Books, Criticism

Review: Donna Leon’s ‘Falling in Love’

No Comments 12 June 2015

Falling in Love: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries)Falling in Love: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To read Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries is to fall in love with Venice, a city to which we will never have access because we are only tourists distracted by the gondolas and the rich polenta and the beautiful men. Brunetti is a native married to an aristocrat. He is a thinking man’s detective who rarely carries a gun and uses his brains to solve cases. But the reader suspects it is his wife Paola, a Henry James scholar, who has the bigger IQ. This mystery is heady — about a bisexual opera singer and her violent stalker — and a little anticlimactic as mysteries go. By the time we know who the aggressor is, the story’s interest begins to wane. The on-stage climax after a penultimate performance of “Tosca” is, well, anticlimactic. But to walk the bridges in Brunetti’s shoes, to stop in the cafes and restaurants, and get inside his head as he contemplates his wife and children is as delicious as risotto. He is a man who loves women, written by a woman of empathy and intelligence (the exquisite Donna Leon). One of the things I love the most about her books is the sense of Venetian justice — or lack thereof. While this particular novel ends with a sense of completion, Leon is unafraid to portray a society where justice can be bought, and where the do-right man has to be an expert in bureaucratic subterfuge in order to achieve a sense of balance between right and wrong.



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Criticism, Movies

Review: ‘Testament of Youth’ Showcases Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington

No Comments 05 June 2015

Joy before the war

Joy before the war

Alicia Vikander has been on the verge of breaking out big (Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair, the summer’s sleeper hit Ex Machina, second fiddle to Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina) since I met her three years ago at the Hamptons International Film Festival as one of ten stars to watch. Now, here she is: a starlet in demand. The Swedish ballerina turned actress will be the female lead in Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, allegedly, the next Bourne installment. But, right before she has her big budget breakout, the lithe and serious Vikander stars in this gossamer-and-gritty WW1 period drama, Testament of Youth.

Vikander (in a role originally intended for Saoirse Ronan) is glorious as Vera Brittain (1893-1970), the Yorkshire woman who wrote the titular memoir. A middle-class self-tutored scholar, Brittain gets her dream of attending Oxford only to be sideswiped by WW1. That external conflict costs her nearly everything she holds dear, including her fiancé, her younger brother and her sense of certainty in an orderly nation

Also enriching the movie is that Vikander’s Brittain strolls in peachy pressed linen beside two stunning young actors on parallel paths to stardom. Kit Harington (John Snow of Game of Thrones at his peak in that plotline) plays Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton. Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) charms as Vera’s devoted younger brother Edward. It goes on and on, cast-wise, with Emily Watson and Dominic West as Vera’s parents, and Anna Chancellor as Leighton’s accomplished mother.

From the very beginning, with a disturbing flash-forward on Armistice Day when an emotionally shattered Brittain recoils from her fellow citizens’ spontaneous celebration of the war’s end, we know that her journey will not end well. But Director James Kent, making his feature debut following years directing documentaries and British TV (he even notched a Poirot), flashes back to a bucolic pre-war Yorkshire with that gilded BBC sheen, to which public television viewers have become addicted. But, in Kent’s skilled hands, that early twentieth-century shire is a beautiful egg rolling on a precipice – the drama is watching the status quo cracked and flattened.

Testament of Youth has classic scope with a wink at David Lean, and a very modern character presentation. Just when you become in thrall with the glory of the costumes – that top-stitching, that paisley shawl – and the gorgeous knickknacks neatly stowed in niches beneath gilded peacock color wall paper, everything changes.

The jolly young men, as energetic as Labrador retrievers, idealistic in their view of war and the country they love and defend, step off war’s curb into Dante’s hell. They cross the channel and discover that all the manners they have been taught, the poetry memorized, the rugby matches, is useless in a bloody, muddy bunker a grenade’s throw from the enemy. (Few have treated The Great War with more ridiculous horror and matching ridiculous humor as Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie in Black Adder.) This trench warfare was in no way sporting, and young men in full flower lost the match on both sides.

At the war story’s center is Vera Brittan, whose memoir of the same name is well-known across the pond. BBC2 adapted it into a 1979 miniseries. In Director Kent’s hands, from a script by Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) this is tragedy without melodrama. Testament of Youth is the story of one passionately intellectual, headstrong young woman who believed her fight was to get educated as a scholar and not simply trained in the arts of being a good wife.

Brittain’s true awakening was not intellectual but emotional as, only a few years later, she realizes that she has accomplished her dream – she is an Oxford scholar — after a darkly transformative stint as a battlefield nurse in France. And, yet, her fiance, her beloved brother and a generation of England’s finest have not survived to celebrate and share in her success. Brittain has achieved social change in her own life – a change for which we women still struggle – and, yet, in military actions beyond her control, started by an assassination in a distant land, she has also lost much of what she truly loved and underappreciated. It becomes Brittain’s responsibility as a newly educated woman in a society where men are now sparse and often damaged to speak for the fallen and use her talents to bear witness. The result is her iconic, and deeply moving, Testament of Youth.

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Books, Criticism

Book Review: Arnaldur Indriaoson’s very chilly, and chilling, ‘Reykjavik Nights’

No Comments 29 May 2015

Reykjavik NightsReykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s an interesting moment when mystery authors of signature detectives (Ian Rankin and his Rebus, for example) have reached into the darkest, most damaged corners of their hero or heroine’s psyche and face the possibility of retiring them. And, then, there are those like Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther series, who hop back and forth in time, filling in the blanks of the fictional past and digging deeper into their detective to reveal missing bits. (Almost like an old married husband that suddenly tells his wife a story that she has never heard before, although she thought she heard them all. So, along comes, Arnaldur Indrioason going back to the early days of his introverted, deeply moral, haunted Icelandic Detective Erlendur. What was he like on the early days in his job with the police in Reykjavik? As the title indicates, he was on the night shift, stepping in on family disturbances (often the most dangerous for cops — stepping between physically violent spouses that suddenly unite against the police). The young Erlendur is a little stiff, a little untried but shows the stubborn dedication and deep empathy that will define the character and his career. When he encounters the corpse of a homeless alkie face down in a green anorak drowned in a puddle, the decision to call it accidental death nags at him. Between detangling car crashes and drunken brawls at night, and occasionally dating a woman with minimal passion on his side, he begins to investigate the death and a few random disappearances as well. Those who know the series (not that you need to have read a single one of Indrioason’s wonderful novels to read this one), know that he is haunted by a disappearance in his past for which he feels profoundly guilty. It is interesting to see Indriason handle the defining tragedy here, gently, in small bites, with a light touch, because the young, green detective will not have faced down this core demon until later in his career/life. “Reykjavik Nights,” like all the writer’s novels, is subtle and patient and compulsively readable. I remember staying in for an entire drizzly summer day in Nantucket glued to “Voices,” about the stabbing of a hotel Santa set in Reykjavik, a victim and a locale that could not have been more opposite from my surroundings. And, yet, I had that delicious, let me just read one more chapter feeling, that led to another and another. I find the author’s prose simple to the point of hypnotic, his detective low-key, and this return to the early Erlendur, inexperienced traffic cop obsessed with the why behind suspicious deaths he’s not even tasked to investigate. This dogged trait, implanted here in a satisfying prequel, will lead to the man’s true vocation: finding the lost and bringing justice, when possible to the guilty that cavalierly end the lives of others and then try to retreat to some semblance of normality, But, as we see through Erlendur’s eyes, and into his heart, even the most apparently normal, functional individual is driven by past events they can often barely articulate.



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Books, Criticism

Book Review: Unforgettable ‘The Forgotten Girls’ by Sara Blaedel

No Comments 28 May 2015

The Forgotten Girls (Louise Rick, #7)The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Among Denmark’s most popular novelists — voted most popular for the third time in 2011 — Sara Blaedel is a twisty plotter who overlays past and present events so that they combine like tree roots to trip up the reader racing through her novel at break-neck speed. This book, “The Forgotten Girls” begins with a terrified woman running barefoot through a remote Danish forest to her death and then gradually reveals the entangled events from the past forty years that landed her as a crumpled pile in the bottom of a ravine. It is the seventh in the Detective Louise Rick series, and this female investigator is also navigating the fall-out from a hard-won independence to pursue her career — and still be a sexual being and a single mother of a teen-aged boy. Rich is a prickly character, suffering past wounds and present challenges, but, like all great detectives, driven to finding that last kernel of an answer no matter how she puts her self, physically and psychically, at risk. What I love is the simple and direct quality of the prose — there is no wasted time for “look at me” here — and the empathy she has for her victims and their villains. The title is key — “The Forgotten Girls — because it refers both to the central mystery and the way in which female mystery writers have come to tell the stories of women, empowered and powerless, in a world of male violence and female collusion. If you like Nordic noir, add Blaedel to your pile of must-read authors.



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Criticism, Movies

Review: ‘I Dream Too Much” direct from SXSW

No Comments 06 April 2015

Eden BrolinLiberal arts graduates will immediately connect with Katie Cokinos’ first feature I Dream Too Much. Too much to go to law school, which is exactly where working class English major Dora (Eden Brolin) is headed if her caring but controlling mother (Christina) has her way. Dora flees her LSAT prep in suburban New Jersey to go to the woods — actually artsy Saugerties in upstate New York — to care for her feisty Great Aunt Vera (Diane Ladd) and confront her own inner impractical poet. A love letter to the beauties of upstate in winter — the cold beauty of a frozen waterfall, wild birds at a feeder, open spaces both physical and emotional — the comic drama produced by Richard Linklater has a lot of heart and integrity as old secrets bubble up to the surface and new alliances form, including a friendship with a local singer (OITNB‘s Danielle Brooks). Ladd (Chinatown) , that sneaky old pro, digs into a hand-crafted part  that honors her gifts with  a lot of screen time and soul. She is the grace note of every scene she inhabits without dominating her co-stars. Brolin makes for a spunky heroine, plain in a Jane Austen way, as her character struggles towards a nugget of truth that will help her escape a future of legal briefs and chisel out what her heart desires. While the movie is short on narrative tension, and the emotional conflicts could be pushed deeper until the wounds bleed a bit more, writer-director Cokinos proves to be an empathetic and apt director who deserves a next film, and a next.

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