Brigsby Bear is Either Stupid or Perversely Brilliant

Directed by Dave McCary
Sony Pictures Classic, 97 minutes, PG-13 (brief sexuality)

Brigsby Bear is a strange, but charming film that scarcely stretched its costumed paws before being sent back to the den. I get it; it's the kind of movie you either take to immediately, or exclaim, "WTF?" and turn it off before the TV is even warm. What is it, exactly?

That's hard to say. At times it seems as if it’s a movie about teens that was hijacked by them midway through; at others it feels like an afternoon special, or perhaps a really offbeat Disney project. In my mind, it’s the movie equivalent of music by Flight of the Conchords or They Mighty Be Giants: zany, often ridiculous, and yet strangely affecting. I lump it with idiosyncratic films such as Eagle vs. Shark, The Price of Milk, and Lost in Paris. This is to say, Brigsby Bear has its charms, but don’t expect Citizen Kane.  

Here’s the setup: James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney) lives in a desert biodome-like structure that’s half buried in the Utah desert. He has been told by his “parents,” Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), that Earth’s air has been poisoned, that he should seldom venture outside, and that he can never do so without a gas mask, the likes of which he sees Ted don every time he drives off. James’ contact with the world is largely through VCR cassettes of “Brigsby Bear,” a sort of cut-rate children’s sci-fi educational show whose titular hero is a man dressed in a cartoonish bear costume with a papier-mâché head. There are math and science lessons embedded into the plots, but these mainly involve Brigsby’s adventures with the Smiles twins in thwarting the plans of an animated and personified sun to destroy the world. Never mind that the whole thing is cheesier than Wisconsin and the acting so stiff it makes Season One of Dr. Who look like Shakespeare, insofar as James knows, Brigsby is real and has an audience of millions.

James’ world is blown apart when law enforcement officials raid the compound, shackle Ted and April, and take James away to meet Greg and Louise Pope, the biological parents from whom he was kidnapped as an infant. He even has a sister, the largely disinterested Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Here’s the serious part of the film: How do you socialize what is essentially a feral child trapped in a 24-year-old body? After all, he’s only just learned he can breathe the air, so he has little interest in the beach, basketball, board games, and other such ‘family’ pursuits. What he really wants is access to the new cassettes of “Brigsby Bear.” They, of course, don’t exist; it was Ted in the outfit all those years, but through various plot devices I won’t reveal, he gets a VCR and a few back episodes. He also falls in with his sister’s teenaged friends, one of whom digitizes them and, viola! Brigsby is a YouTube sensation. Courtesy of those same age-inappropriate friends, Brigsby Bear: The Movie is on and along the way James has lots to learn: about communications, sex, controlled substances, and what a bad idea it is to research making explosive devices.

Again, this is either all endearing and delightful or puerile and stupid—depending upon your point of view. The film also stars Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, and Greg Kinnear as a cop who misses his college thespian ways. Simpkins is engaging as James’ sister, as is Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. as Spencer, the teen who (sort of) gets James. If you’re a film snob and can’t abide sentimentality, goofiness, or scripts with more holes than a fish net, steer clear of Brigsby Bear. As for the rest of you, give it a try. If you like it, you’re welcome; if not and you suspect I have taken leave of my senses, I understand.

Rob Weir


Welcome Back Joyce Luna/Zymeck

Joyce Luna, Every Road We Take

Folks in the Northeast know Joyce Luna under her given name of Joyce Zymeck* and as half of the beloved duo Justina and Joyce. Joyce moved to Tucson a few years back and took a hiatus from music to deal with some serious medical and personal issues. The latter—much of it related to matters of the heart—became fodder for a passel of new songs just out on Joyce's first solo recording. Coproduced with Ryan David Green, Every Road We Take is an honest and soul-baring look at the things that make the soul leap and those that make it weep. The title track sets the mood. It opens with the line I had a love that burned me down completely. So what do you do when a new possibility comes along and you find yourself—in Luna's delicious phrase—stuck on the karma carousel?

