White Shadow by Roy Jacobsen, trans. by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

This second in a gripping trilogy of home, place and relationships sees a woman struggle alone, and then less alone, in World War II Norway.

Roy Jacobsen’s White Shadow is the second in his Barrøy trilogy, following The Unseen, which introduced readers to the Barrøy family and the small Norwegian island that shares their name. White Shadow opens: “The fish came first. Man is merely a persistent guest.” It is not a man but a woman, however, who occupies the center of the novel. Now in her mid-30s, Ingrid Barrøy works on the mainland, splitting and salting cod and herring. She “longed to be gone, to be back on Barrøy, but no one can be alone on an island and this autumn neither man nor beast was there, Barrøy lay deserted and abandoned, it hadn’t even been visible since the end of October, but she couldn’t be here on the main island either.”

After paddling back to Barrøy, Ingrid is indeed alone amid the ruins of her family home, until the British bomb a German steamer carrying troops and prisoners of war in nearby waters. In her family’s hayloft she finds a man alive. They do not share a language, but they share much. Hiding her guest from the Nazis and their Norwegian collaborators will send Ingrid away from home again, and it will be another arduous feat to return, but it is always Barrøy for this stalwart protagonist. She stands “suddenly wonderstruck at all the things that had kept her on the island, which in truth were nothing at all.”

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Jacobsen’s prose is as stark and unadorned as the landscape he portrays. His characters are hardworking, worn and stoic against a ruthless natural world, but there is beauty in their strength, and in the harsh simplicity of island life. “It is as it has always been, Barrøy has everything yet lacks something of real importance.” The central setting is limited in its scope, but in Ingrid’s travels she meets a variety of characters, including profiteers and refugees, eventually repopulating her home and tentatively, perhaps, building something new.

While there is a thread of romance here, White Shadow is more a profile of an individual and a culture (“people who never sat down”). It is also a sensory experience of rough conditions and cold, work ethic and strong ties. Ingrid’s community is hard-won and all the sweeter for it. No familiarity with The Unseen is necessary for this second installment, which stands alone comfortably, although the final lines do gesture at questions about the future of Barrøy.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 herring.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Readers of this blog might by now know that I am capable of calling a book about a serial killer light-hearted. Here it is. This is a fun romp about a serial killer.

First-person narrator Korede is a competent nurse at a hospital, where she has a serious crush on a doctor named Tade. He considers her a friend, but nothing more. She is also the responsible sister, and good thing, because her younger sister Ayoola needs one. Their mother is a bit flighty and detached; Korede’s one ally at home is the house girl, otherwise unnamed, another competent but invisible type. Korede and Ayoola’s abusive father, thank goodness, is dead.

Ayoola is a very different sort: stunningly beautiful, she attracts attention everywhere she goes. Men court her and buy her things; women want to be her. She is utterly spoiled, possibly a sociopath, and she has a bad habit of stabbing her boyfriends to death. Thank goodness for Korede’s (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with cleaning products. She knows just how to get the blood out, cover up smells, and where to dispose of the bodies. Her conscience is beginning to nag, however, and so she does what any invisible hospital worker would do: she confides at great length to a kindly-seeming man deep in a coma. You might guess how that winds up.

The delicate arrangement Korede and Ayoola have established to deal with Ayoola’s violent habit is beginning to fray for several reasons, but one event that pushes it to a head is when Tade, Korede’s beloved doctor, asks for Ayoola’s number. The long-overlooked elder sister is forced to decide: is she really willing to protect Ayoola in all scenarios? At all costs?

Chapters are very short, at most a few pages, which is part of what contributes to My Sister, the Serial Killer‘s sense of momentum. I had to force myself to put this one down and get to bed on a school night; it rather demands a single-sitting read. As the present-tense story of Tade’s infatuation with Ayoola unfolds, we also get flashbacks, in chapters titled “Father,” to the story of that patriarch. Braithwaite in no way answers all the reader’s curiosities about this dysfunctional family, but there are surprises along the way, nonetheless.

