Woman in Cabin 10 a Shipwreck


By Ruth Ware
Scout/Simon & Shuster, 352 pages

Wouldn't it make a fascinating mystery to have a female central character that thinks she has witnessed a horrible crime, but no one believes her because she's a psychologically damaged alcoholic? Oh wait; Paula Hawkins already wrote A Girl on the Train. How about a journey in which a murder occurs and one of the passengers must be responsible? You know—like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express? Because it's the 21st century, how about a modern twist with the Internet being unavailable, like Ruth Ware's In a Dark Dark Wood? To say that Ms. Ware has cribbed the work of others (including her own) doesn't begin to get it. Nor does the term "sophomore slump." Ware's The Girl in Cabin 10 is about as close to intellectual plagiarism as one can get without being visited by a shadow of process-servers.

I adored In a Dark Dark Wood, Ware's debut novel. So did tens of thousands of others, and this might be the problem. The Woman in Cabin 10 has all of the distressing earmarks of a book written and published too quickly in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot. (For heaven's sake, the book was optioned for a movie before it got released in paperback.) Make no mistake, though, this book is a metaphorical cut-and-paste job, not homage to Hawkins or Christie. Does it matter if we replace the train with a cruise ship? First-class rail carriages with luxury liner suites? A PTSD-inducing failed marriage with a PTSD-inducing home invasion? About the only differences are that Ware replaced Hawkins' sympathetic lead with a thoroughly unlikable one, and there is no one aboard her Scandinavia-bound ocean liner with an ounce of the charm of Hercule Poirot.

Her protagonist is Laura "Lo' Blacklock, a lower-down-the-totem-pole writer for Velocity, a travel magazine for haute bourgeois toffs. She's already an anti-depressant popping anxiety-ridden mess who can't commit to her boyfriend before her sleep is interrupted by a burglar, who accidentally bops her on the noggin when she surprises him. This occurs on the eve of a press junket sail on The Aurora, a designer mini-liner of just ten cabins catering to the ultra-rich. She's not about to give up an assignment that she hopes will help her scale the totem pole, so she boards the ship against the advice of those closest to her. Her Christie-like cast is a boatload of insufferables: egoistical journalists, obsequious staff, her long ago (and unreliable) ex-boyfriend, a disbelieving security chief, and The Aurora's owner, Richard Bullmer—think an even more upscale version of Richard Branson—and his terminally ill wife. Lo starts getting sloshed, along with the other pampered journalists, and is three sheets to the wind before the cruise is even underway. She's queasy and uneasy but carries on. While dressing for dinner she discovers she forgot her mascara, so she pounds on the door of Cabin 10 and borrows a tube from a woman in a Pink Floyd t-shirt.

The novel's central mystery unfolds when Lo is catching needed late-night air on her suite's verandah when she is sure she hears a small scream and a splash from Cabin 10's adjoining deck. She's also certain she saw a smear of blood on the glass divider between the two outdoor verandahs. Lo dutifully reports this. Problem: Cabin 10 is allegedly empty due to a last-minute cancellation. Nor is there anyone missing, evidence that the cabin has been occupied, or any trace of blood. You can probably take it from there. 

It's bad enough that The Woman in Cabin 10 is (at best) a pale version of similar tales. A potboiler arc that consists of Lego-like snap-in plot devices, a whiny protagonist, a supporting cast you'd happily push overboard, histrionics, and shaky details compound the lack of originality. One wonders how any of the characters remain standing given the amount of alcohol they consume and let's just say that the mystery's final resolution rests upon some exceedingly convenient occurrences and discoveries. One might even say that the 'reveal' is obvious in a follow-the-sobriety kind of way. Alfred Hitchcock famously observed that most mysteries rest upon improbable details. The secret, of course, is to trick the audience into not seeing them. That simply does not happen in this book.