Yep—it's that kind of vulnerable album. It's also an unabashed folk music record with Luna singing like a nightingale and the instrumentation—though often woven tightly around the melodies—never competing with the vocals. The flavor of the album, though not the music itself, reminded me of the sort of projects Sally Rogers used to make. Tentative steps are taken again in "We'll See," and Luna is open to any of three possibilities: fling, false hope, or real thing. Psychological healing gets a work out the record. "Choose" closes the gap between the labels others put on you and what you know to be true of yourself, with lines such as To get rid of the bad, we have to give up some good a true reckoning of the cost when we choose a new family. There is also the balm of music, which Luna explores on the rhythmic clap-and-sing "Love, Dance, Sing."

For me the album really catches fire "A Million Years," with its big guitar sound and memorable riffs that enhance the drama of whether or not to open the door to a person who sees you with all your scars and fear and refuses to turn away. Luna follows with a dynamic remake of "Sip of Water," a Justina and Joyce favorite. The new version surpasses the original and is so sexy and hot you may need a cold shower after listening. These two songs set the stage for more diversity in theme and production. The cello accompaniment—from Linda Ronstadt's nephew Michael—to "(Why Do You) Hide Your Heart" and the ever-so-dark piano to "Trust" give each the feel of late-night-café folk. They are followed by the giddy and cheeky coyness of "First Kiss," which is where Motown, early 60s' girl group, and folk collide; then comes "Heaven," a novelty song confession of her love of the Weather Channel," followed by the album's two social justice songs.

It is an ironic tragedy that I am writing this review the day still another school shooter murdered ten in Texas, as Luna's "We Shall Be Seen" is her anthem against gun violence and she is backed on the album by singers from Every Town for Gun Safety/Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety. One wonders what else can be done to address the nation's paralytic inaction on the slaughter of innocents.  I wanted to scream out We say No, No, No! the repeating chant from "Affirmation (The No Song," the album's second remix and its concluding selection."

This is an expertly produced recording and it's a true joy to hear Joyce's voice once again. If you like folk music that doesn't pretend to be something else, this is the record for you. My sole reservation is with the order of the songs. Perhaps that doesn't matter in the age of individual downloads, but I would have counseled to leave more space between relationship songs. (Though such matters are truly the artist's choice.) And, as my mother used to say, if that's the worst you have to complain about….

Here's a collection of samples from the just released album.  These are better recordings than the above YouTube postings.

Rob Weir

*Full disclosure: I have known Joyce for many years and, lately, she has been a great help in helping me negotiate some of the same back pain issues with which she has had to cope. But lest you think this a "puff piece," my standard in reviewing records from friends is that if I don't like them, I politely beg off and pass them to other reviewers. Honestly! 


What the Blazes is a Knickerbocker?

Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. By Elizabeth L. Bradley. Rutgers University Press, 2009, 151+ pp.

 This academic review appeared in NEPCA Journal but might be of general interest. I was fascinated by it!

In his 1963 breakthrough novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. coined the term granfalloon to describe hollow collectives to which one accidentally belongs. For instance, if you live in California you are a “Californian” until the day you move to Vermont and become a “Vermonter.” Such identities are intrinsically meaningless—unless they mutate. Elizabeth Bradley’s fascinating study of the Knickerbocker identity suggests that more is afoot when we look at how such terms are created, recreated, and appropriated over time. Her book was originally published in 2009, but is back in the Rutgers University Press limelight at a time in which the larger “American” identity is weakening and Balkanization is ascendant.

Most regional identity terms follow simple grammar rules as they move from noun to adjective. It doesn’t require much mental effort to associate an Iowan with Iowa or a Mainer with Maine. It’s trickier when the adjectives are endonyms, terms used almost entirely by those within a region. Perhaps you can work it out that a “Toner” resides in Washington State, but you probably need to live in South Carolina to identify with Sandlapper, or follow sports to think of Cornhuskers, Tar Heels, and Hawkeyes in the same breath as Nebraska, North Carolina, and Iowa, as none of those terms are officially recognized collective pronouns. Sometimes insider terms become official—Buckeye (Ohio), Hoosier (Indiana), Nutmegger (Connecticut), or Yankee (New England)—but all such unusual adjectives are called demonyms and, as often as not, their Ur usage is obscure and spawn theories ranging from logical to fanciful.

