Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Music Review: Duduka Da Fonseca - Duduka Da Fonseca Trio Plays Toninho Horta

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

I must confess that before receiving a copy of Brazilian drummer Duduka Da Fonseca's latest album, I was unfamiliar with his previous work and that is my loss.  Not only has he been playing with some of the biggest names in the jazz pantheon—Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Mann, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, among others, not only has he toured with his world renowned countrymen Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, but his 2009 CD Brazilian Trio – Forests was nominated for a Latin Grammy.  A musician with that kind of resume should not fall below the radar. 

More importantly a musician that can come up with a musical treat like his newly released Duduka Da Fonseca Trio Plays Toninho Horta demands attention.  Joining the drummer on this set originally recorded back in 2009 are pianist David Feldman and bassist Guto Wirtti both of whom he had worked with when they played on an album for Brazilian sax player Paulo Levi.  Talking about that session in the liner notes, Fonseca says: "We started the session and I said to myself, 'Wow!! This rhythm session sounds so right!! It feels like a walk on Ipanema Beach."  Back in New York, he goes on, he thought it would be a good idea to do a trio project with them, and he was absolutely right.  Feldman is a dynamic young pianist with a lyrical sensitivity and Wirtti handles the bass with finesse. 

Fonseca's next big idea, as he continues to explain it, was to devote their record to the music of Brazilian singer/songwriter/guitarist, Toninho Horta.  While Horta may not have the same kind of worldwide recognition accorded to the likes of Jobim, Fonseca says that he "touches my heart with his amazing music."  Indeed, you can hear it in their playing.  Horta's music and Fonseca's trio seem a perfect fit.  Horta, himself, writes that they transformed his songs "into true instrumental pearls," and adds "the conceptual innovations of groove, melodic interpretation and form left me truly enchanted." 

Listen to "Aqui,Oh!,"  the first  of nine tracks on the album and then listen to Horta's own version on  Myspace and you'll get some idea of the kind of transformation he's talking about.  They play down the dance rhythm and turn it into a vehicle for some inventive solo improvisation by Feldman.  Indeed, Feldman's sensitive phrasing is front and center on nearly all of the tracks. More often than not Fonseca himself is content to remain in the background. The only lengthy drum solo is on the last song on the album, "Retrato Do Gato," an up-tempo swinger that also features some nice interaction between drummer and pianist.  Wirtti gets a chance to highlight the bass in the intense, atmospheric ballad "Moonstone."  He also gets in some licks on the upbeat "Francisca."  "De Ton Pra Tom" has the sound of something out of the great American songbook while "Luisa" takes you right back to its Brazilian roots. 

If you like your jazz on the mellow side with a Latin vibe, this is an album you want to listen to.  Horta's music and the Fonseca's trio: this is a marriage made if not in heaven at least on a heavenly beach.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Music Review: Liz Childs - Take Flight

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

The thing that intrigued me the most about jazz vocalist/pianist Liz Childs' second album Take Flight was that among the seventeen jazz standards and tunes from the great American songbook , the kinds of songs you would normally expect from a jazz singer, she had included two pieces from Leonard Cohen and one from Bob Dylan.  Having just reviewed a CD from Monika Borzym, another promising young jazz vocalist, that featured an unlikely repertoire of music from the likes of Fiona Apple and Amy Winehouse, I was interested in seeing what Childs was doing with this material. 

There is nothing wrong with songs that are tried and true, but there is something important to be gained both for the artist and the genre when they broaden their horizons.  Jazz, after all, is in a real sense about breaking away from the same old same old.  It is about taking a piece of music and making it your own.   Childs takes us on a biting ride through Cohen's iconic "Hallelujah." At times her voice fairly reeks with bitterness and scorn, at least until the very end.   "Famous Blue Raincoat" is  a wistful haunting gem.  Childs invests both lyrics with an emotional truth that is nothing short of mesmerizing.  Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" gets a swinging old style treatment with some nice guitar solo work from Ed MacEachen.  Truth to tell, I wouldn't have minded a few more of these kinds of songs.

Not that there's anything wrong her work on the standards, she has a voice that rings with bell like clarity, that can move from intense passion to playful girlishness with equal appeal.  She takes a lyric and plumbs its depth weaving sweet scat arabesques around its melodies.  Two good examples are the songs which open and close the album.  Jimmy van Heusen's "It Could Happen to You" and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," the Cole Porter classic, both highlight her scatting talents.  Her vocal play on "fire" and "desire" in the Porter tune is a kick.  There's a nice little obligatory bossa nova in Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Dindi."  There is even a nod to the blues with Bobby Troupe's "Baby All the Time." Among the other standards on the album are Porter's "Just One of Those Things," Lorenz Hart's "Lover," and Toots Thielemans' "Bluesette," each getting a fine reading.

The album takes its title from an original piece by guitarist MacEachen, who also is responsible for arranging ten of the songs on the CD.  "Take Flight" offers some nice opportunities for interaction between the singer's scatting and the composer's guitar. 

Childs is backed by MacEachen, Dan Fabricatore on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums.  She, herself, has decided to escape from the piano for this album.  "I wanted," she says, "to experience the freedom to explore singing without being constricted by sitting at the piano, and to be able to more completely respond to the band as a vocalist only.  So, that's what this CD is the start of."  If this is any indication of what she can do standing at the front of the band, one can only hope to hear more from her in the future.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Music Review: "Les Contes d'Hoffman" - Metropolitan Opera

This article was first published at Blogcritic.

The first I ever heard of Jaques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman was back in a music appreciation lesson in grade school.  The teacher would play melodies from a variety of classical compositions and we would be given a lyric to sing along as a kind of mnemonic device to help us remember the melody.  Here is the lyric from the Offenbach opera.  It is still embedded in my memory: "Barcarole from Tales of Hoffman written by Offenbach."  While some might wonder how this kind of thing could lead to anything like appreciation, somehow it did.  Indeed one of the first recordings of classical music in my budding record collection some years later was an album of highlights from Hoffman, an album that has long since disappeared, to be replaced by a full cast recording led by Placido Domingo which has also disappeared.

Now along comes a remastering of a monaural recording of a December, 1955 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of the opera conducted by Pierre Monteux and starring the magnificent Richard Tucker as Hoffman, a trio of all star sopranos--Roberta Peters, Rise Stevens and  Lucine Amara—as his three loves, and Martial Singher as his various nemeses.  And while I am not sure that Offenbach's opera gets the same kind of respect accorded to some other composers, I am sure that Les Contes d'Hoffman is not only filled with romance, drama and humor, but with some brilliant music as well.   More importantly, this is a recording that does it full justice.

The opera begins with a prologue in which the poet, Hoffman, meets his rival for the love of the prima donna, Stella and is coaxed into telling the stories of the three great loves of his life.  The first act deals with his love for Olympia, a mechanical doll, who he is tricked into thinking is a real woman.  The second act in this production takes place in Venice and tells of his love for the duplicitous courtesan Giulietta who has been bribed to steal his shadow.  Act III is the story of Antonia who suffers from an inherited weakness that may kill her if she sings.  In the opera's epilogue, Hoffman resolves to give up Stella an devote himself to his muse.  The stories are all adapted from the actual stories of the fantasist, E.T. A. Hoffman.

