters but if you miss it there, keep and eye out for it on the various streaming platforms.  You won’t regret it.

Marianne and Leonard:  Words of Love ♦♦♦

Another documentary about 60s music scene focuses on Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen (as in his song “So Long Marianne”) and their relationship mostly on the Greek Island Hydra.   At the time, Hydra was a mecca for artists, musicians and bohemians where free sex and drugs abounded.  It was a stunningly beautiful island  and best of all, cheap.  Cohen met Marianne there, the single mother of a young boy and they immediately because a couple.  The filmmaker, Nick Broomfield who was a lifelong friend of Marianne’s and was on the island at the time, has an abundance of film and photographs of her with Leonard along with Marianne alone and it is her story that he primarily tells.  He also adds film of Cohen’s later concerts (post-Marianne), and interviews from some of the survivors from this period to give us a full picture of the lifestyle on Hydra and insights into a relationship with a narcissistic  artist.

How a sweet romance nurtured in such an idilic location turned dark as Cohen’s fame became all encompassing is chronicled in this documentary as is Cohen’s rise and fall.  Marianne’s post- Cohen life  (including much tragedy) is covered objectively as is their final reconciliation and death within months of each other.  If you love the music of Leonard Cohen and are fascinated by the last few decades of the 1900s, you should enjoy this film.  It is probably out of theaters near you but should be streaming soon.

Books: Issac’s Storm, Indigo Girl, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Little Fires Everywhere

Some older books, some newer but something to like about each one of these books!

Issac’s Storm:  A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson♦♦♦♦    (1999)

I love Non-Fiction and my favorite genre is Narrative Non-Fiction which is epitomized by Erik Larson (Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Devil in the White City), Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit, Unbroken) and other great authors.  It is a style of non-fiction that is similar to fiction in the building of the story and character development and is only accomplished through rigorous research.  These authors spend years writing these books and I love to read them.  I have read several Eric Larson books but not Issac’s Storm so when it appeared in an add for about $2 on Kindle, I jumped on the chance to read it.  This is one of Larson’s earliest works (published in 1999) but has broad implications for today given climate change and the rise of super-storms.

Issac’s Storm chronicles the massive hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900 and killed somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people – making it the deadliest on record.  Larson focuses on Issac Cline who had been sent to Galveston by the US Signal Corp Weather Service in the earliest days of meteorology and views the storm through his eyes although we learn much about several families who perished and/or survived the catastrophe.   Cline lost his wife and home in the storm and emerged from it as one of the most important hurricane experts of his time.  He was the first to understand that storm surge rather than wind could be the most devastating result of a hurricane.  Almost nothing was understood about hurricanes at the time nor was there an effective way to predict their paths and alert the public.  Galveston was completely unprepared for this disaster.  After the city was essentially wiped out, it was rebuilt 22 feet above sea level with a 17 ft. high seawall yet I came away from this book thinking that there could easily be another “Issac’s Storm” to hit this coastal city.

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd ♦♦♦1/2    (2017)

Who knew that in pre-revolutionary America, there could have been a teenage girl who was left to run three heavily mortgaged plantations while her father ran off to pursue a military career in Antigua nor, that she actually pulled it off and succeeded where he hadn’t.  This historical novel by Natasha Boyd is based on the true story of  Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) who was educated in England and trained by her father in business and agriculture.  When he left her at age 16 to run his plantations, she determined that the production of Indigo would be the financial salvation of the plantations despite the fact that it had never been able to be successfully harvested in North America.

Elizabeth not only has a good business sense but is portrayed as a benevolent slave owner who defies the Negro Act of 1740 by teaching some of her slaves to read.  Boyd has done exhaustive research on Pinckney who left volumes of diaries on her life for future historians.  Where the author comes up a bit short, in my opinion, is in the development of the fictional characters she adds to her novel – particularly Ben, a slave Eliza has sexual feelings for and I believe 21st century characteristics are overlaid on the characters.  Boyd has a romance novel background and some of that bleeds in to this otherwise really captivating story of a woman well ahead of her time and recognized as establishing  the Indigo industry in the colonial South.  I loved the history of this novel.

Love and other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford ♦♦♦1/2    (2017)

This newest (and again Seattle- based) novel by Jamie Ford doesn’t hold up to his most famous (and one of my all-time favorite) novels the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet but I did enjoy it.  Although the author resorts to the tiresome tactic of flashbacks which are so over-used by this generation of writers, I found the dueling stories of  Seattle in the early 1900s and 1962 engaging.  Ernest comes to Seattle from China in 1902 and is placed in an orphanage where he is auctioned off to a Madame running a high-end brothel in the Tenderloin district.  He is employed as a houseboy and falls in love with two girls at the house – Maisie, the daughter of the Madame and Fahn, a Japanese refugee who came over on the same boat as he did.