Knickerbocker is rare in that we know its precise origins. It was the pseudonym used by Washington Irving (1783-1859) to perpetuate a great literary hoax. Irving appropriated the surname of a Rensselaer County Dutch family to invent Diedrich Knickerbocker, a deadbeat historian whose manuscript Irving “discovered” in a New York City hotel room from which Knickerbocker fled before settling his accounts. Irving fashioned a brilliant publicity campaign to go with his literary invention; he took out ads stating his intention to publish Knickerbocker’s manuscript unless he came forth to claim it. Not surprisingly, Kickerbocker was a no-show and, in 1809, the struggling Irving made his early reputation with A History of New York from the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

You could learn a lot of this by wasting a few hours on the Internet. What you’d not learn, though, is the social history and contemporary sociology associated with Irving’s ruse. Also in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut introduced the karass, an intentional network of people connected in significant ways. Though she does not reference Vonnegut, Bradley shows how the Knickerbocker has been appropriated in identity-forming ways. Direct Dutch control over its New Amsterdam colony officially ended in 1665, but the transfer to English control did not change the fact that the colony’s white population was predominately Dutch. Nor did the American Revolution and the passage of 144 years alter the fact that those of Dutch surnames and ancestry were disproportionately distributed among New York’s wealthy families, politicians, and taste arbiters. Many New Yorkers were amused by Irving’s trickery, but not all got the joke; some saw the Knickerbocker icon as confirmation of their assumed social and cultural superiority. Irving’s purpose, of course, was the opposite; he lampooned Dutch calcification specifically and social airs in general, but Diedrich Knickerbocker unleashed proved an infinitely malleable demonym.

Bradley titles her chapters “The Picture of Knickerbocker,” “Inheriting Knickerbocker,” “Fashioning a Knickerboracy,” and “Knickerbocker in a New Century.” Bradley breezily transforms the Knickerbocker into a synecdoche for two hundred years of New York history, politics, culture, commerce, and identity. In effect, one can draw a straight line from the boastful Diedrick Knickerbocker to the insouciant swagger of today’s New York City dwellers. That is, the Knickerbocker became New York City’s brand. No wonder those in the 19th century associated it with everything from bread and buses to “nostalgia and nativism” (59). And let’s not forget Santa Claus. Through time, the Knickerbocker lost some of its Dutch ethnicity in the American melting pot, but there were always Roosevelts, Van Rensselaers, and Vanderbilts to drop hints; German and Dutch brewers to lubricate myths; and basketball heroes, place names, and the mystique of the Big Apple to suggest that Gotham speaks a Dutch dialect. Moreover, as Bradley reminds us, no city comes close to New York in capturing imaginings of the essence of the United States. Never mind that little of this looks like the frontispiece from Irving’s 1809 satire; myths have enormous power even when their veracity is in doubt—just as an intentional karass is generally more empowering than an accidental granfalloon.

Rob Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Don Gallardo, Lighthouse Keepers, Loebe and Napier, Merritt Gibson, Whiskey Wolves

