Thinking about The Time Traveler's Wife





I hear that HBO’s Time Traveler’s Wife series was a dud and has been cancelled. Ironically, I recently plucked Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel from a neighborhood “little library,” read it, and then watched the 2009 movie adaptation. I don’t get HBO, but it doesn’t surprise me that it bombed or that the 2009 movie, though watchable, was on the lame side of the ledger. Put simply, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a tough book to adapt for platforms that require tamer, more saccharine material.


Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five? It contains a killer line: “Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time.” That’s the premise of The Time Traveler’s Wife. It protagonist is Henry DeTamble, who works at Chicago’s Newberry Library. He suffers from Chrono-Impairment, a genetic flaw that causes him to time travel against his will. It’s not only inconvenient; it’s dangerous. When Henry time travels, his clothing does not–not even his underwear. Imagine being 36, thrust into a summertime meadow, and encounter a six-year-old girl, Clare Abshire, who will become your future wife. (He’s only eight years older when they wed decades later.) Even worse, imagine being jerked from the present to a snowy bad Chicago neighborhood naked as a jay bird. Henry never knows when it will happen, who he will encounter, what age he will be at his new destination, or when he will return to the Newberry or his apartment, also naked. To survive, Henry becomes an adroit thief, pickpocket, and street brawler.


At 546 pages, Niffenegger’s novel was hefty, though highly entertaining and populated with meaningful characters, among them: friends Gomez and Charisse; Dr. Kendrick, a geneticist who tries to help Henry; Henry’s father, Richard, once a concert violinist; and Henry’s mother, Annette, an operatic singer who died in a car crash when Henry was a child. Henry can’t change the past, but he has visited his mother and seen her die time and time again. At heart, though, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance, the eventual coming together of Henry and Clare. Henry time travels, but does this relationship have a future?


Time travel books are hard to film. Do you make a romance, a science fiction offering, or try to emphasize both aspects? Most opt for the last of these, but it can be problematic to strike the correct balance. This is especially true for The Time Traveler’s Wife; its time travel elements notwithstanding, Niffenegger seeks levels of verisimilitude. The best time travel movies are fantasies, like the movie version of Jack Finney’s Time After Time in which Jack the Ripper appropriates H. G. Wells’ time machine and Wells pursues him in 1970s San Francisco, in his tweeds of course!


The Time Traveler’s Wife is cut from different cloth. Henry is whip smart, but he’s also a rogue. The is a lot of sex in the novel and, before marrying Clare, Henry was a horndog. To survive, he is also violent; Gomez, who knows about Henry’s Chromo-impairment, sees a younger Henry out of time brutally beating a man he is robbing. The novel is fueled by the punk scene, intellectual conversations, and dark real-life problems such as Clare’s five miscarriages. There are also some very sweet moments.


Guess which elements show up on the screen?  (There’s also a musical of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I will steer well clear of that!) The 2009 movie cast Rachel McAdams as Clare. She was perfectly fine, but all her edges and sex drive are smoothed out. Similarly, Eric Bana was Henry with his inner bad boy sliced away. This makes Henry’s time travel and disappearances more of a studio trick than the very essence of the story.


In short, The Time Traveler’s Wife in book form places Henry in a lot of peril in between its uplifting moments; the movie reverses the equation. The novel is also told from differing perspectives and that too is difficult to do on film. After all, a 107-minute movie doesn’t have the time to show multiple perspectives or different voices. The movie isn’t bad, but it’s like an expurgated Reader’s Digest version of the narrative.


I get the allure of adapting novels for stage and film. How many novelists get a chance to make big money? If, though, you want to do a deep dive into characters and circumstances, read The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s always time for fluff later.


Rob Weir


Lessons Beautifully Written but Discursive



LESSONS (2022)

By Ian McEwan

Alfred A. Knopf, 438 pages.





Ian McEwan is a superb writer, yet Lessons too often reads like he’s writing to dazzle rather than being faithful to the story. It is, though, a whale of a story. Roland Baines is a dilettante who has held a series of dead-end jobs, all of which were a come down for someone once pegged a brilliant pianist. 


Roland has abandonment issues and deep insecurities around women. His mother split when he was a child and left him to the non-affectionate care of his military father, Robert (“The Major”). But this was nothing compared to what Roland experienced from his private school piano teacher, Miriam. She sexually fondled him when he was 11, and became her private student/lover/sex slave at age 14. (She was 26.) Miriam kept him in pajamas and wouldn’t allow him to play the music he really loved: jazz. Roland eventually gave up his concert pianist plans and dropped out of school.