The Woman in Cabin 10 has sold well, but that does not make it an admirable work. Ware would not be the first writer pushed into a premature sequel, but one certainly hopes she rights this book's listing ship before her next novel. The fact that Cabin 10's conclusion is followed by a 'bonus' chapter from her third book doesn't inspire confidence. At some point Ms. Ware will need to decide if she wishes to be a respected 'serious' crime writer or just another hack in the pack. May her better angels triumph.

Rob Weir


Jane Stuns Visually, but Not Equal to the Hype


JANE    (2017)
Directed by Brett Morgen
National Geographic Partners, 89 minutes, PG (Possible disturbing images)

Flamboyant rebels make interesting movie subjects. But what about those whose rebellion is determined and quiet? Jane Goodall (b.1934) revolutionized the field of primatology, but until relatively recently she seldom tooted her own horn. In such a story, a documentary filmmaker’s job is to build a dramatic structure for maximum impact. On this level, Director Brett Morgen is only partly successful. Jane is a decent film, but the East African landscape is more eye-popping than what we learn about Ms. Goodall.

Goodall’s story begins in 1957, when she was working as a secretary for a true rebel: anthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey (1903-72).  Leakey didn’t care all that much about what others thought of him and when you advance evolutionary science as much as he, you don’t have to. Leakey had already proven that many (if not all) human ancestors came from Africa, and was looking for someone to study great apes in hope of extrapolating from simian behavior how hominid ancestors might have lived. He tapped Goodall because she had no specialized training and wouldn’t be vested in bending observations toward any existing theories of primate behavior. Not that there were that many; prior to Goodall’s findings, chimpanzees were viewed mostly as circus animals. In 1957, only someone with the audacity of Leakey could have made it possible for a single, untrained, young female to immerse herself in the Gombe Stream Park, a Tanzanian rainforest. 

At first, she spent most of her days dodging poisonous snakes and swatting vicious insects until at long last she found a chimp colony. Her initial findings didn’t amount to much, but Leakey sent her off to train with primatologists he trusted while he shook the money tree for funding. In 1960, Goodall rocked the scientific world with her discovery that chimps made tools and that they had distinct personalities. This gave Leakey the clout to do something done only seven times before: he pushed Goodall into a Ph.D. program at Cambridge University when she was without the benefit of  a bachelor’s degree. Even then, National Geographic and other institutions balked at sending a single woman back into the field. The compromise was that she had to accept into her camp a male professional nature photographer: Hugh Van Lawick (1937-2002). Much of Jane is built around 100 hours of Van Lawick’s misplaced, unviewed film footage. It has been restored to levels beyond could have been viewed in 1964.

Van Lawick and Goodall made a good work team. Their films documented such hitherto unknown practices such as the polyandrous mating behavior of females in estrus, clan-like social structures, and the shocking levels of violence of which chimps are capable. Tool making, discrete personalities, social hierarchy, and warfare… So much for the idea that humans are unique in those regards.

In Jane, Goodall is also under observation. In his best sequences of added material, Morgen shows collages of sexist newspaper, magazine, and TV features that called more attention to Goodall’s blond hair, fresh face, and shapely legs* than to her research. Van Lawick, a Dutch baron, also fell for Goodall’s comely features; the couple  married in 1964. Three years later, their son “Grub” (Hugo Eric Louis Van Lawick) was born. Alas, Goodall and Van Lawick were less successful as lovers. He grew bored playing second fiddle, accepted a photography assignment in the Serengeti, and asked Jane to move there with him. She chose career over marriage and the couple amicably divorced in 1974.   

