Summerwater: Brilliant or Annoying?



By Sarah Moss

Picador, 125 pages.

★★ ½ 




If you thought I was neutral about the movie Dune, I’m positively cowardly in my evaluation of Summerwater. I rated it 2 ½ stars because my wife loved it and I was pretty much annoyed with it from start to finish. Luckily, at just 125 pages, the finish came quickly. It’s short because its inspiration is a poem: William Watson’s “The Ballad of Semmerwater.” You will notice that Watson wrote Semmerwater rather than Summerwater. That’s appropriate, as the setting is in the Trossachs region of Scotland, where Watson’s spelling would be more in line with local brogues.


From what I gather from how others have rated it there is a decided gender breakdown concerning this novella from Sarah Moss. The best part of Moss’ work is that most of what we read is what is seldom said: the internal perceptions and judgments of characters, most of whom wouldn’t dare voice their thought bubbles. That’s especially the case because most of them are English and they are not known for being vocal about their emotions.


Think of Summerwater as one day in a vacation from hell. It is set in a holiday park, a British phrase that references destinations of various quality in which there are activities that encourage guests to stay within the camp confines most of the time. We infer from the context that this park is more rustic than posh. What is not open to interpretation is the weather. The six families gathered therein have seen rain, rain, and more rain. Most are going stir crazy and we all know that crazy is crazy. In such matters, reason tends to fly out the door.


Among the guests are a teenage boy forced to share a room with his sister and looking for a place where he can masturbate in peace. That leads to a kayak trip in the wind and teeming rain that could have ended quite badly indeed. There is a young married couple seeking mutual orgasm, or at least he is; she is thinking about everything else under the “bruise-colored clouds.” There are kids on a lochside swing set that sways over the water, an elderly couple peeking out at others, a man in a tent whom an obsessed jogger imagines an axe murderer (he’s not); a busy mother given an hour to herself and cleans because she can’t think of anything else to do; and a loud group of partying Eastern Europeans of indeterminate origin that induce outrage among everyone else–perhaps because they actually wish they too had joie de vivre.


Those who like Summerwater have praised its elemental qualities; that is, its mix of sky, water, animal, land, and human interactions. It also wins kudos for its style that has won raves from Hilary Mantel. That’s another way to tell if this book is for you. Mantel is the acclaimed author and two-time Booker Prize winner for her novels on Thomas Cromwell. If you think she’s a marvel, try Summerwater; if you find Mantel’s work more style than substance, you’ll feel the same about Moss.


An oft-made comment is that Summerwater is a funny book. It is amusing to contemplate what we might hear if the aforementioned thought bubbles took on a life of their own. My beef is that I didn’t care what any character thought about anything. They reminded me of those whom I got out of my way to avoid: whiny, self-centered people who complain about everything. Critical thinking is one thing, but you know the type to whom I allude, those with such low esteem that they judge others so they can feel self-righteously superior. But what do I know? Like I said, my wife loved this book.


Rob Weir


Dune: I'm Neutral



Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Warner Brothers, 156 minutes, PG-13 (violence, language)



Go figure. The 1984 film version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune was a box office dud even though it had a famous director (David Lynch) and a cast of well-known actors. Denis Villeneuve directed the 2021 version and though he’s no hack, he’s certainly no David Lynch and his cast lacks the box office power of its predecessor. Yet the new Dune has raked in nearly $400 million.


We’ve learned that Dune can be popular, but it remains an open question whether it’s akin to Don Quixote and simply can’t do justice to a complex book. Villeneuve is certainly giving it his all, as the current 156-minute blockbuster is but the first of three installments. Will it be the next Lord of the Rings, which made $3 billion, or will it run out of steam? It might boil down to whether the measure is quality or what people will pay to see.


I’m already trending toward skeptical on the quality front. Villeneuve’s first film is a visual feast, courtesy of Greig Fraser’s cinematography, especially his sweep of geometric shapes carved by shifting sands. It is, however, more Star Wars than cultural anthropology, the latter being one of the things that made Herbert’s novel a cult success. I hope Villeneuve will delve deeper into the religious mysticism and meeting-of-cultures that made the novel so intriguing, but will that resonate with those who want to see things blow up and spaceships blasting away at each other? I liked, but didn’t love Part One, but then I’m more of a Star Trek fan than Star Wars, a way of saying I’m more into relationships than watching things go boom.


As a refresher–those who hate sci-fi won’t care–Dune is set in the distant future. Interstellar travel is common, though it relies upon the spice sands of the planet Arrakis to make warp speeds possible. The plot line involves warring clashes between the Atreides House and the House of Harkonnen for the right to hold Arrakis as a fiefdom from the Padishah emperor. Think of Atreides as the white hats, Harkonnen as the black, and the emperor as the Big Cheese of the universe. Harkonnen has held Arrakis, but the emperor has ordered a transfer to Atreides. It’s a setup, but unless you’ve read the book or seen the 1984 film, you won’t yet learn who’s in on the fix.