Things never seem to go right for the passive Roland. At one point he realizes that he “has never made an important decision,” other than quitting school. This sprawling novel takes us from the 1940s, through the Thatcher years, and into the 21st century. Roland is fluent in German and acquires a younger wife, Alissa, whom he met during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everything seems to fill him with regret or go south. He had friends in East Germany whose fate is unknown and you can imagine how disgusted he, a democratic socialist, was with Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Brexit. Alissa abandons him as well; though he’s sure she’s in Germany, local police think he may have killed her. He will even get the shaft two times over from a former bandmate who was once his best friend. About the beat that can be said that Roland is a pretty good dad to his son Lawrence.


Alissa is indeed in Germany, where she establishes herself as an important feminist writer and makes it known that she wants no relationship with Roland or Lawrence. When Roland finally finds love late in life, she dies, and there is a battle royal over who owns her ashes. It’s not a pretty portrait. Roland is 70, has lost his second wife and his brother, has no savings, and is living on a meagre state pension. He’s not jealous of Alissa’s success–he even edits her books–but she grows into an embittered narcissist with health issues and is not the sort who can be grateful.


Get the picture? Maybe not. There’s a lot going on in Lessons and, frankly, it’s often too much. Not only are there a lot of characters, there are also loads of themes. McEwan raises questions about abuse, for instance. If you’ve ever seen any of Michael Apted’s brilliant 7 Up documentaries you will recall that he said that if you give him a boy at the age of seven, “I will give you the man.” The age might be debatable, but imagine the obstacles faced by a child abandoned by his mother and sexually abused. Yeah, he might find it hard to get his life together.


McEwan also gives us a look at repeating patterns of desertion, rejection, family scandals, and things that can be forgiven and not. McEwan’s use of a male sexual abuse victim is a gusty device in the age of #MeToo, but a needed reminder that no one holds a monopoly on trauma. Though some might bristle, McEwan was also bold to cast women as the irresponsible actors in his novel. Alissa is especially unlikable; she’s driven, but her feminism is cold-hearted and shrill.


McEwan is a literary stylist, but this does not always serve him well. Too many beautifully written passages are discursive asides that break the narrative flow. He wants to get us inside of Roland’s psyche, but I’m not sure this works in a novel that spans eight decades of his protagonist and detours even deeper into the past. Much of the novel is episodic, appropriate for Roland’s rolling stone nature, but it also splashes in the shallows where plumbing the depths is in order. The ironically names Lessons (Roland has trouble learning them!) is impressive. It is a good novel? About half, in my estimation.


Rob Weir


Safety Last! is Iconic for a Reason



Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Pathé Exchange, 73 minutes, Not-rated.





Even if you know little about silent movies, chances are good you’ve seen a still from Safety Last! of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clockface 12 storeys above Los Angeles. A hundred years later and all manner of f/x notwithstanding, it is one of the most dazzling scenes in cinema history. 




Safety Last! is a Hal Roach comedy. Roach was the mastermind behind Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, though he specialized in romantic comedies. Because there was no dialogue other than what was printed on intertitles, silent film scripts are pared to the bone. Neither Lloyd nor his love interest, Mildred Davis, have names; he is The Boy and she The Girl. Lloyd is a bit of a braggart who exaggerates his job to impress his girlfriend. She thinks he’s a manager of some sort; he’s actually a clerk who is bullied by the store floorwalker. (That job is almost extinct. It’s a person who supervises the sales staff on behalf of upper management.)


Lloyd’s bragging gets him into trouble on another level. He has a good friend in the police department he has known for years and the two like to prank each other. When Lloyd runs into another friend, a steeplejack named “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother), Lloyd convinces Bill to give the cop on the corner a kick in the pants. Problem! It’s not Lloyd’s friend. The enraged policeman chases Bill all over town–being chased by cops was a staple of silent movies–and gets away, but the policeman vows he’ll find Bill and arrest him.


The Boy (Lloyd) realizes that if wants to hold onto The Girl he needs to come up with some serious money. When he hears that his department store is offering a $1,000 prize–overly $14,000 today and a small fortune in the 1920s–for the best idea to attract people to the building, he hatches a harebrained scheme. He asks Bill to scale the outside of the building to the roof, all 12 storeys of it. The ultimate plan is that Bill, dressed as The Boy, will climb to the roof and Lloyd will pop out and take credit for the ascension.


Things go wrong from the start. As Bill prepares for his climb, he is spotted by the cop he booted. He has just enough time to tell Lloyd he will have to start the climb himself and that he’ll meet him at a window on the first level and trade places with him. Tell that to the cop who observes Bill entering the building. As you would anticipate, each time Bill shows up on a floor to take Lloyd’s place, the policeman shows up to chase Bill. I guess the moral of this tale is that people will do strange things for love. Lloyd does the entire perilous climb, one made even more difficult by his own ineptitude. Several times, including the famous clock sequence, Lloyd is nearly knocked down to a certain death, but manages to stagger to safety. The people on the ground are enthralled; they believe everything they see is part of a choreographed act.