The highlight of the prologue is Tucker's aria in which he tells the story of the dwarf, Kleinzach, as is his beautiful  "Allons! Courage et confiance—Ah! Vivre deux" in the first act. Roberta  Peter's first act rendition of the famous "Les Oiseaux dans la charmille" in which the mechanical doll keeps running down and has to be rewound is appropriately doll-like.  The second act opens with the first of appearance of the "Barcarole" theme sung by Rise Stevens and Mildred Miller as Hoffman's muse.  Echoes of the theme are repeated in the wonderful sestet that closes the act, and it reappears as an orchestral interlude at the between the third act and the epilogue.  Singher's aria, "Scintille diamante" and the dramatic duet between Stevens and Tucker are the highlights of the second act.  Act III has a number of wonderful moments including  Lucine Amara's opening aria, "Elle a fui, la tourterelle!" and the stirring trio with the mother's voice (Sandra Warfield), Antonia and the evil Dr. Miracle (Singher).  Then, of course, there is the dynamic finale that ends the epilogue. 

Les Contes d'Hoffman is probably one of the most accessible of operas and in the hands of this wonderful cast it shines like a jewel.  Altogether it is a production to be savored. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Music DVD Review: Les Paul - Live In New York

This article was first published at Blogcritics.
For those of us old enough to have been around when Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were making hits like the legendary "How High the Moon," it is wonderful to see that a 90 year old guitarist with arthritic fingers and a mischievous personality can still have audiences standing on line to hear him play.  And deservedly so, Les Paul may not be the player he once was, but he can still get you tapping your toes and bring a smile to your face.  Les Paul is a showman.  Nowhere is that clearer than in Live in New York, a DVD recorded from live Monday evening shows at the Iridium Jazz Club in honor of his 90th birthday. 

These are intimate performances, up close and personal, in which Paul and his trio pianist, John Colianni and either Nicki Parrott or Jay Leonhart on bass, assisted by Lou Pallo, rhythm guitarist are often joined by some pretty fine musicians from the audience.  There's a little of the patented Paul banter, a lot of fine music and a bunch of laudatory interviews.  Les Paul was not only a ground breaking instrumentalist, his pioneering development of the electric guitar and multi-track recording in a real sense created the music industry as we know it.  He was a force to be reckoned with.  If as Paul quips during the set, there are millions of people who think Les Paul is a guitar, this DVD will do a lot to remedy the situation.  Listening to the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Steve Miller, and Bucky Pizzaarelli talk about his playing and his influence makes it clear just how important that force was.  

The DVD manages to capture some really special musical moments.  Steve Miller, who explains that he has known Paul and Mary Ford since he was a boy of five, sings a heartfelt version of the Nat 'King' Cole hit, "Nature Boy."  Jazz singer Sonya Hensley does a swinging take on "Route 66," and Jose Feliciano chimes in with a passionate "Unchain My Heart."  Keith Richards shows up in an earlier clip, plays a little guitar and sings something called "Pork Chop Blues."  There is some sweet guitar give and take with Tommy Emmanuel on "Blue Moon," and some fancy mandolin picking from Dave Grisman on the Django Rheinhardt classic, "LImehouse Blues."  Bassist Nicki Parrott chimes in with a sexy bluesy "Happy Birthday, Lester" and there is even a tap dancing Andrew Nemr keeping time to Paul's playful "Cherokee."  It is a concert of straight up jazz and blues played with style and joy.

Add to this, besides longer interviews from some of the guest performers and friends, bonus material that includes nine audio tracks for download as well as video of some of the old Les Paul and Mary Ford TV gigs.  There is a sample of the little shows they did for Listerine that has them doing one of their biggest hits, "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise."  Paul also does a solo on "Dark Town Strutters' Ball" which is just a small indication of what he could do back in the day.  There is also film of the couple's appearance on the highbrow Sunday afternoon cultural icon, Omnibus which has Paul taking a comic turn explaining multi-tracking to host Alistair Cooke before he and Mary play "How High the Moon."  A "Soundie" of Paul and his trio playing "Dark Eyes" shows just how quick fingered Paul could be when he was young, although the picture quality leaves something to be desired. 

To understand just how significant an innovator Les Paul was you just have to look at Bonnie Raitt's face as she listens to some the old records during her interview.  One look says it all. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Music Review: Carmen, Metropolitan Opera 1952

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

If Georges Bizet's Carmen is not the most popular opera in the standard repertoire, it certainly is one of the two or three in contention.  Deservedly so, it has a tempestuous love story in an exotic setting, gorgeous melodies and as magnificent a starring role as any diva lover could hope for.  Although the composer's last opera, he died a couple of months after its premiere, was something of a critical failure when it opened, its popularity has only grown ever since.  Today a staple in opera houses all over the world, there are recordings aplenty available: no mezzo soprano worth her salt would give up a chance to sing the lead.  From Maria Callas who never performed the role on stage and Leontyne Price in the sixties to contemporaries like Angela Gheorghiu whose voice some feel is wrong for the role, there are Carmen's enough, great ones and some not so great, you would think to fill any record collection.

You would be wrong.  There is never too much of a good thing.  Perhaps the mezzo best known for her Carmen back in the fifties was Rise Stevens.  She sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera 124 times and in 1952 appeared as Carmen on one of the first of the televised Met productions.  There is a 1951  recording of  one of  her performances, but while praised for  her performance, the sound leaves something to be desired, and there are some complaints about tenor Jan Peerce.  The new release of a remastered February 16th 1952 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast under the direction of Fritz Reiner comes then as a welcome addition to the opera's discography. Although there does seem to be a earlier version of this broadcast on Walhall Eternity Series. 

Joining Stevens is a stellar cast directed by Tyrone Guthrie.  Richard Tucker is the spurned lover, Don Jose. Micaela, the sweet peasant yang to Carmen's yin is sung  by Nadine Conner. Carmen's friends at the factory, Frasquita and Mercedes are played by Lucine Amara and  Margaret Roggero.  Zuniga, the head of the guards is Osie Hawkins.  Paolo Silveri is the toreador, Escamillo. 