We know that in the present, Ernest is married to “Gracie” who has lost her memory.  It is not explained until late in the book which of the girls is Gracie but there are certainly many hints along the way.  There are definitely flaws and an unevenness to the book yet I found the history of Seattle in the early 1900s including the Tenderloin district, the rise of the Temperance movement, the World’s Fair, and the enslavement of young Asian children being brought to the USA enlightening.  Told against the backdrop of another World’s Fair in 1962 Seattle (which I remember) worked well and I would recommend the book.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng ♦♦♦1/2    (2017)

In this compelling tale of race, class, power and family dynamics in Shaker Heights Ohio during the 1990s,  it is impossible not to compare the perception of these themes in Suburban “utopia” to our world today.  The book opens with a burned out mansion this very wealthy suburb of Cleveland,  knowing little about how the fire started except that there were “little fires everywhere” that were set throughout the home.  The story flashes back 11 months to the wealthy white Richardson family who own the home and their new tenants (in another Richardson owned property), the bohemian artist Mia and her 15 year old daughter Pearl.  Pearl becomes entwined in the lives of the 4 Richardson teenage children and drags Mia in over the course of these 11 months culminating in suffering and distress. While the bulk of the story focus on these lives being intertwined and the resulting impact, there is a peripheral side story about a custody battle over a once year old Asian baby that I didn’t think added anything to the novel.

There is a lot going on in this book – multiple characters, plot lines, mysteries etc., and as a result, it goes slightly off the rails on occasion but overall, the author has a lot to say about important themes and does it in an intriguing way.  The book is being made into a TV mini series on Hulu by Reece Witherspoon and  Kerry Washington who also star in it and given the less than conclusive ending, has the potential of multiple seasons.  I can’t wait for the mini-series and these two actresses are perfect for the parts they will play!

 

TV: Big Little Lies, Stranger Things, the Bodyguard, Mrs. Wilson, the Emmys and Much More!

Yes, it is summer and TV is really slow (with a couple of exceptions below) but that means it is time for catching up on my watch list before the Emmys.

Big Little Lies (HBO) – S2 ♦♦1/2

Yes, it came back and unfortunately, (unlike the Leftovers) when it left the book behind, the story didn’t get better.  Who knows how much of the fairly messed up season was due to the fact that the Director’s (Andrea Arnold) vision was altered in post-production by Season 1’s Director John-Marc Vallee and creator David E. Kelly but there was clearly something “off” all season.  What is perhaps even more troubling is that the ending left an opening for a S3.  Please let it rest in peace.

That being said, it is summer and watching Meryl Streep in all of her passive aggressive glory go up against the Monterey 5 was absolutely riveting and made me come back each and every Sunday.  These actresses are all great to watch and I can’t fault any of the performances (unlike the screenwriting and Directing).  Each actress pretty much got an opportunity to go up against the great Streep with Laura Dern doing a particularly awesome job despite the encounters generally failing to make any sense in terms of the overall plot.  I really wish they hadn’t cut out Reese Witherspoon throwing the ice cream cone at Streep but we can’t have everything!

So let’s take BLL for what it is,  a summer beach read on the small screen with great acting and not so great writing/plot etc and revel in the acting.  Let it reside in the annals of TV history with no renewal.  There are so many wonderful projects that Witherspoon’s production company is involved with that I can’t help but imagine some great new female-focused shows to counteract all of the DC, Marvel and other male oriented programming out there.

Stranger Things S3 (Netflix) ♦♦♦

Stranger Things S3 is basically the same as Stranger Things S2 except the kids are a little older (creating  more teenage hormones/dating), a major death in the finale and some irritating character developments.  However, it works better overall than the darker S2.   We have a new character played by Maya Hawke (Ethan’s daughter) who adds spark to the group as did Sadie Sink (Max) in S2.  The teenage lovebirds, Nancy and Jonathan don’t seem to work this year any better than last time and they could be written out of the show with no repercussions.  Wyonna Rider seems to overact in many episodes and I got really tired of Hooper’s constant anger directed at Eleven and Mike who are now “together”.  What happened to this kind generous man who adopted this troubled child?  Despite all of this, I quickly binged through the 8 episodes and found it perfectly engaging summer fare.

I’m not sure how many seasons Stranger Things can milk from the Upside Down in this one small little town but as long as we keep getting terrific new characters and if it can get out of this one geographic location (as suggested by the final scene), I will look forward to this Netflix favorite.

The Bodyguard (Netflix) ♦♦♦♦

As I said, summer is catch up time for me and I caught up with the Bodyguard which I loved.  It helped that Richard Madden (his career has ignited since being killed off early  in Game of Thrones) was in every frame and did a fantastic job.  How he could win the Golden Globe for best Actor and not even get nominated for an Emmy is just ridiculous but more on the Emmys below.  This is a really intense, 6 episode BBC police type thriller where it is almost impossible to determine the good guys from the bad ones until the final credits roll.   I’m so glad I ignored some of the critics and watched this and if you haven’t yet caught up with the Bodyguard, see it while the summer TV schedule is light – you won’t regret it.

Mrs. Wilson (PBS) ♦♦♦♦1/2

Mrs. Wilson is a 3 part Masterpiece Theater mini-series that came and went this spring with no fan fare.  Ruth Wilson (the Affair) plays the part of her real-life grandmother who found out shortly after his death that the man she was married to for over 20 years had led a secret life.  Ruth Wilson is spellbinding as she slowly uncovers the truths about her husband (Iain Glen from Game of Thrones)  and reacts to every new revelation with such intensity that the viewer feels every emotion.  Iain Glen is wonderful as her author/spy/bigamist husband who is amazingly likable!  GOT fans who are missing Sir Jorah will find joy in being able to see him again.  The supporting cast is superb  – Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve) and Keeley Hawes (the Bodyguard, the Durrells of Corfu) put in masterful performances.