This novel is set in Lagos, with some Yoruba language sprinkled in, and the family’s foods were often foreign (and interesting) to me. The Lagos police are woefully corrupt and/or incompetent, but other than these details for flavor, if you will, the setting didn’t have an enormous effect on the story.

Despite Ayoola’s murderous tendencies (and generally annoying personality), there is, again, a sense of fun about Korede’s situation: the antics of the women she works with, and Ayoola’s completely ridiculous nonchalance. I felt like the story could keep going, and I would definitely read another installment about Korede’s hapless existence.


Rating: 7 shoes.

Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

These 18 essays about gender, horror, grief and much more are thought-provoking, discomfiting and lovely.

Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms is a startling collection of 18 essays ruminating on life experiences, cultural tropes and horror films, examining questions of gender, fear and grief. Fragmented in form, but firmly interconnected, these essays refuse to look away. Nutt’s prose is lyrical, provocative, intimate and intelligent.

“I used to imagine wanting someone alive would revive them, if caught right after dying.” This opening line establishes one of Nutt’s main subjects: the deaths of loved ones and how people do (or don’t) handle them. She wants to find “a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl–the one who survives–that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).” That final girl of horror movies is objectified: a symbol, a survivor, part of a lineage.

Nutt (Wilderness Champion) is also a poet, and has a way with a simple line in brief scenes and observations: in grief or depression, “time pulls thick, opaque as taffy.” “I am making this [darkness] a buoy.” Her voice is vulnerable and frank. Repeatedly she describes a cultural artifact rather than naming it, so it is recognizable to most readers, but made unfamiliar: “the cartoon mouse dressed in a red sorcerer’s cloak and a pointy violet hat with white stars on it.” Quoted sources are named in footnotes, but those only paraphrased are not, so that different readers will find themselves involved to different degrees–as is true with the cultural artifacts themselves.

Haunted houses, horror flicks with sharks in them, ghost stories and slasher films meet beauty pageants, ballet lessons, sexual explorations and home décor to question what it is about the macabre that fascinates. Although subtitled as “essays,” Night Rooms feels more like it contains chapters, which make reference to one another as much as within themselves. The deaths that occupy the narrator in the book’s beginning are relevant again at its close. Indeed, while these essays are fragmented, cinematic in flashes of image, sound and feeling, they are equally fragments of the whole. Together, these pieces form an experience that is sensory, intellectual and emotional, illuminating difficult and even uncomfortable truths.

Part personal reflection and part cultural study, this unusual collection will haunt readers, in the best ways.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 insects framed in flight.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (audio)

A classic whodunit from Agatha Christie, starring Hercule Poirot, but told through the first-person narration of a character that (as far as I know) appears for the first time in the Poirot-universe. This means we get to see him from afar at first, and recognize him before the narrator understands who we’re dealing with. It’s pure fun. I love the humor and the characters – all of whom, admittedly, are a bit cartoonish, but in entertaining ways. Perhaps the best part of this audio production is the reading by Hugh Fraser, who plays Hasting in the long-running television series I was raised on. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel is a Hastings-like character, a stand-in if you will, during the period that Hastings is off living in the Argentine. To have the Hastings actor playing the Hastings-like character, bouncing off Poirot in the loveable way that they do, was just a harmonic moment for me.

Also in classic fashion, the mystery here is clever, ever-twisting and chock-full of red herrings, and the murder takes place in a literal locked room. Everyone is hiding something and harboring overlapping and hidden loyalties. The plot is far from central, however, at least to my enjoyment. (As an aside, I might be a special kind of mystery reader. I can reread the same mystery with no memory of the solution; the plot-level puzzle is rarely my focus; I’m there for characters and relationships. But I might be weird in this regard.) It’s all in the people – here, the caricatures – and the humor. Christie is comfort food, and this is quintessential Christie.