The use of long shots makes for a really tense sequence. It was all the more so if you know that Lloyd did his own stunt work. I was biting my nails wondering how he had the moxie to attempt such thing. After Lloyd’s death, his stunt coach revealed a key part of the illusion. Buildings of varying heights were used and each time a façade was constructed to mirror that of the department store. It was still a difficult accomplishment, but Lloyd was probably not in mortal danger. (Of course, someone could die just as easily falling from one or two floors as twelve.)


I was gobsmacked when I found out about the trick, because the matching in the movie is so good that there are no visual clues that Lloyd isn’t climbing a very tall building. It remains a remarkable achievement and one that earned its iconic status. I highly recommend that you watch Safety Last! to appreciate what can be done via fortitude and cleverness outside of the digital world. You probably won’t be enraptured by the narrative, but the climb—oh, my goodness!


Rob Weir


Small Towns: Stockbridge MA

Sorry, this hangs crookedly at the Rockwell Museum

 Because we live an hour from the Berkshires, most visits are day trips. Recently, though, we purchased nighttime tickets for Winter Lights on the grounds of Naumkeag, an 1886 mansion built for ambassador Joseph Choate and family. That event was canceled due to rain, but since Emily and I booked an overnight stay on Expedia and it's easier to avoid death than cancel one of their reservations, we made our way to the Red Lion Inn. We ended up with a beautiful room that would have otherwise been a budget-breaker. (Still, never book a room through a third-party service; it's not worth the hassle!)


Main Street at night 

Prepping for the hols!

The Red Lion at night

 Stockbridge conjures two 20th century occurrences, Arlo Guthrie's 1965 littering arrest—immortalized on his 1967 album Alice's Restaurant­––and Norman Rockwell's painting “Home for Christmas,” also from 1967. Rockwell’s depiction is how even those who've never been to Stockbridge imagine it. They're not entirely wrong; shops change ownership, but Main Street looks remarkably similar to what it was back then. Alice's Restaurant (which was actually called The Back Room) still serves food as the Main Street Cafe, a breakfast/lunch nook, though Alice Brock left a half century ago.  


The irony of Guthrie's arrest by William Obenheim (“Officer Obie” in the song) is that it and Rockwell's painting, left two outdated impressions of Stockbridge, that it’s either a hippie enclave or a snowy Currier & Ives-like slice of nostalgia. Forget the counterculture or quaintness; Stockbridge exudes wealth.


History buffs know that Stockbridge, settled in 1734, was the first English settlement in the southern Berkshires. The Rev. John Sergeant forged a treaty with local Mohican peoples that was better than most of his day. They became so-called “praying Indians” and were Christianized at the local Mission House. It can still be visited today and does a decent job of treating Native history with dignity. Sergeant had a famous successor: the Rev. Jonathan Edwards.


  Stockbridge's pioneer, rural, and blue-collar character—there’s still a paper mill still just outside the village—transformed into a summer playground for well-heeled New Yorkers after railroads arrived in 1850. Today, Empire State license plates often outnumber those from Massachusetts. It makes sense; Albany is just 45 miles away and Boston is over 130 miles distant. It’s also easier to get there from New York City (145 miles distant) by public transportation than to Boston.



Inside the Red Lion pub




Naumkeag's famed tiered fountain

The Red Lion Inn, which began life as a tavern in 1773, exudes invented colonial charm and can (over-)charge Manhattan prices because of its New York connections. You could spend north of $400 a night for a room in a village of just 2,018 residents. Why? There are a surprising number of cultural opportunities in the immediate area: summer stock theatre, music at Tanglewood, yoga at Kripalu, and blossoming delights at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Plus, Stockbridge and neighboring Lenox are littered (Guthrie pun intended) with homes of American aristocracy. Andrew Carnegie summered in Stockbridge and the Choates' Naumkeag is a Stanford White-designed splendor. Artists thrived nearby; you can tour the Rockwell Museum and the studio and home of sculptor Daniel Chester French. Catholics flock to the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, families enjoy the chimes of the Children's Tower, and if you have the dosh, you can even treat your neuroses at the posh Austen Riggs psychiatric center.   


Not the Catholic shrine


Gumball fa la la!