Conventional wisdom has it that Stevens indeed made the role her own both with her voice and her acting.  Her Carmen is both sexy and cruel, and she carries it off with consummate skill.  Whether in her entrance with the famed "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" or her seduction of Don Jose in Act I's glorious "Prѐs des remparts de Séville" she justifies everything that has been said about her.   It is a compelling performance.  Richard Tucker, a tenor with a rich vibrant voice, makes Stevens a wonderful partner.  His "Flower Song" at the end of the second act is one of the highlights of the opera and his first act duet with Amara is a thing of beauty.  Paolo Silveri, of course, has the crowd rousing "Toréador, en garde!" and he is spot on.  The stirring chorus just before the end of the last act is another high point. There may well better recordings of Carmen, but this is a truly excellent performance and it stands up well still after all these years. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Music Review: Oscar Peterson - Unmistakable

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

However Sony Masterworks and Zenph Sound Innovations managed to do it, and I'll do my best to try to explain it, the release of Unmistakable a collection of what they are calling "re-performances" by deceased jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson has produced some remarkably fine music.  The great Oscar Peterson died in December of 2007 at the age of 82 after a long productive career, so while the album makes use of some of his unreleased recordings made in the '70's and 80's, it is not Peterson who is doing the "re-performing."  What we have here is the result of the application of modern technology to artistic innovation, and if this is any example of what the technology is capable of, there will be a lot more coming.

Those readers only interested in good music played brilliantly and not much concerned with how it was recorded and those who think the whole thing is just too spooky can skip ahead to the next paragraph.  According to the Zenph publicity, the company "uses computer software to transform recorded music back into live performances, replicating what was originally played but with vastly improved sound quality.  They start with video recordings as well as some privately recorded performances.  Then as their website describes it: "We transform musical performance into data and then render it into sound, which can be used in completely new ways. Our proprietary platform expresses musical performance as malleable data. Rendered from this data, audio content is liberated from “frozen” recordings—creating immersive and interactive capabilities comparable to those of highresolution computer graphics."  I leave it to you to decipher what that may mean.

What you see if you are in the room with the piano is the various keys moving as if being struck by invisible fingers.  What you hear is some very fine music. The piano is programmed to play the particular piece just as it was played by the original performer. .  Zenph has already used this technology to create re-performances by Rachmaninoff, Glenn Gould and jazz legend Art Tatum.  Of course, exactly how this is accomplished is still Zenph's little proprietary secret Had the technology existed back in the day, we could have re-performances of Mozart, Beethoven or Franz Liszt.

At any rate, while Peterson was still alive back in 2007 representatives of the company met with him to show him how their system worked.  At the time they used the recorded re-performances of Peterson's idol, Art Tatum,  to let him hear what their process sounded like, and "hearing his hero playing live again after all the ensuing years brought Peterson to tears."  It impressed him enough that he spent the afternoon working with the team from the company and listening to some re-performances of his own playing.

After Peterson's death his wife helped with the selection of songs for this album. Of all the material made available to the team, they selected performances from two different concerts:  a mid '70's  concert at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY and a 1980's concert from Munich.  They also used a performance from the CBC TV series Oscar Peterson and Friends.  The actual recording contains 16 re-performances, eight in stereo and the same eight repeated in binaural stereo for earphones.  It is  as beautiful a recording of solo piano jazz as you are likely to hear.

The songs are all classics.  The album begins with "Body and Soul" and a signature speeding romp through "Back Home Again in Indiana."  It ends with the Benny Goodman theme, "Goodbye."  In between there is a Duke Ellington medley that starts with "Take the A Train" and includes "In a Sentimental Mood,"  "C Jam Blues," "Lady of the Lavender Mist" and "Satin Doll" among others.  Gershwin's "The Man I Love," Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse's "Who Can I Turn To," Victor Young's "When I Fall in Love," and Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" round out a very strong album.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

DVD Review: Making War Horse

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Making War Horse is a very conventional documentary about a very unconventional play.  Written, filmed and directed by David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky, the documentary tells the story of the multiple award winning National Theatre production from its inception to its critically acclaimed premiere.  War Horse is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel dealing with the military's use of horses in WWI.  And although it was the winner of the 2011 Tony Award for best play, it is considered by many less significant as a dramatic piece than as a theatrical spectacle.  Indeed, in an interview on CUNY's Theater Talk, Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre's artistic director, confessed some surprise that the play had received the award.  It wasn't that he wasn't happy to have won; it was simply that he seemed to agree that it was the play's spectacular staging that made it exceptional. 

It is that exceptional staging that is the central concern of Making War Horse.  The decision to use life size puppets to get not only the horses but other animals as well on stage was no doubt the crucial element in the show's success. Co-director of the production, Tom Morris, had seen the work of a South African puppet company, Handspring Puppet Company, and was looking for a vehicle in which he could utilize their puppets.  Morpurgo's novel was suggested by his mother.  It turns out mothers always know best.  If the spectacular use of puppetry is the best part of the production, the film of the puppeteers working to capture the horses' movements, three puppeteers to each horse, is the best part of the documentary.  Just as the audiences in the theater can manage to ignore the visible puppeteers as they create the illusion of galloping horses on the stage, so too can the viewer of the documentary.  Even on film the effect is breathtaking. 

All well and good, but how do you adapt a story where the main character is a horse and everything comes from that horse's point of view to the stage?  Morpurgo, himself, confesses to his own skepticism when he found out about the project.  Hytner says: "There was no question ever of the horse speaking. So, that was a challenge . . .the necessity of finding a story which put the horse at its center but which denied the horse a speaking voice."  It was left to writer Nick Stafford to turn the horse's first person account into a third person narrative.  Morpurgo explains that he used the horse's point of view because an animal would experience the horrors of war without taking sides.  Stafford also had to find a way to make this idea that war is not really good for anyone clear as well.

While the actual documentary runs a little under 50 minutes, the DVD does include over 70 minutes of bonus material.  There is a lengthy interview with Morpurgo that covers among other things his thoughts about war, his writing methods, his feelings about adaptations and his limited role in the production.  A short feature on the process of getting the play on the stage includes extensions of interviews with co-directors Morris and Marianne Elliott and writer, Stafford.  Some of the material is a repetition of what had been included in the actual documentary.  There is also a short feature on the Handspring Puppet Company which includes some interesting material on how the puppets were made, how they are maintained, and how they are operated.

A section called "Video Diaries" consists of some candid film taken by Tom Olié, one of the puppeteers.  It begins with the first day of rehearsal when the cast and crew gather to introduce themselves and ends with the final curtain call before the production moves from the National to the New London.  Together with a short behind the scenes feature which silently roams around backstage they give some interesting insight into what is happening on the other side of the curtain. Finally there is a video of the puppeteers visiting an actual military horse troop to get a realistic sense of the animal's movement, a War Horse trailer and an image gallery. 

A film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg is due in theaters in December.  The cast includes David Thewlis, Jeremy Irvine, Bernard Cumberbatch and Emily Watson—no puppets.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Music Review: Harry Belafonte - Sing Your Song

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The first Harry Belafonte albums I ever bought must have been back in the late fifties.  There were two of them­­--Belafonte and Calypso.  At the time I was into The Weavers and Leadbelly and Harry Belafonte was another voice in the folk singing army that was beginning to make itself heard around the country.  I remember tucking the LP's in next to a well worn copy of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.  The first time I ever saw him perform was on the stage of a Brooklyn night club called the Town and Country.  I remember thinking at the time that this was kind of a strange venue for a folk singer.  Later the Town and Country became the home base for a troop of female impersonators called the Jewel Box Revue, definitely not the place for a folk singer. 

I bring this up because it seems to me that back then at the time he was making a big name for himself, there was a sense among some of us in our ignorance that there folk singers that were activists like Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, and Belafonte wasn't one of them.  There was a sense that there were folk singers who were authentic like Leadbelly, and the sweet voiced Belafonte wasn't one of them either.  Next thing you know he's in Hollywood making movies and he's a movie star, again not quite what we had come to expect from the typical folk singer.

Of course, it turns out that one thing that never seems to have concerned Harry Belafonte was playing to other people's expectations.  So when he turns up marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and we discover that he's been a civil rights activist all along, those of us who really knew little more about him than "Matilda" were kind of shocked.  The extent of what many of us didn't know, or maybe didn't want to know, is made abundantly clear in the HBO documentary, Sing Your Song aired earlier this October.  Not only was the man a fighter for civil rights in this country, but he was a humanitarian involved in the struggle for social justice around the world. 

In conjunction with the documentary and the release of an autobiographical memoir, My Song, Sony Masterworks has released Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song: The Music, a compilation of some of his most prized recordings which serves as a kind of musical companion to the film and the book.  The album's 16 tracks feature selections from his earliest efforts through to some of his later work.  It includes classic Belafonte like the "Banana Boat Song," "Sylvie," and "Jump Down, Spin Around."  There is the plaintive lullaby like "Scarlet Ribbons" and the raucous "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)."  There are the calypso favorites "Jamaica Farewell," "Mama Look A Boo Boo,"  "Cocoanut Woman," and of course "Matilda."

The set includes "My Angel," a duet with Miriam Makeba sung in Swahili and a comic duet, "A Hole in the Bucket," with Odetta from his 1959 TV special, Tonight With Belafonte.  "Island in the Sun" was written for the film in which the singer starred.  The latest songs included are the title song and "Can't Cross Over" from his 1977 Turn the World Around album. 

For those unfamiliar with the singer's work, this album has a generous selection of his best.  You couldn't ask for a better introduction.  For those of us who have loved him for years, it offers a good opportunity to replace some of those worn down scratched LP's with the sounds of our youth.  Either way this album is a joy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

TV Review: American Masters - Woody Allen: A Documentary

This article was first published at Blogcritics

To look at the short 'shlumpy' septuagenarian hiding under a floppy hat as he makes his way about the Brooklyn streets of his youth, it's hard to think of him as the model of the comic genius.  To listen to his self effacing comments on his life's work, it's hard to imagine him in the role of the dynamo filmmaker who has managed to turn out a film a year for longer than many of us have spent on this earth.  To hear the roster of cinema greats and near greats who come to praise him as a great collaborator, tolerant director and sensitive writer, it's difficult to reconcile their description with the director who makes casting decisions in seconds and fires actors he is unhappy with.  To listen to his quick witted  dead pan quips, the existential angst he claims as a world view seems ludicrous.

This is the paradoxical portrait of Woody Allen that director Robert Weide paints in American Masters—Woody Allen: A Documentary that premieres on PBS in two parts, Sunday, November 20 from 9-11 and Monday, November 21 from 9-10:30.  Weide, an award winning filmmaker, has directed , written and produced  in a variety of combinations documentaries on Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields and Lenny Bruce among others.  Most recently, after his 1999 comedy special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm for HBO, he has served as the director and executive of the spin-off series that has been running for eight seasons.  He is a man who understands comedy and knows how to work with comedians.  Perhaps this is why the notoriously publicity shy Allen was willing to provide him with the kind of access necessary to make this film.  If so, Allen made a wise decision.

Not only is Allen willing to sit down and talk about his childhood, his parents, his various wives, although there is only a mention of his current family, and his career, but he even has nice things to say about Mia Farrow, at least as far as her abilities as an actress are concerned.  As far as other family matters are concerned the film talks about them, but Allen does not. 

He talks about how he began his career as a young high school student writing jokes for news paper columnists and graduated to writing for TV shows and comedians.  He explains how he was turned into a stand-up performer despite his queasiness about getting up on stage.  Weide intersperses clips from some of his early stage and TV appearances; Allen may have been unsure of himself in his own eyes, but one thing for sure he was funny.  Clips from his stints with Dick Cavitt are hilarious; hilarious enough to make you wish he had somehow found the time to keep doing stand-up.  While Weide does mention his playwriting, and there are some clips from Play It Again, Sam, that and his fiction writing get short shrift.  It is his career in film that gets the bulk of the discussion, and how can you blame Weide?  If your choice is between the New Yorker and Penelope Cruz, there really isn't much of a choice. 

He talks about how he got involved with movies and his unhappiness with what the studios did with his first film, What's New Pussycat?, which led to his demand that he be given complete control over his future projects.  The documentary then goes on to examine his development as a filmmaker through his early sketch-like comic turns to his great character driven comedies and his attempts at more serious drama.  It looks at his successes; it looks at his failures.  It interviews people involved in the films, and it gets him to talk about what he was trying to do and about what he thought he actually accomplished.  If the people he worked with—the Diane Keatons and the Scarlet Johanssons, the Sean Penns and the Chris Rocks—are generally effusive, in their comments,  Allen, himself, always gives the impression that he didn't do all that much.  If he has one of those Hollywood egos, he does his best to hide it.

While the film follows fairly conventional documentary tropes—talking heads, family photos, film and video clips, when you have talking heads like the actors from Allen's films and clips from Love and Death and Manhattan  conventional tropes are nothing to sneeze at.  Besides although the spine of the film is generally chronological, Weide is perfectly willing to break into the narrative to make a point or add a current perspective on something that happened in the past.  It is a neatly constructed with an insight, wit and intelligence worthy of its subject.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

TV Review: Top Chef - Season 9

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

When 39 chefs showed up in Texas for the premiere episode of the latest edition of Bravo's culinary reality hit Top Chef, the show's faithful had to know that change was afoot.  In eight previous seasons the show had always started with a number of contestants in the teens.  Once in awhile they'd find a way to eliminate someone immediately, but 39 chefs meant that either we were in for one hell of a long season or something new was going on.  Turns out that season nine was going to begin with a series of cook offs, and only 16 of the chefs were actually going to get to compete on the show.  Fans were going to be treated to a kind of pre-competition competition.

All well and good, the chefs were divided into three groups and rules were announced.  The first group was introduced and given a task.  They cooked, and then presented their dishes to the three judges.  A majority decided if the chef deserved to go further, go home, or cook one more time in a kind of consolation round.  Each group would go through a similar routine.  One of the judges changed for each group.  Chefs were sent home for failing to get their food on the plate; chefs were sent packing for overcooked shrimp.  The very first chef was sent home for butchering his butchering.  They waded through two groups on the first episode, the third and the consolation group on the second to get to the chosen 16.  It seemed little more than an attempt to squeeze two more episodes out of a popular show—no harm, no foul.