Given that Jane is based mostly on Van Lawick’s recovered footage, it’s logical that most of Goodall’s post-1974 activities—such as the creation of the Jane Goodall Institute, her remarriage to Tanzanian parliamentarian and national parks director Dereck Byrceson, her myriad awards, and ongoing work in Gombe—appear mostly as coda. Logical, perhaps, but it’s problematic when chimpanzees end up with more personality that our main subject. When asked how she put up with the sexism in the early days, Goodall’s responded that since her childhood, “I wanted to go to Africa and live among wild animals.” Morgen should not have left such a banality stand unchallenged. The overall portrait of Goodall is that she is more British stiff upper lip than a rebel in the field. Yet it’s well known that she had her feminist consciousness raised. Tepid filmmaking blunts the drama and instead, Morgen tries to amp up with a Philip Glass soundtrack. Glass is occasionally brilliant, but this score is cloying and annoying.

Should you see Jane? There are some amazing things in the film that weren’t necessarily intended as major focal points. Read between the lines and you can appreciate how little we knew before Goodall. When asked how she could get up close to animals “that could rip your face off,” Goodall smiled and replied, “Yes, but one didn’t know that at the time.” She learned fast. Scenes of chimp warfare are terrifying, as were their attacks on Goodall’s compound. Parents will blanch at scenes of Grub inside his wire mesh playroom; male chimps sometimes kill and eat infant chimps and their evolutionary cousins. Shots from the Serengeti are awe-inspiring in ways that made me think of it as the (Non-) Peaceable Kingdom. Morgen also does a good job of showing flaws in some of Goodall’s research methods. Setting up feeding stations made chimps easier to study, but also partially domesticated them. By her own admission, she was also guilty of sentimentalizing; Goodall not only touched her subjects, she gave them names such Goliath, David Greybeard, Frodo, Flint, Fifi, Flo…. One might even reach for the barf bucket when hearing Goodall tell of learning how to mother her own son by observing Flo.

I left the theater with my lifelong admiration of Goodall intact, but my views might be conditioned more by  years of following her career than learning about it from the film. Insofar as discoveries go, I have long admired Van Lawick’s photos, but previously knew little about him. Still, the film is named Jane, not Hugo or Flo. Mainly I admired the visuals. (Warning: There are extreme close-ups of snakes, insects, and chimp faces, so if any of these make you queasy keep a hand ready to shield your eyes.) I guess I can’t fault the film for making more about sexism; after all, Goodall was in the field before The Feminine Mystique made its way into the mainstream. I did notice, though, the large number of females now working at Goodall’s old camp. Isn’t that worthy of comment? Odd as it might seem, I’d recommend you first read Goodall’s Wikipedia page if you decide to see Jane. Goodall is a very important person. That should be shouted out; in the film it’s often but a whisper. But maybe the film makes a contribution by reminding us that rebels come in many forms, even those who simply do rather than make a fuss about it.

Rob Weir

* A confession: I learned about Goodall as a grade school student. (My aunt started buying National Geographic for me when I was eight and I still get it). I too was smitten with Goodall’s lovely legs and my child self thought her the most exotic woman I had ever seen. I get a pass on the latter; that was objectively true for where I was raised!        


See Honore Sharrer's Work Before It Closes

 A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of HonorĂ© Sharrer
Smith Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through January 7

1938 self-portrait patterned on Han Memling's 'Portrait of a Man with a pink Carnation'

 If you're anywhere near Northampton between now and January 7, be sure to pop into the Smith College Museum of Art to see a show devoted to HonorĂ© Sharrer (1920-2009). She's one of the lesser-known surrealists for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, but she's worth getting to know. In fact, one of the great joys of college art museums is that they often introduce us to artists whose works fly under the radar screen of major repositories.

Sharrer wasn't always out of the public eye. She was hailed as a rising young talent back in the 1940s, took part in an important exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, was declared Mademoiselle's artist of the year in 1949, had a solo show in 1951, and was a media sensation. Yet she would not get another solo exhibition until 1969, and there have been just three since then: 1987, 2007, and now. If you're thinking that gender played a role in her marginalization, you're partially right, but two other factors loom larger.

