movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

movie: The Dark Divide (2020)

Click that beautiful image to enlarge. Go ahead. Isn’t it lovely?

This film is definitely visually pleasing, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Dark Divide is based on a Robert Michael Pyle book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. I have not read this book, but I have it on my shelf, and I know that I appreciate Bob Pyle’s writing. (Small disclosure, I guess: I’ve met Bob a few times.) A film based on a memoir by a writer I admire is always a solid bet. Plus, a small part is played by somebody else I admire.

Patterson Hood is more or less as niche as Bob Pyle, I guess, and it’s just downright fun that they’ve ended up in a project together, certainly in part because Patterson now lives in the same Pacific Northwest region. At any rate, this was enough to bring me in.

The story is this. Bob Pyle is an academic, lepidopterist and writer, portrayed here as pretty bumbling and goofy. His beloved wife Thea is dying of cancer, and his colleagues are ribbing him about this great butterfly hunting expedition he talks about but never undertakes. Shortly after losing Thea, he gets a grant from the Guggenheim to actually do it: hike from route 12 in southern Washington state, over Mt. Adams to the Columbia Gorge, seeking butterflies (and moths) along the way. It’s intended to be a 30-day trip. “You’ve been camping before, right?” ask Bob’s colleagues. “Cub scouts, or…?” They’re being a little mean, actually, especially in light of the Thea situation, but the viewer has to admit that Bob is unconvincing as a backcountry hiker. (Because I barely-a-little-bit know Bob, and like him, I was a little sorry to see him made fun of. But then, he wrote the book.)

The film follows Bob’s hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (aka the dark divide), with flashbacks to life with Thea. There is not a ton of dialog, because for much of the time Bob is alone. He talks to himself a little (less than one might expect), and he occasionally meets with other humans, although this rarely turns out to be a good thing. As a ranger tells him when he asks about Bigfoot: “If you were one of them, wouldn’t you hide from us? I know I would.”

It’s a charmingly simple story. Beautiful scenery, elemental challenges (bear, food, water, weather, gravity at cliff’s edge), stark human grief, scant dialog. Look at these stunning views, consider the horror of losing one’s life partner. See the rare endangered species, howl for help from the bottom of a cave. An encounter with a crew of loggers encapsulates some conflicts – a bit simplified, but effective. There are some logical or factual goofs, like the fact that Bob seems to carry a solitary quart-sized water bottle (Nalgene, of course), and we never see him refill it (except when the rangers do so for him). But this isn’t meant to be hyperrealism, nor a how-to-backpack guide (seriously, don’t use this movie as a how-to).

Visually stunning, thoughtful, poignant, funny, honest, and a decent introduction to the Bob Pyle character. Recommended.


Rating: 8 hoots.

television: a new discovery

It’s been a weird year.

Say it again: it’s been a weird year.

I made a post to this effect at about this time last year. The trend continues: I’ve been watching television. (I still don’t own a television, but technology has allowed me to become a TV-viewer on my little laptop; wonders never cease.) I still find this so strange. And I struggle somewhat with the stigma I was taught as a kid: that is, that television is tooth-rotting junk food, while books are healthy and nourishing. Well, there may be something more passive about watching, while reading requires a bit more reader participation. There’s no coincidence in this compliment to one of my favorite shows: “They required a level of attention from viewers of The Wire not normally demanded by television shows… but a level of attention a step closer to the level you might have to apply to reading a book.”* But also, as Liz points out (I paraphrase): “Television was junk when you were a kid. But in the last 15 years or so, they’ve figured out how to make some really good television. And you’ve been watching good television.” And you know what? I have been. There is some astonishingly good television out there.

It’s not normal for me to feel this involved with a television show. But on the other hand, it’s not all that unusual for me to feel really involved with a fictional world, with plot and characters invented by impressive creative minds. And it’s been really exciting to discover a whole new medium for exploring story and character. Not that I entirely had all the craft elements of writing under control! but there’s so much more to watch out for, no pun intended, on the screen. The pure writing alone, from plot construction to lines of dialog to stage direction, is a whole course of study; then there’s the acting, the sound and scenery, and the cinematography. I’m sort of reeling at all of this. I’m a little tempted to sign up for another graduate degree in how to pick apart a television show. (Not really. Maybe a little.)

I’m not sure what’s led me in this direction, toward the screen. I definitely think the pandemic and shutdown and isolation and increasingly depressive news of the world have played a role, but again, I started watching last year. The bad world out there has just pushed me further. I’ve also noticed that in my reading, I crave lightness and fiction to leaven the important but unpleasant reality I take in. But when my favorite novels of the year include Sun a Fun Age, Leave the World Behind and The Prettiest Star, maybe I don’t skew as ‘light’ as I claim to. Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally found a new-to-me medium, and I was ready for it. At any rate, there are whole worlds out there. When television is done well, those worlds are thrilling and enthralling and worthy of all the time and attention I have to offer.