Until the end of the second episode that is: perhaps taking a cue from Survivor's "Redemption Island," it turns out that the end for at least two of the chefs isn't the end at all.  They are going to be given a shot at cooking their way back, not quite onto the show, but into a weekly competition with the show's loser.  The winner will keep cooking, possibly all the way into the finals, as long as they keep winning—this in a segment called Last Chance Kitchen!.  Fine, like "Redemption Island," it could add a little spice to a show that might be getting bland as it ages.  As an innovation it doesn't seem unreasonable.

Except for one thing: Last Chance Kitchen!, it turns out is not being broadcast on TV.  No, as the show ends, viewers are teased with the news of the competition and then told to go over to to see what happens.  Bad idea: first of all as some of the chat indicated those of us who rushed to the website had a little trouble finding the segment (a problem that seems remedied as I write).  Secondly the competition—the two chefs made a pizza—was really too short to create any drama.  The whole episode lasted a little more than five minutes.  But most importantly, if Last Chance Kitchen!  never becomes a part of the regular show, someone, like the winner of this first test could actually win Top Chef without ever appearing to TV audience until the end of the season.  It is, after all, as the website announces a secret competition. 

Now while the comments on the website seem to indicate that many of those who took the trouble to go on over, have no problem with the idea—indeed many seem to like it just fine, I think the secret needs to be spilled.  The popularity of this show is based not really on how well the chefs cook.  Let's face it, the TV audience has no idea how well they cook.  We can't taste their dishes.  The popularity of the show is in the attachments we form with individual chefs because of their personalities.  We root for those we like; we root against those we dislike.  In some sense how they cook, while it may be important for Tom and Padma, is irrelevant.  The show's producers seem to understand this.  They managed to give quite a bit of air time to Andrew the Texas chef who it turns out is the last man sent to pack his knives and who turns up as the Last Chance Kitchen! winner for his cheese-less pizza. 

The question is how are they going to keep up the interest in him or in future winners if they keep it secret.  Second chances for losing contestants are a fine idea.  It is working well for Survivor.  They need to find a way to incorporate it into the regular show.  Perhaps have done so and we'll see it working out next week.  If not, it is something that needs to be rethought.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Music Review: Bess Rogers - Out of the Ocean

Originally published at

After launching a successful Kickstarter campaign with a dynamite video to raise the funds for her second full length project, song writing pop/folk/punk rocker Bess Rogers is out with the results.  Out of the Ocean is in a real sense a concept album.   Rogers explains that her inspiration came from Your Inner Fish, a book by paleontologist Neil Shubin, which takes a compelling look at human evolution.  Oliver Sacks describes the book as "an intelligent, exhilarating, and compelling scientific adventure story, one which will change forever how you understand what it means to be human."  Rogers notes that the "book is about our evolution from life as far back as pre-historic fish and microbes and how that has affected our  bodies and our lives now." The book, she says, obsessed her: "I started to look at everything we do in life as a product of evolution, and many of the songs on this record were inspired by that idea."

While it is certainly worthwhile to know about Rogers' inspiration, it does tend to channel response to the album.  This can be a good thing, but it can also create something of a problem.  In my own case, the more I listened to the songs, the more evolution inspired content I discovered.  The more I discovered, the more I looked for. I began to lose sight of the music, and over intellectualize, ending up with a first draft critique of her remark about "many" of the songs being inspired by the idea that went like this:
"Many" may be something of an understatement.  My own sense is that not only every one of the eleven songs on the album has been inspired by her obsession but that even their order on the record reflects an evolutionary theme.  In a sense what Rogers has done is to create a metaphoric analogy between human physical evolution and the evolution of emotional relationships.  As humanity evolved physically, individuals evolve emotionally in a kind of variation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.  Just a few examples: The disc opens with a little introduction of less than a minute called "One Step Free," which gets the speaker out of the depths of the ocean and leads into "Standing Tall" where "a little bit of love" keeps her dry, keeps her alive and fostering evolutionary growth. "Weak Link" deals with a kind of smothering enabling love that weakens its object and prevents it from becoming part of the evolutionary chain.

You get the idea.  This kind of academic gibberish, even if true, which is debatable at best, is little more than pompous posturing.  The song lyrics are available on Bess Roger's website.  Readers are welcome to check them out and decide what they all mean for themselves without third party mediation. Besides when you come right down to it, there are some really fine songs on this album, whether they are related to the evolutionary theme, or whether they're not, they still make for some mighty fine listening. 
"In the Waves" is a kind of other worldly mermaid song that seems to offer an escape from the darkness and pain of the earthly world.  "Math and Science" looks at the physical underpinnings of emotions like love, and happily asserts that whatever the reasons, love is a lot of fun: even if it's "all just math and science/I will offer my compliance."  "I'll Be Gone" rocks with the passion of love gone bad.  The album ends with two acoustic jewels—a softly beautiful "Second Chance" and "Brick by Brick" which begins softly and then builds to an anthemic crescendo.  A pop flavored "Anchor" with a theme that contrasts with the point of "Weak Link" is available for download on the singer's website.

Rogers sings and plays a variety of different instruments on different tracks from ukulele and electric guitar to Moog synthesizer to melodia.  Chris Kuffner, who produced the album and joined in the writing of "Math and Science," also plays a number of different instruments, as does keyboard player Saul Simon-MacWilliams.  Elliot Jacobson and Adam Christgau are on percussion on various tracks.  Other contributors include—Ingrid Michaelson and Allie Moss (vocals), Ian Axel (piano on "Anchor") and Dave Eggar (cello). 

 Whether you want to indulge in fish out of water philosophizing or you prefer listening to some fine songs with tuneful wit, Out of the Ocean is an album that deserves your attention. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: A Dangerous Method, by John Kerr

Don't be mislead by the fact that John Kerr's A Most Dangerous Method now re-titled A Dangerous Method has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley into thinking the book is some sort of romantic novel.  It is not.  Don't be deceived by the cover of the newly released Vintage paperback which plants Knightley firmly between Fassbender and Mortensen into thinking this is the story of some epic love triangle.  It is not.  The book is not fiction.  There is something that might qualify as a love story, but it is less the central concern of the book than it is an interesting sidelight.

That said, what, then, is it?  A Dangerous Method is a serious historical account of one of the most significant relationships in the development of the theory of psychoanalysis, the friendship and eventual animosity between perhaps the two most important figures of the movement, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  It traces that relationship through their letters and their writings, and through the writings of their colleagues and critics.  It shows how they attempted to foster the growth of the discipline, how their ideas developed and how those developed ideas and their outsized personalities gradually pulled them apart.  Their collaboration began in 1907 by 1913 they were hardly on speaking terms.