Rating: 7 dropped items.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Once there was a family. The mother died when her children were young; the father, a traveling preacher, remained mostly absent. The eldest sister, Althea, raised her younger siblings. They are Viola, Joe, and the baby, Lillian. A generation later, Althea and her husband Proctor have twin girls, Kim and Baby Viola. Until recently, they also had a successful restaurant in a struggling Michigan town following a devastating flood (locally called the Great Flood). The couple was trusted in town; they ran fundraisers and charity events for those who lost everything. But then it came out that they’d been skimming off the charity donations. Now, Althea and Proctor are facing a trial and possibly serious time for this transgression. The townspeople have turned against them (Althea’s lawyer says, “the community probably wants to see a public hanging”). Lillian has care of the disgruntled teenaged girls; Viola is en route home from Chicago to lend a hand, although she is beset by problems of her own. And Joe turns up, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Althea refuses to let her daughters visit her. Lillian is losing control, particularly of Kim, the difficult child to Baby Vi’s obedient one. Viola is breaking down mid-road-trip. Joe’s past sins remain unresolved. The legacies of their parents do not rest easy. They come together in the family home, which Lillian has renovated to remove some – but not all – its painful stains; she’s also moved in her former-grandmother-in-law, just to enliven this mess of relationships.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is an emphatically character-driven novel, and these characters are wonderfully formed: a mess in all the best ways. Viola is a practicing therapist plagued by her own eating disorder and her failing marriage to a rather saintly, patient woman whom the reader really wants to see her with. Lillian’s childhood trauma has left her obsessive-compulsive and guilt-ridden – it is in part this guilt that causes her to care for the elderly Chinese woman with broken English whose grandson she’s wronged, but the friendship that results is in fact a gift. Althea’s mood is foul enough to keep her somewhat opaque, but she is also the heart of this family; just because she was the responsible eldest does not mean she’s escaped her own wounds. The novel follows the three sisters most closely, with chapters moving among their points of view. The title refers to Viola’s eating disorder, to the various literal and figurative hungers of the sisters, and beyond.

Proctor, whom we see less of – in flashbacks to the time before the arrests; in emails to his wife as they are both incarcerated – is still a lovely character, whose love of music has been a gift to his daughters, and who sends punny musical hints to Althea as a game they used to play. He at one point quotes the lyrics of Jason Isbell (whom he leaves unnamed, but I am the reader for this moment, y’all, so you know that gave me a thrill). There are other still more minor characters who make a real impact on the world Anissa Gray builds here, including Viola’s and Lillian’s respective childhood friends, Kim’s goofy stoner boyfriend, and the women Althea serves times with.

There are a few plot-level details that never especially coalesced for me. The Great Flood this small town has experienced feels like a looming matter of importance that never quite comes to life, although the long-dead mother had some comments to make about women, water, and rivers that should have connected a bit more strongly there. The crimes Althea and Proctor committed – fleecing their neighbors – are sort of neither here nor there; the plot needed them incarcerated, but it never matters much what they did. I spent some time considering this: Gray had to define their crime, of course, couldn’t just leave it unnamed; but this feels like an odd choice. It’s ethically quite off-putting, while in the grand scheme of things (murder, for example) also relatively minor (embezzlement?), and we’re left with a vague sense of the agency with which the crime was committed. It felt a little bit like Chekhov’s gun never went off. These are minor concerns, and it’s not unusual that a novel so gorgeously and richly character-driven might have some plot weaknesses, but I noticed.

The timeline of Care and Feeding is pretty tight, mostly contained within a few weeks as Althea and Proctor’s trial approaches, their sentences are set, and the immediate fallout occurs. There are flashbacks to earlier times (all the way back to the four siblings’ youth), and a final epilogue-style section set after the dust has settled. But chiefly, this novel is concerned with the quasi-locked-room situation when Lillian and Viola come together to sort out family histories and unhealed wounds. It’s about relationships, the pull of the past, the question of cycles broken or continued, and love.