Stockbridge has dump-out-your-wallet food offerings such as Michael's, Once Upon a Table, and the Lion's Den. We opted to head up to West Stockbridge for a more reasonable dinner tab at Amici, then enjoyed a glass of wine in the Red Lion's pub, which we polished off in two wing chairs by the fireplace in the lobby. Cheaper daytime food options include the Elm Street Market and Stockbridge Coffee, but don't miss the pastries at The Lost Lamb across the street from the Red Lion.


 We topped off our two-day getaway by visiting the Rockwell Museum and headed north to the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, both of which were free on our North America museum roaming pass. Despite the rain-out at Naumkeag, we enjoyed our excursion though I'm not sure we could afford too many village outings like this. Maybe we'll try something cheaper, like New York City!

Rob Weir



The Bullet That Missed, Another Zany Thursday Murder Club Book



By Richard Osman

Random House, 352 pages.





The Bullet That Missed is book three of the delightful Thursday Murder Club Mystery series. Anyone who loves British eccentricity at its quirky best will delight in any of them, though the first book and this one are stronger than book two.


To recap, the Thursday Murder Club meets in the old-age home of Cooper’s Chase. Its principal geezers are former MI6 agent Elizabeth Best, her proper-goes-cockeyed friend Joyce Meadowcroft, former union tough guy Ron Ritchie, and gentle retired psychologist Ibrahim Arif. They like to reexamine old murder cases and are so successful that local cops Chris Hudson and Donna DeFreitas have become fans and give aid when they can get away with it. Bogdan Jankowski, an immigrant with a shadowy past, is another conspirator. He is having a torrid affair with Donna. Ron, on the other hand, is enjoying carnal relations with Pauline, a makeup artist. Everyone, it seems, has a hidden secret or two.


This time they take on the disappearance and presumed murder of TV personality Bethany Waites, chosen partly because Joyce has a girl crush on Bethany’s former co-anchor, Mike Waghorn whom she religiously watches. His show, South East Tonight, might remind locals of light fare daytime human interest shows around Western Massachusetts. Joyce will get to know Mike, but let’s just say they are not a romantic match.


People get killed in this series, but relationships and the writing are so offbeat that sanguinary activity falls into the category of black comedy. For example, their investigations send Ibrahim to visit the deeply immoral and dangerous Connie Johnson (from book two) and Ibrahim makes this observation: “He likes Connie; and she likes him. Although one has to be careful: she is a ruthless killer and, without wishing to be judgmental about it, that is fairly bad.” Yes indeed. She’s running drugs, contraband, and hits from her jail cell and is given privileges from prison personnel for whom she scores cheap electronics and other such favors.


Dangerous silliness shows elsewhere. There is Henrik, an inept Swedish thug who tries to get Elizabeth to kill a former Russian spy named Viktor. That gives her pause as Viktor was once one of her lovers, but what can she do? Henrik has tracked everyone and threatens to kill Joyce if Elizabeth doesn’t off Viktor. There is Andrew Everson, the chief constable of Kent, who is more productive in writing crime novels than catching transgressors. Bethany’s on-the-air replacement Fiona Clemence seems to be disagreeable, but does that mean she had a role in Bethany’s disappearance?


Osman resorts to all manner of devices to spin his yarn such as anagrams, priceless old books, missing money from an old heist, and SIM cards. But Elizabeth keeps coming back to the lack of a body and attempts to identify what good guys and bad guys alike have overlooked. As we learned from the first two books, although Elizabeth is fearless and can be ruthless, some of her instincts retired when she did. She and her Cooper’s Chase peers are, after all, in their 70s. Their specialty is getting criminals to misjudge them.  


Will the Murder Club solve Bethany’s disappearance? Of course, but the fun lies in the twisted paths taken to get there, not the gory details. I roared at parts of this book as if I were watching a Monty Python sketch. Know anyone who likes off-kilter mysteries and loves British foibles and aberrations? Stick this one on your holiday list and be ready to field telephone calls from the recipient who wants to read to you their favorite zany quotes. Best to read it yourself first, so you can head them off at the pass. Or at least exchange notes.


Rob Weir


Louise Penny Rights the Ship in A World of Curiosities




By Louise Penny

Minotaur/St. Martin’s, 380 pages.





Louise Penny’s previous two Armand Gamache mysteries were mildly disappointing, which makes A World of Curiosities a redemptive work. The title references how people in earlier times who traveled very little learned about the world beyond their immediate area. One way was to commission artists to paint canvases crammed with exotica collected or described by travelers. One such work, The Paston Treasure, was rendered by an unknown Dutch artist for a 17th century British aristocratic family. It plays a major role in A World of Curiosities


The Paston Treaure


Penny also builds a narrative involving two infamous events from the 20th century, two Québec City bridge collapses (1907, 1916) that killed 88 people and the 1989 Montréal Massacre, which saw a male gunmen storm the École Polytechnique, order male students to leave, and systematically shot female students, killing 14 and wounding 13.* In the novel, Armand Gamache is a low-level cop on the team that responds to the Polytechnique slaughter. Still another historical event involves Anne Lamarche (a real person) accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Penny turns her into a legend as the founder of Gamache’s village of Three Pines.   