Mrs. Wilson is virtually impossible to find unless you have access to PBS’s library but I did purchase it on iTunes for $8 and for the price of going to a movie, you can own 3 hours of a wonderful miniseries that you can watch whenever you want!

Other Things I’m watching this Summer:

CNN’s the Movies is a nice little series (playing now) in which they cover important movies by decade starting in the 80s although they will go back and do the 70s later.  The 70s are generally considered to have produced the best movies of the century so I guess they are saving the best for last.  If you are a film buff and want to wax nostalgic for films you have seen catch this series.  It is on “On Demand” as well as Sunday nights with repeats here and there.

So You Think You Can Dance (Fox Mondays) is my favorite Reality TV show (and I only watch two) and is as good as ever.  It is just finishing up the last cuts before going to the live shows and this perennial Emmy winner for choreography just gets better each week with the contestants receiving the highest level of professional training.   I love the dancing but usually struggle some with the judges who aren’t my favorite part of the show.

Jane the Virgin is down to the last episode or two and is, in my opinion, one of the best shows of the decade.  I’ll have more on it when it ends but for now, I am enjoying each and every moment of airtime.

The Good Fight S1 (CBS Sundays) has come to regular network TV for the summer.  I will never subscribe to CBS All Access (CBS’s pay streaming service) as I don’t watch any CBS shows and I can certainly live without the new Star Trek series which is apparently quite good and the crown jewel of the streaming platform.  However, I loved the Good Wife and the Good Fight has had very good reviews so it is great that CBS is showing the first season on network TV this summer.  I’m sure they are doing it to drive viewers to  All Access but I won’t take the bait.  The show is great, Christine Baranski is great and Rose Leslie (Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones) is a wonderful addition.  You don’t need to have seen the Good Wife to enjoy this series but for those who have, you’ll love the cameos by some of the judges and lawyers who were on the original series.  Enjoy!!!

The Emmys – or What I must Watch/Finish Before They Air

There are a few shows that I feel I must see before the Emmys in September – most of which I have already started.  I thought the nominations, as usual, had the good, the bad and the ugly  but I’ll spare you the commentary for now.  In the meantime, if you haven’t seen these well regarded and represented shows, you should join me in watching them.

Fosse/ Verdon (FX) – I have seen half of the episodes.   It is good and Michelle Williams is just amazing so I absolutely will finish this one and report back

Russian Doll (Netflix) – Russian Doll came out when there were many shows I was watching.   I saw a couple of episodes, liked them but never finished so I will go back.

Fleabag (Amazon) – I saw Season 1 ages ago and I liked it but don’t remember a thing.  S2 (and final season) came out this spring to critical acclaim and I will go back, watch S1 and then move on to S2 before the Emmys.  It is supposed to be fantastic.

When They See Us (Netflix) – This Ava DuVernay series about the Central Park 5  drew the second most Emmy nominations after Game of Thrones and I can’t wait to watch it even thought the subject matter is really tough.

Note:  Thank goodness I have seen Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, Killing Eve, the Good Place, and other contenders as it will be  tough enough  to get through all of these in the next month!

Shows I gave up on:

The Spanish Princess – Fabulous costumes can only take you so far and the acting, writing and everything else in the show is not very good.

Les Miserables on Masterpiece – Just too dark.  Prefer the play and even the movie (sans Russell Crowe singing)

The Magicians – I know that the critics are loving this series which they believe has just gotten better and better but I became lost once they left the books behind and so am officially giving up.  This might be a show that, if this genre appeals to you, would be good to binge in order to fully engage in the story and be able to follow all the permutations as the series improves but becomes more complicated with no breaks. Having to wait between seasons, forgetting what happened before, just confused me.

 

 

 

Movies: Rocketman, Yesterday, Maiden, the Last Black Man in San Francisco and Ask Dr. Ruth

Yes, I have squeezed in a couple of movies this summer in between caring for a husband and a dog who have had surgery.  Sorry for the lapses but life gets in the way sometimes. Here are some movies, most of which you should like!

 

Rocketman♦♦♦♦

I find it interesting that critics loved this movie much more than Bohemian Rhapsody yet anyone I talk to believes the reverse.  Both are biopics of famous musicians who went through serious drug/alcohol issues to come out the other end in a better place.  Both musicians were gay and brilliant at what they did.  One died an early death and the other survives in a seemingly good place.  From a technical perspective, I believe Rocketman is a better put together film with solid transitions, screenplay and overall acting.  Rhapsody has the last unbelievably great final 20 minute Live Aid re-creation and a great performance by Rami Malek.  The rest of the film suffers from the Brian Singer legacy and last minute Director replacement.  Both films bring the music to the forefront and engage the listener in a desire to hear more from the respective artists.

Teron Egerton gives a really great performance as Elton John and sings the songs perfectly well. There are some wonderful supporting performances by Richard Madden as a sleazy industry professional who pushes John to a breakdown and Gemma Jones as his grandmother and the only family member who appreciates his talent and showers love on him.  Rocketman is Elton John’s project and  the musician determined how his story would be told.  It only covers a small part of his career but the music is great and it will remind you of what you love about Elton John.

Yesterday ♦♦♦

In another look back to the music of the last century, Yesterday tells the tale of a cataclysmic event that causes the world to forget that the Beatles existed – except for one struggling musician (played by Himish Patel) who recreates their songs to become famous and rich.  His manager is played by Lily James who turns in yet another effusive performance.  I always refer to her as sunshine in a bottle and she has never let me down.  Ed Sheeran appears in the movie and provides comedic relief and Kate McKinnon adds to the fun as a soul sucking LA manager.