Case in point is definitely The Wire, a piece of creative work I can scarcely wrap my head around after two full viewings – thanks as always to Liz, who not only told me to watch it in the first place, but then sent along a great piece of criticism. The above *quotation comes from “Why The Wire is one of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever,” which is spoiler-free, and a better review than I feel able to write. I will say that this show is not only visually appealing, extremely witty and funny, but also very very smart, and tackles the kinds of Big Issues that I like to see tackled in fiction. I’ll watch it again.

My television obsession of the year is Shameless (the US version). Early in pandemic shutdown, I started watching this show and got hooked. This scrappy, resourceful, problematic, crazy-but-real family just got inside my head and my heart, with their struggles and their relationships which are both strong and messy, and their colorful southside Chicago setting. It’s absolutely a comedy and absolutely a heart-rending drama, and it runs for ten seasons, with season 11 delayed by the pandemic but now filming, and set to be the last. I am most in love with the relationship between Ian and Mickey, but many characters’ arcs strike me as nuanced and engrossing. This is less a perfect show than The Wire; there are errors and inconsistencies, but I still find it completely compelling. And while it’s less serious, too, there is no shortage of Big Issues – mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, poverty, tolerance, love – which are here presented as simply the backdrop facts of life, rather than problems to be solved as on The Wire. This is another show I’d take a master course on.

My love for Shameless character Mickey Milkovich led me to seek more work by the actor who portrays him, Noel Fisher, which led me to other shows and movies, many of them good – The Booth at the End, The Riches, The Long Road Home – but most remarkably, The Red Line. This series of just eight episodes begins with the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white cop, and just keeps adding in the Big Issues from there. It’s jam-packed with them, in fact, which could be seen as a liability, especially in less capable hands (these are very capable hands – Ava DuVernay is a producer); but I decided it felt rather like life, in which we are indeed surrounded by Big Issues that we don’t get to fully untangle. (I was also charmed by a matter-of-fact background element: one of our protagonists has a BFF who is non-binary in their gender identity and uses the pronouns they/them. I expected this would become another Issue but no, it’s just a fact of life. Which is part of what representation means. Hat tip.) A little more time would have been great, to see these stories more deeply explored, but I’m very impressed by what is here.

Finally, Orphan Black is a mind-blowing story and set of characters, including some of those loving, messy, built-family relationships I love as in Shameless. It’s addictive in many ways, but what I can’t miss mentioning is that a whole slew of characters are played by a single actor. Some of these characters then play each other within the show, so that the completely masterful superstar Tatiana Maslany not only plays Sarah and Allison (and others) but also Allison pretending to be Sarah, etc. It’s the big bad world against our heroine, iconoclastic rebel Sarah Manning; episodes and seasons keep twisting and riffing on that basic plot structure in a way that might be tiresome, if there weren’t so much imagination in the twists and riffs, and humor and love (and completely genius secondary characters like Sarah’s sidekick Felix). I was bereft when I finished the final season.

Liz tells me there’s plenty more great television for me to catch up on. What a world. I wouldn’t say Noel Fisher’s body of work makes up for what’s going on out there in the real world, but it’s pretty thrilling to continue to discover works of creativity that change the way I think and feel. Thank goodness. Keep ’em coming.

podcast: the “Seeing White” series from Scene on Radio

“Seeing White” is a 2017 series on the podcast Scene on Radio, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (in a very podcast-rich part of the country, it seems to me). Host John Biewen (a white guy) is upset by racial injustice in the United States, and curious about the invisible forces that go beyond simple, mean, interpersonal racism and account for the systemic, institutional forms that do still more damage and are less easily identified. Noting that our discussions about race tend to manifest as discussions of people or communities of color, he wants to “turn the lens” back on whiteness. What the heck is that?

My father recommended this podcast series to me, pretty forcefully, and my first reaction was to say, 2017? His recommendation came in the height of this summer, the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a new energy behind BLM protests, and it felt a little weird to look back three years for an angle on these events. Three years is kind of a short time, but also rather a long time, in the evolution of our (national-level) thinking on race. Well, I was wrong about the timeliness concern. While the most recent event markers have changed – Charlottesville being the landmark event when this podcast was released – the conversations we need have not. I’m adding my voice to my dad’s: this podcast presents ideas, facts, and history to help along that conversation, one that I found thought-provoking and useful, and that I absolutely still think is useful – nay, imperative – in 2020.