The book opens with a chase before segueing to how Gamache rescued his future son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir from the basement of the Sûreté du Québec and brought the surly and disrespectful young man onto his team. Penny fans know that Gamache has a habit of taking on hard-luck cases, but is he always right?


The bulk of the story involves Myrna Landers’ niece, Harriet, who is about to graduate from the Polytechnique, and an old Gamache case involving the murder of a prostitute and the discovery that she had pimped her own children, Fiona and Sam Arsenault. Gamache aided Fiona later in life, but there’s something about Sam that makes him smell a sociopath. Trouble begins when Myrna contemplates selling her bookstore and moving away because the shop’s living quarters are too small for her, partner Billy Williams, and Harriet. Imagine everyone’s surprise when a view from the church steeple suggests there is a hidden room below the roof line. They are even more surprised when the wall is breached and the room is filled with things placed there a long time ago, including a copy of The Paston Treasure.


It's more sinister than that; there is strange writing on the painting and figures appear to be victims of serial killer John Fleming. (Penny fans will recognize Fleming as her equivalent to Conan Doyle’s brilliant-but-psychopathic Professor Moriarty.) How is that possible if the room has been sealed for over a century and Fleming is in maximum security prison? Marie-Reine Gamache is dispatched to England to examine the original Treasure for possible clues while Gamache and his team simultaneously investigate the local mystery and a recent murder. The agnostic Gamache is so perplexed that he seeks solace from the new local minister, the Rev. Robert Mongeau. All of the regular Three Pines crew make appearances–Clara, Gabri, Olivier, Ruth, and Rosa the duck–but this book largely focuses on the extended Gamache family and on Myrna. There are also appearances from previous Gamache rescue projects and proteges such as Amelia Choquet and Isabelle Lacoste.


Lots of things factor into the plot beside the painting: self-doubt, an old letter delivered to Billy intended for his ancestors, a book of magic, running, adolescent lust, a rising stack of bodies, and a resolution that is clock-beating on several levels. Much of the novel will make your heart pound and others will make your skin crawl. Some Penny fans have complained that recent books are too dark. That depends, I suppose, whether you want a soap opera or a murder mystery. After all, homicide tales require that someone has to meet with an unpleasant end.


A more legitimate quibble is that Penny is recycling. She repeats phrases (over-) used in previous books like references to Gamache’s “kind” eyes and shopworn jokes about Rosa the duck and Gamache’s ugly rescue dog. How many times now have we heard the four statements Gamache thinks every investigator should use: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help. This is Penny’s 18th Armand Gamache mystery, so there is no need for redundancy; new readers who don’t go back to square one will be lost anyhow. Still, A World of Curiosities is cause for hope that Penny has righted the ship.


Rob Weir



* Unlike unspeakable acts in the United States such as Sandy Hook and Uvalde, Canada responded with strict gun control laws instead of BS pop psychology. 


Prep for the Hols by Watching Holiday


HOLIDAY (1938)

Directed by George Kukor

Columbia Pictures, 95 minutes, Not-rated

(In black & white)





Not all “holiday” films are soaked in pine oil and draped in tinsel. The romantic comedy titled Holiday takes place between December and New Year’s Day, but it’s more about relationships and social class than Santa Claus or a diapered kid escorting Father Time to the exit door.


Holiday is an amusing film and a peek at Depression Era America. The Thirties are sometimes dubbed “the age of the common man” for imagery that valorized working stiffs.Franklin Roosevelt is never directly mentioned, but banker Edward Seton Sr. (Henry Kolker) makes known his dislike for current government policies.


Holiday is a classic Gary Grant/Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy. Grant is Johnny Case, a man from a humble Baltimore background who, through intellect and hard work obtained an Ivy League education and has done well, but not “too” well. His grand plan is to earn just enough money to quit working while he’s young. He takes his first-ever holiday to Lake Placid, meets Julia (Doris Nolan) and after a ten-day whirlwind romance, they are engaged.


Back in New York, Johnny calls upon old friends with whom he once lived, Professor Nick Potter and his wife Susan. They adore Johnny like a son, and why not? He’s witty, urbane, and acrobatic. (Watch Grant do back flips he learned when he was a vaudeville actor performing under his birthname, Archie Leach.) Johnny is gobsmacked when he calls upon Julia at her home–through the servants’ door, no less–to find that she is filthy rich and resides in digs you might associate with Newport, Rhode Island.