Resurrection of the Waitress

The first is that she was generally tagged as either an expressionist or a surrealist and neither of those labels fits comfortably. Some critics today call her work magical realism and though that handle has problems as well, it's closer to the mark. Surrealism is a definitional moving target, but it's hard to place Sharrer's work amidst company such as Dali, Magritte, Picasso, Tanguy, or Maher. Once you know that she was inspired by mythology, art history, nursery rhymes, and popular culture, there's nothing particularly enigmatic about her symbols or intentions. If there are other artists to whom she most compares, it's probably Paul Cadmus, or maybe Frida Kahlo in her non-figurative guise. (Kahlo was also sometimes called a surrealist and it wasn't accurate for her either.) One of Sharrer's more intriguing canvasses is titled Resurrection of the Waitress and it has odd elements such as pulled back hair, an eggbeater, a razor blade, and a bare-breasted airborne woman. But when you learn that she's telling the story of a drowning victim by riffing off a 15th century Bosch painting (Ascent of the Blessed), Sharrer's canvas is simply offbeat, not mysterious. She also liked to twist old myths, with Leda a particular favorite and usually displayed with pudenda exposed. (In Greek myth, Zeus disguised himself as a swan to ravage the beautiful moral Leda, whom he turned into a swan. One of their children was Helen of Troy.) All of this is to say that Sharrer's work was quirky and cheeky, but the viewer's effect isn't akin to standing in front of a Dali and pondering what any of what you see might mean!

Politics was what made Sharrer "dangerous." Like many modernist painters she honed her teeth on representational art—even when it held symbolic meanings. In that phase, Sharrer was an overt leftist who reveled in 1930s rebels. She showed her sympathy for laborers in works such as Workers and Paintings (1943) and Tribute to the American Working People (1951). The first dignifies ordinary folks by posing them amidst art masterpieces; the second is patterned on a 15the century altar piece by Hugo van der Goes. Sharrer lived in Amherst in the late 1940s; her second husband was Amherst history professor Perez Zagorin (1920-2009), an intellectual communist who was blacklisted in 1953. By extension, so was Sharrer. The couple fled to Montreal, where they lived until 1965. Sharrer's Reception (1958) is a subtle commentary on her exile years, as the high sheen guests include such famed anticommunist crusaders as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. 

The Reception

Oddly, it might be another thing that eclipsed Sharrer's star, as it's a fairly static picture—except for the appearance of birds throughout the canvas. These are usually said to be a comment on the obliviousness of the guests, though I suspect Sharrer was coding messages about the culture of innuendo, whispers, and spying. Still, this picture came at a time in which modernism and abstraction were all the rage and it didn't fit those fashions. It certainly didn't help her case that she also rendered a series of drawing that satirized art critics, patrons, and trend-setters. 

In commenting on his wife's work, Zagorin noted it had a "slant view." That's maybe the best way to describe it. We see a naked, orange-hatted St. Jerome sharing space with menacing Japanese figures, a butcher standing amidst porcine carnage and a famed Greek statue, a commentary on modesty patterned after The Trojan Archer, a putdown of the horsey set with a backward riding Godiva, an odd ballet, and a hysterical "ordinary" outing whose elements include a small car, a flamingo, a nude woman, and Pan peeling an apple. Slant views indeed. Sharrer's career revived somewhat when society loosened in the late 1960s, but she never regained her earlier spotlight. By her death in 2009 she was little known outside of the art world's inner circle. The best category for Sharrer is perhaps art's most populous: those that obtain posthumous appreciation.

Rob Weir


Lady Bird a Standard Coming of Age Movie


LADY BIRD  (2017)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
A24, 94 minutes, R (language, sexuality)

Groucho Marx once quipped, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." He wasn't speaking of his adolescent years, but he could have been. Do you know a teenager who hasn't gone through an identity crisis? If you want to make a Sturm und Drang film, focusing on teens is the easiest way to do so. Saying something new is much harder. This is the challenge facing novice director Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird. Not surprisingly, she delivers a mixed result.   

