New Releases for August 2017

I recently devoted a column to female musicians, so it's only fair that to give equal time to the gentlemen and rogues of the road.

My favorite in this batch is Cold Answer, an EP from Matthew Perryman Jones. The Pennsylvania-born, Georgia-raised, Nashville-based Perryman has been recording since 2000, and this EP is a distillation of a 2015 full-length album. His best tracks evoke the smart, pensive songs of Richard Shindell.  When Jones sings of "Wrestling Tigers," it's self-analysis and the dangerous beast inner self-destructiveness. The title track is melodic and lush, but its look at a dead relation cuts deeply: Remember saying all the places we'd go/Once we've found the road to take us there/But we spend too much time waiting by the window/And ended up not going anywhere. I don't know much about his personal life, but songs like "Can't Get It Right, and "I'm Sorry" certainly suggest he has hit a few potholes here and there. But don't expect self-pity or apology. There is a repeating line from his you-can-do-better leaving song "I Can't Go Back Now" that runs, This is not what I planned. Jones' combination of raw emotions, lovely tunes, and sensitive voice linger and haunt long after you've taken out your ear buds.   ★★★★

The Adam Ezra Group is a six-person lineup from Boston that has been recording since 2003. Hurricane Wind, their 7th album, airs out a repertoire that's on the rock end of the folk rock scale. Ezra anchors the band with vocals that are simultaneously growly in tone but smooth in transition. Sometimes, as in the song "The Toast" with its parting song feel, the AEG sounds like an Irish folk rock band biding us goodnight.  By contrast, here's a countrified boot rock kick to "Steal Your Daughter" and a pop/party shimmer to "You Speak Girl." One of my favorite tracks is "Let Your HairDown," an affecting take on seizing the moment when boy-meets-girl and sparks ignite a fire that might not last the night. The AEG is superb at doing little things well—a splash of piano, rapid-fire couplets, or just a quirky line that's just right: You're sweet like a melon/sly like a felon/and I've been watchin' you dance all night. John Oates guests on the last track—a good match of talents that are not quite pop, folk, or rock but something of all three.★★★ ½ 
adam_ezra @adamezra

Drew Holcomb has just released a new CD titled Souvenir. To promote it he has released a previous record, Medicine, on Noisetrade, for whom he is its first artist in residence. Souvenir continues the musical journey of an artist who manages to remind us of old favorites without being derivative of any of them. On the new record, "Fight For Love" has a post-1975 Bob Dylan feel, yet "Postcard Memories" and "Mama's Sunshine, Daddy's Rain" evoke the wry commentary and stripped down instrumentation of John Prine. Overall, Holcomb and his band often draw comparisons to The Jayhawks. The pay-as-you-wish Noisetrade release of Medicine includes Holcomb standards such as the country/folk/Appalachian blend "American Beauty," the funky, LA rock with a secular gospel choir "Sisters and Brothers," and the instantly relatable "Ain't Nobody Got it Easy." My favorite is "Shine LikeLightning," which is just great rock n' roll—the kind someone like Springsteen might sweat his way through. ★★★★
Waldemar is the professional persona of Wisconsin-based Gabe Larson. His EP Visions has been described as "painting with sound." If it has a genre, it 's experimental rock, but that's hardly adequate for Larson's pastiche of electronics, piano, ambient vocals, trombone, guitar, and percussion. Visions is challenging—perhaps more of an artistic statement than concert music. Give a listen. You'll know pretty quickly whether you wish to imbibe further or if it's simply not your cup of tea. ★★ ½

There's a standing joke about the dearth of happy songs in folk music. That helps explain why so many artists draw upon the pen of Jesse Terry and why they want to record with him. Terry writes sunny, pop-infused folk that will remind graybeards of the light-voiced, optimistic Emitt Rhodes. Terry has just released a new LP, Stargazer, and has followed Holcomb's lead in bundling a few tracks with back catalogue material for those seeking to discover his music. The title track of the new record was inspired by his boyhood devotion to the Electric Light Orchestra. Dar Williams joins him on a song with a drift-across-the-night-sky feel. He rocks out a bit more on "Runaway Town," but the mood is like a more upbeat Roy Orbison. Finally, there is "Kaleidoscope" (with Sarah Darling), which is introspective and so atmospheric that it skirts lullaby terrain. These three are bundled with five other songs on Natural. Each track features a guest artist. I particularly enjoyed the Paul Simon-like "Mr. Blue Sky" with Liz Longley, and "Carry" with Kim Richey. You might long for a tad more diversity from Terry, but it's hard to quarrel with optimism. ★★★ ½    [Note: Williams and Richey are not on the YouTube clips]

"Sunny" isn't an adjective routinely applied to Justin Townes Earle and Kids in the Street won't alter that. That's not to say that it's a downer, but it is shot through with C&W heartache. "There Go a Fool" is the kind of tale Willie Nelson would tell—a guy who's been around the block enough times to suspect that tonight's date won't end well. "Faded Valentine" also lays on the pathos, though in the deliciously retro fashion of an old country weepy. From the content of "Maybe a Moment" it sounds as if Earle knows a few less savory Memphis streets. This one is acoustic, but sung in a soulful syllable-packed manner reminiscent of Van Morrison. For something more cheerful, try "Champagne Corolla," with its big horns, rolling arrangement, and N'awlins flavoring. Who can resist a pretty lady on the open road? ★★★

Are you a Greg Brown fan? Peter Mulvey is another artist in the same growly Midwestern acoustic folk blues style. Eleven Ways of Looking at Peter Mulvey is a good introduction to good introduction to his music. Fellow songwriters tend to admire the emotive concision of Mulvey's songs. "Are You Listening?" exemplifies this. It's a deliberately shaky-voiced song about being dumped with repeated and simple lines—Are you telling me you got a new life?—that capture that endless loop of despair that comes from being dumped. On the other end of the spectrum is the caffeinated splatter of words in "The Other Mornin Over Coffee." Mulvey's "Song for Michael Brown" has gotten attention and (alas!) its politics remain relevant. The fiddle texture of this one is evocative of Civil War era music, frighteningly appropriate for what he has to say about dangerous angry white men. Mulvey also dabbles in poetry and this collection has two spoken word tracks. I confess that I prefer songs with stronger melody, hence my favorites from Eleven Ways are "Shirt" and "Kids in the Square."  ★★★



The United States of America: 1776-2017?

"We the people of the United States…." How familiar the opening words of the Constitution. But it was all a dream. This is not a love letter; it is an obituary. Maybe it's premature, but, as in the case of famous people, it's on file awaiting the coroner's certification of the official time of death.

The United States of America experienced a difficult birth in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence heralded the arrival of a sickly child. It was conceived in myth and survived against long odds, but it never thrived or grew to maturity. It was always a loner—never a "we," not even in its rebellious years against its British parents when a third of its colonial citizens remained loyalists and another third stood neutral. The cause of rebellion was never noble—colonists paid far lower taxes than their British cousins and, though they were sometimes punished, they were never held to standards not expected of their peers. Tom Jefferson knew he was writing propaganda, so (with help from his peers, the well-heeled), he laid it on thickly and eloquently.

So did Madison. "We the people" did not mean the masses—whom Madison and most of his fellow Founders held in fearful contempt—nor did he mean the distaff side of anyone's family. He certainly did not mean Indians, slaves, free people of color, or unsavory non-English immigrants like the Irish. Small wonder that just 73 years after Madison's words were ratified, the republic was rent asunder by civil war, a bloody reminder that many wished the nation to remain the fiefdom of white men of means and the lackeys they tricked into maintaining their estates. For a short time, it looked as if elites might relinquish their robes, but the collapse of Reconstruction, the advent of Social Darwinism, triumph in the labor wars, periodic "red" scares, Jim Crow, domestic ideology, and time-tested applications of divide-and-conquer patched the holes and righted the throne. The Great White Fist ruled supreme.

There have been moments in which the crown tottered—Lincoln, New Deal, the temporary victory over fascism, civil rights, and liberation movements—but in the end, the Fist has always leveled its golden hammer. Now the Fist is shaky and the United States has entered its sclerotic old age. What will the history's death certificate list as the cause of death?

But America is a mighty nation, you protest. If that's the case, why must it become great "again," as its Madman in Chief insists? Sorry, but great nations do not arm lunatics and allow them to parade down public streets, or turn their backs when daily they aim guns at school children, movie attendees, shoppers, co-workers, and neighbors. Great nations do not elect gropers to lead them, don't entrust their future to pirates, or treat their women like ten-dollar whores. Great nations do not look away from the raging fires of environmental Armageddon or demonize their intellectuals. They do not sacrifice science and reason upon altars of blind faith or superstition, surrender the greater good to the greed of Croesus, or hold profits in higher regard than prophets. They do not allow paramilitary cops to slaughter its citizenry.  A great nation does not see the world in monochromatic white.

Matters such as these are deemed "ideological" or "political" only in lands where Jeremiah wails in the Wilderness to the deaf while demagogues, monsters, and madmen shake their fists from ahigh and laugh. They do not notice the Reaper behind the curtain. 


Ian McGuire's Whaling Novel Thrills and Chills

By Ian McGuire
Henry, Holy & Company, 255 pages.
Ian McGuire @ReadingsBooks #northwater 

Pirates are usually the poster children for the reprobate life, but the view that comes through in British writer Ian McGuire's realist novel is that 19th century whalers make those scurvy dogs look like choirboys. His is a corrective to popular views of whaling that fall into one of two stereotypes, the romantic and the honorably tragic. If you ever visit the informative New Bedford Whaling Museum or step aboard Mystic Seaport's Charles W. Morgan, you'll learn a lot about whaling and its hardships, but the overall impression is that of intrepid lords of the foam commanding crews of ship-born industrial workers during the golden age of sail. The tragic view comes closer to the mark. Chapels called Seamen's Bethels were a standard feature of fishing and whaling towns—places where considerably more memorial services than christenings took place. One estimate holds that as many as 20,000 whalers died at sea before the turn of the 20th century.

Tragedy is tragedy, but we often stereotype it as well. Think of exaggerated paintings of saw-toothed whales chewing up hapless sailors, or of crews being led to their doom by mad captains like Herman Melville's Ahab. Ian McGuire has a different take on why a whaler's life was often short and brutish: many of them were brutes. Many who 'read' Moby Dick skim or skip didactic chapters to get at the more thrilling material. But if you take the time to delve into the chapter titled "The Try-Works," you'll quickly learn that it took a taste for blood, filth, violence, and stink to stomach (literally) a whaler's life. In The North Water, Cetacean hunters fall into two categories: the ones with something to hide and those so far beyond the margins that they know longer bother with social pretenses.

The novel is set in 1859, a time in which whaling is on its last fins—a victim of over-harvesting and obsolescence occasioned by cheaper coal gas and petroleum. When Captain Arthur Barlowe agrees to skipper The Volunteer, he does so with the foreknowledge that it may well be its last voyage. As it is, he's headed for the Canadian Arctic pretty late in the season as that's where, if anywhere, sperm whales can be taken (as well as seals, foxes, and polar bears). In the waning days of the trade, recruitment was even more from the fetid bottom of the barrel. Barlowe's crew consists mostly of poverty-stricken Shetland islanders and dodgy characters scrounged from English ports of call. The curiosity is greenhorn ship surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who formerly served with the British army in India. What could possibly motivate such a learned man to give up the warmth of the South Asian sun for the gray waters of the North Atlantic and the ice of the Arctic? The rest are a rank (physically and morally) collection of drunkards, drug-addled fools, buggerers, thieves, cutthroats, and those with more crabs in their groins than teeth in their heads.

On such a ship, Otto, the German Swedenborgian fatalist, passes for normal. Everyone seems to have an agenda: Sumner, Barlowe, ship owner Jacob Baxter, First Mate Michael Cavendish, amoral harpooner Henry Drax…. The problem is, none of the agendas match. McGuire's yarn is a good one, though it's decidedly not for the squeamish. Cruelty toward animals and one's fellow man are staples of The North Water; treachery, double cross, roguery, and degradation are subthemes. McGuire's description of the Arctic chills in various ways. He skillfully weaves many strands, develops complex characters, dabbles in foreshadowing, and brings matters to a satisfying conclusion without being as wordy as, well, Herman Melville. Nor does he sacrifice drama or intrigue for the sake of economy. In fact, in places The North Water is evocative of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, if I can be forgiven for substituting the barren Arctic for the lush Congo. By the time you've finished McGuire, you will have marooned all romantic notions of whaling on a Baffin Islands ice sheet.

Rob Weir


Queen A Katwe a Light, Joyous Diversion


Directed by Mira Nair
Disney Studios, 124 minutes, PG.

Director Mira Nair is best known to American audiences for Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001). Her forte lies in presenting people of color in a positive light and in underscoring cultural misunderstanding. This time she turns her attention to Africa. She has joked that Queen of Katwe is the first Disney film made on that continent that doesn't star a singing animal.

It is a feel-good movie set in an unlikely place: the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda. Katwe is a desperate place where those lucky enough can rent a makeshift plywood and tin hovel, which is where 10-year-old Phiona lives with her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), her infant brother, and her take-a-walk-on- the-wild-side older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). There's not much hope for Katwe kids; they are the sort that must hawk goods in traffic each day to help put food in the cooking pot.

Phinoa's life takes a detour when she (Madina Nalwanga) spies Robert Katendi (David Oyelowe), a missionary school recreational director, teaching kids how to play chess. He invites her to come into the school, though she smells so bad that even younger slum kids scorn her. But not for long, as Phiona soon masters chess in ways that are intuitively brilliant. Dare she, or the peers who come to admire her, dream of life outside of Katwe? There are several touching scenes in which the Katwe children journey to posh places and are literally overwhelmed by what they see. Should such children even consider going beyond their station in life? Of what good is a chess champion in the slums?

One might assume that, from a direct standpoint, Nair's challenge would be to make chess visually exciting. That's actually not as hard as it sounds. In United States, baseball, boxing, and horse racing are the sports most often presented on film– probably because they lend themselves the best to dramatic 'moments' on which the outcome rests. So too for chess, which has been the subject of dozens of very successful films, quite a few of which spotlight how it helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds experience moments of glory. That's partly true, because it seems that topnotch chess players are often born rather than trained. (Some sports for harder to depict on film. Have you ever seen a film featuring tennis, golf, or basketball that looks realistic?)

Queen of Katwe is based on a true story and is indeed a feel-good flick. Is a path- breaking filmmaking? In all honesty, it could have been a made-for-TV film, which is how most people will see it: as a download on the small screen. That's fine, as there is nothing here that a large screen would enhance. It's also okay that this film deceptively elides time, is loaded with clichés, and sports all-too-convenient triumphs in situations that would have been more dire in actual context. The film is well acted especially by Ms. Nyong'o (who won an Oscar in 12 Years a Slave). She plays well beyond her thirty-four years and is totally convincingly as a fierce protective mother of three. As always, David Oyelowe (Selma, The Butler, The Last King of Scotland) is superb, and Ms. Nalwanga is simply infectiously charming.  

Sometimes you just want to feel-good movie. As Disney films go, this one is pretty good. And there are no singing animals—though there is a soundtrack that features pop stars such as Alicia Keyes, P-Square, and Radio and Weasel.

Rob Weir


Maudie: A Small Life with a Big Heart


MAUDIE (2016/17)
Directed by Aisling Walsh
Mongrel Media, 115 minutes, PG-13

This film's titular character is Maud (Dowley) Lewis (1903-1970), could be considered the Grandma Moses of Nova Scotia, except that Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) lived a charmed life compared to that of Lewis.

Lewis is played by British actress Sally Hawkins, who contorts her stick figure body into all manner of grotesque proportions to portray the rheumatoid arthritis that plagued Ms. Lewis for her entire life. This was but one of many of the bad cards Maud was dealt. Teased unmercifully by other children for her deformities and assumed retardation, Lewis left school after the fifth grade. After both parents died within two years of each other (1935 and 1937), Maud lived with authoritarian older brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), who farmed her out to her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) when she was impregnated and jilted by a local lad.

This is where Maudie picks up the tale. In the hands of director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White, Lewis emerges as a sneakily assertive woman who finds joy and beauty despite her physical challenges and the ugliness of some of the villagers. That ugliness included the man she eventually married, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman, woodsman, and jack-of-all-trades with whom she lived in a 10 by 12 foot shack from 1937 until her death 24 years later. If the size sounds daunting, consider also that the cottage was on an isolated dirt road across a causeway more than a mile from the Digby County village of Marshalltown. Winters are long, deep, and hard in a place where the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary's Bay come together. Imagine spending it with Everett, who tells Maud that his levels of concern were, in order, "me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you." He probably exaggerated in placing her fourth!

Art was Lewis' salvation. The film concentrates on the years 1945 through 1970, a time in which Lewis transformed the cottage into a colorful canvas of flowers, animals, plants, and village life as viewed through a window. A fortuitous meeting with Sandra (Kari Matchett), a New Yorker who summered in Marshalltown, led to commissions of folk art greeting cards and then experimentation with larger works (8-10") painted on scraps of wood, which she peddled from the cottage. None sold for more than $10 in her lifetime, though she was indeed hailed as the Canadian Grandma Moses, was lionized by a Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary, and even Richard Nixon owned two of her paintings. Earlier this year one of her works fetched $45,000 at auction. (In 2006, a Moses painting went for a record $1.2 million.)

The Lewis cabin now stands in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax* and a steel replica marks its original spot in Marshalltown. Posthumous fame always seems unfair, but Walsh emphasizes Lewis' humanity rather exiling her to a tragic realm. As she is fading, Hawkins-as-Lewis tells us that her small world is the one she chose and that her window was the frame through which she viewed and painted it. Hawkins gives a bold and convincing performance. To underscore an earlier observation, Hawkins twists her body to convey Lewis' crippling arthritis. No prosthetics were used and Hawkins' physicality should draw rightful comparisons to the Oscar-winning turn of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989).

Were I nominating Oscars, though, I'd hand one to Ethan Hawke, who endows the brutish and gauche Everett Lewis with more depth and dignity than he had in real life. Hawke is like a reed that bends with a gale but never breaks. We come to like him more than we first did, but no one will walk away mistaking Everett Lewis for a good man. At his core he is as icy and difficult as a February blizzard.

Kudos also to Walsh for the ways in which geography, topography, and weather are subtly woven into the film's fabric. (The filming actually took place in Newfoundland, which evokes post-World War II Digby County.) Walsh shows the fragility of summer and the harshness of winter, but uses repetition and understatement to present challenges that lesser directors convey with melodramatic one-offs. Walsh and White did take a few biographical liberties—Sandra is a composite used to heighten contrasts between urban sophistication with homespun perspectives; Everett was worse than presented, and Maud perhaps not as sunny**—but little is sacrificed in stretching the story at the margins. Maudie is a triumph. Like last year's Icelandic film Rams, it testifies that it is still possible to make small movies with big hearts that beat louder than the thunder of big-budget schlock.

Rob Weir

* Personal Note: I have seen the Lewis cottage in Halifax, though I confess not knowing much about Maud Lewis until this film. The cottage and the art gallery are among many reasons why you should visit Halifax if you have a chance.

** Biographical notes: Maud Lewis's biographer claims that Everett never loved Maud, and kept her around because he liked the money her paintings brought in. A burglar murdered him in 1979. Unlike the film, Maud was not obsessed with the daughter she lost and wasn't as content as portrayed.



Four Past Shows Highlight Top Curatorship at MFA

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts doesn't have the cash or cachet of the Met in New York City, but I get to the MFA much more often. This affords me the luxury of taking in just a few exhibits at a time so I can contemplate things in depth rather than breadth. Four recent shows illustrate what I mean. Don't despair if you didn't make it to these. The thing about great urban museums is that most of their "special" exhibits tend to expand upon things already in their collection.

The MFA owns Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, a truly great work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). It was a key part in "Botticelli and the Search for the Divine." which was reputedly the largest Botticelli exhibit ever displayed in the United States. But that isn't that many, as much of the famed Renaissance painter's works are too big, too fragile, or too important to loan.

Botticelli is considered one of the giants of the Florentine Renaissance and few have rivaled his use of lush color—especially his eye-popping blues. His patron was one of the giants of Italian history, Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), a man of such power that he was known in his lifetime as Il Magnifico. He gave Botticelli the freedom to explore emerging humanist values and to break with the somber hues and stiff formalist poses of pre-Renaissance religious art. Courtesy of new ways of cleaning away the accumulated grime from medieval and Renaissance art, we now know that another Renaissance innovation was the cartoon-like vibrancy of figures, which we see in the MFA's own Botticelli. And there were the earthy qualities that come through in works such as Minerva and the Centaur, a work I first embraced at the Uffizi; to mention nothing of increasingly sensual nudity. The Birth of Venus didn't leave Florence, but a full-sized study did.

Newton observed that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Florentine Renaissance ended abruptly upon Lorenzo's death and the city fell under the sway of the friar Savonarola (1452-1498). He plunged Florence into a period of religious zealotry (1494-98) from which it took decades to overcome. All things worldly and secular were suspect, even destroyed. (Burnings under Savonarola gave us the phrase "bonfire of the vanities.") Botticelli's work was seriously hampered, though there were veiled references to the era's horrors.

 Speaking of horrors, Polish photographer Henryk Ross (1910-1991) documented the Nazi roundup of Jews and Roma in the Lodz Ghetto. Are there words that can express the barbaric savagery of the Holocaust? Probably not. That's why a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. The good news is that MFA's photographic collections are strong and seeing images on the wall allow us to remember all that is noble about humanity—and all that is dark and must not prevail.

On a much sunnier note, the MFA has lately paid more attention to illustrators. Who better to showcase than Robert McCloskey, whose 1941 Make Way for Ducklings was set in Boston and remains a children's book favorite. The MFA recently showcased 50 of McCloskey's works—many of them from a collection housed at Emporia State University in Kansas. In addition to his beloved fowl in the city drawings, there were others from equally fun books such as Blueberries for Sal (1948) and Centerburg Tales (1951).

 Do you know a museum of consequence that doesn't have works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)? The MFA's Matisse in the Studio put his wonderful, whimsical, inventive career in literal context: 34 paintings, 26 drawings, 11 bronzes, 9 woodcuts, 3 prints, and 39 personally collected objects from the Musée Matisse. Believe me when I tell you that this is only the iceberg's tip. I've been to his Matisse's home in Nice where the museum is now housed, an experience I'd not trade, though I have to say that the MFA display allowed to relieve it sans sensory overload. It was subdivided into four self-descriptive themes: "The Object is an Actor," "The Nude," "Studio as Theatre," and "Essential Forms." Painter, sculptor, printmaker, draftsman… Lump Matisse with Cézanne and Picasso as the troika that reinvented Western art in the 20th century.  


There are tons of good shows coming up at the MFA, including photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, Inuit art, idealized female images in Japanese art, and posters and graphics from the 1967 Summer of Love.  Check out: http://www.mfa.org/news/advance-exhibition-schedule

Rob Weir


Ten Dead Comedians Reworks Agatha Christie


By Fred Van Lente
Quirk Books/Penguin Random House, 289 pages

Is there a worse kept secret in the entire entertainment world than the fact that a lot of comedians are seriously screwed up individuals? The world of comedy is littered with self-inflicted corpses, but what if someone decided to pick out nine stand up comics and do the job for them? That's the premise of Fred Van Lente's debut mystery novel Ten Stand Ups, Nine Murders, One Solution.  Van Lente has hitherto been known for writing zombie comics and the occasional graphic novel, including Cowboys and  Aliens, which was made into a film that bombed critically and at the box office.

One suspects that some of Van Lente's experience got exorcised in his novel, as its pivotal character, Dustin Walker, was once a big late night TV star who fell from grace after making a trashy but surprise hit film, I Married a Cat. It spawned a series of ludicrous sequels that ultimately exiled its creator to a fate worse than death: celebrity irrelevance. That is, unless you're an insider and still think guys like Walker have pull. When his personal assistant, Meredith, invites nine individuals to come to Walker's private island to discuss a future "project," the allure proves too great to resist. To be sure, their motives are less than lofty—vanity, flagging careers, seeking to bask in reflected glory, perchance to brag…. They come, but Walker is nowhere in evidence, the Wi-Fi code doesn't work, groundskeeper Dave is missing, Meredith seems clueless about everything, and there's no way off the island until the boat that brought them returns. In short, they are left their own devices, a tool chest that mostly contains professional jealousy, one-upmanship, and mutual loathing. And then things really go wrong: a video showing Walker's apparent suicide is prelude to stand ups meeting grisly ends.

Comedy fans will entertain themselves by matching egos and biographies to the imperiled islanders. The washed-up TV host Walker has many parallels—among them, Joey Bishop, Chevy Chase, Jerry Lewis, and David Brenner—and his character is probably a composite, but how about Janet Kahn, the Real Queen of Mean? Joan Rivers, anyone? Or Margaret Cho as the inspiration for lesbian comic Ruby Ng, who blew her career by uttering something unutterable. It's pretty hard not to think of Sarah Silverman as a template for Zoe Schwartz, the gagster who delights in talking about her vagina to the point where she becomes—if I might mix body parts—the butt of her own routine. How can we not imagine Sam Kinison as a stand-in for William Griffith, aka/ "Billy the Contractor," a rich jerk who pretends to represent "Real America?" Is Dante Dupree part Richard Pryor? Who is Oliver Rees, aka "Orange Baby Man," a decidedly unfunny person who portrays a grown infant and has a knack for trade marking associated kitsch? (Andy Kaufman?) Or T J Martinez, who fancies himself a revolutionary Latino—as long as it doesn't crimp his comfortable lifestyle? And then there's improv teacher Steve Gordon, whom TJ pretends not to know, though they once worked together.

The structure and content of the book is pretty much that of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This is, depending on your point of view, either homage or intellectual pilfering. I'm willing to give Van Lente the benefit of the doubt and call it a Christie update. Let's face it, we don't read many mysteries because they are literary masterpieces; we consume them for cheap thrills and as respites from that denser genre we label "literature." Van Lente is not a great stylist, but he enlivens his text with excerpted monologues from his comedians and demonstrates, if nothing else, that he knows his way around comedy clubs. His debut novel is entertaining. It's summertime. That's enough.

Rob Weir



Is Canada Kinder and Gentler?

Sometimes leaving the USA clarifies what’s wrong with it. An old joke holds that George W. Bush meant Canada when he promised Americans a “kinder, gentler nation.” Yet in many ways that quip is more truth than cliché.

Before going further, a disclaimer. I used to teach Canadian Studies and have been to every province except Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but I’m not Canadian. When those who are tell me they can be as mean as a junkyard dog, I'm honor-bound to believe them, so no misty-eyed utopianism from me.  Oscar Wilde once quipped that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth gazing upon, but I suspect it only appears at the map's edge where the road runs out and we see an arrow signposting, “To Utopia.” Maybe Utopia is an aspiration, not an actual place—one that challenges us to be better than we are.

Alas, too many Americans feel maps are worthless because there is nothing beyond the borders worth considering. Is it blissful ignorance that blinds them to aspirational Utopia, or the pride that goeth before a fall? The latter, I fear. Whenever I venture northward, I see people who are, on average, nicer, happier, and more decent than Americans. Perhaps I romanticize, but I’m not blind. Montreal drivers are often aggressive and foolish, homeless people line Ottawa’s Rideau Street, and heroin addicts roam some Vancouver neighborhoods.  Canadians like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper are as odious as any politician that crawled from a US cesspool.

Nonetheless, I encounter civility inside of Canada that exists in the United States mostly in myth-fueled imaginings of the 1950s. Civility makes Canadians, well… nicer. That adjective distresses some Canadians and makes them feel they are not being taken seriously. Embrace it! Civility is linked to the concept of civitas—citizens bound by some common code: law, morality, shared values….  Civitas is a rare commodity south of Canada, where the word “united” is a syntactical misnomer that generally goes no deeper than xenophobic cheers during international sporting events or bombing sorties. In the main, the US is a land of “me,” not “we.” Canada seeks to reverse that formula. There are, of course, social outcasts in Canada, but at least they have universal healthcare, aggressive anti-poverty programs, and a social safety net that puts ours to shame.

Think upon other differences. Canadians own guns just like Americans, but are 51 times less likely to shoot each other. Why? Because too many Americans can't imagine that there should be any gun control; most Canadians can't imagine there wouldn't be commonsense restrictions. While it's true that Canadians visiting Parliament moan about taxes and complain about government with the fervor of a white Dallas suburbanite, at the end of the day they still think government should solve social problems. I've yet to meet a Canadian who thinks that universities are bad for the nation—something a majority of American Republicans shamelessly believes. When Canadians complain about government—who doesn't? —as often as not, it's because they want more schools, roads, public transport, and services.

It boils down to how one defines wealth. Americans often perceive it as if there are no stops between acquisitiveness and asceticism. Bumper stickers proclaim, "He who has the most toys wins." That would be amusing, were it not such a guiding principle. But is wealth merely individually owned TVs, SUVS, McMansions, bling, and sparkle? Civitas ideals suggest otherwise. Can a nation truly be considered wealthy if it has impoverished culture, a fractured citizenry, broken infrastructure, and a corroded sense of civics? Americans are fond of saying that a rising [economic] tide raises all boats, but do you see much evidence that this actually occurs? Ironically, though Canadians on average pay higher taxes and live in the world's 8th richest country, the median wealth of adult Canadians is higher than that of Americans in the world's wealthiest nation.

Maybe Canadians don't assume as much debt, or maybe some economist will cite data refuting median wealth comparisons, but there is little question that Canadians are wealthier in their civic life. There are public mixings of First Nations people, immigrants, Anglophones, Francophones, assorted Euro-Canadians, and people of color. There are bigots, of course, but there is a much greater tendency for groups to move in synch that in the United States would roam in separate packs. The Canada Council for the Arts and other such bodies routinely greenlight multicultural or controversial projects that would be hopelessly shipwrecked upon ideological reefs in the States.

Canada is, indeed, a kinder, gentler nation. Utopia? No. But if you look, you'll notice that the arrow on the edge of the map bends northward.

Rob Weir


Tom Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher: Sharp, Recycled, or Cheap?


MRS. FLETCHER  (August 2017)
By Tom Perrotta
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.
★★ ½

I mused over Tom Perrotta's latest before attempting to write about it. Perrotta has never shied from unsettling themes, so I knew that Mrs. Fletcher wasn't going to be mannered. I pondered whether Mrs. Fletcher is a crib of turf he's already trod in Election (1998), Little Children (2004), and The Abstinence Teacher (2007); a Zeitgeist-capturing look at modern relationships; or just a trashy and clichéd pastiche of buzz topics. After careful rumination, I still can't decide.

If you're looking for wholesome, cast your gaze elsewhere. As fans of Perrotta's The Leftovers know, he's a sharp critic of the gap between the values Americans purport to hold and how they actually conduct their lives. There's a lot of sex in Mrs. Fletcher and quite a bit is degrading. All acts of fellatio seem to come with the recipient commanding, "Suck it bitch." You could read this as punctuating misogyny with a phallic exclamation point. You could also conclude it merely titillates in a prurient fashion. Without giving anything away, let me add that there are more deeply inappropriate relationships in this book than in Congress and the White House combined. Is that how it is in modern America, or is Perrotta just being as nasty as he wants to be? Similar split readings arise over other plot devices: Craigslist pickups, Internet porn, LGBTQIA themes, casual hookups, hazing, autism, the cougar phenomenon…. Do these add complicating depth to characters, or are they contrivances designed to make the novel seem more "relevant" and "contemporary?" (Terms in quotation marks because the definitions of such terms are up for grabs.)   

The novel's epigraph is from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: "The way up and the way down is one and the same." Heraclitus was a foundational thinker in what is called the unity of opposites. In oversimplified terms, the idea is that we understand most concepts in relationship to its opposite(s)—love presupposes hate, good requires evil, etc. Do healthy relationships requite contemplation of unhealthy alternatives? Can contemplation take place without actual walks on the wild side?

The titular character is 46-year-old Eve Fletcher, a still attractive divorcee, but one aware that her life is at a crossroads. As the director of a senior center, Eve witnesses decay and death daily, and she has just dropped off her only child, Brendan, for his freshman year at Berkshire State University*, where she's perceived as ancient by other students. That point is driven home also by Brendan's disrespect and his infrequent texts that touch upon campus life. She even feels like a frump around Amanda Olney, her tattooed and energetic recreation director at the senior center. Eve's midlife funk is so deep that she's afraid to confront the fact that her son is a total asshole. Just to change the frame a bit, she signs up for a Gender and Society class at a community college in Haddington, Massachusetts (a fictional town that's clearly a Boston suburb). Her instructor is Margo—once Mark—Fairchild. Will this be a spark to make her rethink her rutted life, or will it confirm how out of touch she has become?

Perrotta divides the novel into five parts—The Beginning of the Great Whatever, The End of Reluctance, Gender and Society, The MILF, and Lucky Day—each one focusing on paths taken or forsaken by one or more of the book's major characters. Eve is the book's center, but hers is not the only point of view. Whatever else one makes of the book, Perrotta has plotted it well and has populated it with secondary characters that have stories and issues of their own. He even redeems cheaper prose with occasional gems, such as describing a Bikram yoga instructor as  "a beautiful Asian man with the body of a gymnast and the soul of a drill sergeant."

And yet, there are aspects of the book that unsettle me in ways other than its inherently creepy details. It began to stretch credulity that Eve could know so many people simultaneously making unwise decisions. Nearly every male character —Brendan; Eve's ineffectual ex-husband, Ted; cranks at the senior center; a bartender who hits on patrons; and skateboarding Julian, a self-described PTSD high school survivor—is a jerk, a loser, pathetic or all three. Not that the women in the book specialize in Socratic logic either. Eve dances on the razor's edge so often that we wonder why she hasn't sliced herself in two. Perrotta seems to be leading us to consider that damaged individuals must hit bottom before they reverse course. Does he do so, or is his "Lucky Day" section more tacked on than organic? What would Heraclitus say?

I remain conflicted. The good news is that the book moves crisply, so you won't invest much time in checking it out for yourself. If, however, after 75 pages or so you find Mrs. Fletcher too tawdry, give up. It won't get any nicer for quite some time.

Rob Weir   

Berkshire State is clearly modeled on UMass Amherst, especially its physical appearance, its campus activism, its ideological diversity, and its honors college. Other parts are stereotypes that died in the 1980s. In a recent ranking of top party schools, UMass ranked a mere 69th. Nor does anyone complain about the food—UMass cuisine ranks #1 in the nation!


Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas: July Album of the Month

Ports of Call
Culburnie 125D

In a world in which the adjective "professionalism" is often appropriated rather than demonstrated, music remains an expression in which one can literally hear the proof behind the label. Top-tier musicians possess an ineffable quality that, the moment you hear it, you know you have crossed from the border between good and great. I have made this claim before, but let me reiterate: there are few fiddlers on the planet whose tone, precision, skill, or excitement levels approach those of Alasdair Fraser. For the past fourteen years, his primary musical partner has been cellist Natalie Haas, whose own talents have risen to match those of her mentor. On Ports of Call, the duo's fifth release, Haas and Fraser are co-equals that stand head and shoulders above most of their peers.

The album is aptly named. Past Fraser/Haas collaborations have explored deeper dimensions of Scottish traditional music. It has taken them far, and this album pays homage to various places they have touched down. This includes an evolving exploration of their own compositional skills, and the myriad ways in which melodic categories overlap and collapse. Fraser is fond of saying that their music is "all about the dance," you would be hard pressed to say which Fraser and Haas imbue with more gravitas, a village dance tune or a formal court promenade. That's because many of their favorite composers blur the folk/classical line. Take the Hamish Henderson tune "Freedom Call All Ye." It was written as a protest piece, but it sets your toes tapping. Haas appends her own tune, "Peas in the F-hole," whose whimsical title does little to prepare you for its jaunty complexity. This combination is one of the few that is mostly Scottish in makeup and structure. From it they move to France for two scottisches and an andro. These three tunes chase each other, but with a solemnity that flirts with darkness, as Breton music often does. The same can be said of the "Silver and Stuff" set, a march, polska (3/4), and halling (6/8) that come from Norway.

Before Ports of Call finishes we also visit Spain (including Galcia), Quebec, California, Sweden, Finland, and the creative minds of Fraser and Haas. Galician tunes such as those in the "Muińeiras" set often employ hand drums, but Haas' cello provides the percussive bottom. If you like somber, check out the Galician hurdy gurdy tune in the "Foliada!" set, a xota, which is waltz-like, yet not a waltz. Listen to Haas' own "Megan and Jarrod's Waltz" and you'll hear what I mean.  The polska/waltz combo of Swedish tunes in "The Devil and the Gypsy" also tilt toward the austere end of the spectrum, but also highlight the age-old tussel between those of a puritanical bent who damn dance as the devil's music and the gypsy spirit that embraces its intrinsic joy. If you want a lighter touch, check out Fraser's "Keeping Up with Christine," written in honor of his high-energy sister, or Haas' "Waltzka For Su-A," an original and innovative mash of Scandinavian, Quebecois, and Celtic music in C-minor. A personal favorite is Fraser's "Hanneke's Bridal March," which is what more formal pieces should be: stately, but without starch.

Nothing on this album fits the diddly-diddly stereotypes often slapped onto the efforts of "Celtic" musicians. At a recent concert I overheard a woman remark that this was the best "classical" concert she had attended all year. I might dispute the label, but I know what she meant. Listen and you will too. That's what the true pros do—defy our expectations until we surrender to their charms.

Rob Weir


The Hero a Classic Middling Film

THE HERO (2017)
Directed by Brett Haley
The Orchard, 93 minutes, R (language, drug use, sexual content)

The Hero is the very essence of a middling movie: not great, but not bad; not funny enough to be a comedy, or serious enough to be a drama; very well acted in places, and halfheartedly so in others; a summer movie, but with more potential depth than most; and at turns clichéd and surprising. If you can put aside the desire for it to be more than it is, The Hero is a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half inside an air-conditioned theater.

It follows the waning days of a has-been cowboy TV and matinee idol, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott). Hayden's coming up on his 72nd birthday and is a divorcé living alone in the hills above Los Angeles. He supports himself by using his stentorian voice to do commercials and spends his time contemplating his dire medical prognosis, lamenting his estrangement from his daughter Lucy (Kyrsten Ritter), and smoking dope with Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), his dealer and former co-star. Basically he's just waiting to ride off into the sunset.

Two things put a damper in that non-plan. First, Lee reluctantly agrees to accept a lifetime achievement award from an obscure group devoted to Western classics. Second, a younger woman, Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), shows up to buy some dope from Jeremy, and Lee is intrigued enough by her sparkling repartee to invite her to go with him to the awards banquet. Suffice it to say that something happens at that ceremony to make Lee a hot commodity once again. Call it the age of celluloid meets the age of Twitter. Things with Charlotte are a bit more complicated. Is she a daughter substitute? Are we on the cusp of a May-December romance? Or is Charlotte, a stand-up comic, using broken-down Lee as raw material for her act?

Elliott and Prepon are terrific as an odd couple—he of the resonant voice, push-broom moustache, and a demeanor somewhere between the cowboy code of honor and that expected of a brothel bouncer; she of the arched eyebrows, snarky attitude, third-wave feminism, and world of e-communication. Ritter is less successful as daughter Lucy. She is best known as a model and a TV actress, and her overall lack of emotional range is rather evident. Alas, the same must be said of Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) as Lee's ex, Valerie. I had a serious crush of Ms. Ross when I was younger but, truth be told, she's never been a great actress. She doesn't have much to do in The Hero, and she doesn't do it very well. (Excuse the syntactical mess, but you know what I mean!)

The Hero is ultimately a ping-pong film that is alternatively exactly what you expect one moment (ping), but then not-so-obvious the next (pong). I suppose one could argue that Elliott has been living off laconic cowboy stereotypes since The Big Lebowski (1998), but I see him as another ping-pong factor in this film. At times, he is nearly silent—other than a few F-bombs—but when he speaks, his words are spare, but choice. On the flip side, this movie could use a whole lot more script polishing. There is too much padding and not enough background development, especially of Prepon's character. I can see the benefits of making her tough and mysterious overall, but when we she isn't, we wonder where her softness was residing. I suspect that director Brett Haley wanted to keep her cloaked to deflect attention from the creepiness factor in the room: Elliott is 72 and Prepon is 37. In essence, it's safer to dwell on the two getting high than getting jiggy. Yet for all of the pulled punches, The Hero at least suggests more important stuff, mortality and morality for starters. Who gets to tell anyone else how to live, for another.

Rob Weir