What unfolds is an old tale well done, a man looking for love in the wrong place. Julia isn’t enthusiastic about Johnny’s plan to retire, live modestly, eat, drink, and be merry until the money’s gone. Nor, she informs him, would such fanciful dreams play well with her stern father he is meeting for the first time. She even makes Johnny ditch his bowtie and borrow a proper necktie from her alcoholic brother Edward Jr., aka/“Ned.”


Screwball comedies often have predictable plots and this is one of them. (Their charm derives from snappy dialogue, muddled circumstances, and unexpected romance.) Ned alerts Johnny that the Seton household is a dour place and his other sister, Linda (Hepburn), affirms that. Johnny meets her in her sanctuary, the playroom, where she, Ned, and Susan spent their happiest childhood days. It is a metaphor for the overall joylessness of the rest of the four-floor mausoleum for the living.   


Linda couldn’t be happier for Julia; Johnny is a proverbial breath of fresh air who might just bring light back to a home filled with marble columns, art work, and servants. Johnny’s challenge is to get Edward Sr. and Julia on board with his idea. Bet you know how that works out! Watch it unravel at a massive New Year’s Eve/engagement announcement party. Will Johnny compromise his ideals? Will he see that Julia is a snob and that he’s more simpatico with Linda? Duh! Screwball comedy.


It's hard not to review screwballs without spoilers because they are all about acting, timing, and fairy tale endings. Holiday is an actors’ clinic. Grant was a tumbling Adonis at this stage of his life, but also a wonderful actor with a plastic face and a bagful of expressions to screw onto it. But Hepburn! When she’s on screen you simply can’t look elsewhere and her timing is exquisite. Shoutouts also to veteran character actors Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon who played the Potters. Horton exudes an understated but palpable folk wisdom and Dixon lights up the screen with endearing quirks. Although his part is a bit over-written, Lew Ayres is solid as Ned, the dutiful son who wishes he was neither.


George Cukor crisply directed a remake of a Philip Barry play. This is relevant because the movie doesn’t go out much; it’s more like a filmed drawing room comedy. By now, you will have worked out that one of Cukor’s subthemes involves a battle between privilege versus a (sort of) common man. Several stuck-up Seton cousins and the Potters also flesh out those warring ideals. Count me as one who finds it refreshing to view a movie in which obscene wealth is presented as crass. But make no mistake; Holiday is also a very funny movie. As seasonal films go, it is a welcome alternative to December’s usual recycled offerings.


Rob Weir






Sports, Social Media, and the Silly Season



It’s hard not to despair of social media when it’s filled with more garbage than all the world’s landfills combined. The latest case in point was the semifinal World Cup soccer match between France and Morocco. 


Many countries, not one!


Like trying to force a size 10 foot into a pair of size six boots, numerous self-styled social media experts (read “idiots”) positioned the match as a struggle between colonialism and liberation. As a professional historian I want people to use the past, but not as a club to pound a skeleton. France left Morocco in 1956 and some quick subtraction will tell you that this was 66 years ago. Yes, colonialism is a weed with deep and persistent roots, but let’s not ask young men to carry that burden. No one­–not even the respective team managers–were alive when France exited Morocco, plus if anyone cares, Spain occupied southern Morocco and stayed two years longer.


Aside from the French manager, who is 52, no one on the team (a backup goalkeeper) is older than 37 and all of the outfield players are in their 20s. The same is true for the Moroccans, whose oldest player is 33. Those who love underdogs can certainly justify rooting for Morocco against a previous World Cup champion, but colonialism is a lousy justification. It’s probably a good thing England didn’t make it to the final, or I’m sure we’d hear how the upcoming final versus Argentina is a chance to avenge the Falklands War (which was, on both sides, surely one of the dumbest conflicts within the inherently stupid pursuit of war.) 






You’ve probably also heard some express hope for the first “African” team and that too flunks the sniff test. What do we mean by Africa? Let’s look at two team photos. You might observe that the faces in one are slightly darker than the other. Great, but the ones in blue (or should I say bleu?) are the French. We are not talking rugby’s 1981 Springbok tour which put South African apartheid on trial. It’s also worth noting that France’s best player (and perhaps the Cup MVP) is Kylian Mbappé, born in Paris but to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.


Which Africa is most represented? Morocco is an African country by strict geography and little else. One might as well argue that the United States is a Latin American nation as it shares a continent with Guatemala. In many ways, Morocco is more Middle Eastern than African. Not much about it fits the profile of Sub-Saharan (read “black”) Africa. Ethnically Morocco is dominated by Arabic and Maghrebi peoples (those born in North Africa + Berbers). Its life expectancy is 73.6 years, the median age is 29, and nearly all of its population (99%) is Sunni Muslim.