Don Gallardo, Still Here

Loved, loved, loved the latest from Don Gallardo. It's a delightful folk/country/bluegrass mix evocative of the kind of projects the late Steve Goodman used to do with such great aplomb. Like Goodman, Gallardo tempers even his hard times songs with sunny-days-are-around-the-next-bend optimism. Gallardo also has a warm, inviting voice that’s its own balm. In some ways, the opening track, “Something I Gotta Learn,” sums Gallardo’s outlook. He takes kicks in the teeth with, “I don’t want to get over this/Let it hurt” determination and declares, “It could have been worse/Which is something I gotta learn.” That’s wisdom he tries to pass on; “The Golden Rule,” its message enhanced with emotive electric guitar, is a confessional of a man trying to protect his son from repeating his mistakes: “Kept him clean of the bad things I’ve seen/Ain’t that the Golden Rule?” These two, like each of the twelve tracks, grabs us with strong melodies, zinger lines, and memorable hooks.  And what a fine crop he cultivates: a country two-step (“Oh Jane”), a Texas-style weepy (“The Loving Kind”), some clarinet-led Dixieland swing (“Stay Awhile”), classic tonk (“The Bitter End”), several Appalachia-influenced pieces, occasional Dylanesque cadences (“Ballad of a Stranger’s Heart”), and crisp wordplay throughout. A small personal treat is “Alley Talkin’ Blues # 12,” which would be a great song just for the line “On the way to being lost/I got lost along the way.” It’s filled with wry humor in an amusing morality tale gone wrong, the kind Steve Goodman surely would have written had he not died so young. Still Here is a fantastic album; don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Lighthouse Keepers, Lighthouse Keepers

First things first, this six-piece outfit is a group of Harvard friends, not the Australian band of the same name. Second, this Lighthouse Keepers lineup spins musical magic—some of it sprinkled with fairy dust. They peg themselves an “indie” band, but I found them more in the ork-pop vein. (The “ork” here is a play on orchestral, not Tolkien baddies.) If you imagine the chamber rock band Renaissance as jazzier and infused with more bluegrass influences, you’d be on the same shoals as Lighthouse Keepers. They are powered b the vocals of Abby Westover who, if not quite Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, is a dynamic presence in her own right. Her strong, clear voice has the emotive impact of pop jazz and she is especially adroit at letting her tones swirl with the instrumentation: ukuleles, fiddle, bass, and guitar. “Liar’s Dice” is upbeat and poppy and the lovely “Edinburgh” harkens back to great folk balladry, but Lighthouse Keepers grab us with music that swirls in trance-like ways. “Worryblur” is a fine example of this; it’s jazzy, but also and trippy enough to evoke 60s psychedelia. That same feel comes through in the experimental “Oblivion.” Although Ms Westover has a great voice, Lighthouse Keepers won’t have you hanging onto each word; their goal is to let listeners drift with notes that bend and blend—floaty music in the very best sense. I’m impressed by how they manage to create this effect with acoustic instruments. Lighthouse Keepers are a young band, and I’m already to take a ride on whatever magic carpet ride they have up their sleeves. ★★★★

Rebecca Loebe and Findlay Napier, Filthy Jokes

Sure wish this one had landed in my inbox earlier than it did because "Joy to World" is one of the best new holiday songs I've heard in ages—a New Year's ditty with honest advice and salutations such as "Laugh more, fight less/Joy to the world I guess." It's a great song, even if it is a few months late. Lucky for us there are a few other songs on this EP that grew out of a songwriting retreat between the Austin-based Rebecca Loebe and Scotland's Findlay Napier. Let me just say that if either of these names is unfamiliar to you, it's time to get up to speed. Napier is not just a great songwriter, he has a terrific and powerful voice, as you will hear on "BadMedicine," a folk song with polished studio production. (The link is live.) Celtic fans might know his work with the band Back of the Moon. Loebe is no slouch either; her voice is soft and pretty, but it's adorned with a splash of husk at the edges. Both have great senses of humor as well. We hear Napier's wry commentary on making relationships work in "Option to Buy," and Loebe in the lead on the title track, a honky tonk explanation to a marriage made somewhere other than heaven: "Finally you've found someone/To laugh at all your filthy jokes." The stunner is "Kilimanjaro," a passage through life song in 4:21 with a poignant ending. ★★★★