John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika

Biewen examines whiteness via conversations with experts and scholars, including historians, researchers, and educators. On each episode (save one, I think), he then consults and reviews his new content with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor of critical cultural media studies, cultural industries, “and things like that” at Clemson University and then Rutgers. Kumanyika (a Black man) serves as a sounding board and a gut-check for Biewen, there to offer both a personal and an expert perspective and make sure Biewen doesn’t head off in any funky directions; he’s the Black friend, which is a concept that should give us some pause. (I hope he got paid for his role here.) But the two are friends in the real world, and Kumanyika signs on for this project eyes-open. The two do share a joke about his role: “You’re not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you?” “Yes! of course!” “Well good. Because that’s what I do…”

Big, complicated topics here; writing this review/response is intimidating, but here’s my best effort.

I thank my parents and my upbringing for the fact that I’m not new to concerns about race and racism. But it’s clear to me, too, that nobody (and most particularly no white person) can sit back contented, thinking that she’s got it all worked out. To be a good anti-racist means being constantly ready to keep learning and finding out where I’ve been wrong. One of the greatest offerings of “Seeing White,” for me, was its help in wrestling with a certain concept. 1) I see and understand that race is a social construct in our society, rather than a biological fact; that makes sense to me. 2) And yet race is also a reality in our society and culture: it affects people’s experiences in education, law enforcement, finance, real estate, health care, and so much more; we have a (wildly imperfect) system of identifying people by race just by looking at them. So 3) How can race be both made up and a reality at the same time? …I don’t think I would have articulated this philosophical puzzle before listening to the podcast, but it’s definitely been a puzzle for me for some time. After listening, I feel like I have a better handle on it. Race is indeed both a reality within our culture, and something we made up. We’ve manifested it. Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute, episode 2:

We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are 99.9% genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races.

However, after more than 400 years of entrenched racism, discrimination, and enforced segregation on this continent, we have built in differences that weren’t there. Health disparities are not a result of racial difference, but a result of different treatment over lifetimes and generations.

From episode 8, Dorothy Roberts, professor of law, Africana Studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and leading scholar on racial science:

The sickle cell example is the resort of people who know that there’s a mountain of evidence showing that race is an invented category, and so they grasp at sickle cell all the time… Peoples who live in areas where there’s malaria have developed this mutation, or have a higher prevalence of this mutation, because it protects against malaria. But it’s not confined to Africa, it’s not present in all of Africa, and so it simply is not a ‘Black’ disease. It just says nothing about race whatsoever. It’s linked to groups that developed in areas where there’s a lot of malaria, that’s all.

This was a lightbulb moment for me: sickle cell has nothing to do with race! It’s about where the mosquitoes are!

So yes, 1) race is a social construct and simultaneously 2) race is a reality in our culture because 3) we have made it one, over centuries of social construction. Which means that 4) we have to consciously, purposefully, effortfully, and over years, decades, possibly more centuries, deconstruct it. Race and racism will not go away because we wish them to, and they certainly won’t go away because we turn our gazes in another direction and claim to not see color. We made this, and it’s now on us to unmake it, at personal and collective cost.

There is much to be gained and learned here, no matter how openminded you think you are.

I think perhaps the best single episode to catch might be the penultimate, episode 13: “White Affirmative Action.” This episode spells out in hard facts and figures and a thorough study of history how white people have gotten ahead, methodically, throughout American history, how we’ve been given advantages at the expense of other groups. It offers some good answers to those who would say “How could I owe reparations? I was born in 19–. My people didn’t even own slaves. My people only came over in (whatever year).” Etc. Answer: if you’ve been white in this country for more than a few minutes, you’ve benefitted from institutional racism, period. Even if you’re well meaning. Even if you didn’t want to. Even if you’re not, personally, racist. Even if you grew up poor! (I’ve linked to it before, but still good: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.”) To become better versed in explaining this concept, I highly recommend episode 13. (For the record, I am absolutely in favor of paying reparations to Black Americans.)

I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s available in these 14 podcast episodes, of course. I am not particularly qualified to teach this content to you, but what I can do is offer my review: this is deep and rich and complicated content, excellently explained and articulated and discussed, in fairly manageable chunks. Spend some time with it. Improve yourself and try and improve the world.

Good tip, Pops. Thanks.


Rating: 9 questions to sit with.

*ten years later*

Ten years ago yesterday, I published my first post here.

