Suffering of Strangers Appeals Only to Series Fans

The Suffering of Strangers  (2017 UK/2018 North America)
By Caro Ramsay
Black Thorn, 257 pages.

The problem with a series is that if you show up late, it's hard to catch up. The Suffering of Strangers is book nine of Scottish fiction writer Caro Ramsay's Costello and Colin Anderson series. If you are addicted to Ms Ramsay's "tartan noir"* detective novels, you will probably devour it with gusto. If not, you'll probably share my judgment that it's more mess than mystery. My late-to-the-table status notwithstanding, this is simply not a very well written book.

In The Suffering of Strangers we find that Freddie (a woman) Costello is now a Detective Inspector (DI) and Colin Anderson a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) who has been promoted to the Cold Case Unit, which investigates unsolved cases. Each will be drawn into a distressing incident in which 6-week old Sholto Chisholm has gone missing in an unusual way: when his mother Roberta ducked into a store for just a moment, Sholto** was gone but a Down syndrome baby sits in his place in a nearly identical car seat.

Costello is reluctant to get involved as she's still licking her wounds from botching a previous case–presumably described in book eight of the series. She's also angrier than usual as Archie Walker–her superior and covert lover–seems to be cavorting with a younger woman. Anderson, however, sees similarities between Sholto's switcheroo and other missing child cases. Even worse, as the investigation unfolds, several women go missing in ways that suggest the pattern of a serial rapist whose unsolved crimes gback at least 20 years and ravaged Colin's university flame, Sally Logan.

This novel is overpopulated with characters. Again, I presume that much of the detective force has been introduced in earlier novels, but be wary of reviews that say this book works as a standalone novel. It does not. I had to make lists of characters and relationships to keep them straight. This is problematic on several levels. First, my list was much longer than it needed be. Ramsay drops names in ways that give a new reader few clues as to whether the character in question is relevant, or just police station wallpaper. The same is true of past and pending cases mentioned. Second, Ramsay complicates matters by introducing new characters whose relationships to the story are murky. There is, for instance, a child support services caseworker named Deliana Despande. "Dali" ticks some boxes in that she's of Southeast Asian descent, non-white, and obese, but none of these portrayals are flattering. She seems to be in the novel to bond with DI Costello, whom most of her colleagues find cold and domineering. In truth, Dali doesn't need to be in such an already overstuffed book.

Colin is tasked with reconnecting with Sally and her now-husband Andrew Braithwaite, who was also one of Colin's university friends. This is also awkward because Colin hasn't seen either of them in many years; he is married with two children, but still carries a romanticized torch for Sally. At this juncture, the novel begins to unravel. In a short spate of time we hear of several woman who have disappeared, including one who vanishes just out of sight of the now ubiquitous CCTV security cameras and a drone. Toss in a young caseworker who screwed up when one of the missing women crawled out a bathroom window, a subplot involving Walker's goddaughter, several detectives who may or may not be withholding investigative details in hope of an advancement scoop, a legend of an underground city, some stumbling around in a subterranean car park, a yoga studio, a baby-selling network, a rooftop, and some high-powered water jets.

Ramsay brings all of this to a conclusion through logic-defying subterfuge. If that's not enough–and believe me, it is–Ramsay tacks on a cloudburst of coincidences that revolve around Anderson. This book has more contrivances than a Rube Goldberg machine. If only it had Goldberg's humor, his sense of irony, and his devotion to making his contraptions do just one thing.

Rob Weir

*American crime writer James Ellroy coined this wonderful term.

** This name sounds odd to North American ears, but not those in Scotland. It was the first name of the 8th century chieftain who sired the Douglas clan. It comes from a Gaelic word that means fruitful.


2018 Star is Born is Dreck

A Star is Born (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Warner Brothers, 136 minutes, R (nudity, language, drugs, drinking)

Lady Gaga sing sings. Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. My one line review of this third remake is:  A Star is Born, but this viewer is bored. This is easily the worst of the four versions of this film, and it has my vote for one of the fattest turkeys of 2018. I'm glad I didn't fall prey to the Oscar hype and see this one in the cinema. I lasted just 90 minutes into the DVD before bailing. I knew how it would end because, after all, it's A Star is Born and I've seen the other three films (made in 1937, 1954, and 1976).

Here's the problem. In previous versions in which Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand starred, each could sing. Lady Gaga is a great singer too, but the other three could also act and Gaga cannot. Gaga plays Ally Campano and is discovered singing Edith Piaf in a drag bar. She is, apparently, the resident straight chick and only one who doesn't require a molded silicon breastform. We know this because we see her naked several times. Insofar as I can determine, nudity is the only new wrinkle Gaga brings to a movie that is now officially as overdone as a Lady Gaga pop song.

For those who just beamed down to this planet, Bradley Cooper's role is to play a drunken, world-weary musical idol: Jackson Maine, a country megastar. He discovers Ally (Gaga) in the aforementioned drag bar, is wowed by her voice, smitten by her down-to-earth demeanor, and astounded by her songwriting ability. How he can draw the last conclusion from the few bars she tunelessly vocalizes in a convenience store parking lot is up for grabs, as is any explanation of how she gets to take her gay friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) with her on the private plane "Jack" sends to fly her to his gig in Houston. Equally mysterious is what useful role Andrew Dice Clay plays in this film as Ally's father. (In my opinion, Clay has always been a waste of planetary space.)

You know the rest. Jack's star will dim and Ally's will rise. A producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) takes charge of Ally and repackages her as a pop tart and it's on to a Saturday Night Live gig and three Grammy nominations. Gaga is, of course, in her milieu and she proves she really can sing pop. Duh! What a stretch. This might have been a wise course of action, though, as she is truly awful in non-singing roles. You can see her smile and moon as if she is following commands from the side of the set. This is the extent of her acting range. Jack hates Ally's new direction, but he is sinking both professionally and personally, so queue a marriage troubled from the start, public embarrassment, and a tragic ending. To reiterate, it is A Star is Born, so the tragic ending is chiseled in concrete.

To the degree there is anything redeeming about this film, it's Cooper. He can sing and the clips of him lost in melodic rapture on the stage are slick, but engrossing. He's good enough that I partially forgive him for ripping off Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake mannerisms in Crazy Heart (2009), with a small nod to Robert Duval in Tender Mercies (1983). He does, however, spend too much time acting like a boozed, coked puppy dog waiting for Ally to get him out of the shelter. Moreover, the relationship between he and his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) is underwritten and seems as if it's tacked on either to get Elliott into the film or to introduce a dysfunctional family theme to explain why Jack is an addictive personality. Queue some psych 101 on that one.

I could go on, but I'd recommend instead that you see the 1976 Streisand version. It's also over the top and slogs through some cheap sentimentality—did I mention it's a remake of A Star is Born?–but you will immediately see the difference between a star who can dominate the screen (Streisand) and one who can't (Gaga). I'll leave it to others to argue which of the two is a better singer because the true answer is Judy Garland. But for sure no one will confuse Gaga's screen chops with the Stanislavski Method.

Can we just put Star is Born remakes to bed? Please. Enough. The 2018 Star is Born is surely not the brightest thing in the cinematic sky.

Rob Weir

Postscript: I don't deny that Lady Gaga has a great voice. She did a nice pop standard collaboration with crooner Tony Bennett. This does not mean, however, that she can sing anything. There is a difference between hitting the notes and making an audience believe in a song. At the end of the day, she's mostly a pop star. As for covering Edith Piaf, please don't.


New England Visionary Artists Museum a Unique Marvel

New England Visionary Artists Museum/Anchor House of Artists
518 Pleasant Street
Northampton, MA
 {Click on image for full size} 

I've driven by it a million times. So have you if ever gotten on or off Exit 8 of I-91. Maybe we shouldn't have rolled our eyes when our mothers told us not to judge a book by its cover. One of the coolest and most unique art museums in all of New England sits in an old factory building hard by a car wash and gas station and across from a bowling alley and rotary. I'm talking about the New England Visionary Artists Museum (NEVAM).

From the outside it looks like it might be little more than an artist's atelier with pretensions of grandeur. That's another book/cover scenario; NEVAM is capacious–more than 4,000 square feet–and stocked with namesake visionary art. Call it art with a mission. NEVAM director Michael Tillyer, a superb artist in his own right, started NEVAM in a 500 square foot space that quadrupled in size when it transitioned to the Anchor House of Artists in 1997. NEVAM not only displays Tillyer's art and that of guest artists, it's also an art therapy safe space for artists struggling with mental illness. Think art in its most inclusive definition. Tillyer greets guests and tells of three individuals who are no longer with us: Genevieve Mae Burnett (1945-2015), Mary Dunn (1956-2005), and Deborah Sklar (1964-2013). Each was (among other things) a painter, a poet, and journal writer; each also battled demons ranging from schizophrenia to hallucinations and hearing voices. 

You've no doubt heard that there is a thin line between genius and madness. Tillyer realized that most treatment modalities for those with mental illness emphasize manual and vocational skills. These don't address the need for creative people to express their need to make art. Anchor House is a subsidized safe space for artists wrestling with their inner demons–a sort of hands-on art therapy workshop. NEVAM features their work and also serves as a gallery and performing arts venue for artists whose work is offbeat and quirky. (Note: There are other Anchor Houses across the nation and most are associated with religious groups. I don't know if NEVAM is linked to these or not.) 

A stroll through NEVAM will expose you to marvels you won't see in many other galleries. If you get there before July 27, you can see the work of guest artist Amy Johnquest, who bears the nickname "The Banner Queen" for her retro carnival-style posters. These are evocative, clever, and often screamingly funny. A dancing pachyderm in a living room is titled "There is No Elephant." (Get it?) It graces the wall with other "attractions" such as Art Monkey and Dancing Disco Dan the Accordion Man.

Johnquest also displays works from her "Altered Ancestors" series. These are essentially collages in which old photos are shot through with painted-on electricity. It's as if a bunch of staid Victorians were hooked up to electrostatic generators. She also has some works that explore her fascination with faith and belief.

She's not the only artist at NEVAM with a slanted view on things. Tillyer and his friend Mark Brown have numerous paintings and masks, though it's their wooden sculptures that truly catch the eye: broom-headed figures, a flame-haired wooden figure with a hula hoop, assemblages made from castoff tools, and an adorable wooden pooch. 

NEVAM is filled with objects and creations that are at once familiar, yet exotic and offbeat: a pet nut and bolt, a painting that unabashedly tells us it's covering a hole in the wall, an old metal lawn chair fashioned into an alien, mixed media collages that skirt the border between humorous and grotesque, and postcards designed to merge two things that are harmonious in design yet incongruous in reality (like the sweep of old Yankee Stadium flowing into a curved bridge or John Singleton Copley's famed Watson and the Shark with Watson about to fall into Monet's water lily pond at Giverny rather than becoming a shark's lunch.

Much of what you see at NEVAM is surreal and perhaps vaguely unsettling, but its allure and magic is undeniable. Get thee to NEVAM. The experience is akin to grabbing hold of Alice's hand the moment she slipped down the rabbit hole and emerged in Wonderland.

Rob Weir