North Africa is not Sub-Saharan Africa, where Christians outnumber Muslims by nearly 2:1, the life expectancy is 61.6 years, and the median age is just 18. If you’re wondering, Cameroon is one of the world’s poorest countries, though it’s the Upper East Side compared to places like Somalia, Congo, and Mozambique. Once you get south of Sudan, by the way, don’t confuse the Arabic language with Arab ethnicity. And certainly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that colonialism is just a European thing. Europeans learned a lot about exploiting black Africans from Muslim raiders, traders, and enslavers. Call it bloody hands all around.  


At this point I should disavow any suspicion that I’m rooting for France. I have no World Cup favorites or preferences beyond a vague fondness for Portugal. (I knew the USA had little chance of winning–as in virtually none.) I appreciate the skill of soccer, though I’m not really keen on any variety of football. There’s too much midfield strategizing for my taste. I’ll take the speed, brawn, and multiple scoring chances of ice hockey any day of the week. I can see soccer’s chess-like thinking, but would you watch a chess match? I used to play chess, but I’d never watch it.


I’m happy, though, that World Cup fans get to indulge in the world’s most popular team sport every four years. I just wish the idiots would let everyone enjoy it. Sports can play a positive role in a broken world. You might recall that the healing of gulf between China and the West began with ping pong and, yes, that 1981 Springbok tour did much to cast apartheid in a negative light. 



For me,  above is the picture that will endure from the 2022 World Cup. It’s of Kylian Mbappé embracing Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and later Tweeting he shouldn’t be sad because the entire world was proud of Morocco. Sportsmanship is the polar opposite of combat imagery. Can I please put in a full order of Mbappé and scrape all the social media loudmouths into the compost?



Rob Weir












Give Music as a Gift: Jamie McDell Artist of the Month and Others


Still searching for holiday ideas? Give the gift of music. Here are some artists to consider. 




“World-famous in New Zealand” was a joke punchline when I lived there in 2001. Back then the music scene consisted largely of bad cover bands and acts no one would ever wish to cover. Things have gotten better since then. Jamie McDell, my December Artist of the Month, is a case in point. She’s an Auckland native who has also lived in Nashville, Toronto, and Vancouver. McDell comes by her peripatetic lifestyle courtesy of her father, who quit his job when Jamie was 7 to move his family of four onto a boat for a year. Jamie got her sea legs by learning to play the songs of John Denver, James Taylor, and Jimmy Buffett, and obtained stardom of a sort when the record she made at 16 went gold. Ahh, but there’s the rub; in New Zealand gold means selling 2,500 units; in the USA you need half a million. That’s why so many from abroad trek to Nashville, which is where the self-titled Jamie McDell was made.

            Nashville’s potential pitfall is that it likes to pigeonhole. As you can hear, McDell can do country but she carries an alt.country label because: (a) Folk music isn’t a popular label, and (b) McDell’s country is somewhere between traditional and outlaw. Suits me just fine; she’s a wonderful storyteller and, once you listen to “Botox” and hear that catch in her voice you know that she’s a singer, not an all-flash-no-substance "performer." Call this one and “Boy Into a Man” later on the album feminism without the sermon. Why botox? Because the song is about the ways in which socially constructed masculinity is built upon forced images of femininity. As a sampled line puts it, ask the doctor to make me shorter/so you can get your manhood back. This record is filled with gems, including the semi-autobiographical “Sailor” (the studio version includes the McCray Sisters) and the power she draws from the open sea. On “Mother’s Daughter,” though she confesses that mom, not her wanderlust father, shaped her more. It's a weepie, but a good one. McDell isn’t afraid to tell tales on herself, as she does on “Not Ready Yet” and the dangers of running wild in “Limousine Running.” Let that one run as next up is amazing. McDell sits back-to-back with Robert Ellis to sing and harmonize on “Worst Crime.” What was her transgression? Listen.  



Picot is a Barcelona-based band built around the duo of Jordi Marfà (voice, mandolin, violin) and Daniel Pitarc (keyboards). Their debut record Les alles del cavall, which I’m told translates The Horse’s Wings. It’s Catalan, though, so I’m trusting my computer translation software on this. Don’t call it Spanish; Catalan has similarities in that it’s a Romance language, but it immediately derives from Vulgar (“popular”) Latin and probably began life as proto-Celtic. That helps explain why Catalan music often has a Celtic flair. “La casa que vull (The House I Want)” is an example of the Catalonia’s mixed roots. It sounds simultaneously African–as does a lot of Mediterranean music–but the plucked mando notes and swooping violin passages evoke pan-Celtic structures.