Gerwig opens with an epigram from Joan Didion: "Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." It's an amusing line, though it doesn't quite hide the fact that Lady Bird is a standard coming-of-age film. You know the type—the classic Freudian moment in adolescents' lives in which they must symbolically slay the dominant parent to become truly independent. Gerwig's twist is that it's mom, not dad, who must fall. This makes Gerwig's film more than a genre knock-off but just a tick above the norm, not a quantum leap.

The film is set just after 9/11. Right away we have a missed opportunity. The film centers on the turmoil and disconnectedness of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who adopts the affected handle "Lady Bird" as an act of minor rebellion. Why the film is set in 2002-03 is a mystery, given that Gerwig never makes logical parallels between Lady Bird's personal upheaval and that of the nation itself. New York appears in the film, but as the destination to which Lady Bird wishes to escape, not as any deeper analogy. Indeed, it's tempting to subtitle the movie Stifled in Sacramento. Lady Bird is the poster child for decent but disaffected teens. Her hair is streaked with red highlights and she wears on her sleeve her boredom with school, Catholicism, convention, and Sacramento. She's curious about sex and mildly intrigued by the drama club, but mostly she feels hemmed in—especially by her domineering mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Add social class to the list of things that flatten Lady Bird's affect. The McPhersons are lower middle class and even that status is insecure, as father Larry (Tracy Letts) has been laid off and Marion must work double shifts at the hospital to keep food on the table for a household that also includes an adopted Latino son, Miguel (Jordan Rodriques) and his live-in girlfriend. It's the sort of home in which Lady Bird's wardrobe comes from thrift stores and is reworked by mom. Lady Bird can't help but fantasize about upper middle class homes or compare her friendship with the chubby math whiz Julie (Beanie Feldstein) with the cooler haute bourgeoisie social groups. This too causes grief. What does she want to be, a rebel or a Boho? The only constant is that she wants to be somewhere else, as her overstretched mother is hypercritical of everything Lady Bird says, does, or wants.
The film is at its weakest when Gerwig paints by the numbers. If you know the coming-of-age genre, you know what will ensue: inappropriate boyfriends and peers, self-discovery in acting, good cop/bad cop parenting, embarrassing situations, escape, revelation, dawning maturity, and call it a wrap. There's nothing new here, and the film would be a total wash were it not for extremely fine acting. At 23, this is probably Ronan's swan song for a role in which she plays 17 going on 18. That said, Ronan is everything we hoped she would be when she surfaced as a nine-year-old child actress. She strikes all the right notes as a confused young person who is smugly self-aware one moment and a clueless the next. Watch her as she rockets between tough as nails and vulnerable, or self-absorbed and wounded. Above all, Ronan inhabits her roles in ways that make us see the character, not her playing a character. The much under-rated Laurie Metcalf is also superb as a mother who loves her daughter deeply but can't get out of the way of her own snark. Deep inside she knows she's not doing her best for her daughter, but she literally lacks the energy to change. Nor can she afford to lower her guard. Letts is also very good as a depressed but super-mensch dad.  

It's too early to evaluate Gretta Gerwig's competence as a director. For her first film, she chose an unchallenging genre and didn't challenge herself within it. Inexperience leaks through several seams. In addition to the dropped 9/11 possibilities, she doesn't give us nearly enough clues about secondary characters, including those within the McPherson household who presumably contribute to Lady Bird's discontent. In fact, most of the incidental characters are more generalized types than distinct personalities. To date, Gerwig's most distinguishing directorial trait is that she has an eye for choosing talented leads.

On balance, Lady Bird is a decent, diverting film but not a memorable one. At its best it induces flashbacks to times most of us would never wish to relive. If it makes us a bit more tolerant of those stuck in the middle of the muddle, that's a service of sorts. The next time you encounter an annoying pack of teens, remember Groucho's words, smile, and mentally wish them godspeed for delivery from the club.

Rob Weir