Merritt Gibson, Eyes on Us

Merritt Gibson, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter who grew up in Boston, pens songs about love, breakups, loyalty, and how hard it is to let go. Her debut record is an impressive effort that shows influences from indie rock and new wave power pop, though it's often strongest when she tamps down the noise. You'll hear definite new wave touches on the heavy bass and edgy instrumentation of the title track. "Burning Hot" features clipped, quick machine gun runs reminiscent of The Cars, and the eerie keyboards and melody of "I Heard" is strongly suggestive of the Eurythmics. We'll get back to that. "When You Were Mine" has an intriguing point of view: that of a past relationship that seems sweeter in retrospect than it was at the time. It's also hard to resist "My Best Friends," in which Gibson lays down the law: "I don't intend/To choose a boy over my best friends." These pop songs have appeal, but also betray Gibson's youth. When songs invite comparisons it's easy to say she's no Annie Lenox. Few are. It also reveals that Gibson's voice is pretty and powerful, but it's not yet clear. Many of the songs are within the same range, which is why my favorite tracks by far are the quieter ones in which she competes with fewer things. "Area Code" is a nice song— one of desperate yearning built around unanswered phone calls. In "Truth and Myth," Gibson is tender and vulnerable; in "Cold War II" she's dark and pessimistic (even if the metaphors are forced). I was glad she finished with "Faraway," a love song of wishing to freeze time. Since she claims her work is autobiographical, I was worried she's been really unlucky for one so young. Let's call Merritt Gibson a gem in need of more polish, but definitely a rising talent. ★★★½

Whiskey Wolves of the West, Country Roots

Can you make a country record that’s so retro modern audiences will find it new? The Whiskey Wolves of the West are hoping so. The lineup is really the songwriting duo of Tim Jones (vocals and guitar) and Leroy Powell (vocals, guitar, and everything else from pedal steel to clarinet). Their approach is to unveil original material that sounds faintly like dusted-off outlaw country from the 60s and 70s as power vocalists such as Levon Helm and Waylon Jennings might have sung it. “Sound of the South” has everything from rolling organ, references to Elvis, and soulful Muscle Shoals evocations in a track that good ‘ole Southern music cures what ails you. “Lay That Needle Down” also takes up back to the age of vinyl in an “… all I need right now/Is the comfort of your company” song; and “Song Ain’t Gonna Write Itself” is the ultimate retro potpourri: a two-step rockabilly number with some surf guitar, some pedal steel, and big vocals. “Rainy Day Lovers” is also filled with old country tropes; it unfolds in a “honky tonk haze” and is about a hard luck man looking for a woman who, “Knows how to treat a man… [a] crazy kind of company to put me back where I belong.” Does this work? Yes and no. There are lots of borrowed riffs and vibes and its seven tracks feel about the right number for us to recall some of good-time feel of old-style white Southern country without getting into its problematic politics. ★★★


May Musings on Baseball & My GM Fantasies

I Wanna Be a GM for a Day!

Okay, I'm eating crow on the Arizona Diamondbacks, whom I picked to finish dead last in the NL West. I still don't think they will win the West, but when you take twenty of your first thirty, odds are good you'll make the playoffs. To put that in perspective, if the D'Backs won just half of their remaining games, they'd finish with 85 wins—probably good enough. If they scratched that to 90, it's definitely good enough. As of this writing, they've won 25 of 43. May I please have some sauce for my crow?

I've also been wrong about the Texas Rangers, whose pitching I figured would at least be mediocre. That's what it's been—except for ageless wonder Bartolo Colon—but everything else has gone south. Is Joey Gallo a bust (like Profar)? What happened to Odor? I predicted management would break up the team midseason, but now I think it will come earlier. It's probably not too soon to begin that process in Baltimore, Kansas City, or Cincinnati either.

We will see what the Boston Red Sox are made of. It has to be disheartening to have the greatest start in team history and still be looking up at the Yankees. If David Price doesn't pitch better, the Sox rotation might not be as solid as anticipated. They also have bullpen issues and are probably going to have to make trades they'd rather not make. One sensible move would be to trade Jackie Bradley while he still has some value. He's a streak hitter who is better than his current .171, but not much better. Great glove, but lifetime he's a .235 hitter. The Sox perennially overhype players; if you can get a decent middle reliever for Bradley, you make the trade. Swihart will definitely be moved and he won't get top value either as the Sox didn't showcase him.

Speaking of showcasing, a boo hiss to the Red Sox for burying Rusney Castillo in Pawtucket, where he's knocked the cover off the ball. Release him so he gets his shot at the Bigs. Yes, you'll have to eat some money, but it's just not fair to let such considerations keep a talented player down on the farm. Alternatively, in Boston he'd probably hit better than Bradley.

How long will the rope be before the Dodgers give Dave Roberts a tug?  It also looks as if the Buck Showalter train has jumped the track.

The Mets dumped Matt Harvey—shocking, but needed. Other teams with tough decisions include the Yankees, who simply must cut ties with Jacoby Ellsbury. There are six current outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart and several more just a year or two behind. Put me in GM Brian Cashman's place and Ellsbury goes on revocable waivers. If no direct rival claims him, wave goodbye. By the way, who had spring training in the annual "Jacoby Goes Lame" pool? The Yankees may also face an issue with Greg Bird, whom I believe isn't a real person. There's a zipper in his back and Nick Johnson resides within. Seriously, folks, trade Bird. Tyler Austin has been fine and first basemen aren't that hard to replace.

Speaking of trades you don't want to make, the Yankees desperately need another pitcher if they want to go deep into the postseason. That probably means they'll have to part with Clint Frazier, who is blocked by Ellsbury's contract.

I said the Phillies might mature earlier than expected. Looks like that is happening. The Braves also seem well along on their youthful rebuild and are currently in first in the NL East. I don't think that will last—this year—but the Braves have seriously good young prospects. And I really like the Brewers.

Raise your hand if you're happy your team didn't sign Yu Darvish. Or Lance Lynn. Or Jaime Garcia.

I wonder why no one has taken a flyer on Matt Garza or Melky Cabrera? 

The biggest disappointment early on has to be the Twins. Maybe those young prospects just aren't as good as advertised. Lucky for the Twins, they are in the AL Central and the Indians have had a horrible start.

Since I've been speculating, time for one of my favorite games: If I Were a General Manager. Here are: Rob's Rules for Being a Smart GM.
            1. Never ever sign a speedy player to a long-term contract unless his name is Ricky Henderson. When speed merchants slow down you're left with: Jacoby Ellsbury.

            2. Never trade even middling prospect pitchers for position players unless the position players are named Trout or Stanton. 

            3. Never shell out big bucks for an infielder over 30 or an outfielder over 32.

            4. Fire every trainer and pitching consultant in your system and start over. It's time to recognize that all the Tommy John surgeries have something to do with flawed training habits. For starters I'd not allow a pitcher anywhere near a weight room. Let's hear it for Bartolo Colon body types.

            5. Never waste roster space on one-trick ponies. What good is a lefty specialist who tosses 2/3 of an inning per week, or a DH you can't send onto the field? On my team, every position player gets a day off, as my DH and utility players are good enough to play multiple positions. Ideally my backup catcher can also play first base. And a lefty specialist who gets clubbed by right-handed batters is a thrower, not a pitcher. No thanks.

            6. Conventional wisdom is wrong about how hitters should be distributed in the lineup. Why put your contact hitters 1-2 when they will only hit that way in the first inning. And why stack all the power 3-6? For most clubs, 7-9 is where you try to hide weak hitters. My ideal lineup would look like this:

                        1. Fastest player on team if he is a high OBP player that doesn't whiff.
                        2. Contact hitter who puts the ball into play and has decent power. (Although I like the Yanks using Judge as #2.)
                        3. Slugger # 1
                        4. High OBP player who is patient at the plate.
                        5. Slugger # 2
                        6. Contact hitter
                        7. Player with highest strikeout rate
                        8. Slugger # 3
                        9. Contact hitter

            7. Use rational metrics and tell the crazies to get lost. On-base percentage matters, dammit! And so do strikeouts. There is no excuse for not advancing a runner from second with nobody out, or failing to plate a runner on third with less than two outs. Statheads can kiss my Home Plate: Wins matter for pitchers. Look at Jack Morris. He never worried about gaudy stats; he pitched to the situation and won 254 games. I'm still miffed that Felix Hernandez took the Cy Young in a year he won only 14 games. While I'm ranting, I've had it with the Michael Pineda/Sonny Gray/Kevin Gausman/Chris Archer types that manage to hit bats at the worst possible time yet keep their Stathead numbers high. 