Dune: Part One plays an awful lot like the original Star Wars film that saw the Rebel Alliance do battle with the arrogant Galactic Empire; that is, sandwiched between the action sequences we meet the tragic figures and future heroes and villains. In Dune this includes: Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac), his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skasgård), his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), Dr. Wellington Yeuh (Chang Chen), and Imperial ecologist/judge Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). There is also the matter of Paul’s mother and Leo’s paramour Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the mysterious Benet Gesserit, and Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), its Reverend Mother. Their loyalties are uncertain.


There are two wildcards in controlling Arrakis. The first involves sandworms and we’re not talking fishing wigglers; they are enormous, sensitive to vibrations, and deadly to machines or mortals that awaken them. The second is that the dessert planet has an indigenous population, the Fremen (get it?), who are hostile to both sides. (The blue-eyed Fremen are akin to today’s Tuareg tribes of Northern Africa.) We are introduced to Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of Sieth Tabr (think rocky oasis), and Chani (singer Zendaya), who has her eyes on Paul.


To me, it seems like a two-and-half hours plus film should do more than have a lot of bloodshed and merely introduce characters that will be important later. To be frank, the sandworms are no better in this film than in Lynch’s effort and in my opinion, they are best left to the imagination. If I might contrast Dune to Lord of the Rings, the first LOR film developed full characters–and visually convincing villains–and the second devoted itself to battles. That makes more sense to me (even though the second film was my least favorite of the LOR series). Given that I already know what will happen from past brushes with Dune, my decision to view the next two will probably rest upon whim. I realize that’s not a ringing endorsement. Guess my neutrality is showing.


Rob Weir


Katie Callahan: January 2022 Artist of the Month




The Water Comes Back 




The first thing to know about Katie Callahan is that she grew up in an evangelical Christian tradition. Then came the 2016 election, Trumpism, and a failed marriage that left her a single mother and tapped out as a songwriter. As she rebuilt her life–a new marriage, a second child, and recovered inspiration–she abandoned evangelicalism.


Too often, though, liberals read a paragraph like the one above with a degree of smug satisfaction and the assumption that it must have been a relief to cast off the oppressive bonds of evangelical religion. Even allowing for the fact that both those with and without faith suffer from misfortune, there is another factor that flies in the face of easy-transition narratives: The hole left behind when faith leaves.


Callahan’s journey under the microscope in The Water Comes Back is  raw and honest. It’s gutsy to write a song like “I Miss God” and toss in a chorus like this: But I miss God and the surety/Of knowing I was right/Where is God when uncertainty/Turns out the light? Callahan is no longer an evangelical, but make no mistake; this is a deeply spiritual record on many levels. “Baptism,” for instance, is a lamentation to her first marriage. Odd? Not really; even great thinkers such as St. Augustine called doubt a foundation of faith.


Callahan is generally classified as a folk singer these days, but that label doesn’t quite fit. “In a Garden” really is about getting her hands in the dirt, but with its big choruses, stomp and clap percussion, and layered vocals, it is evocative of gospel music. It is also one of several songs in which she sings of resurrections of various sorts, including the possibility of finding God in the ashes, the pain, and in nature. That won’t fly with Biblical literalists, but she’s done with the one-road crowd, so why not add feminism to the list of things that light holy fires? On “Witches” she celebrates female power: We are the wild ones/We howl at the moon/We dance in the desert/We are the monsoon. Late in the song she takes a poke at rigid faith: If Eve ruined Adam/If she brought the fall/How challenged his conscience/How weak his resolve. I also like how this one begins with a subdued feel but builds, drops back down, and pings back and forth between solemn and energetic.


She takes a pop approach to “One Sided Sea,” splashes a tiny bit of country in “I Won’t Give Up,” links personal and universal brokenness in “Notre Dame,” and opts for an echoey prayer-like treatment to “Sri Lanka,” her low-key testament to a bombing of a church by militants in that strife-torn land. Callahan can play solo, but she likes robust arrangements, so the album has everything from organ, strings, and electric guitar backing acoustic guitar and mandolin. Mostly, though, you’ll thrill to a songbird voice that alternates between avians– a fragile sparrow in one breath, a soaring eagle the next.


A gorgeous voice–sometimes influenced by Joan Osborne–superb lyricism, and meaningful themes, who could ask for more? So, here’s my one-word review for this wonderful album: Hallelujah!


Rob Weir