I found it absorbing; I enjoyed sinking in to the lives of these women and girls, getting to know them, accompanying them. I cared, and they felt very real and immediate. If I cocked my head at the odd and somewhat unresolved crimes Althea and Proctor have committed, so be it; life is sometimes confusing in this way. As a story of regular, imperfect, but good people dealing with life’s confusions, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls was more than satisfying. Gray’s brief “Beyond the Book” essay at the back of my paperback edition tells us that Viola was a fictional character who just wouldn’t go away, who demanded her story be told. And that makes perfect sense to me; I too would follow Viola wherever she wants to take me, narratively speaking. I would read more.


Rating: 7 1/2 Snickers bars.

movie: 17 Blocks (2019)

A filmmaker meets two brothers – Emmanuel, 9, and Smurf, 15 – at a pickup basketball game in southeast Washington, D.C. They strike up a friendship. Film footage from the following twenty years, shot by both filmmaker and the family members themselves, eventually yields this documentary: 17 Blocks, in reference to the distance between the Sanford family home (at the film’s opening) and the nation’s capitol building. Count that as a not-completely-subtle cue to consider certain contrasts.

The Sanfords and Durants are poor and Black and plagued by social ills including addiction, gun violence, and incarceration. They live through terrible tragedy. Their lives are presented here seemingly unmediated: they speak directly to the camera; raw footage is edited together. (All narratives are mediated, of course. And it’s worth nodding to the feat of culling 1,000 hours of footage to create such an intelligent narrative in 90-something minutes.) There is plenty of opportunity to think through larger issues, beginning with the commentary implied by the title. What is most horrifying about this movie is the pain in the lives of the Sanfords; what is perhaps even more horrifying is that they are representative of so many lives, that their pain is so common.

There’s a quite good review over at Rogerebert.com (although it gets the Sanford kids’ birth order wrong), to which I’ll refer you for a deeper look; reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz makes some good points that I agree with about why the film is excellent, as well as a few mild criticisms. I appreciate his point that the film “probably doesn’t push hard enough against reactionary, Puritan, possibly racist readings of the Sanford family’s misery as it should have.” He also warns viewers of how hard 17 Blocks is to watch, and he’s right: it’s awful, discomfiting stuff, and the discomfort one feels watching it is only appropriate and reasonable. There’s another layer for me, though, too. The first half or so felt awfully close to ‘poverty porn’ (a term I may have first learned when I first started to get to know Appalachia). The problem is that in order to recognize problems in communities, in systems, we have to look at people’s suffering. But there’s something inherently problematic about the looking at – something voyeuristic – that’s discomfiting in a different way. I haven’t quite sorted my feelings about this. Possibly, if we are to make a movie of the Sanfords’ lives and look at it like this, we have a responsibility to work harder to do the work Seitz mentions, the pushing back, “in order to guard it more righteously against bad faith interpretations.” I’m not sure. This is not properly a criticism I’m offering, but a question. Also, it is very relevant that Sanford matriarch Cheryl was an active part of the production and promotion of the movie; the family is on board and involved, which we should keep in mind in considering the complicated situation with this (white) filmmaker and any potential question of exploitation.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film is artful, wrenching, visually intriguing and deeply affecting, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. If you check it out, please let me know what you think.


Rating: 7 t-shirts.

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

This delightfully disquieting novel explores identity, deceit and extreme measures through two women’s shape-shifting lives.

Is it really possible to shed one’s history “as easily as a coat slips off the back of a chair” and walk away? And if so–what might one walk into? That’s the puzzle posed by the cunningly plotted Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

Florence Darrow thinks of her past in Florida “as a gangrenous limb that needed to be severed for the greater good.” Now that she’s landed an editorial assistant position in New York City, she can begin remaking herself. However, she can’t quite make out the shape of the new version of herself she’s trying to form. “How did one go about building up someone new? She tried on moods and personalities like outfits.” Then the opportunity of a lifetime comes along: she is hired as personal assistant to Maud Dixon, pseudonym for the electrifying and mysterious author of the biggest bestseller in recent history. Florence becomes one of just two people to know Maud’s true identity. And she finally has a model to guide her own transformation into the bestselling author and confident self-made woman she knows she can be.

Florence sinks with pleasure into her new life: living in the carriage house behind Maud’s lovely old stone house in the country, enjoying Maud’s cooking and fine wines and opera. This, she thinks repeatedly, is where she belongs, this is the life she’d choose for herself. On Maud’s advice, Florence stops returning her mother’s increasingly petulant phone calls.

But who, really, is Maud Dixon? Florence knows her name, and the name of the Mississippi town she comes from. But much of her hero’s persona remains enigmatic: Maud is unpredictable, thorny, wise and (to the Florida ingenue) perfectly captivating. Florence can’t figure out the road map to get from here to there. (Maud says that “here and there are overrated.”) Florence is thrilled to travel with her to Morocco on a research trip for Maud’s long-awaited second novel, but in the new setting, what Florence doesn’t know about her boss quickly turns sinister. Florence may not be the only one with a past she’d like to shed.

Who Is Maud Dixon? is a wickedly fun study in deception, secrets, striving and longing. Andrews’s stylish, intricate debut novel showcases deft prose and expert use of tone and atmosphere: the cooing of pigeons “had the aggressively soothing tones of a nursery rhyme in a horror movie.” What means might one justify to grasp the life she really wants and (she’s tempted to believe) deserves? These memorable pages hold one possible answer.


This review originally ran in the February 26, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 clean white towels.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Thanks to blog reader Annie Long for the excellent recommendation.

This is a sad, sweet book with an accurately written first-person child protagonist struggling with loss and grief, and with a decidedly odd view of the world, possibly reflecting neurodivergence. (Someone at school calls her ‘retarded.’) If this sounds a lot like the mad originality of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought so too. That earlier novel was so unprecedented it blew readers’ minds; and while this one has a lot in common with that one, I don’t think that makes it a bit unoriginal. It’s still a pretty wild (and wildly unusual) model; there’s plenty of room for more surprises in this area.

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.” It was one of the wonderful things about her mother Eva that she made rabbit cakes for all occasions – believed in celebrating all the small events of life. Elvis is ten-and-a-half when her mother dies, and she has questions. For one thing, how could such a good swimmer have drowned? Her mother was a frequent if not constant sleepwalker, and “she was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.” Her mother was a gifted scientist. And besides, her mother’s psychic had always been very clear that Eva would die by suicide.

Elvis is clearly a young person who craves control, and so she sets out to take care of things around the house, because her father surely isn’t; he’s taken to wearing Eva’s lipstick and her bathrobe around the house, and mostly ignoring his daughters. Elvis’s fifteen-year-old sister Lizzie has moved on from beer drinking and breaking her best friend’s jaw (in three places) to a particularly self-destructive sort of sleepwalking (although no sleepswimming). Elvis dutifully sees the counselor at school once a week during recess, until she says something especially disturbing and gets upgraded to daily sessions. Ms. Bernstein instructs her that the grieving process generally takes eighteen months, and so dutiful Elvis marks her chart counting down the days until she will not grieve her mother any more. She also works on finishing her mother’s massive book (working title: The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber). Elvis knows a lot about animals – enough to annoy everyone around her, until she gets a volunteer posting at the zoo. She comes across an entry in The Reference Guide to Porcupine Anatomy and Behavior in the zoo’s library that mistakenly relates the echidna to the porcupine when it is closer to the platypus. She makes a note to write to the publisher.