Early in 2019, when I was on the road full-time in my van, I got a phone call from an old friend and we did some catching up. He was interested in the van travels, and said, “you know, if it were ten years ago, you’d have a blog to report on this whole trip.” Well, I’d missed the memo that blogs were no longer hip, and indeed did have a van-travel blog, as well as an alive-and-well book blog (that’s where you are now, for reference). Nobody had told me it wasn’t cool anymore. And yet here we still are, Brad.

This blog has brought me good things. I used a few of the reviews I’d written here to apply for my job at Shelf Awareness, which has been nothing short of life-changing. (I’ve written reviews for pay for a few other publications, as well, but the Shelf is my longest-standing employer, and I hold dear the relationships I’ve made there.) I’ve been privileged to interview famous authors and authors I greatly admire (frequently these are the same people), and I’ve been offered more review copies than I have time to accept. I’ve felt a part of something larger than myself, and my reading has taken turns I’m not at all sure it would have otherwise. I’ve kept track of every book I’ve read for ten years now, which is itself a feat.

I’ve also lived a life in these ten years. I’d been married a few years when the blog was born, and am now divorced. I was a newly minted librarian, and would later take different jobs in the library system, then move cross-country (away from my hometown for the first time) and leave the profession. I moved back to Texas, then took that van trip and earned a second master’s degree and started a new career, and a new life here in West Virginia.

My friend Liz said recently, “change never doesn’t come,” and I’ve been thinking about that. In another conversation with Liz, we talked about how difficult it is to judge something like, say, a book at two different readings. There are too many uncontrolled variables in the experiment that is life. The world changes (The Stand doesn’t hit the same in 2020 as it did in 2010); we change as people. I have been many versions of myself in the last ten years. Certainly, these are the best-documented years of my life, thanks to this blog (and Facebook), for better and for worse.

I’ve published 2,282 blog posts and reviewed 1,250 books, 111 movies, 59 plays, and a smattering of readings, television shows, and performances of various kinds. (I’ve also occasionally told personal stories or waxed on about bicycles, etc., and you’ve been very patient with me.) It’s overwhelming to think about. I am both proud and humbled that anyone reads this blog at all.

Thanks so much for being here. I guess we’ll just keep going and see if blogs survive another ten years. Books and reading, at least, I’m not the least bit concerned about. Cheers, y’all.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.

National Theatre Live at Home presents A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), and other stuff I’ve taken in this week

This week’s release from NT Live is A Streetcar Named Desire, available here til this Thursday, when we’ll get This House. In classic Tennessee Williams style, this play (certainly one of his best-known) is bleak as hell, and frankly it was a little hard to watch, and a little overwrought, possibly even draggy (at three hours long); but I think all of that is as written, and certainly very well produced. Perhaps not to be taken on in the darkest of moods.

This Young Vic production stars Gillian Anderson (yes, of the X-Files) as Blanche, with a hunky Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski; in my opinion he delivered that mix of sexy, smoldering, and threatening that Brando so beautifully performed in the 1951 film (and presumably in the 1947 Broadway original). I think it’s always an accomplishment when an actor (author, whomever) can convince me that someone is simultaneously detestable and desirable. Vanessa Kirby as Stella rounds out a perfect cast.

The other notable detail is in the set: the entire thing rotates slowly, from the time Blanche takes her first giant slug of whiskey. I dug the way NT Live filmed it, to offer us an experience something like what the live audience would have had: sometimes the actors are obscured; they and we are kept a bit off-balance. It emphasizes the fact that Blanche’s world is tilting and insecure, and she’s not always sure where she stands.

That Blanche is a decidedly unlikeable character. More than I remember. It’s been years since I saw the film, but I feel like Brando’s Stanley was less sympathetic than Foster’s. Blanche grates; but the fact that she grates on Stanley is a big part of the story, isn’t it, so it only makes us more involved if we feel that way, too. It’s agonizing. I took a break partway through, because I was frustrated with Blanche and, to be honest, the play felt a bit long. (Live audiences got an intermission, so it’s fair.) It’s a hell of a professionally produced, totally convincing spectacle, and I admire Tennessee Williams so much, but he doesn’t exactly go easy on his audience. I do recommend this production.


Rating: 7 foxes.

In other news, I’ve become addicted to a show called Shameless, which is silly and quite compelling. (I’m watching the American version, but I’ll hit the British one, too.) This week there was no Patterson Hood concert but there was a Mike Cooley one – I missed his first and was so sorry when I heard he’d done “Daddy’s Cup,” a song I feel strongly about. Oh, man, it was an excellent set on Friday night. Cooley at his best is all beauty and soul and songwriting talent, and sass. These versions of “English Oceans” and “Love Like This” were better than the recorded ones, in my opinion, and I loved his finishing with “Space City.” There is an intimacy to these home concerts – music delivered from the artist’s home to my own, where I seem to sit just a few feet away from him. It makes me feel close to people I’ve felt close to for years, in different ways.