            8. Hire a manager to make decisions, not make buddies or placate agents. They may turn out okay but turning over a team like the Red Sox or the Yankees to guys who've never managed is like building a world-class research lab and hiring a junior high school chemist to run it. 

            9. Never believe a single word out of Scott Boras' mouth.

            10. Never build a roster around two or three superstars and backfill the rest. You'll end up like the Orioles or the Reds—or like the Angels until they decided it might be a good idea to have a few decent pitchers.  



Our House as Advertised: A Twisty Mystery

Our House (2018)
By Louise Candlish
Simon and Schuster, 416 pages.

Imagine you are living in your dream house, a large elegant home in an exclusive part of South London where your neighbors brag about soaring house values and are talking millions, not thousands. You have everything you ever wanted—a handsome husband, an interesting professional job, two adorable young boys, a nice car, and a leafy manicured backyard. Then it all goes wrong. It's bad enough when you catch your husband bonking a neighbor in the kids' playhouse and throw him out. It gets worse when you go out of town for a few days, come home, and your furniture is gone, and another family has moved into your house. Apparently it's all perfectly legal, as there's a bill of sale signed by your estranged husband and yourself!

That's the nightmare facing Fiona Lawson in Louise Candlish's domestic noir Our House. She knows she never signed over her home, but Bram (Abraham) is nowhere to be found. Slowly Fiona comes to the realization that she's been a naïve dupe. It wasn't the first time Bram strayed, and what was she thinking when she entered into a "nesting" separation agreement in which she and Bram rented a nearby apartment so that, in the name of stability for the children, they could split custody and live-in dates until the divorce settlement?

Candlish's novel seems as if will be a cookie cutter gullible woman versus deceitful man tale. That's part of it, but this is indeed—as promos tag it— a "twisty mystery." In many ways it's a cautionary tale of the snowballing effects of bad decision-making by both Bram and Fiona. Bram is the mug shot for testosterone poisoning and male rage, and clueless Fiona is the quintessence of a helicopter parent who sacrifices her own desires and commonsense in the name of protecting her children. But, again, if this was all it was, Our House could be relegated to the pulp fiction bin. Louise Candlish is too skilled to stop at the clichéd or obvious.  

Before this novel concludes we tread a lot of ground, including peeks into the Dark Web, con artistry, blackmail, and even podcasts. Fiona willingly participates in a series called "The Victim" to warn other women of what can happen to them and detail how easily she was duped. This, of course, means she opens herself for comments from both sympathetic listeners and trolls. Collectively they act as a makeshift Greek chorus that judge her every action, presuppose her motives, and cast her as either courageous or an idiot. Listener comments are one of three voices in the novel, which also switches between Fiona's point of view and Bram's, his both in the present and in Word documents.

Our House could be seen as a confirmation of Sir Walter Scott's line, "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive." Candlish takes it step further and shows how deceit snowballs to the point where each new falsehood is a shovel for a self-dug grave. In such a novel, trust is a moving target and the book's very conclusion rests upon how one decides upon whom and where to place one's trust. I will admit I did not see coming the things that transpired.

Candlish creates characters with depth, a touch that extends beyond Fiona and Bram to both secondary and incidental figures. Like all gifted suspense writers, she is so gifted in misdirection that it's only after you've finished that you realize that several of the setups are implausible. Do we use the phrase page-turner any more? If not, call Our House a real finger-swiper!