You get the picture: this is a child precocious in some areas and a bit hopeless in others. She indulges in magical thinking, but what child doesn’t? and for that matter, who in the throes of grief? Despite Elvis’s story being completely heartbreaking at every turn (warning, friends: this family also has an old dog. Will it never cease? Don’t ask what happens to the giraffe), it’s also frequently hilarious. There is a strong current of absurdism running through it. Lizzie the sleepwalker and breaker of jaws is institutionalized, and returns home with a pathological liar who the distant and negligent father allows to move in. Lizzie decides what she needs is to set the Guinness World Record for most number of rabbit cakes baked. Most, but not all of them, will need to be decorated. Elvis is driven mad by the delicious smell of baking cakes – which she associates with happy memories of their mother – but she is not allowed to eat any of the cakes, which Lizzie must preserve for her world record. I won’t even tell you about the troubles Elvis gets into at the zoo. Or what she discovers about her mother’s sex life.

Delightful, absurdist, ridiculous, heartbreaking; laugh-out-loud funny in the most morbid ways, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Case in point: the reason Elvis’s school counseling gets upped to daily sessions.) I was frequently quite angry at the adults in this child’s life who consistently, near-criminally fail her; I usually keep my cool with fictional characters better than this. In other words, it’s a deeply involving story, with some very wise points to make about grief in the end. That ending is surprisingly upbeat – or maybe it’s not surprising at all.

I’ll be thinking about Elvis for a long time, and about this singular, weird, troubled, endearing little family. I’m remembering Have You Seen Marie?, another gorgeous meditation on grief in fictional form. Cisneros said about that book that she did not conceive of it as being for children. And even though Rabbit Cake‘s star is a child, I don’t think this is a children’s or YA book, except to the extent that any book is right for the reader who’s ready for it. (Tin House, who does not publish children’s books, has marketed it as simply fiction. Although these labels may be worth less than we think they are.) It’s quite a deep-thinking novel, with nuances to satisfy readers of all levels of maturity, especially those who may need to laugh and cry in the same sitting.


Rating: 9 librarians aptly named Reasoner.

The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Here we have it: the first book of Lee Child’s transition to his brother’s eventual takeover of the Reacher series. The Sentinel credits Lee Child and Andrew Child together, as will the next (Better Off Dead is due later this year). I have had my doubts, but I really enjoyed this installment. Hooray!

A little like Blue Moon, this plot has Reacher step into a scene in media res, where he sees something bad about to happen. (This is not an uncommon Reacher device, actually; I’m thinking of Gone Tomorrow too.) In a little town in Tennessee, the streetlight is out and the police phones are down. Something’s a little odd here, and why does everybody seem so angry at one rather nerdy man in particular?

There is nothing new about the broad strokes: Reacher takes on the PI role even though nobody really wants him to, let alone the local cops, whose job he can do better than they can. The details are rather fascinating, though. I’m not sure it always works for me when Child tries to be uber-timely (here, the Russians might be trying to hack an American election, which is a subject I’d like a break from in my fiction, I think). But that’s a personal call, maybe. I do like when Reacher finds himself a team of local amateurs, or quasi-amateurs, as he did in Blue Moon, to my great enjoyment then and again here. And I think I appreciated that we took a bit of a break from Reacher’s amorous exploits.

Instead, Reacher ends up the knight in shining armor for a dweeby, dreamy (male) IT manager, and that relationship struck me as sweet and a bit of a departure for our hero. Knight-in-shining-armor is a bit of a theme here, actually, because the opening Reacher scenes involve both his love for quality live music (and especially blues), and his tendency to stick up for the little guy. I liked that the action didn’t open with Reacher, but jumped around among a few characters whose relationship is not immediately clear. I found a few lines of dialog here and there a bit out of character – and I’m sorry I didn’t mark those to share with you, but I read this book in a day, staying up too late to finish it, which doesn’t happen much these days (because it shouldn’t; teaching has me busy and exhausted). Being a smidge out of character may be a result of bringing in a new coauthor (who, we assume, knows the Reacher oeuvre as well as anybody, but still). However, my need to finish this book in a single day is an excellent commentary. It’s been a while.

I’m shying away from plot here, as I sometimes do with Reacher, to say that this is pretty straight-on Reacher with just a few twists, already mentioned, which worked well for me. If this is the new Andrew Child style, I am sorry I doubted, and I’m looking forward to more.


Rating: 8 cables.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.
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