Sunday, September 30, 2012


Ever wonder if you're stuck in a rut with your ready? Still reading Tom Clancy even after he's dead? Let me tell you about my rut. Here are three novels I read this summer because of reviews or recommendations. Listen to the jacket flap synopses:

1. THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU by Joshua Henken. An American-Jewish family gathers at their traditional summer home to commemorate the death of a son and brother in Iraq a year earlier. But there are simmering problems. Mom and Dad are considering divorce. The youngest sister is now living an ultra-orthodox life in Israel with her husband and three sons, and the rest of the family tiptoes around their disapproval; one daughter has lived with her boy friend for 10 years and doesn't plan to get married: more silent disapproval. The other sister is desperately trying to get pregnant, even though her husband doesn't care much: more disapproval. And everyone feels unwelcome, unloved, misunderstood, you name it. In other words, the perfect dysfunctional novel. Henken writes with assurance, wit, and understanding, so it's very enjoyable. You get to fool yourself once again and sigh, "Thank God I'm not in THAT family."

2. MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan. This one takes place in a single month, June, at a family beach retreat on the coast of Maine. It is now owned by the family matriarch Alice, a devout Catholic who has a secret tragedy in her past. Among the dueling and misunderstood visitors are her granddaughter Maggie who is pregnant and solo, Maggie's mother, the black sheep of the family who returns from California to help her daughter, and Anne-Marie, her up-tight daughter-in-law whose marriage is in crisis. A series of confrontations and recriminations ensues, and again we are relieved this is not our family, but we are happy to be willing voyeurs. Anne-Marie is the most fully developed character, a woman who wants to do everything right but manages to disappoint herself and irritate everyone around her. Yes, we all know someone like her...but not in our family.

3. SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead. I enjoyed all three of my "rut" novels, but this one really proved entertaining. It's set in pure Cheever or Louis Auchinloss territory (a great place for readers to be) with near one percenters desperately trying to rise above their neighbors while decrying their larger homes and exclusive clubs while longing for them. Winn Van Meter, a successful Boston money manager, was educated at Harvard, joined and loved the best clubs, and became the snob his father raised him to be. Now Winn is approaching 60 and headed for his summer "cottage" on a fictional island off New England to give his pregnant older daughter away in marriage. His younger daughter is recovering from a romantic breakup and an abortion. Bridesmaids are taking over the house, and Winn is overwhelmed by the feminine. Add to that his growing lust for the sexiest bridesmaid and his desperate groveling to members of the vaunted Pequod club. All of this is fleshed out with wit, a little touch of pathos, a dead whale and a real understanding of the characters' strengths and flaws. The satirical targets, especially during this politcal season, are ripe for easy peeling, but they retain their humanity because we often identify with them.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Night the Music Died?

On our recent trip to Connecticut, we listened to Don McLean's classic album American Pie, which first appeared in 1971 and quickly topped the American pop charts. The title song of the same name is the longest popular song ever to reach number 1 at 8 minutes and 33 seconds, too long for a single 45 and forcing the listener to flip the disc. You remember 45's, right? Must have been a whole lotta flipping back in '71. The lyrics have been rehashed, interpreted, and driven into the ground since the song came out. Even Madonna recently sang it, not doing it any good at all. "American Pie" remains one of the most unique songs in popular music history, and that includes songs by Gershwin, Porter, and Sondheim. It evokes the glory and sadness of an era saddened by "the day the music died."

Although "American Pie" is one of the seminal and most important songs in pop history, the album itself is also worthy of great praise. Its second brilliant song, also a hit, is "Vincent" or "Starry, Starry Night," an intelligent and heartfelt tribute to Van Gogh. McLean describes the artist's dilemma of creativity and continued lack of success. With vivid images that evoke several of Van Gogh's famous canvasses, he subtly compares his own striving for creativity and success. McLean's gently soothing guitar provides a loving background for his highly original lyrics. He...."suffered for his sanity,...and took his life as lovers often do."

The album also features other wonderful originals by McLean including a hilarious rock parody about rock idol fame called "Everybody Loves Me, Baby." All of the songs are McLean originals except the closing the traditional and haunting "By the Waters of Babylon." All in all, McLean's greatest achievements are his probing intelligence, his poetic expertise, and his beautiful melodic expression. Just listen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Two recent films deserve movie lovers' attention and even admiration. The first is The Separation, an Iranian film from 2011 that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, a rare honor for a foreign film. The writing, the acting, and especially the direction are far above most American movies. The plot is fairly simple. An Iranian woman doctor wants to emigrate with her teenaged daughter, and her husband refuses to join her because of his father's poor physical and mental health. The doctor leaves to be with relatives, while the daughter stays with her father who is also her tutor. A series of misunderstandings occur when the father hires a care taker for his father, leading to crisis after crisis. The film explores religious and class warfare in modern Iran, but on a personal, gutsy level. The acting is always natural, whether dramatic or humorous. These are ordinary families, like ours, but in extraordinary circumstances that don't get the typical Hollywood treatment.

Another film about the middle east is much lighter and more hopeful. Salmon Fishing in theYemen is a British film about a shiek who wants to build his own salmon stream in Yemen. The Brits, looking for a good news story about the Arabia, supply advisors and through great difficulty start the program. Emily Blunt plays an advisor to the shiek and Ewan McGregor is a fishing expert who is won over by the shiek's kindness and by Blunt.  The great Kristin Scott Thomas is dead-on as the Prime Minister's press secretary, bawdy, brassy, and charming. There are, of course, many complications such as tribal terrorists who don't want western influence and romantic partners who show up at inopportune times. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a warm, witty film with just the right amount of sentiment.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Wisdom of Clint

 There's a fine line that celebrities tread when they enter the political melee. Just ask Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Or perhaps Clint Eastwood. The venerable star of spaghetti westerns, violent Dirty Harry flicks, and chimp comedies eventually became a first-rate director with two
Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. As he aged, he seemed to be the wise sage of Hollywood, but then he spoke at the GOP convention and wisdom, judgment, and good taste flew out the window.

There he was talking to an empty chair which he addressed as Barack Obana. In a rambling, distasteful, and disrespectful diatribe, Eastwood figuratively told the President to go ¥£€%# himself.
 He also lit into Vice-President Joe Biden, calling the experienced legislator a "joke."  It's one thing for comics, cartoonists and professional muckrakers to rant against their foes. But it is quite another for a special guest at a national convention to do so and to so in a non- sensical, boorish manner. Dirty Harry has really blown 'em away this time. And he doesn't have the last laugh.