The Story of V-Mail

Photographed Letters on Wings: How Microfilmed V-Mail Helped Win World War II
By Tom Weiner (with Bill Streeter)
Levellers Press, 194 pages.

Until quite recently I had never heard of V-mail. No, I don't mean Email, though V-mail is, in many ways, its predecessor. V-mail was a World War II (1941-45) exigency that shrank the mail.

The "V" in its name stands for "victory," and as author Tom Weiner shows, technology helped boost morale and economize cargo space. Perhaps you can't imagine how downsizing the mail aided the Allied cause in the battle against fascism. That's probably because you're so used to sending Emails that you seldom think about the weight of physical letters. It's just paper, right? In World War II, more than 330 million letters were exchanged between military personnel overseas and their families in the United States. Weiner notes that it took 37 stuffed mailbags weighing a combined 2,575 pounds for every 150,000 letters. Those bags also took up a lot of space. But when those letters were microfilmed, the reels took up just two bags and weighed 45 pounds. It is easy enough to imagine how microfilm eventually spawned new technologies for transmitting information that led to E-mail. More immediately, though, according to the Office of War Information, between 1942-44, V-mail saved five million pounds of airplane cargo space that was used to move everything from rifles and K-rations to blood plasma and surgical dressings.

V-mail had technological limitations, though. Senders had to fill out photographically sensitive forms with room for just 450 words. These were then mailed to centers where they were microfilmed onto reels containing hundreds of other letters. They were then flown to field laboratories overseas that printed them, sliced them into individual dispatches, and printed as "half letters" that measured just 4 ¼ inches by 5 ¼ inches. Some notes sent back home were censored for revealing troop locations too closely, but the system was remarkably efficient; very few letters were lost.

Objectively, Weiner's book is something of a mishmash. It is strongest when focused on V-mail itself. He learned of V-mail from the late Bill Streeter (1930-2017), a Western Massachusetts Renaissance man whose cousin, Henry Ward Streeter, was killed in Germany on April 17, 1945, just weeks before Germany's surrender on May 8. Bill Streeter's preface tells some of Henry's story and is mixed with well-traveled slogans from the period. Likewise, Weiner's introduction is largely a remembrance of his deceased friend. The book is relatively short, but only about 60 percent of it deals directly with V-mail.

The body of the book opens with a chapter on the history of microfilm. It contains fascinating tidbits, though it often feels disconnected from the foundations of V-mail. Chapter two is devoted to airgraphs–used mostly in the Franco-Prussian War and World War I–and it too could be better focused. Chapters three through six are the heart of the book. Weiner rightly gives credit to Kodak and its Recordak technology for making V-mail work. We also learn of how V-mail connected senders and receivers, the campaign to convert them to use V-mail, the military personnel who processed it, and how mail was distributed to those stationed across the globe. Chapter six also details how advertisers promoted and used V-mail. The same chapter gives a nod to the artwork that added to V-mail's allure, even though it reduced the space available for writing.

Weiner's final chapter, "The Voices of V-Mail", was a better idea than reality. Weiner had a limited number of V-mails available to him and we don't learn much from the mundane excerpts. The rare gems are those that really get us into the minds of the writers: family members seeking details of how their loved ones died, observations of Italy from occupying troops, and the shock of learning about President Roosevelt's death.  

There is a lot of repetition in the book, as well as digressive asides and internal references to sources that should have been reduced to footnotes. I heard Weiner speak of his book before I read it. He is so passionate about the subject that I was surprised I didn't learn more from the book. Tonally, Weiner's ardor comes across better in person than on the page. It is unfair to hold a "civilian," if I may, to the standards demanded of a professional historian. Still, I longed for the hand of a developmental editor who could have helped Weiner sharpen his prose, focus, and narrative arc. Weiner's book contains fascinating details about an underappreciated phenomenon. The reader, though, is left to connect the dots and address the lacunae.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Who Slays the Wicked: Some History Will Help

Who Slays the Wicked  (Releases April 2, 2019)
By C. S. Harris
Berkley/Penguin, 352 pages.

Some books set in the past falter because they get history terribly wrong. Others are confusing because they get it right. The second may be a problem for newer readers of C. S. Harris. Who Slays the Wicked is book 14 in her Sebastian St. Cyr series.

C. S. Harris is the nom de plume of Air Force brat Candice Proctor, who holds a Ph.D. in European history and now lives in Louisiana. Ms Harris writes well and precisely delves into great detail. It’s not a necessity, but it sure would help to know a bit about Hanoverian England to appreciate her St. Cyr novels. Who Slays the Wicked is set in 1814, a time in which the Napoleonic wars are sputtering* to a conclusion. George III is on the throne­–the same sovereign who lost the American colonies. His son, the future George IV, is serving as regent however, as George III went hopelessly insane in 1811.

When Napoleon was defeated for good in 1815, a European-wide peace conference redrew the map of Europe. The same conference planted the seeds for the decline of aristocracy, but they didn’t blossom until the end of World War I in 1918. For another hundred years, nobility lived according to different customs and social codes than their subjects.

If you’ve read other Harris novels, you know that proper breeding sometimes allowed one literally to get away with murder.Not this time. St. Cyr is called upon to unravel the gruesome death of Lord Ashworth and he’s keen to solve it as among the prime suspects is Ashworth’s wife Stephanie, who is also St. Cyr’s niece. Stephanie has recently given birth to twins, but she detested her late husband. As it transpires, so did virtually everyone who ever set eyes on Ashworth except his aged father. As was often the case with children of noble blood, the sadistic Ashworth treated women and the hoi polloi as if they were there for his amusement and abuse. He sexually abused Stephanie, as he did also to a string of mistresses, prostitutes, and gullible innocents. He cheated numerous merchants, one of whom is also a hot suspect, and Ashworth was also abusive to architect Russell Firth. That’s very bad news, as rumors hold that Firth has been stepping out with Stephanie.

The more St. Cyr digs into matters, the longer the suspect list grows. The phrase St. Cyr, his fearless wife Hero, and magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy repeatedly hear is, “I’m glad he’s dead.” St. Cyr, like much of London, is certain that Ashworth is the culprit behind the deaths of numerous street children.

The wildcard suspects are in London by way of Moscow. All of Europe knows that the Prince Regent and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had been separated for more than a decade. They had just one child, Princess Charlotte, which made her a desirable marriage catch. Charlotte is affianced to the heir to the Dutch throne, but the czar of Russia hopes to break that alliance and perhaps even entice the Prince Regent to divorce and marry his sister. Harris introduces a fictional character, Ivanna Gagarin, as the consort to the Russian Grand Duchess. She is beautiful, calculating, amoral, and perhaps deadly, though the entire Russian entourage in London had enough contacts with Ashworth to make all of them suspect. The fact that Buckingham Palace tells St. Cyr to back off elevates St. Cyr’s suspicion level. **

Harris juxtaposes court intrigue with the grit, dirt, and crushing poverty of working-class London. She takes us inside seedy pubs and down dark and dangerous alleyways, and introduces us to the stomach-churning world of the night soil men who clean privies, rag and bone collectors, and “pure” finders, the latter of whom roam the street and collect excrement to sell to tanneries. It’s also a world in which ragamuffin children sweep streets, deliver messages, and run errands for anyone who will throw them a few coppers. You can be excused if you conclude that the residents of squalid London have less dirt on their hands than the upper crust. Harris subtly suggests that better times are ahead for some of the down-market parts of London. Firth is modeled on developer James Burton, who financed the building of Regent’s Park, Bloomsbury Square, and numerous other great Georgian projects.

Harris throws us enough red herrings to make fish stew, but if you're not a historian or already immersed in the St. Cyr universe, you might find parts of the novel rather slow going until you catch on to who’s who. It might help to make a cheat sheet as you read. You will need to know, for example, that Lord Ashworth is Anthony Ledger and that St. Cyr is also the Viscount Devlin. All of the aristocratic characters have both a titled and a christened name, and which one you encounter depends upon with whom that character is interacting. This stuff even confuses Brits–friends of mine in London frequently say “some lord or other”­–and it can be quite a puzzlement for those not used to it. 

I am used to it and ultimately found the central mystery intriguing, but I confess that I am more prone to place nobility into the upper class twit category. This is to say I found the novel much more interesting when Sebastian and Hero St. Cyr were cavorting with marginal folks rather than having tea with toffs. I leave open the possibility that I came into the series too late in the game. I enjoyed Who Slays the Wicked, but I’m not holding my breath for the next St. Cyr installment.

Rob Weir

* I used the term "sputtering" because it took separate campaigns to subdue Napoleon. In 1814, Napoleon abdicated when a European alliance captured Paris. He was exiled to the island of Elba, but escaped less than a year later, raised an army, and invaded Belgium. Shortly after his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, he surrendered and was sent to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

** In real life, Russian meddling did break Charlotte’s planned marriage, though she eventually married a German prince, not a Russian.



You Can Feel Good about the New Hood Art Museum


It was quite a coup for Dartmouth College's Hood Art Museum to secure John Stomberg as its new director. Stomberg came from Mount Holyoke by way of Williams College. At each of those institutions he established a reputation for doing amazing things with relatively small collections. He knows rhat it's not the number of items that you have on display, it's what you do with them and what you can borrow.

Stomberg signed aboard to help the Hood reimagine itself physically as well as interpretively. It has just reopened after being closed for three years and a $50 million rebuild. If you've been to the old Hood, you'll hardly recognize the new museum with its 16 new galleries that add 16,000 square feet of display space. The museum flows organically into an airy atrium, the college theater, and a cafeteria.

One indication of where the new Hood is headed is that it did not reopen with a splashy special exhibit. It has long been a teaching museum whose educational mission takes priority over public outreach, and over the next several years will focus upon items from its permanent collection. What has changed, though, is pedagogy. What do we see in art? What values are embedded within a sculpture, painting, or object? What audiences are being served? And, in the age of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and multiculturalism, which stories should be told in a deeper way?

Fortunately, the Hood has treasures to help navigate these new demands. The core of most college art museums is dominated by donations from alums and philanthropists. This can be a crapshoot, but luckily Dartmouth has lots of Native American, Aboriginal, and African art that gives a head start to its goal of inclusiveness. (It owns about 65,000 pieces over all.) The possession of non-Western art no matter how legitimately acquired inevitably raises questions about colonialism. The Hood's approach is to admit this is a factor and use objects to explore questions about imperialism, acquisition, and interpretation. There is, for example, an entire wall filled with African masks. Instead of arranging them by region, we see at a glance the wondrous diversity within a continent too often stereotyped as if it were one big nation rather than the repository of unique traditions and cultures. We also see one of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui's large scale curtains made of cast-off bottle bands. Point made: past creativity meets contemporary vision. We later see attitudes towards globalization in a mashup painting by Congo's Eddie Kamuanga that is where classics meet kitsch and commercialism.

The Native American material is also poignant. Cowboy and Indian motifs stand alone, but also in association with each other and in juxtaposition to contemporary Native art. It makes many of the points as the African masks about diversity and internal creative traditions. Many of the syncretic pieces are shot through with wry humor and/or activist politics. A simple red bar, for instance, has "Red Man" at one end of its scale and 1/16 blood on the other. It stands within a stairwell and requires minimal commentary to make the point about how cavalierly race is measured and imagined. Another shows a cowboy, his gun drawn but his torso and head riddled with bullets we preseume did not come from another cowboy!

If you've still not gotten the point, Aboriginal material to drive you home. Very little of it is traditional; it consists mostly of recent works that draw inspiration from older styles. It is at once ancient, but new– a marriage of past and present that makes Aboriginal culture a living phenomenon, not a fly-in-amber moment in time.

You have to hunt for the European and American art, something for which Stomberg has taken some heat. I see both ends of that can of worms. I admire attempts to bring interpretation in line with current sensibilities, yet it is objectively true that the Hood's first show shortchanges Western Art and the work of curators. It is also occasionally open to criticism of being both overly politically correct, yet conservative.

The key is what the next Hood show looks like. Will it display more conventional pieces? I'm happy to give a pass this time around, because even with 16 additional galleries you can't display everything. The choice is basically the rock and pond scenario: does one go for maximum splash–a themed display–or skim the surface with small drips of everything? I prefer the first approach, but it will be interesting to see if the Hood leaves itself open to charges of catering to what is acceptable in the moment.

Art and conformity usually don't keep good company with each other. Sometimes shock and anger makes a point. A short corridor of photographs raised a few red flags. One panel consisted of an explanation of why a particular image was not on display. The skinny: it would make too many people uncomfortable. There's another explanation: censorship. What a museum collects is or isn't art; if curators think it's not, sell it. Don't tell me what you can't show me. Photographs are also used as the centerpiece of a debate over who owns the content of the art. Is that even a question? It is the artist, surely, and the public decides either to look or look away. In the case of a photograph, the answer is cut-and-dried; if what the photographer snaps is on public display, the photographer owns the image.

I hope that the museum doesn't opt for comfort and will concentrate on teaching the controversy. A walk across the street to the Baker Library makes a good case for teaching controversy. The basement contains the spectacular José Clemente Orozco mural The Epic of American Civilization. Visitors often think they are going to see a Diego Rivera mural. That's understandable as Orozco's themes echo those in Rivera's famous mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Both artists juxtapose savagery, progress, and regress, just as both use life cycle imagery, skewer religious hypocrisy, and expose social class power structures. Both also painted during the Great Depression and both were accused of being leftwing propagandists. (Some of Rivera's works were painted over!) My point is that just because a work disturbs is not a cause for censorship. It boggles my mind that today's self-styled progressives call for the removal of all things objectionable. Do they not know that it has been the political right that has historically censored art? Some thought Orozco's mural was incongruent with Dartmouth's mission and wanted it removed. As you view it today, ponder what would have been lost had the fashion/passion of the moment prevailed. 



Colette Doesn't Do Its Subject Justice

Colette (2018)
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Bleecker Street, 111 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality)

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was a fascinating individual who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Although she often scandalized polite society, she became an important force in both French literature and cultural change. Four books on the adventures, loves, and life of her alter ego "Claudine" appeared between 1900-03 under her husband's name, Henry  ("Willy) Gauthier-Villars' name before their volcanic marriage erupted irreparably. Colette—she tended to use just her last name in public—went on to pen over 30 books under her own byname, the most famous of which is Gigi (1944), which received several film treatments. Colette was also a bisexual adventurer who married and divorced three times, and took numerous lovers, including another fascinating individual, Mathilde de Morny, known as "Missy," who dressed and presented as male. How did get away with that? She was also the Marquise de Balbeuf and Napoleon III's niece.

There's so much material with which to work that Colette has its moments, but for the most part it is a mediocre treatment of fascinating individuals. The best performance by far comes from Dominic West as Willy. We meet him as he sweeps country girl Gabrielle/Colette off her feet and brings her to Paris as his new wife. We see from the beginning that he is a cad, a bully, an egoist, a sexual libertine, and a fraud masquerading as an intellectual. He described himself as a "literary entrepreneur," a nice way of saying that reviews, commentary, articles, and books largely or entirely written by others appeared with his name on them. This included Claudine at School, which was a literary blockbuster, which Colette wrote. West plays Willy with outsized bombast that befits his character. We understand why women are attracted to him, as well as why they weary of him. His male friends see through him, but they tolerate him longer because he is like Ernest Hemingway: a man's man.

Also fine was Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie Raoul-Duval, an American-born socialite married to a French mine owner. She will become the lover of both Colette and Willy, to the chagrin of each. Tomlinson plays Georgie as outwardly demure, but inwardly ruthless.  Timlinson wears her pale beauty like a thinly dusted mask that falls by the wayside when she bears her fangs. Fiona Shaw is also fine in an extended cameo as Sido, Colette's mother.  

Denise Gough isn't quite convincing as "Missy." She's done up to look a bit like a younger Ellen DeGeneres, which isn't quite the right body type. De Morny was far more manly in presentation and was seldom as forthcoming with the "girl talk" in which she engages in the film. The film does get it right in one important sense; she and Colette lived together after Colette left Willy in 1905, and the two shared a lesbian kiss on at the Moulin Rouge stage in 1907 that led to rioting in the theatre and put the kibosh to their ability to share a domicile. 

Aiysha Hart plays Polaire, the actress that assumed the persona of Colette on the French stage. She is fierce, assertive, and commanding. Would that Keira Knightley had half of her presence in her role as the actual Colette. I am increasingly of the opinion that Knightley is a poor man's Natalie Portman. Unlike Portman, Knightley merely looks like she fits into roles that ought to go to actresses with more gravitas and skill. This to say that Portman would have devoured a role at which Knightley merely nibbles. Her mannerisms are too modern, as is the attitude-laden smirk upon her face when she tries to display sarcasm or contempt. Like this movie, Knightley isn't terrible, just so blandly middle of the road that she's the thing we remember least from the film.

Let's also give a boo hiss to director Westmoreland for his suggestion that post-Willy Colette won the renown and acclaim she deserved. She was indeed a skilled writer, though much of her work would today be classified as soft porn romance literature. It should have at least warranted mention that her third marriage was to a Jewish man sixteen years her junior who fled Paris when it fell to the Nazis in 1940. Colette stayed behind and wrote anti-Semitic articles. No easy heroine she.

Let's also call out Westmoreland for making a film about a complex and controversial figure that is limp and lifeless. It is a film of surfaces without depth, the sort that makes one merely shrug when it's over. A character such as Colette should make you roar.

Rob Weir 


Juliet, Naked: The Title Must Refer to the Script

Juliet, Naked (2018)
Directed by Jesse Peretz
Lionsgate, 105 minutes, R (For F-bombs?)

Nick Hornsby is an interesting writer. Ethan Hawke is a wonderful actor. But this doesn't mean that every book or film associated with the two is a winner. Juliet, Naked is a case in point. This is one of those films you stream on a night in which your brain is fried and you want pure escapism.

The film takes its name from the album title of a one-hit-wonder rock musician. We zero in on a fading beach town southeast of London, where Annie Platt (Rose Bryne) runs the local history museum and shares an airy apartment with her longtime boyfriend Duncan Thompson (Chris O'Dowd). Duncan is a college professor obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a rock star who disappeared during a concert interval 25 years earlier. Annie is fed up hearing about Crowe and her annoyance grows deeper when someone sends Duncan an acoustic demo of Crowe's only album, Juliet, Naked. Duncan is analogous to diehard Deadheads who insist that everything the band did was transcendent. Annie's listening–and she couldn't avoid it if she tried–is that the demos are rubbish. But Duncan is into his fantasy way more than he is into Annie.

Her response to Duncan's video blog touting the demo's virtues is to post a comment to the site calling Crowe's music lame. Duncan is infuriated and a sharper wedge is driven into his failing relationship with Annie. The big surprise, though, is that Annie gets an email from Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke) in which he agrees with every word she wrote. Tucker has no idea that Duncan is Annie's partner and wonders who the obsessed idiot who has been writing about him for years might be. The two begin a regular email conversation and connections between to deepen. When Tucker tells her that he will be flying to London to see his pregnant daughter, Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), plans are laid to meet.

Serve some false start leftovers, drizzle with complications, and toss in some toasted clichés and you could have written the script; especially if you've seen Sleepless in Seattle and Searching for Sugar Man. Tucker's life has been such a mess that he sees his attempt to be a good dad to 6-year-old Jackson as perhaps his last shot at redemption. This, of course, is never true in a rom-com, but tossing in sentimental fatherhood and, in Annie's case, empty womb essentialism are common elements for novelists and script writers aiming for lowest common denominator mass appeal.

The overall thinness of the story is revealed in subplots that go nowhere, such as the love life of Annie's lesbian sister Ros and Duncan's attraction to a new colleague. There are several scenes that are as broad as a Victorian drawing room play from a second-tier writer, such as a particularly silly (and unlikely) hospital scene and a forced impromptu performance from Tucker. (He sings a Kinks song.) Even the central revelation about the identity of Juliet and the back-story of the record feels like a let down.

There are two reasons to give the film a look: Hawke and Bryne. Hawke plays Tucker as if he's a mix of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski and Cat Stevens. He's such a fine actor that he can drift through a film and still look good, which is pretty much what he does in Juliet, Naked. Rose Bryne is radiant as Annie. She physically embodies (undeveloped) themes of fading glory (the seaside town, central relationships, Crowe's reputation). At age 39, the Australian-born actress is still gorgeous, but she plays Annie with just enough exasperation and weariness to appear haggard around her luminous edges. Like Hawke, she needs a life refresh button before it's too late. I wish I could say that O'Dowd was equally subtle, as the script is set up to be a Duncan-Rose-Tucker triad. Alas, O'Dowd is all annoyance and no charm, which taints his performance with histrionic excess. 

In the end, Juliet, Naked isn't a horrible film, but neither is it a good one. The prevailing emotion one gets watching it is that it's all right, but should have been much better. Like I said upfront, call this one a film for a no-heavy-thinking evening.

Rob Weir


Good Old Boys, Ari and Mia, Music Maker Relief Artists

Traditional Music for March 2019

The music business has a category called  "traditional." The label was originally used during the 20th century authenticity wars when a person singing a song had to have learnt it at his grand pappy's knee to be considered a real folk artist. No one has held that standard for quite some time and the information age has reduced the number of truly isolated communities to close to nil. These days it's hard to know exactly what traditional means in musical terms. You're sharper than I if you can come up with hard boundaries between labels such as traditional, old-time, bluegrass, acoustic country, and folk. 

A better point is to embrace the fact that ours is a mashable world. In this column I'd like to feature some recent releases and reissues that both step in tradition and sing the present.

Good Old Boys-Live, Drink Up and Go Home

Who's authentic and who isn't? By the 1970s it was already a stupid question. Need an example? How about the Good Old Boys? The band's traditional artist-for-sure was mandolin wizard Frank Wakefield (b. 1934), whose fingers blaze like a lightening strike in dry chaparral. He was born in Tennessee and comes from musical stock. There was also fiddler Brantley Kearns and bass fiddle player Pat Campbell, both of whom had been playing old-time music. The guitarist, though, was David Nelson, best known for his country rock/folk band New Riders of the Purple Sage. The banjo player on the cover looks familiar: Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. He sounds familiar too; on the band's double-album release of two 1975 Santa Cruz, CA concerts, Garcia is also the lead vocalist on the title track and "All the Good Times."

Garcia always insisted that bluegrass and old-time music were his favorites. In 1975, the Dead was on hiatus, but Garcia had long forged partnerships with down-home musicians. Could he play banjo? Listen to "Fireball Mail" and you've got you answer. Garcia, though, is probably not what you'll remember most. Perhaps you'll recall the tight twangy vocal harmonies. This was an affectation on the part of several band members, done so because twang was considered an "authentic" backwoods voice. Sounds pretty good, though, as you can hear on "Pistol Packin' Mama," "Teardrops in My Eyes," and "Lonesome Road Blues." Yeah, this project is filled with songs and tunes that often carry a label of their own: standard. But what you're most likely to recall is Wakefield's mandolin. He was and remains one of the standards by which expertise is measured. On "White House Blues" Wakefield lays down notes that are played somewhere around warp 5. And there's what is arguably his most famed composition, "New Camptown Races." There's a clean recording on this on the album, but it's worth watching to see how back in 2008, when Wakefield was 74, he could still play the daylights out of this tune.  ★★★★

Ari and Mia, Sew the City

Sisters Ari (cello/vocals) and Mia (fiddle/banjo/voice) Friedman take a Child ballad like "Unquiet Grave" or a sacred harp offering like "Sweet Morning" and make you think you're hearing the heirs to Jean Ritchie. Except that doesn't quite work as these Massachusetts musicians honed their music at the New England Conservatory of Music, not the hollers of the Southern Appalachians. They do, however, possess an uncanny knack for taking you on a musical journey that feels so rooted in tradition that only the clarity of the sound reminds you that this isn't some lost field recording from the age of song catchers. "Come on Home" is an original, but its banjo-driven melody and sweet lyrics such as There are stars, there is music but where are you? I am calling you home tonight/I can see through the fog to what I have to do/I’ll light the fire so it’s burning bright enhance our out-of-the-present experience. It's not until we get to the offbeat "Till I Die" that we experience the Friedmans as children of this age. It's a spare song like all their material, but it has quirky elements that evoke everything from the stage to The Beatles. The title track is also contemporary in content, though once again the instrumentation spills out from an ancient stream. You'll also wish to check out their string/drone cover of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum." Ari and Mia make it sound like a minor key growling from beneath the earth's crust. I'm told that Mia teaches music in Springfield and at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley. Lucky students. ★★★★

Music Maker Relief Foundation, Blue Muse

For the past quarter century the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) has helped musicians having trouble meeting living and health expenses. That's way more artists than you think. It's easy to look at MMRF contributors such as Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal and forget that for every celebrity such as they, there are dozens of blues, folk, and acoustic country musicians barely scraping by. On this compilation CD you can hear Clapton scorch the strings on "Mississippi Blues" and Taj Mahal gives us a "John Henry" variant "Spike Driver Blues." Don Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) is another name you might know. He gives us the delightfully retro "Polly Put the Kettle On," complete with old-time fiddle, mouth harp, and kitchen table sing along harmonies. But the delight of collections like Blue Muse comes from listening to artists whose names you probably don't know. You'll hear the hillbilly vibe of Sam Frazier, Jr. ("Cabbage Man"), the boogie-woogie groove of Alabama Slim ("I Got the Blues"), the mountain sounds of Martha Spencer and Kelley Breiding ("Sweet Valentine"), the wailing blues of Algia Mae Hinton ("Snap Your Fingers"), and a tickle-the-ivories jazzy cover of "Route 66" from Eddie Tigner, and you've still just scratched the surface of this gem of an album. Let me give a special call out to the artistCaptain Luke, whose work song "Old Black Buck" might rankle delicate sensibilities but I'll guarantee you won't forget his deep, glorious voice. He passed away in 2015 and his is decidedly a talent that went underappreciated. ★★★★


Miseducation of Cameron Post is Good (ish)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Film Rise, 90 minutes, Not-rated (brief nudity, language)           

The Miseducation of Cameron Post seeks to shed light on religious intolerance.  Its lead actress, Chloë Grace Moretz, is a champion of LGBT rights and the film’s director, Desiree Akhavan, is a Smith College graduate. These factors conspire to endear this movie to me, but they don't necessarily guarantee a quality product. So is The Miseducation of Cameron Post a good flick? The answer is “ish.”

The setup is simple and, in some ways, reflective of the film’s overall tendency to skim surfaces. It’s 1993 and Cameron Post (Moretz) is in love, but not with her boyfriend. She has been having hot and heavy make-out sessions with Coley (Quinn Shephard) that have moved from the experimental stage to reckless passion. The flash point comes on prom night when Cameron’s boyfriend discovers the two girls flagrante delicto in the back of a car. Cameron’s aunt Ruth­–Cameron’s parents died in a car crash–loves her niece, but Ruth is also a serious Christian who sees lesbianism as a sin and yearns for Cameron’s social and spiritual salvation. For her “own good,” Cameron is trundled off to God’s Promise, a Christian boarding school/conversion therapy center to be “cured” of her SSA (same-sex attraction).

God would need to work a miracle to get past some of the center’s basic contradictions, starting with the fact that sending someone with SSA to a facility filled with other gay people is akin to housing a sugar addict in a candy store. Plus, it would take a staff far more competent than Rev. Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and his psychologist sister Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) to keep the lid on teen hormones. Their half boot camp, half evangelism approach doesn’t really get to the core of nature and identity, and the two consistently confuse compliance and games-playing with genuine conversion. Can you say inmates in charge of the asylum?
God’s Promise is at least an interesting collection of inmates. There is, for instance, a mixed race, prosthesis-wearing, attitude-oozing girl named–and I’m not making this up­–Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), as well as Cameron’s blissed-out but not quite buttoned–down roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs). On the male side, there is Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a Lakota two-spirit (third gender), and his roommate Mark (Owen Campbell), who is outwardly the school’s star convert. Cameron, like most of the kids at God’s Promise, is mainly conflicted. She knows how she feels but worries that her aunt Ruth may be right about God and what she should want. Another intriguing character in this vein is stout Helen (Melanie Ehrlich), who would be mercilessly taunted in a regular high school. She possesses a great singing voice, though, and thinks maybe she can use it as an evangelical tool and clarify all of her identity issues. You can bet the farm that things will not go entirely as planned for anyone, even for those who yearn to become heterosexual.
This movie is in the spirit of films such as Saved! (2004), Jesus Camp (2006), and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), though it’s not as good as any of them. Its strongest feature lies with strong performances from Moretz, Goodluck, and Lane. Each is in his or her early 20s, but easily look and act the part of high school adolescents. Moretz in particular appears poised to become the next bright young thing. She is the princess of cool detachment, even when she’s seething with anger, sadness, or resignation. Lane and Goodluck are more sly and enigmatic, but all three keep us just enough off balance to make us wonder what they will conspire to do. Ehle is also superb in her portrayal of an ice queen wearing an evangelical cloak.
This film won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but in my estimation that was overly charitable. Too many of the peripheral characters are unconvincing cardboard cutouts. Gallagher’s Rick is a rah-rah, guitar-strumming come-to-Jesus minister, but he’s also so clueless that we wonder how he ended up in charge of anything, much less a band of vulnerable young folks. He also seems more goofy than charismatic. Skeggs’ out of nowhere break in character is exactly that: out of nowhere. Several other characters appear in cameos that are personality 'types,' but they lack the development to make them seem real. 
Akhavan’s direction, depending on your point of view, is either improvisational or overly passive. There is something to be said for giving actors wide latitude and, at times, her film-the-riffs approach captures the inner turmoil of the adolescent mind. It is, however, also a director’s job to impose a certain degree of coherence for viewers. It is perhaps an odd remark to make, but this would have been a far better film had it been nastier. Akhavan wants us to grapple with assumed/imposed versus inherent sexual identity, but the message that comes across most vividly is that God’s Promise personnel were incompetent.
Akhavan exposes the sanctimonious veneer of gay conversion therapy and, by extension, sanctimony and puffed-up piety. Still, what we see is a scratch on the surface. Her Christian heavies are more bumbling and comically inept than menacing or small-minded. This has the effect of pulling punches rather than delivering any sort of body blow to the essential arrogance of those who believe that God’s will has been delivered unto them in a small gift-wrapped box.
Rob Weir


A Dangerous Collaboration is a Page-Turner Mystery

A Dangerous Collaboration (March 2019)
By Deanna Raybourn
Berkley/Penguin, 336 pages.

When 19th century activists and writers began to discuss the "New Woman," I doubt that Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell was quite what they had in mind. Lucky for us. Raybourn's creation is a wonderful combination of fierce determination, pigheadedness, insight, and pluckiness. The New Woman was known for her independence and willingness to defy convention, but I don't know of any who secreted throwing knives in their corsets, were unabashedly carnal, were the "semi-legitimate" offspring of the notoriously randy Duke of Wales, or combined careers in lepidoptery (butterfly studies) and amateur sleuthing.

Everything about Veronica Speedwell is cheeky. Her name is also that of a spiky purple flower that looks a bit like loosestrife, and her partner in adventure is Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, who goes by the handle of "Stoker." One of the first literary figures to write the New Woman into his novels was Bram Stoker. Veronica and Stoker are not exactly lovers–he's recovering from a disastrous marriage–but Speedwell isn't a virgin and she wouldn't exactly kick Stoker out of her bed, or his brother either. In fact, controlling her animal instincts is an ongoing struggle as there's only so much Victorian society will countenance, even from its outliers.

The fourth installment of Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series is set in 1888, when Jack the Ripper is loose in London. But Veronica's attentions are directed elsewhere–off the coast of Cornwall to be precise. Stoker's brother, Lord Tiberius Templeton-Vane, puts forth an offer Veronica can't refuse: come with him on a short outing to St. Maddern's island, where a rare butterfly exists. There are odd extenuating circumstances. Ostensibly Tiberius is going to cheer up an old friend, Malcolm Romilly, whose lordship of an ancient castle has suffered because of his grief. Because the Romilly family is Catholic, Tiberius and Veronica must pose as affianced. The chance of seeing a butterfly thought to be extinct is lure enough for Veronica, though Stoker suspects it's just a ruse on his brother's part to seduce her. She reminds him in no uncertain terms–and our Ms. Speedwell isn't one to mince words–that she's 26, has no desire to be anyone's doormat or wife, and can take care of herself. Stoker, though, despises his brother, whom he sees as a scheming and amoral aristocrat. A sample of their mutual vitriol–Tiberius: "Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me." Stoker: "And yet you still breathe…. I must be doing something wrong."

Stoker will also journey to St. Maddern's and there, things are odder still. Malcolm desires help is solving a mystery that has reduced him to melancholic torpor. It is the third anniversary of the disappearance of Rosamund, who vanished on the day she and Malcolm were to be wed. What happened? Did she flee? Was she kidnapped? Murdered? No one comes or goes from St. Maddern's in secret, so where is Rosamund? As another detective was fond of saying, the game is afoot. 

Without revealing anything, let's just say that truth will follow a very crooked path. The castle cast also includes Malcolm's reclusive sister Mertensia, who is happy only when tending the castle's extensive grounds, including a poison garden; Malcolm's widowed sister-in-law Helen, who is a medium who proposes to contact Rosamund in the spirit world; her 19-year-old spoiled brat of a son, Caspian; and a full household staff commanded by Mrs. Trengrouse, who has been at the castle since Malcolm was a lad. There is also a village full of eccentrics and fishermen, not to mention the bickering brothers, and various motives that are seldom what they purport to be. 

You might want to get the digital version of this book so you have one-finger access to the built-in dictionary. Ms. Raybourn has an exceptionally large vocabulary that is replete with now-archaic Victorian terms. She also has a puckish wit, such a description of a large castle fireplace "the sort for roasting half an ox or an annoying child." Raybourn engages in subtle gender inversion, such as making Veronica more rational, decisive, and sexually aroused than the men. I suppose some might complain that Veronica is too thoroughly modern at times, but it is a novel after all, not a work of history. If there is a weakness, it is that once the mystery is unveiled, what occurs next is telegraphed and predictable. I didn't care. I ripped through this book in two sittings and felt refreshed to indulge in the wit and passions of Veronica Speedwell, a Victorian for our times.

Rob Weir



Capernaum a Trip to Hades You Should Take

Capernaum (2018)
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Sony Pictures Classics, 123 minutes, R (kids in peril)
In Arabic and Amharic (with subtitles)

In the Bible, although Jesus spent much of his ministry in or near Capernaum, he cursed the town and said it would be cast into hell for its lack of faith. Today’s Capernaum is in Israel and the namesake film is set in Lebanon, but Beirut is surely a candidate for a damned city. Once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut has been a basket case since the 1975 civil war, a cesspool of warring factions.

Capernaum the film isn’t directly about Lebanon’s woes, yet it is. Director Nadine Labaki offers several wide aerial shots of Beirut and what we see is a bleak canvas of concrete, dilapidated apartments, rat maze streets, and roofs secured by cast off tires. When we zoom in to street level, we observe residents fashioning lives marked by improvisation, resignation, desperation, and detached misanthropy. It’s not the sort of place that’s kind to poor families or children. Zain’s family is doubly cursed. His father Selim has the enervated look of a man on the verge of giving up, though he can martial the energy to beat his children and impregnate his wife, Souad. There’s nothing like too many kids, grinding poverty, and domestic violence to make squalor seem even worse. The family survives mainly because their shopkeeper landlord cuts them a break, and that’s only because he wishes to marry their 11-year-old daughter, Sahar.

Capernaum is really Zain’s story. We first meet him in a courtroom, as he has been sentenced to five years in jail for stabbing a man and because Zain is suing his parents. Labaki tells Zain’s story in a non-linear fashion. We learn that Zain’s life was on the streets, where he hawked goods (including Tramadol), shoplifted, and did whatever he needed to survive. Zain (Zain Alrafeea) is probably around 12–he has no birth certificate–but he swears, smokes, and cavorts with the swagger of one twice his age. Zain’s fate is tied to his decision to disappear for a time, a journey that led him to an amusement park where he engaged in defiant acts of mischief, but also met Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian refugee trying to make ends meet and keep secret from her boss that she has a toddler son, Jonas. Zain soon moves in with Rahil and becomes a surrogate caregiver to Jonas. It is hard not to choke up as we see Zain pulling Jonas around in a cooking pot mounted to a stolen skateboard, or tying Jonas’ ankle to rope so that he won’t venture into danger as Zain hustles his wares du jour.

Some reviewers have compared Zain to Huck Finn. I get the analogy insofar as Zain, like Huck, is adept at fending for himself. But let’s not pull punches. Capernaum is a tough and affecting film, but there’s little of Twain’s humor in the telling. Zain will also meet a young Syrian girl who hopes to immigrate to Sweden. Let that sink in. How bad are things in Ethiopia and Syria if illegal immigrants come from such places to Beirut? If you’ve no stomach for children in peril, steer clear of Capernaum. Ms. Labaki does not try to bathe her film in gauzy sentimentality; hers is more of a fictionalized documentary style that uses blinding Mediterranean light to bring social problems into sharp, unvarnished focus. We get a glimmer of hope in the film’s final moments in which Labaki pays homage to Francois Truffault’s 1959 classic 400 Blows, but we get little sense–as we might in a Hollywood fairy tale–that everyone will live happily ever after. Lebanon is still a world of child brides, children abducted and sold, women with little control over their bodies, and chaos reigning supreme.

Zain Alrafeea is riveting and was quite a find; literally so as in real life he is a Syrian refugee who was illiterate when cast in the film. Alrafeea is now in Norway, but his future remains uncertain. Like I said, Labaki doesn’t trade in fairy tales. Capernaum has won numerous awards, including several at Cannes. It is a deeply moving film that, in most years, would be an odds-on favorite to win an Oscar as best foreign film. In 2018, though, it is at best the fourth best foreign film in a stunning field that includes Cold War, Roma, and Shoplifters. It is nonetheless a stunning journey into Sheol. Don’t look away because you don’t want to know about what Zain endures; watch because you should know.

Rob Weir



Unsheltered Burdened by Preachy Tone

Unsheltered (2018)
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 480 pages.

Barbara Kingsolver is always worth reading, but she’s not written a truly great novel since Poisonwood Bible (1998). Alas, Unsheltered is not her long-awaited return to literary glory. It’s a good book, but not a great one. Years ago the New Republic slammed her as the mistress of “calamity writing.” That’s harsh, but it’s beyond dispute that Kingsolver seeks to make proverbial Big Statements in Unsheltered.  

On the surface, it’s a simple setup: one badly constructed house, two families separated 140 years in time, and one locale: Vineland, New Jersey. The setting was carefully chosen. Vineland was the brainchild of utopian developer Charles K. Landis (1833-1900). In 1862, Landis began building an alcohol-free town based on progressive educational and political principles. As the name suggests, agriculture was to be the economic driver of the town, especially grape production*. Landis appears in the 1875 part of Kingsolver’s novel, a time by which some residents–including journalist Uri Carruth­–had come to believe Landis’s middle initial stood for “King.”

Landis and Carruth are historical figures, as is Mary Treat (1830-1923), a brilliant entomologist, botanist, and faithful correspondent of Charles Darwin. Most Vineland residents viewed her as eccentric, as women simply weren’t supposed to pursue such things in Gilded Age America. Kingsolver’s main focus, though, is on Treat’s next-door neighbors, the (fictional) Greenwoods. They live in a house that, like the Gilded Age, looks respectable on the outside but is structurally unsound. Thatcher is the poorly paid new science teacher who struggles to keep afloat a household that includes his materialistic wife Rose, her spirited tomboy sister Polly, and their snobbish widowed mother Aurelia. To make matters worse, Thatcher teaches pure science in ways that outrage his Biblical literalist colleague Cutler. Thatcher’s only solace is Mary, who introduces him to the Pine Barrens as a plein air laboratory.

Kingsolver’s chapters alternate between 1875 and 2014 and she’s good at parallelism. Our contemporary center of attention is the Tavoularis clan. Like Thatcher Greenwood, Iano Tavoularis is a struggling academic. He lives in Vineland because the college at which he was tenured went under, and Vineland is a cheaper base from which to commute to Philadelphia for an adjunct’s starvation wages. By the mid-20th century, post-industrial Vineland was no utopia, and it certainly was not one in the wake of Hurricane Sandy (2012). Iano and his wife Willa are ageing former hippies with two adult children: Zeke, who wants to be an investor, and “Tig” (Antigone), a diminutive fireball eco activist who thinks it’s probably too late to save the planet. There is also Nick, Iano’s dying rightwing father, and Zeke’s baby, “Dusty,” whose mother is deceased.

There are other examples of parallelism. The Greenwoods have two dogs, Scylla and Charybdis. I’ll spare you the detour into Greek mythology, but they are the origins of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place.” Antigone’s name is also plucked from myth. The irreconcilable worldviews of Zeke and Tig are analogous to disputes between blind faith versus rational science explored in Thatcher’s Scopes Trial-like tribunal, the sensational trial of Charles Landis, Nick’s talk radio parroting, Willa’s quixotic quest to save her house, Zeke’s belief in money, and Tig’s apocalyptic warnings.

Kingsolver’s novel is well plotted, rich in detail, has well developed characters, and is an imaginative blend of fiction and history, but it's pretty damn obvious in its use of metaphors. The problematic house threatens to unshelter its inhabitants, but will it allow them to “stand in the clear light of day…?” In Kingsolver’s telling, we have the choice to follow convention or truth, unreason or fact, vanity or nature, and those who tell us what we want to hear or scientists. Landis is a metaphor for Donald Trump and in case you don’t get that Mary Treat remarks, “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore all order.” Still uncertain? A Vineland mob harasses a defender of Darwin with chants of, “Lock him up.”

I am part of the choir to whom Kingsolver is preaching, but will she convince non-believers? Too much of Unsheltered is as subtle as a Facebook rant. Her message that humankind’s house is falling down is advanced through long sections whose didactic tone is similar to that found in Edward Bellamy’s famed Looking Backward (1888). Big chunks of the novel are informative, but the prose is limp.

Kingsolver also presents either/or binaries. Perhaps she's right that the time for nuance is past but then again, maybe she’s ambiguity-challenged. I admire her passion, but she could trust her readers more instead of becoming the scientific scold to Cutler’s evangelicalism or Willa’s idealism. I certainly wouldn’t dispute the view that Planet Earth, like Vineland, has become Paradise Lost. But Kingsolver doesn’t give us much space to dream that we might, in Joni Mitchell’s words, get back to the garden.

Rob Weir  

* Vineland was, for a time, the major supplier for Welch’s Grape Juice.