            Two other tracks to investigate are “T’he engendrat amb dolor (I Begot Your Pain)” which is as atmospheric as the video clip. Marfà’s voice is big and dramatic but the instrumentation is airy and light, almost nouveau Renaissance. It frames a song that borrows snippets of poetry (in Catalan) from everyone from Whitman to Jean Cocteau. “Tan Petita (So Small)” is another intriguing piece in that its African notes are more Caribbean than Sub-Saharan.  



Susan Cattaneo has long been a mainstay of the Boston music scene. Don’t let her respectable demeanor fool you; she has a serious set of pipes and can sing about pain with the best of them. The title track of All is Quiet testifies to this. She sits serenely on the stage and rips off a line like idle hands make idle worries and when she soars on the all is quiet refrain, we’re talking upper part of the sky. Cattaneo gives us dark things, but also delivers the message to “Hold Onto Hope” and echoes an old Lui Collins line that the only way out is through. “Borrowed Blue” is a tender song about the bond between daughters and mothers. Again, though, Cattaneo has been around the block enough times to know there are also situations in which, as a song title puts it, there are “No Hearts Here.” Cattaneo is the kind of singer I really like, one who puts the song upfront in a voice that mixes pretty ornaments with burnished maturity that resonates around the edges. Hey, even songbirds have to land.       


Warden and Co. is a Saratoga Springs-based trio that began life making kids music and still dabble in it, but has evolved into a folk-rock band. If there is an upside to the COVID crisis, it is that most musicians spent more time at home and seized the day to write and create. Frontman Seth Warden, who is also a middle school teacher, wrote enough material for Somewhere and a future release. On the album version of “Somewhere” Warden shares the mic with his 13-year-old daughter, Lovella. The song is about a dad’s hope on one level, but it’s also about connecting with one’s roots. Doug Moody’s fiddle enhances the sweetness of Warden’s smooth vocal. Lovella’s pretty good, actually, but if you want something with more grit try “Middle of Madness,” which has a splash of Tom Petty, especially in its questioning of all the competing claims of “truth.” It also gives percussionist Brian Melick a workout. But it’s hard to argue with the self-explanatory pop-laced “Living for Love.” I like these guys a lot, though objectively its top-heavy mid-tempos offerings invoke a sameness, so some might wish to track shop.



How about some world music? Kadaily Kouyate is a Senegalese-born kora player who now lives in London. If, like me, a six-string guitar is perplexing enough for you, try 21. The kora is a demanding instrument but, in the hands of a master such as Kouyate it sounds a bit like a hammer dulcimer and is capable of virtuoso pieces as well as those of great delicacy. In the second category place “Janjon Ba,” Kouyate’s tribute to a 13th century warrior. It’s done with such gentleness that it evokes a seasonal tune more than anything military. “Diyanamo” opens with sprays of notes and eventually has the precision and feel of something classical. “Kontandiro” has slightly darker tones but is also a meditative journey. Kouyate is often known for his social message songs but this album, Aado, features Kouyate’s instrumental fingering rather than direct politics, even if the title does translate as social customs.



Doriana Spurrell hails from North Carolina. Her EP Forward opens with a goodbye song, “Don’t Wake Me.” It’s unusual to lead with an “I’m outta here” song, but one gets the sense that Spurrell would rather be in the moment instead of fantasy land. “Until I Die” is another enigmatic song that suggests she’s after a vibe somewhere between torch singing, the blues, and attitude. What do you do with lines such as: To tune out so many floating bodies, like seas of plastic strangling all my hobbies/I won’t bleed for them, I won’t bleed for them. She specializes in missed connections songs; “Never Needed Words,” which is about her late grandfather, is another example. Depending on your POV, she’s either being honest about how life can overwhelm or she’s still trying to figure out how to find the path forward. She has an interesting voice, though she should lay off comparisons to Nick Drake or Brandi Carlile until her voice ripens and her pencil sharpens.      





If you are a fan of swirly wall-to-wall sound, try HeyDreamer, a three- (sometimes four-) piece rock band from Atlanta anchored by lead singer and electric guitar slayer Melody Kiser. “Untamed” is poppy and danceable, “Feel the Fire” has heart-thumping bass lines, and “As Cities Burn” is spacey and echoey. The latter, though, is filled with studio tricks that don’t serve much purpose. Overall, the record strikes me as over-produced. When things quiet down for a song like “Choose Me,” they also thin out. It gives me pause, but that’s not saying you will react the same way.   



Rob Weir