The critics don’t love this movie but the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is high suggesting that you won’t be unhappy that you shelled out a ticket for this film.  It runs out of gas towards the predictable end and there is plenty that suspends belief but there are worse things then sitting in an air conditioned theater on a hot summer’s day and listening to Let it Be, Hey Jude (or dude – whatever is your preference), Yesterday and the other classics by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco ♦♦♦

Our film club saw this critic’s favorite and not one person raised their hand when the discussion leader asked who liked this film.  That being said, the group appreciated a great deal about this Sundance favorite.  It is the story of Jimmie (played by co-creator Jimmie Fails and based loosely on his life), a young African American living in San Francisco whose goal in life is to return to a beautiful Victorian house in the expensive Fillmore district of San Francisco which he claims his grandfather built.  When the current owners are not around, he travels to the house from Hunter’s Point area where he stays with his grandfather (Danny Glover) and lovingly restores some of the paint on the house where his family once lived.

Within the story of Jimmie searching for his past and trying to recapture it by ultimately squatting in the house, the Director, Joe Talbot (who won the Director’s prize at Sundance) provides a history of San Francisco that speaks to the themes of  postwar migration, the Haight Ashbury in the ’60s,  gentrification, and several others that you will recognize.  This is a fine film.  If you see it, I would recommend that you do some research on the background of the film and it’s creators as well as read several reviews so you know what to look for as the story unfolds.  You’ll appreciate it much more that way.

Maiden♦♦♦♦

Maiden is one of those rare films loved by critics and audiences alike.  This documentary captures the 1989 Whitbread Round the World sailing race through the words and video of first female crew to race this almost year- long, 33,000 nautical mile competition.  Maiden is the name of the all female boat skippered by Tracy Edwards who is the primary narrator of the film.  Fortunately for the Producers/Director of the film, Maiden volunteered to videotape the race so we have benefit of the actual footage from this grueling competition.  The film commences with Edward’s early life which was fraught with issues (she was suspended from school 27 times for example) and takes her to Greece where she became a cook on a sailing ship and met King Hussein of Jordon who ultimately financed her sailing adventure.

Tracy tries to be hired as a crew member for the Whitbread race but the crews were all male then (today, they are required to have at least two female crew) and none of them wanted her.  She rounded up a band of misfit women and they formed the group that would ultimately challenge the men in this extraordinary story of ambition, guts and daily peril.  It is gripping from start to finish and you’ll be pleased that you saw this amazing documentary.

Streaming:

Ask Dr. Ruth (♦♦♦♦1/2) which didn’t play in theaters long enough for many to see it, is streaming on Hulu.  See this documentary of an amazing woman who survived the Holocaust and is still practicing in her 90s.  You won’t be disappointed!!!!!

 

 

 

TV Updates: A Discovery of Witches, Killing Eve, Chernobyl, the Spanish Princess and Lost.

Some of the spring series I was watching have ended and others have begun.  Here are some updates:

Series Finales:

A Discovery of Witches (BBC America/AMC)♦♦♦ 1/2

I loved this series as will those who enjoy a good Outlander/Twilight combination show about witches, demons and vampires filmed in beautiful locations and with plenty of action.  It turned out to be my guilty pleasure of the year, not the least because Matthew Goode (Downton Abby/the Crown) is wonderful in the lead role as a 1500 year old Vampire nobleman who is at Oxford researching why magical creatures are losing their power.  There is plenty of inter-species action and it heats up when Matthew falls in love with a witch who didn’t think she had powers but guess what?  She is probably the most powerful witch in centuries.  Of course witches and vampires are not allowed to mate so all sorts of creatures are after them and Season 1 ends in a cliffhanger which suggests big changes for Season 2.

This is not “deep” television but it is fun to have something that isn’t dark, depressing and requiring total concentration to comprehend what is going on – my usual TV fare.  You won’t need a podcast or multiple viewings to follow the plot.  Just go with the flow and enjoy it.

Killing Eve (BBC America/AMC) ♦♦♦

Season 2 of Killing Eve was a disappointment.  I’m giving it 3 stars solely because of the amazing performances of the two leads, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.   The drop in quality is likely the result of Phoebe Waller-Bridge bowing out after Season 1 as Executive Producer.  She is brilliant and clearly missed.   S2 was hard to follow and confusing and the finale was particularly unoriginal  – it mirrored season 1’s but in reverse.  I’m hoping that Season 3 can come closer to last year’s breakout performance because if it doesn’t, I’m done.

New:

Chernobyl (HBO) ♦♦♦♦

Chernobyl is a five part mini-series that dramatizes the 1986 Nucular power plant explosion in what was then the Soviet Union. It is a chilling series that doesn’t shy away from the effects of radiation poisoning while immersing us in the world of the Soviet dictatorship and the lies that were perpetuated about the greatest nuclear disaster  in history.  For those of us alive in 1986, the series provides information and perspective that we were likely unaware of given the Soviet containment of any facts relating to the incident.   For those who weren’t, it is an important lesson in the Soviet politics as well as nuclear power plants.