Cooley crooning

This past week, Jason Isbell’s new album Reunions dropped (you can buy it here), and he is one of the bright stars in the sky I see. It’s another good one, with no duds and several real gems. On my first few listens, the tracks that especially speak to me are “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Be Afraid.” But they’re all special. A friend asked me the other day what Isbell album she should start with, and boy, that was a hard question. There are now seven studio albums plus his work with the Truckers, and there’s not a one that I’d want my friend to pass up. I ended up recommending “Here We Rest,” because it has several of the songs on it that are most important to me. But it hurt me to choose just one. So, another Isbell album is more to love… I’m still building in my mind the Isbell-related project I need to work on.

That’s it for this past week, folks. Thank goodness for the arts.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.


Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Barber Shop Chronicles (2018), and weekly internet round-up

This week’s release by National Theatre Live at Home was the London Roundhouse 2018 production of Barber Shop Chronicles, viewable here until this Thursday when they’ll give us A Streetcar Named Desire, which I am definitely looking forward to.

I went into this play (by Inua Ellams) knowing nothing, and it was delightful. It took some time to grow on me, though. Initially it felt like a series of distinct vignettes from this barbershop and then this one and then this one, which was a little hard to get into. But over time I saw the connections form, and it got increasingly satisfying. Also, there are a number of accents and dialects and pidgin forms of English – I definitely recommend subtitles. This probably made it a little more difficult at first, too, but it ended up added to the richness of the final product. There is definitely musicality and character in the sounds of speech. I counsel patience – it will be rewarded.

In six barber shops in six cities – Lagos, London, Accra, Haware, Johannesburg, and Kampala – men grouse and argue and joke and talk shit, and get a little hair cut. Five African cities, then, and the London shop is rooted in African culture as well; this is an all-Black, all-male cast, with several actors playing multiple roles. It’s very much about the African diaspora in some ways. (There is one Jamaican character, who is careful to distinguish himself from “you crazy Africans.”) The play runs the course of just one day, beginning at 6 a.m. when the Lagos barber is awakened by a man begging for a special early morning job, and finishing at 9 p.m. in London when a barber agrees to stay late for a customer with a similar request. Conversations range widely but coalesce around themes of family, especially relationships between fathers and sons; government and nations, with some hint that Mandela and Mugabe were symbolic fathers (for better or for worse) to their countries; and with a hint of football (no, the global kind – soccer) running through, as Chelsea plays Barcelona on the day in question. The football thread isn’t overdone, but it’s a nice note of continuity. I won’t say too much about it, but again, look for connections to tie it all together and make meaning (sum greater than its parts).

Between scenes, there is popular music and some dance as the men rearrange barber chairs to indicate a new set. It’s a vibrant, lively play throughout, full of life, whether cruelty or love, gravity or jest. There’s advice to be had on women, sex, parenting, race and racism, the job market, politics, academics, and philosophy. “In dark times, the barbershop is a lighthouse.” It’s truly lovely. By the end, I was beaming, and sorry to see these guys go.

Another fine offering from NT Live; can’t wait for the next one.


Rating: 8 posters.

In other things that have pleased me online this week… I have come across several of these, but here’s the latest: famous works of art recreated in quarantine. Some are astonishing in their faithfulness to the original, some in their creativity; some are delightfully absurd, some are lovely works of art in their own right. (And then there’s the ridiculous comment on Saturn by Rubens that set everybody off, if you’re into hilariously dumb comments). I enjoyed paging through them and will click on such compilations every time.

Likewise the rate my Skype room Twitter account. I was over the moon about this, spent way too much time (be warned) and laughed out loud. I should have been taking notes for if/when I have to do more online teaching in the future (eek). If you have to Skype/Zoom/etc., pay attention.

I attended another Patterson Hood concert (from his attic to my living room) on Wednesday, and I do love this man. The way he slaps his acoustic guitar to add percussion. The way he whoops and hollers – it must be hard to keep that live-show energy playing to the internet in your attic. The way he counsels us on current events and speaks to my heart. It’s like an embrace from an old friend, and those are in short supply these days. He dedicated an emotional performance of “What It Means” to Ahmaud Arbery and made me cry. Next week we’re promised a family-mythology-themed show, and I’ll be there.

Patterson Hood

Weather’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot in the last week; hoping for more of that, for sure. And I am reading like crazy. Stay tuned!

Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

%d bloggers like this: