Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Spice of 'Fess: Hugh Laurie's Didn’t It Rain

When he was 19-years-old, Hugh Laurie, a young actor and piano player, heard Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (One Way Records, 1978), an album by one of New Orleans's great musicians. "It changed everything for me," Laurie told The Telegraph last spring in describing what for him was a profound experience. The record captures Longhair late in his life, playing that unique New Orleans gumbo of r&b, jazz, Cajun and blues. After listening to it again recently, I can understand how it would impress a young Laurie because it's everything we came to expect as “definitive” 'Fess. If history is anything to go by, Laurie is trying to capture some of that same authentic New Orleans sound on his new record, Didn't It Rain (Warner, 2013). Produced by Joe Henry, this is Hugh Laurie’s second album with his excellent group, the Copper Bottom Band. (Laurie is 53 years-of-age). As good as this record is, though, I can't get past the "actor as musician" stigma that was present on his first release, Let Them Talk (Warner, 2011), which reached No. 16 on the Billboard charts and went Gold in the UK. Is he hard to take seriously as a musician? Considering all of his work as an actor, most recently with the highly successful House, Laurie could be playing a role like any other, only this time it’s as a singer with affection for blues and cabaret music from New Orleans. From what I’ve read, Laurie does take his music seriously, but perhaps not himself.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Maggie Hope Mysteries: A British Spy During World War Two

Whenever historical and fictional characters interact, the reader must suspend judgement about the truthfulness of the novel. Dialogue will largely be invented as novelists engage their imagination to explore beyond what is in the historical record without violating that record. The reader is looking for authenticity and plausibility. Does the novel, regardless of how compelling the plot and interesting the characters, accurately convey the spirit of the times? These musings came to mind after reading Susan Elia MacNeal’s, absorbing Maggie Hope trilogy (with at least two more in the works) especially the first, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (Bantam Books 2012), and the second, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (2012).

Maggie is a very engaging character: smarter than almost all the men around her, spirited, and strong willed, if a tad naïve, with a determination to succeed “in a man’s world.” She is a math prodigy and saddled with an unusual family pedigree. Believing that both of her British parents died in a car accident when she was very small, Maggie was raised in America by her aunt Edith who works as a scientist for Wellesley College where Maggie has graduated with top marks in math. She delays her doctoral studies at MIT to go to London in 1940 to sell a house that she had recently inherited. Unable to sell it, she takes in roommates to defray the expenses, a decision that will have momentous significance as the plot unfolds. Since these novels fall within the mystery genre, it should not be a surprise that her parents are very much alive, and one of the pleasures of these books is to discover with Maggie their current identity and the pivotal role they will play in her life.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Little Stabs at Happiness: The World's End & You're Next

Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan star in Edgar Wright's The World's End

The first weeks of September are a dozy, uninspiring time for moviegoers. Summer’s over, but fall’s not quite here yet; for serious movie geeks, most of the excitement is generated by the news from high-profile festivals (Telluride, Toronto); in the real world, something like Don’t Tell a Soul or The Exorcism of Emily Rose suddenly has a reasonably good chance to be one of the top box-office draws of its opening weekend. Given the kind of summer it’s been at the movies, it’s perfectly appropriate that a couple of the better popcorn movies still lingering around certain multiplexes in these post-dog days offer the charm of small-scale, ironic apocalypses. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Children of the Revolution: DCI Banks Continues to Please

It probably no longer needs to be said that Peter Robinson is one of the premier writers of detective fiction in the English language, right up there with Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, P.D. James and any other crime novelist that you might care to name. The facts speak for themselves: Children of the Revolution (McClelland & Stewart) is Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, apart from five other standalone works of fiction. His awards and prizes, in several countries, are numerous. And besides all that, there is the BBC series based on his novels (titled, unimaginatively, DCI Banks, but brilliantly cast with veteran actor Stephen Tompkinson in the title role), which Robinson aficionados will be pleased to hear has been renewed for a third season.

In this novel, DCI Banks is called out to a cold, damp death, a man broken and battered on an abandoned railway line 30 metres below an isolated footbridge. He could be a suicide or he could have been pushed over the wall of the overpass, or he could have been beaten and thrown off the bridge. The victim, named Gavin Miller, is a local man, down on his luck and a bit of a loner, though not altogether unfriendly. There is, however, one highly unusual thing about Miller’s death: He was carrying an envelope with £5,000 in new £50 notes in it. As Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman says, “Not something you’d need for a walk in the woods.” (page 9)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Cultural Hodgepodge: The Attack, People Who Eat Darkness, The Mindy Project and Robyn Hitchcock In Concert

Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina on Fox's The Mindy Project, which returns for its second season on Sept 17

Choices, choices. These days there’s so much to watch, read and listen to that it’s pretty difficult to keep up with everything you’re interested in. There are eight network TV shows slated to begin their new seasons in the next couple of weeks which I will be watching, as well as a couple of television series either winding down (Under the Dome, Ray Donovan) or having just begun their new season (Copper). And that’s not including the new TV shows which I have yet to sample. Then there are three alternate history science fiction novels I am currently reading and one more which will be published in October, which will be the subject of a future post. Some new movies, by filmmakers I like – including Ron Howard (Rush), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Stephen Frears (Philomena) and Claire Denis (Bastards) – are coming out later in the year and there are still many CDs that I’ve purchased this summer which I have yet to listen to. Here is a small sample of what I’ve been into recently.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Posing: Lady Windermere’s Fan

Peter Hinton’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw Festival is magnificent to look at. Working with set designer Teresa Przyblyski, costume designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Louise Guinand, Hinton creates a series of images that suggest the work of a variety of painters, mostly but not exclusively impressionists. In the first act, Lady Windermere (Marla McLean) entertains the Duchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo) and her daughter Agatha (Kate Besworth) stage right – each of the two scenes in this act takes up half of the stage, each room carved into the black scrim – while a curtain blows in the breeze behind them, revealing a terrace with a Monet-like drop in the background. The fourth act, with Lady Windermere seated next to a cradle, quotes Mary Cassatt. The second scene in act one, of Lord Windermere’s study, is in black and white; the single touch of color is provided by a large red ball on the desk that punctures the naturalist detail like the absurdist detail in one of Magritte’s surrealist paintings, while the lighting creates an expressionist chiaroscuro.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Jazz of Melancholy: Alan Zweig's When Jews Were Funny

Norm Crosby and Alan Zweig in When Jews Were Funny
In his book The Haunted Smile, Lawrence J. Epstein talks about Jewish comedy as if it were perched at the edge of an abyss. "Their stage style is tinged with sadness," Epstein writes. "It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life to be strained – the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing – by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder." In the new documentary When Jews Were Funny, director Alan Zweig gets caught up in his own personal quest for the comic sources of that shudder. By turning to an older generation of Jewish comedians – including Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter and Sheckey Greene – Zweig seeks to identify what makes their work particularly Jewish in nature.