The first two episodes focus on the disaster itself; the second two on the attempts to clean it up and the final episode on the trial designed to lay blame to human beings rather than the design of the reactor itself.  The acting by Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard (a far cry from Mama Mia) is excellent and the building tension over the course of the series will keep you riveted to the screen.  It is hard to watch as the skin melts off the brave men who rushed to contain the fire.  Chernobyl is not for the faint of heart but is absolutely worth a watch.  So little information has come out about Chernobyl that his mini-series will likely be the definitive source for at least awhile.  I have no idea how close to the truth any of this is but it certainly is compelling entertainment.

The Spanish Princess (Starzz – Rating TBD)

If you are a fan of British history and particularly the books by Philippa Gregory, this new mini-series on the life of Catherine of Aragon is for you.   I have only seen a few episodes and I’m not sure that the history is accurate nor are the performances of several actors great and I’ m not thrilled with the character development or writing in general but I will say the costumes are magnificent and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith in Downton) puts in another good performance as a long suffering member of the British aristocracy.  Stay tuned for updates.

Rewatch:  Lost

If you never watched Lost or if you watched it 15 years ago and have forgotten everything but the finale, there is a really fun rewatch going on with the “The Storm:  A Lost Rewatch Podcast” (available on multiple platforms).  Each week the engaging hosts (lead by the infatigable Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair) cover an episode of Lost.  The first part of the pod is for people who have never seen the show and then it goes into a spoiler section (the Storm) for those who have seen the entire series and are now watching to put each episode into the broader context of the groundbreaking show.  The hosts cover everything that has subsequently been written about the show along with information from all the interviews with Cuse and Lindeloft and it is really great.  They are only about 5 episodes into the first season so it is easy to catch up with.  If you are looking for something to watch over the summer, it is hard to go wrong with one of my favorite shows of all time. Continue reading “TV Updates: A Discovery of Witches, Killing Eve, Chernobyl, the Spanish Princess and Lost.”

Books: Rules of Civility, The Great Alone, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

I can actually recommend all three books with some caveats.  There is something here for everyone but if you only read one, read Nomandland.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles ♦♦♦ 1/2

This book preceded A Gentleman in Moscow which is probably the best book I have read in the last decade.  It is the author’s first novel and not as polished as Gentleman, but I enjoyed it.  The central character Katya (aka Katey) aspires to be successful and move up from her lower class Brooklyn roots in 1930’s New York City.  She lives in a boarding house with Eve who is trying to shun financial support from her well-off parents and make it on her own in NYC.  Katey moves from the secretarial pool to an Assistant at Conde Nash and along the way, she and Eve fall in with a wealthy group of friends who change her life.  Both fall for one of the crowd, a rich financier, Tinker Grey but an incident occurs that sends Tinker off with Eve and Katey discovers certain secrets that he was hiding.  She doesn’t see him for three decades until she spots two pictures of him in a photography exhibit.

I listened to this novel on an audio book which may be an issue for some.  While the reader was fine, the vocabulary that Katey used was more appropriate for the Yale educated Towles than a girl from Brooklyn in depression era America with little education.  The author tries to explain it, in my opinion,  by saying she is a voracious reader but it doesn’t work for me.    I think that on an audio book this is much more of an issue and one that may not be picked up as easily when reading pages.  In Gentleman, Towle’s vocabulary fits the Count perfectly but the language was much too refined for Katey.  This is a small nit in an otherwise very enjoyable novel.  Lionsgate optioned the book but has not yet brought it to either the big or small screen but it should make for a great show either way so I hope it gets produced and I can’t wait for Towle’s next book.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah ♦♦♦ 1/2

This latest novel by the author of the Nightingale is one of the most depressing books I have read in awhile.  Despite this, I absolutely could not put it down.  The main character, Leni Allbright is the daughter of a beautiful hippy mom and a former POW dad who suffers from PTSD and can’t hold a job.  We meet Leni when she is 13 (1974) as her family has to move constantly to keep away from creditors.  Her dad inherits some land in the Alaskan wild and they head North – hopelessly unprepared for what awaits them.  As they struggle to survive in a shack with no running water, electricity or any other modern convenience, Leni’s dad drinks heavily and becomes more dangerous – particularly during the long Alaskan winters.  Leni grows up quickly in a household of violence but in a community where she has a great deal of support from friends and neighbors including a young boy who she falls in love with.

Nothing goes well for the Allbrights and Leni in particular and one after another horrific event occurs to destroy her life yet she struggles forward.  The Great Alone is a little too long, a little too predictable and with no particular shades of grey (every character is pretty much all good or all bad)  yet it is hard to put down as the reader moves from one tragedy to the next in hopes that this young woman will ultimately make it.  The descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and life in this particular area are well known by the author who grew up nearby.  This knowledge adds to the authenticity of the saga.  On a side note, it was fun to enjoy the references to the shooting of Dan McGrew and the cremation of Sam McGee – poems I enjoyed over 40 years ago and had forgotten about.