Rob Weir



History Repeats? Moralists versus the Oneida Community

The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality. By Michael Doyle. Syracuse University Press. 2018.

This review originally appeared n NEPCA Journal. I re-post it because there are parallels to how today's self-appointed moralists react to those whose lifestyles are outside the mainstream. 

Antebellum activism is often refracted through an abolitionist lens, though few Northern evangelicals compartmentalized reform. Protestant ministers spearheading change could be found among any of a number of reform groups.  In this regard, the subject of Michael Doyle’s fascinating study, the Rev. John W. Mears (1825-1881), was typical of men from the rising Northern middle class whose passions were inflamed by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which reached their height in the 1830s. There wasn’t much that Mears didn’t see as a sin in need of extirpation: prostitution, birth control literature, Mormonism, water pollution, Roman Catholicism, Valentine’s Day cards, obscenity…. The last of these, obscenity, really distressed Mears who was, as Doyle, a Washington, DC-based reporter, puts it, a “virtuous man (44).”

Battles over obscenity often stumble over its definition and parameters. As Doyle suggests, this was Mears’ problem. In the crucial decades before the Civil War, virtue was generally synonymous with the values of the middle class, but it took Mears some time to direct his prodigious energies at the targets that consumed him: John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) and the Oneida Community. On the surface, the Oneida Community was what we’d today call a “soft target.” It was, after all, rooted in ideals located far from the banks of the mainstream, the least controversial of which was shared property and living arrangements rooted in spiritual communism. Members also practiced a system of “complex marriage” in which all men and women could (in theory) have carnal relations with each other. Moreover, Noyes equated unwanted pregnancy as enslavement of women, hence the keystone practice of “male continence.” More shocking still, young men learned this discipline through intercourse with postmenopausal women. Noyes himself was a bail jumper who escaped Putney, Vermont, and a possible jail term for adultery back in 1847. So why did it take Mears and the other ministers he recruited until 1881 to force the dissolution of the Oneida Community?

One of the many merits of Doyle’s book is that he captures aspects of the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist in just 172 briskly written pages. Mears shared commonality with others emboldened by the Second Great Awakening, but as Paul Johnson and others have demonstrated, conversion in Western New York State’s “burned-over district” was weighted heavily toward the middle class.  Most locals were farmers and artisans. Although they disapproved of Oneida Community practices, most were also intrigued (possibly titillated) by them, found the group to be good neighbors, and were willing to live and let live. This adds an under-examined class dimension to the crusade against Oneida.

It is important to note that neither Mears nor Noyes should be viewed through modern eyes. The Presbyterian Mears was meddlesome, but he was not akin to contemporary moralists. Northern evangelists were not fundamentalists—the concept barely existed then. Mears studied theology at Yale, revered Immanuel Kant, and was an exacting professor of moral philosophy at Hamilton College. Nor was Noyes a proto-hippie free lover; the Dartmouth/Andover Seminary-educated Noyes based community sexual practices in conceptions of primitive Christianity and a belief in moral perfectionism, the latter a key element of Second Great Awakening thought. In one of the books many concise summaries, Doyle details ways in which Mears and Noyes were quite similar in many respects. The sexual practices gap, though, was simply too wide for the stern Mears to bridge.

Mears prevailed—sort of; Oneida disbanded in 1881, but Mears expired that same year. One is tempted to draw parallels between the minister’s campaign against Oneida and today’s culture wars but, again, Doyle’s objective is to shed light on the nineteenth century, not our own time. Oneida was an endlessly intoxicating experiment about which much has been written. The dissolution narrative generally ends with the incorporation of the community’s chief source of income, its flatware manufactory. Doyle deftly illumines the lesser-known details of the organized opposition that forced the community’s hand. Metaphorically, Noyes represents the utopian impulse and Mears what Robert Wiebe famously dubbed “the search for order.” Doyle's small gem of a book should prove invaluable in facilitating discussions of ante- and postbellum America. Undergraduates will appreciate its clarity and brevity; general readers will find it fascinating.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts