This film doesn't add up, but don't blame Michael Stuhlbarg.

A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
105 minutes
* *

Joel and Ethan Coen have written and directed some of the edgiest and most interesting films of the past twenty-five years, but A Serious Man isn’t one of them. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens did an update of The Odyssey; in A Serious Man they turn their attention to the Biblical Book of Job.

The film is set in a cookie cutter suburb of Minneapolis in 1967—the sort of place where the Sixties is still mostly the Fifties, but the former is inexorably eroding the complacency of the latter. Larry Gopnik—nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg—is indeed a serious man, a college physics professor who teaches with his back to his students and fills blackboards floor to ceiling with arcane equations designed to prove that many problems are unsolvable paradoxes. He’s a clueless and goofy Mensch content to commute home each evening to a nondescript ranch house, a bored wife, a daughter who washes her hair more often than Lady Macbeth soaped her hands, and an about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son whose world revolves watching “F Troop” and surreptitiously smoking pot to take the edge off his humdrum existence. Larry doesn’t foresee any of the tribulations about to come his way. When his wife announces she wants a divorce in order to take up with the overbearing Sy Ableman—expertly played by Fred Malamed as a Jewish version of Leo Buscalgia—Larry’s world begins to unravel. Soon he finds himself being bribed by a Korean student and blackmailed by his father. His tenure decision is in jeopardy; his car is wrecked; his brother is dogged by local police; he’s being hounded by a record company for bills racked up by his no-account son; and he faces staggering lawyer fees. He even ends up paying for the funeral of his wife’s paramour. Larry is literally hemmed in, with a seductress on one side of his home and a redneck anti-Semite on the other. When Larry seeks help and answers from various rabbis, all he receives are strings of platitudes steeped in Stoicism and gibberish.

Poor Larry! The wailing vocals of Grace Slick singing “Somebody to Love” opens the film and reappears throughout. The song’s opening lines—When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies—is pretty much the arc of this film’s narrative. These ideas probably played much better on the story boards than they appear on screen. There are several glaring problems with the film. First, it treads turf covered by numerous recent films. The character of a meek man to whom bad shit happens is also the central trope of Lost in Translation (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The fact that Joel Coen directed the last of these makes one wonder why he’d go there again.
A more serious problem is that it’s hard to make an interesting film about passive people. Stuhlbarg deftly avoids the temptation to be histrionic and does a fine job with what he’s given, but the script is simply too thin to draw us in. After we see Larry’s non-reaction to his first few trials the rest of the film is like repeatedly watching crash-test dummies slammed into a wall (which also happens to Larry). There’s none of the witty repartee that made O Brother such a delight, nor are there wacky capers, thrilling pursuits, or dramatic turnabouts. This is a film about a man whose frustration deepens by the moment, an experience that rubs off on viewers.

Finally, it’s standard to review ethnic films with lines such as “You don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate ….” In this case, you probably do have to be Jewish to pick up all the in-jokes, untranslated Yiddish words, and cultural references. The Coens misfire by turning the Book of Job into a Jewish tour de farce—it robs the story of its universal appeal.

Fine acting, quirky situations, and clever cinematography are simply not enough to rescue what is, at its core, a very dull film. I’m grateful for one thing: the soundtrack sent me back to an old Jefferson Airplane record for the first time in years. You might want to go straight to the Airplane and save yourself 105 trying minutes.--LV



Joanne Harris
Holy Fools
355 pp.
* * * *

If the name Joanne Harris doesn’t ring any bells, how about the glorious little film Chocolat? Harris wrote the novel upon which the 2000 film was based. I loved that film so much that I vowed to check out Harris’s other work. Holy Fools was my second exposure to Harris, but it won’t be my last.

Speaking of vows, the heroine of Holy Fools is a former tightrope-walker-turned-nun named Juliette. Don’t expect a Catholic conversion story, though; Juliette is in the nunnery because she needed a place to escape the law, protect her illegitimate daughter, and hide from the man who left her in desperate straits, the dashing-but-dastardly Guy LeMerle. What better place than an island in Brittany detached from the mainland by a tidal causeway? (Think a larger and more pastoral version of Mont Saint-Michel.) Not only is Juliette no Christian mystic, she’s a pantheist raised by gypsies, tutored by Jews, and skilled in the sort of herbal and healing arts that easily invited charges of witchcraft in the 17th century, the time period in which the novel is set. If one factors in her former show career—one tainted by charges of commercial promiscuity—and her unwed status, Juliette positively needs a place to hide.

She finds it at Sainte Marie-de-la-mer, an abbey time forgot and whose patron saint is probably as pagan as Juliette. The impoverished abbey is a collection of misfits, cloaked lesbians, damaged souls, and sisters whose theology tends toward the heretical. All is well for Juliette and her daughter Fleur until the longtime abbess dies. In her place comes an eleven-year-old, placed there because of family connections. Mother Isabelle may be young, but she’s a pious fanatic hell-bent on reforming the abbey, restoring orthodoxy, and returning the nunnery to past days of glory. She brings with her something the abbey hasn’t seen in decades, a priest.

Father Colombin is none other than LeMerle under an assumed identity. He is even less religious than Juliette, but is posing as a priest so that he can exact revenge. What follows is a complex mix of emotions, double-dealing, and danger. LeMerle is a delicious villain, the sort of two-parts-charming-three-parts-rogue role that Alan Rickman plays so well on the screen. Juliette doesn’t trust LeMerle any further than she can spit, yet her fate and Fleur’s rests in his hands. Everyone involved in the plot is dancing on a thin rope; one slip and an auto de fé awaits.

If you think that a novel about nuns set in the 17th century can’t be a page-turner, repent! Is Harris a great stylist? Probably not; I doubt her writing will win literary awards. But as a storyteller she is first rate. Put this book in the category of being a righteous good read. I’m glad I kept my vows.


Golden Apples
Signature Sounds 2025


Caroline Herring hails from Mississippi and has logged a lot of time in Austin, but Golden Apples is the kind of album that will draw comparisons from across the acoustic music map. Think the strong vibrato of Buffy Ste. Marie, the control of Joan Baez, the country sensibilities of Gillian Welch, and the open melodies of Kate Wolf, and you’re still not there. There is, for example, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” that eerily reproduces Mitchell’s soaring upper register and vocal catches. Herring sings that one close to its Ur source, but she takes chances elsewhere. “Long Black Veil” has a sparser and grittier tune than is customary and she sings it the same way. By contrast she imbues blues standard “See See Rider” with an earnest sweetness, and covers the Cyndi Lauper hit “True Colors” with a bass-run hook that makes it sound like it began life as a country song. These remakes are supplemented by some nicely crafted originals such as “Tales of the Islander,” an homage to Louisiana folk artist Walter Anderson; and “The Great Unknown,” a surprisingly light melody—also evocative of young Joni Mitchell—inspired by Dante’s Inferno. If we must pick a genre, this one is acoustic country, but its bittersweet flavorings, its intelligence, and the mood-enhancing production of David Goodrich make this among the finest apples in the basket. It hits the record stores today.



Frederick Busch

The Night Inspector
* * (of five)

No Union soldier was more feared than sharpshooter William Bartholomew. He moved like a ghost amidst the fields, swamps, woods, and boondocks that were the unheralded battlefields of the Civil War. Like a dark avenging angel, Bartholomew dispensed death and raw justice just when the victims thought they were beyond harm. One day, however, Bartholomew’s weapon exploded in his face, leaving him horrendously disfigured. Now, armed against the social horrors around him, Bartholomew prowls the deep shadows of New York City’s hellish Five Points, his papier-mâché mask the only thing that prevents passersby from fleeing as if encountering a literal ghost. Think the Elephant Man packing a Colt.

This is the setup for Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector, originally published in 1999 and a finalist the next year for the National Book Award. Because I teach post-Civil War history, several people told me I should read this book. I never quite got around to it and forgot all about it until Busch died in 2006, and more people told me I should read it. After finally plucking it from my shelf and reading it, I wish I had let it languish there.

Give the book high marks for accuracy. Early in the book Bartholomew chances upon a stomach-turning scene of children massacred by Confederates that foreshadows another event five years hence. His is no generals-and-glory view of the Civil War, rather a portrait of senseless destruction, inhumanity, and the psychological distancing necessary to survive the conflict. Even more gruesome than the war was the Five Points, an inferno in which life, sex, and death were cheap. His descriptions of the smells, squalor, coarseness, and violence of the area are so vivid and so disturbing that Dante probably would have rejected them as unbelievable. Alas, Busch is historically correct on this score. Ditto a central plot device in which children are being smuggled as potential slaves in 1868 as if the 13th Amendment abolishing bondage had not been passed three years earlier.

Some readers might enjoy Busch’s unorthodox touches. Bartholomew is not a classic loner, rather a successful businessman who is close friends with an old Army mate. Along the way he makes other acquaintances, a black man he saves from a savage beating, a Creole hooker who does not have a heart of gold, and a Chinese laundress who does. Most unusual of all, he befriends a forgotten novelist with a sad family life who toils as a customs inspector, Herman Melville. This is the cast thrust into the nightmarish and tragic plot that ensues.

Alas, my descriptions of this book are far more clear than anything Busch wrote. This 278-page novel feels longer because of Busch’s tedious style. It is the sort of prose designed to impress other writers rather than readers, and is even more over-written than another Civil War-era book everyone told me I’d love and didn’t: Cold Mountain. Busch’s idea of challenging the reader was to defy traditional narrative structure and leave out linking details. It enhance the moodiness, sordidness, double-dealing, and disquiet of individual scenes, but one is left bewildered. Dante took us to the Inferno as an object and moral lesson; Busch simply rubs our faces in filth for no apparent reason. Perhaps he wanted us to conclude that life was brutish, random, and meaningless, but when even a Thomas Hobbes treatise is more of a page-turner than Busch’s novel, I wonder why anyone would want to work so hard to attain nihilism. Those looking to experience the seedy side of the Gilded Age are directed to Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, novels that far surpass this one.



Beware the chair!
Welcome to America, the land of contrasts. What other place on earth can crank out nine Nobel Prize winners and Dennis LeRoy Anderson in the same year? You’ve probably never heard of Anderson, but you should: he embodies America’s weird, innovative, and silly side. Anderson managed to get himself busted for DWI whilst sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner.

Yep—that’s right, a La-Z-Boy. The sixty-two-year-old Anderson ripped up an old lawnmower, mounted the Briggs and Stratton engine to his chair, detailed his creation with a stick shift, a stereo, a National Hotrod Association sticker, and few cup holders. The latter came in handy when Anderson drove his chair to a local bar in Proctor, Minnesota, and downed eight or nine beers. As Anderson “motored” his way toward home, he plowed into a parked car. Anderson was cited for DWI when it revealed he was a plush lush with a blood-alcohol level of 0.29.

Anderson got two years probation for drunk chairing. Maybe the judge should have ordered him to stand in a corner!