Nomadland:  Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder ♦♦♦♦ 1/2

Nomadland is a non-fiction study by journalist Jessica Bruder of a generation of “houseless”, mostly older Americans who have become nomads traveling in cars, trucks, vans and campers across America stopping to work at Amazon warehouses, seasonal farm work or winters together in Quartzsite Arizona.  Many of them saw their homes and/or savings disappear in the financial crisis of 2008 but some have elected just to live off the grid.  One of them, Linda May is profiled more than others as she hauls a 10 ft. pale yellow fiberglass trailer she calls the “Squeeze-in”.  Linda has a long history of working in construction, as a long-haul trucker, phone rep and other marketable professions.  She raised two kids as well.  Yet here she is, a Senior Citizen, traveling from job to job.  Linda works in the summer as a “Campground Host” where she cleans toilets, campsites etc and then heads to the brutal work at an Amazon fulfillment center during the busy season to pick up cash.

We also meet Chuck, a former McDonald’s Vice President; Don, a former software executive, and other formerly middle class workers who are now picking berries in Vermont, apples in Washington and other low-paid work while moving from place to place.  This is a beautifully written book about a group of mostly white older Americans who are in a struggle for survival but form a social network that provides support and community for anyone needing it.  Why they are predominately white is not really explored by Bruder other than to suggest that setting up camp in various locations could cause minorities to be targets of the police.  Nor are there solutions presented by the author for this largely invisible world that is happening around us.  Those are minor critiques though for this award nominated book.

With fewer and fewer companies offering pension plans and people have to rely on 401(k)s as replacements.   They aren’t able to save as much due to employee contributions and ability to take loans out along the way let alone have the ability to manage these financial vehicles effectively.   Many American are increasingly dependent on Social Security which is only one leg of the infamous three-legged stool (pensions, social security and personal savings) that is required for retirement and the amounts are not large enough for most to live on.  As the wealth gap becomes larger and savings become smaller for a greater percentage of the population, the life of a nomad may be the only way out for for older Americans.  A medical crisis could put many of us on the road.  Something should be done to provide a better safety net for all of us so that we aren’t faced with the options that Linda May and her friends have been forced to experience.  Everyone should read this book.

 

And now my watch has ended: Game of Thrones

I have 10 years invested in reading the books and watching the TV show so it is with mixed emotions I bid farewell to the Weiss and Benioff  (W&B) version of a Song of Ice and Fire.  My overall assessment is that the show was at its best when it had the source material to rely on.  Once the show surpassed the books, it suffered.  For the most part, I don’t want to lay all the blame on W&B as they were left with a few bullet points to build a show around.  That was never the deal they signed on for.  When they first broached HBO and Martin with the idea to make GOT a series, no one anticipated that the last two books wouldn’t be written well before the corresponding show seasons.

Once it became clear that the books would not be finished, the show runners decided to send it on a more action oriented, less character driven path which culminated in a disappointing final season.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been some brilliant moments along the way.  Battle episodes like Hardhome, and Battle of the Bastards, both directed by Miguel Sapochnik were amazing.  The Long Night might have been if it had’t been too dark to see but there were some wonderful sequences including the Dothraki riding into the White Walkers as their torches are extinguished and the way the most violent periods of action were interspersed with quiet moments.  What suffered the most, however, was the storytelling.  We were shocked by Dany’s personality change and Tyrion’s claim that Bran was the most qualified to be King seemingly coming out of nowhere.  The storytelling (which Tyrion determined to be so important) fell apart in this final season.

I was so disappointed in the show this season (and particularly “The Bells”) that by the finale, I was emotionally enough removed to appreciate what happened as opposed to why it happened.  I had accepted this strange turn of events and waited to see how it played out.  It gave homage to both the Lord of the Rings as well as previous scenes in the HBO series.  I think they pretty much did well with Arya, Brienne, Sam, Yara, and Ghost.  Jon was destined to have an ending like Froto – he was forever damaged and thus had to leave his home, family and friends.  Tyrion was made Hand of the King again despite having screwed up every major decision for a couple of years – why was he rewarded for that?  Then there is Bran.  Nothing that W&B did with this character over the past 8 seasons suggested that he could ever take a position of responsibility in Westeros.  There were any number of other characters who were more deserving.  This decision fell with a thud.

I can only assume that George RR Martin will rectify all of this if he ever finishes his last two 1500 page books.   He will have plenty of time to take all of our characters to their rightful conclusion.  In the meantime, we are left with a good, not great (although there were GREAT individual episodes e.g. Winds of War and a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms along with the aforementioned Battle episodes ) series that engaged millions of viewers, writers, podcasters etc in endless discussions. The show which premiered in a different era of television will likely be the end of this type of viewing experience.  We now have so many shows on so many platforms that it is improbable one will ever garner the audience that this one did.  So now my watch is ended and I await patiently for the books and for HBO’s adaptation of the Golden Compass.

TV: Games of Thrones is back and that is all that matters but a couple of other shows popped up on the watch list as well: Killing Eve, A Discovery of Witches, Fosse/Verdon, Les Mis and Abby’s

I have watched a few other shows but isn’t this the most important one?  As I wait for the big battle episodes (3 and 5) and all the heart wrenching deaths that I assume will come with them, I hoped that the first episode of Season 8 would be happier and full of important reunions as all the characters reunite to fight the Army of the Dead.  I was rewarded.

Game of Thrones (Season 8, HBO) ♦♦♦♦♦

So the first episode was spent getting people situated for the major battles to come as well as giving us some great reunions – Arya and Jon, Arya and Gendry, Arya and the Hound, Tyrion and Sansa and Bran and Jamie.  Sansa delivers some good lines (Joffrey’s marriage to Marjorie “had its moments”) as does Tyrion and Jon rides a dragon.  It was all good.  No one dies (well Lord Umber didn’t have a good end but he was clearly a Red Shirt that we weren’t invested in).  We have one more episode before the big Winterfell battle so I expect the Northerners will figure out that Cersei is not sending troops and won’t be too happy to hear of Jon’s Southern parentage.  Meanwhile, Jon isn’t to happy with the truth about his parents.  Will he embrace the Targaryen history of incest or walk away from Dany?

I really want to see the final result of what I expect is a kick-ass weapon that Gendry is making for Arya.  Is she the one who will kill the Night King?  Will this be the weapon that does the job or might it be for the Ice Dragon.  The Bran/Jamie reunion should be very enlightening and Jamie’s acceptance by Dany after killing her father can’t be without issues.   Little Miss Mormont was a fantastic addition last season but she is getting to be a bit of a whiney pain in the arse that I can do without.   Sansa is justifiably skeptical of Dany and the Lannisters and speaking of Lannisters, is Cersei drinking her way through a pregnancy or is the baby gone?  I loved the Theon/Yara reunion but fear, that it won’t go well for either of them in the episodes coming up.  Clearly we have more questions than answers with only 5 shows remaining.

I was happy with this first episode despite some complaining that it was just setting the chess pieces in place for the game to come.  This was a character driven episode that was in the spirit of the book and harkens to a time before everything was battles and special effects.  It was the calm before the storm, and probably the last time we will see many of these characters alive.  I savored the moment.  I loved the new Opening Credits and all the call-outs to the Episode 1 of Season 1.

Killing Eve (BBC America/AMC)♦♦♦♦♦

Killing Eve is back and if the first two episodes are any indication, the show will not suffer from the 2nd season doldrums that affect so many TV dramas.  We left Eve (Sandra Oh) off last season after she shoves a knife into Villanelle (the fantastic and under rated Jodie Comer) and running away from the scene before we found out what happened.  Eve doesn’t know if she killed her or not as we find out when she finally reaches safety and contacts her former MI6 boss but she certainly realizes that she has slipped closer to the world of an international assassin than that of an MI6 agent.

Whatever Eve’s relationship with Villanelle is, she attempts to go back to a “normal life” with her husband and fails miserably.  Her former boss tries to get her to come back and Eve refuses at first but you know she can’t ultimately resist the calling.  Meanwhile Villanelle is back killing people as she recuperates and sets out on a path (we assume to find Eve).  However their relationship evolves, the cat and mouse game is superb.  Love this show!

A Discovery of Witches (BBC America/AMC) Rating TBD

Premiering after “Killing Eve” on Sunday nights is a new show that has been referred to by many as  “Twilight” meets “Outlander” starring Mathew Goode of Downton Abbey fame.  I’ve seen two episodes but if it plays out like I think it will, there is going to be quite the relationship between Goode’s Vampire character and his mortal enemy, a witch.  The TV show is considered better than the book it is based on by many critics and is rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for what that is worth.  While vampires and witches might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think this has some potential so I’m in it for now.

Fosse/Verdon (FX – rating TBD)

I have just watched one episode of Fosse/Verdon, the FX biopic miniseries covering about 50 years of Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon.  Sam Rockwell plays Fosse and Michelle  Williams is Verdon, perhaps the greatest Broadway dancer of all time.  The reviews are mixed except for the unanimous praise for the two leads.  In the end, this is a show that may only appeal to true theater geeks (I’m sure I am missing the meaning of many of the lines) but Michelle Williams is so impressive that I’ll watch it for a bit longer.

Les Mis (PBS – rating TBD)

PBS’s Masterpiece Theater started a 6 part mini-series adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables starring just about everyone you could possible want to be in this BBC non-musical adaptation.  Dominic West is Jean Valjean, David Oyelowo is Javert, Lily Collins is Fantine, and to top it all off, is a performance by Olivia Coleman (is she in everything these days?).  Episode 1 suggests that this version of the classic will follow the book much more than the musical does.  So far the sets are rich and the cinematography fantastic in  a depressing story that reflects a much more realistic view of this period in French history than the musical.  I’m in for this one.

Abby’s (NBC) ♦♦ 1/2

As readers of this blog know, I’m not a big fan of traditional comedies nor of network TV but I thought I’d try this one as it has one of my favorite TV Actors (Neil Flynn from the Middle and Scrubbs) and reasonably decent reviews.  I got through 2 episodes and bagged it.  Abby has a bar in her back yard which of course has no permit, is not to code etc but does have a group of neighborhood regulars including Flynn’s character who could just as well be named Mike Heck.  I couldn’t get into any of the characters  or anything about this show.  I suppose, as traditional network comedies go, it could be worse but there is nothing new here and I have better ways of spending my time.

 

 

TV This Week: Watching Billions, Better Things, The Case Against Adnan Syed, Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst, This is Us

The Case Against Adnan Syed (HBO)♦♦♦

This 4 episode documentary just finished airing on HBO.  For anyone who listened to Sarah Koenig’s brilliant 2014 “Serial” podcast which covered the same case, it is impossible not to make a comparison. The question of whether Adnan Syed was given a fair trial in his conviction for murdering his ex-girl friend, Hae Min Lee twenty years ago became very murky after the podcast and remain so after the documentary.  So, if you listened to the podcast, should you still watch the documentary? If you don’t have HBO, don’t bother – you can read the analysis of the documentary to get the salient details.  If you do have a subscription, there are some new and updated facts that are in the documentary that have nothing to do with cell phone towers.  You will also get more insights into the victim and her family as well as those  fighting for a new trial for Syed.

Included in the new information were several revelations in the final episode.   New DNA tests show that Syed’s DNA is nowhere to be found on the samples taken from Lee’s body and car.  In addition, questions were newly raised about the lack of Adnan’s fingerprints, the autopsy results and the location of the car.  Adnan did not agree to a plea deal last fall and the day the documentary aired, he was refused a new trial on an appeal by the State.  What this documentary does, as does the podcast, is raise questions about how this case was prosecuted and Syed’s innocence.  There are no definitive answers but it is clear, from both of these series that there should be a new trial.  If you were a fan of “Serial” and are an HBO subscriber, the series is worth checking out as it takes us to the present day and continues the story.

Better Things (FX S3) ♦♦♦♦

Better Things is back for Season 3.  This “Dramedy” almost collapsed under the co-creater Louis C K’s firing between Season 1 and 2 due to his sexual misconduct accusations  He was also the co-writer which left his partner, Pamela Adlon (also the star of the show) in a difficult situation in terms of how to continue on without such an important influence.  She got through Season 2 and this season while heavy, is also very strong.  In the end, Better Things is about family, aging, mother daughter relationships, and just how someone gets through every day with all the pressures of working and life.

Adlon plays Sam, a single mother of three and daughter of a woman who may be struggling with the early stages of dementia and lives next door.  Sam’s oldest daughter is dropped off at college in the first episode of Season 3, only to drop out and be back by Episode 3.  Her middle daughter appears to have some sexual identity issues along with a difficult relationship with her younger sister.  The youngest wants to be treated like the oldest and all of this happens while Sam, an aging actress, has to fight for roles that are going to younger, prettier women.  In addition, there are the other elements of aging that factor into the day by day struggle to get by.

Life for Sam continually  gets crazier and seemingly heading toward a disaster when just in time something happens that brings this family together in a loving and often very funny series of events.  Sam is an unconventional yet loving mother and you know that even though her life is a constant battle with brinksmanship, somehow things will be ok. In the meantime, there are a lot of very funny lines and situations we can all relate to!

Jane the Virgin (CW) ♦♦♦♦♦

Jane is back for her final season and I’m so going to miss this little ray of sunshine in my life each and every week.  If you haven’t ever seen this “Telenovela” run, don’t walk to Neflix to watch the first few seasons as you won’t find another show on TV with as much heart and soul as this one.  If you are unfamiliar with the Telenovela format (and I certainly was) it is like a soap opera on steroids with totally absurd events mixed with rich characters full of heart and Jane has this in spades.

Jane returns this season having to deal with her dead husband’s return to the life just as she is about to marry her long -term off and on again love who is also her baby daddy.  This is nothing compared to all the other crazy things that initially started with Jane (a virgin) being accidentally impregnated at her annual gynecological exam.  We have been promised that we’ll learn the identity of the narrator telling Jane’s story by the last show although I am pretty sure I know who it is.  This individual is such an integral part of the show and knows the innermost thoughts and emotions of all the main characters and breathes life into them.   In the meantime, I will savor each and every one of these final few episodes.

This is Us (NBC) ♦♦♦

This is Us finished up its third season this week with a twist (of course) that sends us well into the future of the Pearson clan.  I’m not sure why I’m still watching this show which consistently pulls at your emotions through the use of various gimmicks.  I’m so tired of Randall and Beth fighting (I”m totally with you on this one Deja!); I’m tired of Kevin’s substance abuse, I’m tired of nothing good happening to any of these people although in last night’s finale, one happy thing did occur and it was incredulous that it did.  It was just ridiculous and I’m sure it will be controversial as it minimizes a life and death situation that many people experience.   I won’t go into any more detail in case you haven’t seen it.

As I said, I’m not really sure why I still watch this and I may not return to it next season.  It may be just that I didn’t have anything else to watch on Tuesday nights as I continually leave Network TV behind.

Billions (Showtime) ♦♦♦ 1/2

Another show that seems to be running its course with me is Billions.  I thought the first two seasons were absolutely brilliant as Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby (Damien Lewis) played a complex and riveting cat and mouse game.  4 seasons in, however, this, like so many other Showtime series as slowed down.  Once Bobby and and Chuck made up in Season 3,  much of the tension went away.  The introduction last year of Asia Kate Dillion, TV’s first gender non-conforming lead character,  has helped provide a fresh storyline that has held my interest.  In general, though, there are so many sub- plots that are complex and if you don’t pay attention, you could miss something important – or not.  I’ll finish up this season and make a determination as to whether I go forward with it – if it goes forward.

A Fond Farewell to You’re the Worst (FX)

It ended the only way it could have (Spoiler Alert)  without a wedding.  Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) make up perhaps the most dysfunctional couple on TV and we have spent the entire fifth and final season hurtling toward a wedding between the two of them which seems doomed to disaster.  Helping us prepare for that outcome are a number of flash forwards which not only suggest that Jimmy and Gretchen are not together but that their lives have taken a very dark turn.  Thankfully, the writers of the show left us in a good place with this couple and have given us as sweet of an ending as is possible while remaining true to the characters.  How could any of us ask for more of a finale?  I loved the ending and will miss this show.