This is not a new story.  The quarrel between the two great theorists has been explained before, perhaps not in the same kind of detail, but explained nonetheless.  What is new is the emphasis on the role played by Sabina Spielrein, the young Russian woman who first became a patient and mistress of Jung's, then a psychoanalyst herself, and a confidante of Freud's.  Spielrein came to the Swiss clinic where Jung was practicing for treatment of what seems to have been "psychotic hysteria."  In the course of the treatment, she, as it seems many patients do, developed a romantic attachment to her therapist, and Jung didn't manage to maintain his professional cool.  Now while, Kerr demonstrates that that romance and the psychic themes resulting from it played an important role in the formulation of some of Jung's ideas, ideas that were to result in the eventual break with Freud, it is the ideas that are the focus of the book, not the love affair.   The point to be made here is that this is a study of ideas, not a soap opera.

Indeed for those with no familiarity with these ideas the book may be tough sledding.  Kerr is a trained clinical psychologist, and he doesn't hesitate to use the jargon of the trade.  "Phylogenetic inheritance" comes trippingly from his pen along with such other felicitous phrases as "the clinical phenomenology of neuroses," "the psychological structure of introversion," and the "temporary effluxes of sexuality." Certainly there is nothing wrong with this kind of language, but it does not exactly make for an easy read for the general reader.  Add to this a cast of thousands (excuse the hyperbole), a gaggle of psychologists and psychoanalysts from all over the world who are referred to throughout the book, and who are very hard to keep track of if they are little more than names.  It is one thing when you're talking about well known theorists like William James, Ernest Jones and Alfred Adler, it's quite another story when you're talking about Ludwig Binswanger, Eugen Bleuler and Josef Breuer.  It is not that these men are insignificant or unimportant; it is simply that they are not household names and there are so many of them.

To be clear, this is an excellent book, filled with interesting information.  It has excellent analyses and critiques of some of the seminal ideas of some of the most original thinkers of the early part of the twentieth century.  It provides a compelling look at the personality and character of the central figures and shows how their work was affected by it.  It looks at their flaws; it looks at their merits, and it makes considered judgments.  And over its intellectual history it superimposes the narrative of a young woman who became involved with two of the century's giants and may never have quite gotten the recognition she deserved.  It is simply not a book to breeze through on the beach.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Review first published at Blogcritics.

John Le Carré speaking in a 2002 interview included as a bonus feature on the DVD release of the BBC's 1997 production of his Cold War spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy described Arthur Hopcraft's dramatization as perhaps the best realized adaptation of any of his novels.  Too often authors are disappointed with what happens to their work in the hands of others.  The demands of popular cinema and television are rarely the same as those of fiction; changes are inevitable.  Though there are those times when the adaptation is better than the original, the real question for the author at least is how well those changes keep to the spirit of the original, and there is little question that this six part mini-series is just about as close to the original as any author could reasonably expect. 

Of course fidelity to source is no guarantee of dramatic quality.  Sir Alec Guinness and an ensemble cast of fine British actors given a taut script and stylish direction are the guarantee of that.  The story concerns the search for a mole in the upper echelon of the Circus, the secret British spy agency.  The title refers to the children's rhyme which is used as a code for the four major suspects.  Guinness plays George Smiley, forced into retirement after what seems like a major foul up with an agent sent behind the Iron Curtain, and brought back to investigate the agency for the government.   Smiley, the hero of other Le Carré novels, is not the swashbuckling James Bond stereotype.  Old and weary, he is as unlikely a hero for a spy thriller as you're likely to find.  He seems more like a mild mannered civil servant than a secret agent. What he lacks physically, however, he makes up for with brains and dogged determination.  Like Tennyson's "Ulysses," though over the hill, he is still ready "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."  It is a role made for Guinness, and he is masterful.  His performance alone is worth the price of the DVD set.
He is not alone.  From the opening prelude of the first episode, when the four main suspects individually make their entrance into a meeting room, each actor making the kinds of specific choices that go to the heart of their characters, it is clear that this is a cast that knows what it is doing.  The names may be less familiar to American audiences, Ian Richardson, Michael Aldridge, Bernard Hepton, and Terence Rigby, but they are typical examples of the high quality so often characteristic of British acting.  They manage to invest their characters with both a lifelike realism and an indelible individuality, and this is true for the rest of the cast as well.  You can even get a look at a bearded Patrick Stewart as a Russian agent in a scene where he never utters a line of dialogue in the series' fourth episode. 

A contemporary remake of the novel with Gary Oldman as Smiley and including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and John Hurt among others, already a box office hit in England, is scheduled to open in the U.S. in December.  With the great success of the TV mini-series, it has a lot to live up to.  It does get an R rating for some sexuality and nudity, both qualities absent from the '97 production, but there are certainly elements in the novel that might justify their inclusion.  More importantly it seems to have avoided turning Le Carré's novel into a thriller of the Bourne variety.  And although some may complain that  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--1997 and 2011 are both thrillers without thrills, if the new version is as adept in its creation of character as its ancestor, it will go a long way to demonstrating the dramatic value of a more adult take on the espionage genre.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: The 50 Funniest American Writers, edited by Andy Borowitz

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Oddly enough, readers of The 50 Funniest American Writers according to Andy Borowitz will quickly discover that only one of the writings of this superlative group included in the anthology seems to have been published prior to the 20th century. Although eleven of the writers were born in the 19th century, they don't seem to have gotten funny until the after the new century turned.  It would seem that other than Mark Twain who managed to be funny in 1879, Americans were too busy doing other things to be funny.  Still, it may be somewhat curmudgeonly to voice any complaint about Borowitz's selections in the light of the introductory essay in which he points out that it is really impossible to create a "funniest" list that will satisfy everyone, so he really didn't try.  These are simply writings by writers that make him laugh.  Besides, the only reason he even suggested the project was because "best of lists" were sure fire money makers.  In effect don't complain, make your own damn list. 

Clearly criticism of what is not included is off limits, but so it would seem is criticism of what is included.  You can't say that some of the pieces are not all that funny.  First of all Borowitz thinks they're funny, and second of all these are a collection of pieces by the "funniest" writers, not a collection of funny pieces (despite what the unwary reader might expect).  You can't say that some of these writers—Sinclair Lewis, Phillip Roth, Charles Portis--may have written a funny piece or two or even a dozen, but when shove is met by push their claim to fame is not their power to create laughter.  I mean how do you define funniest?  Is it the man who wrote one really funny essay, funnier that the woman who wrote a gaggle of moderately funny essays and a short story that got a few chuckles? 
There is no point in going on without seeming little more than a quibbler without a sense of humor.  Under the circumstance the only reasonable course of action is to describe what does lie between the covers and let you, dear reader, come to your own conclusions.  Borowitz limited his selections to prose: essays, short fiction, excerpts from longer works like memoirs and novels—no poetry, no dramatic works, no stand-up routines.  There is satire, both political and social.  There is parody.  There are witty gems and attempts at witty gems. There is humor intellectual and humor sophomoric. 

Of the 50 selections there are some that stand out (there are some that fall flat but with 50 to chose from, the dreary few are forgivable).  The anthology begins with Mark Twain's confessions of his wicked deeds as a prelude to making a presidential run and ends with Larry Wilmore's advice to some future president about how to apologize to blacks for slavery without really apologizing.  Between the two there is Sinclair Lewis's satiric account of crass middle class culture in a section from his novel Babbitt, the O. Henry story that could have been the model for Home Alone, "The Ransom of Red Chief," and a Ring Lardner description of a conversation between two old acquaintances who have nothing to say to each other.  There is a parody of noir detective fiction by S. J. Perelman and political satire by Molly Ivins.  There's a clever bit about deploying vowels to Bosnia from The Onion and an overly long piece about stereotyping from the National Lampoon.

My own highlights: "Vacation '58" a story by John Hughes (yes, the movie guy) which was to become the basis of the National Lampoon vacation series.  George Carlin has a rant about the misuse of language by broadcasters called "If I Were in Charge of the Networks" that is both funny and informative.   A section from Lenny Bruce's How to Talk Dirty and Influence People destroys any idea that a comic's life on the road is in any way glamorous.  Woody Allen's send up of the Mafia, "A Look at Organized Crime" is a good example of his earlier work and very funny.  Peter de Vries story of one man's attempt to get his wife to play straight man for him at dinner parties had me laughing out loud.  This has to stop: Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, E. B. White, Hunter Thompson, Bernie Mac, David Sedaris—if you can't find something to make you laugh, you have a problem.

In an interview on NPR, Borowitz talked about The 50 Funniest American Writers as a bathroom book.  I don't know about bathroom, but it is probably a book you want to dip into from time to time, read an essay here, a story there.  Reading it all at once tends to get you jaded.  You begin to suffer from the law of diminishing returns, and suddenly things aren't quite that funny.  You may not want to keep the book in your bathroom, but you might well want to keep it handy and read a piece or two to take a break from War and Peace.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Music Review: Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going

This article was first published at

There are at least three good reasons for classic rock lovers to take a hard look at Audio Fidelity's latest release in its 24K+Gold Compact Disc series, Phil Collins' Hello, I Must Be Going.  First of all there is the music.  Second there is the sound quality.  Third, even if you think all Collins' music sounds the same, the discs in this Audio Fidelity numbered and limited series may be collectibles waiting to happen.

First things first, the album's ten tracks are samples of Collins at his dramatic, albeit resentful best.  If you like what Collins does, and while it may not be hip to admit it, I have to say I do, how can you not want a pristine version of the ultimate bitter kiss off anthem, "I Don't Care Anymore?"  The album is filled with a lot of the same kind of venom nurtured art: "I Cannot Believe It's True," "Do You Know, Do You Care?," "It Don't Matter to Me."  There is no muse like a woman, even one you are divorcing.  You have to wonder who it is the singer is listening to in "Thru These Walls."  How the upbeat cover of the Supreme's "You Can't Hurry Love" managed to make its way onto the album is open to question, but it does at the least offer something of an antidote to the overall sweet bitterness.

The sound quality on these Audio Fidelity discs is exceptional.  As their website describes it, their process replaces the "irregular plated surfaces of standard aluminum discs" with a perfected layer of 24K gold free from "any type of physical defect."  Mastered in this case by noted audiophile music restoration specialist, Steve Hoffman the CD aims for what he calls a "lifelike" sound.  In answer to a question on his website, Hoffman says:  "I want that 'breath of life.' That’s what I want. If it sounds like a fake approximation of nothing that’s alive—that is not it for me. I want it to sound like, (and it doesn’t matter if it is Buddy Holly or Blood, Sweat and Tears or The Doors) I want it to sound like they could be standing in the same room where you are listening."  While there are those who argue there are superior re-mastering processes, the sound on the Audio Fidelity discs is impressive enough for me.

Finally there will be those who, as I suggested in my review of the Audio Fidelity release of James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, will not even bother to cut open the shrink wrap on their CD.  Limited edition, numbered, and nestled in what the manufacturer calls "deluxe packaging with see-through slip cases," these discs are prime candidates for collectors. A quick check on eBay shows that there is indeed a market for past issues.  The Band's self-titled album, for example, is on sale for $89.99.  Given contemporary interest rates, there could be worse ways to invest your money.

Seriously, the Audio Fidelity 24K + Gold series offers a selection of some of the best classic rock mastered with expert care.  Hoffman is on record as saying his goal is for the music to sound "alive."  As far as this ear is concerned, it is a goal he has reached.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some Thoughts on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie Novels

This article was first published at

Early on British crime novelist Kate Atkinson found a formula for success and she has followed it with consistency ever since.  If it works, and believe me it does work, why look for trouble.  Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995, but it was with the introduction of Jackson Brodie, the private detective with a tough guy exterior masking  a compassionate  inner nature, in the 2004 Case Histories that she hit her stride.  Three other Brodie novels have followed; each garnering their share of both critical and popular success.  Indeed, the first three of the books have been adapted for TV by the BBC in the six part series Case Histories that is currently running on PBS.

Essentially the Atkinson formula involves weaving together a variety of seemingly disparate story lines and then showing how in fact they were all somehow related.  Think Thomas Hardy's famous poem "The Convergence of the Twain."  You've got the Titanic; you've got the iceberg: two separate strains moving inexorably to their meeting at sea.  Reading Atkinson is like working on a puzzle, trying to figure out how she is going to weave it all together, and it is fascinating how she manages to do it—the first few times, anyway.

I first came across Atkinson when I reviewed the second of the novels in the Brodie series, One Good Turn.  I was duly fascinated, fascinated enough to run out for a copy of Case Histories.  In 2008 when her third,When Will There Be Good News, came out I was still on board even though, by this time, there was little surprise that all the diverse strains came together at the end. It was only a question of how she would get it done.  Still, you had to admire the author's ingenuity and skill. 

Having just finished Started Early, Took My Dog, Atkinson's latest, I must admit to something less than fascination.  It is not that the book is poorly done.  It is certainly as well put together as her others, perhaps even better.  Set in Leeds and moving about the Yorkshire area there are the obligatory diverse strains.  Jackson Brodie is searching for the birth parents of an adopted woman living in New Zealand.  A retired police woman, Tracy Waterhouse, buys a child of a local prostitute.  Years ago when Tracy was first starting police discovered a child in the locked apartment of a murdered prostitute, and the investigation was handled oddly by upper level official.  An elderly actress working on a locally shot TV series is having significant problems with her memory.  Some of the connections seem obvious, but of course things are never quite that simple.  There will be, trust me, there will be something to surprise.
The problem is that by now, at least for Atkinson followers, the thrill of that surprise is probably gone.  You expect it. You know it's going to happen, so when it comes, it doesn't have the same kind of shock value it had the first time.  It's not that you've figured out how things are related.  You may have sorted out some of the relationships, but even knowing they were all going to come together, you would have had trouble with some of them.  It is simply that knowing the ship and the iceberg are going to meet one more time is not quite as exciting as it was the first time, the first two times, or even the first three times. 

This is not to say that there aren't other qualities to admire.  Atkinson creates multi-dimensional characters rooted firmly in reality.  She is interested in human relationships beyond those integral to the plot.  She carefully evokes a sense of place.  She has a sense of humor, and she manages to move the narrative along with alacrity.  Reading her books is always a pleasure.  It is simply that the best reading of one of Atkinson's Brodie novels is the first one.  The others are fine, but there is nothing like the first time.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review: "One Good Turn," by Kate Atkinson

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

One Good Turn, the latest tour de force from Kate Atkinson, raises some interesting questions both about fictional genre and structure. First of all there is the question of just what exactly is it. Pity the poor bookseller that has to decide in what company to shelve the novel with: mysteries and thrillers or fiction. In its subject matter the book would seem to belong with the genre titles. On the other hand, in the way it treats that subject matter, literary fiction would seem more appropriate. More often than not, genre fiction–mystery, romance, oater–tends to the formulaic, the stereotyped and the conventional. Readers have certain expectations and the genre writer is honor bound to meet those expectations. Every once in awhile an author comes along and uses the substance of the genre, but eschews the formula, indeed, takes the reader’s expectations and turns them on their head, in effect using the genre to critique (as one of Atkinson’s characters critiques her mother’s dinner) itself. 

One Good Turn has much of the same kind of murder and mayhem that fills the pages of the conventional thriller. It has many of the same character types: a hulking neanderthal goon, a wily hit man, a persistent ex cop-ex detective with a yen for police work, a mysterious foreign beauty, a crooked real estate tycoon. It begins with an enigmatic act of road rage that balloons into a succession of seemingly random complications that eventually turn out to be not quite as random as one might have thought. But then along with these more or less conventional elements, there are characters like the wife of the unscrupulous builder who is developed well beyond the type. She is a woman who seems to have "gone from youth to old age and had somehow managed to omit the good bit in between." Her life was a "series of rooms that she walked into when every one else had just left." She bakes Christmas logs that no one else will eat. She likes to bid on eBay and be in at the end of the sale. She makes her own chutney from gooseberries she picked herself. There is the mystery writer whose "life had been lived in some kind of neutral gear. . . .He had never strived for greatness, and his reward had been a small life." Unmarried, he daydreams of a wife and family out of the forties. He is prissy in his personal habits, doesn’t smoke, drink or eat meat. These kinds of character details do not normally make it into genre fiction, yet they are the kinds of details that bring a character to life. Moreover these are not incidental characters. They are central to the novel, as significant, if not more so, than their counterparts in more conventional fiction. Even the more typical of Atkinson’s creations are not quite drawn to type. Her ex-detective is tough and smart, but not quite tough enough and not always as smart as he needs to be. There is a bright female police inspector who is the unwed mother of a fourteen year old shop lifter. In general her characters have a rounded lifelike quality that distances from the norm of the generic mystery. 

In a kind of meta- critical fashion, Atkinson has Martin Canning, her "small lived" mystery writer  constantly complaining about the junk he is writing, even including puerile passages by way of illustration. Nina Riley, the heroine of his series provides a solution to the crime: "So you see, Bertie, the murder weapon that killed the laird was actually an icicle taken from the overhang on the dovecote. The murderer simply threw it in the kitchen stove once he had used it–that’s why the police have been unable to find it." When in a jam: "Well, Bertie, this is quite a scrape we’ve got ourselves into here, isn’t it?" Canning wants to write something where every page is a "dialectic between passion and reason." He wants to write something that goes beyond mere escapist entertainment. Now while the portrait of the successful writer of popular fiction who wants to chuck it all and write serious literature is not particularly novel in itself, it does highlight the differences between the conventional genre and the work we are in the process of reading. Well, Bertie, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

These differences are further highlighted by the structure of the novel, a structure conveniently symbolized in the story itself by the recurrent image of the Russian nesting dolls which Martin had purchased on a trip to the Soviet Union: "But mostly there were dolls, thousands of dolls, legions upon legions of matryoshka, not just the ones you could see but also the ones you couldn’t–dolls within dolls, endlessly replicating and diminishing, like an infinite series of mirrors. Martin imagined writing a story, a Borges-like construction where each story contained the kernel of the next and so on. Not Nina Riley, obviously–linear narratives were as much as she could cope with–but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good)." What is being described here is, in fact, a paradigm for the structure ofOne Good Turn, where what we have are stories containing the kernels of other stories, where we are not immediately privy to the connections.

Atkinson presents the reader with a series of characters who seem to have little to do with one another, only to gradually reveal deeper and more significant relationships. Some might argue that what she provides is merely a series of coincidences, but she is prepared for that. Coincidences, one of the characters asserts, are merely events waiting for an explanation. There are no coincidences; there are connections. We may not always see the connections between events, but those connections are always there. In effect this is a philosophy of coincidence. One is reminded of the nineteenth century historian and social critic, Thomas Carlyle, who argued that all human activity is connected, that every action of every being has its effect on everything else, were we but able to see it. The advantage of the novelist is that she can show these connections, these dolls nesting within dolls.

The structure of One Good Turn reminds me most of last years’s Academy Award winning film, Crash. A diverse group of seemingly unrelated characters are spotlighted in separate scenes. The film moves back and forth between these sets of characters, until gradually relationships begin to unfold, relationships that become more and more significant the more we learn.

One Good Turn is set in Edinburgh during the height of the end of summer tourist season. It is the time of the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival as well as the Royal Tattoo. Crowds of people jam the streets and the hotels. But while Atkinson is herself a resident of Scotland, her picture of Edinburgh and its festivals is anything but flattering. The Tattoo is a charade for the tourists. The Fringe is as often as not characterized by pretentious work in shabby venues, second rate has beens, disgruntled American high school students "playing The Caucasian Chalk Circle to an audience of two men. . . ." Up and down the Royal Mile from Holyrood to the Castle, she presents little to warm the hearts of the local Chamber of Commerce (if they have such organizations in Scotland). The Edinburgh she describes is not the most charming of places.

Her prose is rich in irony and allusion. Of a patient in a coma, his wife muses about the possibility of "recycling" his body parts. Fellatio sounds like an Italian musical term. Children go to school in the late summer heat because in the sixteenth century John Knox "saw a kid bowling along the street with a hoop. . ., and he thought, that child should be suffering in a hot, airless classroom in a uniform theat makes him ridiculous." She fills her pages with references to both high culture and pop, the classic and the contemporary: The Cowboy Junkies and the Goldberg Variations, Ozymandias and Harry Potter, The Twilight Zone and William Blake, MTV and Agatha Christie. Her prose is lively and contemporary, never banal.

One Good Turn is a book filled with turns and surprises. It will keep you turning pages, and it will get you thinking–surely the best of two worlds. More than likely it will get you, as it got me, itching to get a look at the rest of Kate Atkinson’s work.