Fun Home

Not One Big Happy Family
“We’re a typical family quintet” “And yet….”

On Thursday night I saw “Fun Home.” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. I think it’ll be a while before the mulling over stops.

Based on Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, “Fun Home” plays on a specific as well as a universal level. While it’s her story—her childhood and her coming out—it also appeals to a fairly widespread desire: to know what our parents are really like, to solve a mystery that no child really can. We want to know them not as parents, but as people, particularly people our age. Is it any wonder films like “Back to the Future,” in which this wish plays out, are so popular? But “Fun Home” is about an even greater enigma: Alison’s father, Bruce, married, father of three—and gay. And who evidently committed suicide by stepping into the path of a truck not long after his daughter came out.

Shortly To Be Changing Her Major
Shortly To Be Changing Her Major

“Fun Home,” the musical, features 43-year-old Alison looking back on her childhood and adolescence, and trying to understand her father’s life and death (It’s no accident she’s doing this at almost the same age he was when he died. Take it from one who’s been there—realizing you’ve surpassed your parents’ ages certainly makes you reassess your life). Alison is aided and abetted by two younger selves: Small Alison, who’s about 9 or 10, and Middle Alison, in her freshman year at Oberlin. Her father Bruce is a high school English teacher who also runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, the family business he inherited which his kids call “Fun Home.” But Bruce’s real passion is historic restoration, an avocation he takes to an extreme. As the adult Alison notes, “The real object of his affection was his house.” The family residence closely resembles a museum in which Bruce insists everything must be in its place. With his private life in chaos it’s not surprising he’s something of a control freak capable of raging over minutiae.

Even discounting the subject matter, this is definitely not your daddy’s musical theater. The show is played in the round, so that fourth wall feels practically non-existent. There’s no intermission so there’s never a loss of momentum in the story. It’s non-linear—what we experience is the adult Alison’s looking back and trying to make sense of a jumble of memories and impressions. But what ultimately makes “Fun Home” so refreshing is that this is a quiet show, both literally and figuratively. Seven musicians accompany the characters as they express themselves in language, both musical and lyrical, that seems made to measure. Composer Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, book author and lyricist, have produced a wonderfully honest work—there’s no grandiosity of expression or hyper-intellectualism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Small Alison’s number, “Ring of Keys,” which Sydney Lucas performed so memorably at the Tony Awards. The character expresses herself as a child would, albeit one with a growing realization of who she is. Similarly she and her two brothers hilariously stay within their own frame of reference when they belt out their commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”), Jackson 5-style. Both songs bring the house down in performance.

All five principals of “Fun Home” were nominated for Tony Awards, and rightly so (Michael Cerveris won for Best Actor in a Musical). Emily Skeggs gives a lovely performance as Middle Alison; she’s adorable singing “Changing My Major” in her tighty-whities and soccer socks after that first night with Joan (Speaking of whom, Roberta Colindrez lends a welcome tang to her portrayal of Alison’s first). And the audience is brought to its virtual knees by Judy Kuhn’s rendition of “Days and Days,” as Alison’s mother Helen describes what it’s cost her to be married to the closeted Bruce. “Heart-wrenching” doesn’t begin to do actor or song justice. When Ms. Kuhn ended by singing to Middle Alison, “Don’t come back here\I didn’t raise you\To give away your days\Like me” at the performance I saw, I could feel the audience collectively draw a startled breath at the rawness of that emotion.

“I Wanna Play Airplane”

Michael Cerveris as Bruce and Beth Malone as Alison give stellar performances in the two most complex roles in “Fun Home.” By turns avuncular, rigid, gentle and angry, Mr. Cerveris shows us a man incapable of listening to others because of the noise in his own head. One moment he can sing a gentle lullaby to his daughter; the next he can leave his kids asleep in a borrowed apartment in New York to go out cruising. Yet the torment of living a double life is never gone for him. There are few scenes in musicals that show a character’s desperation as plainly as the conclusion of “Raincoat of Love,” a Partridge Family-like number, in which Bruce stands alone, singing the refrain “Everything’s all right,” over and over, a capella. The man is just falling apart.

Beth Malone may have the smallest role of the three Alisons, but it’s the most crucial. As the narrator of “Fun Home,” she’s the prism through which we see the story (Her embarrassment at Middle Alison’s gaucherie is predictable but hilarious). At first she’s ambivalent about her father (“My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike”). But as memories return and are reexamined from her now-adult viewpoint, her sympathies begin to shift. Perhaps for the first time she appreciates how closed his life was; as she sings in “Maps,” “I can draw a circle—you live your life inside.” Longing to understand him, she recreates their final conversation (“Telephone Wire”), in which she promises herself over and over that she’ll broach the subject of their gayness at the next traffic light as they go for a drive. But the adolescent Alison can’t make contact, to the adult’s frustration (“I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end”). Like Jay Gatsby, she wants to change the past to ensure a different present. However, there is reconciliation. As the adult Alison, looking back at how she and her father played “airplane,” concludes: “Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”

If you can’t make it to the Public Theater to see “Fun Home,” by all means buy the original cast recording. It has a great deal of the dialogue along with the music, and the performances are full tilt—the four ladies and Michael Cerveris have some serious chops. Skip the MP3 version and spring for the CD—it’s accompanied by a terrific booklet with all the lyrics and an insightful essay by Jesse Green, theater critic of “New York” magazine.

Savor it.

Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris and Emily Skeggs

Brain Bits for a Golden September

September always reminds me of that staple of old movies—pages falling from a calendar, dramatizing the passage of time. Today’s the first day I could really feel autumn in the air. It’s not just because the cooler temperature made me change from shorts to jeans, or because the rain from a passing shower no longer smelled like summer. The angle of the sun now turns the air golden in late afternoon, a sight you can only see in September.


After slogging through Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I can only say Tay Hohoff, her editor on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Go_Set_a_Watchmanwas a genius. It was Ms. Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott Company who evidently convinced the young Ms. Lee to refocus her story on the few passages in “Watchman” that come alive, all of which consist of Jean Louise (we know her as Scout) reminiscing about her childhood. Even more impressive is how two throw-away references to Atticus Finch’s defense of an unnamed black man were fished out of the manuscript, only to become the tragic story of Tom Robinson’s trial and its aftermath.

I was never a huge of fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I didn’t not like it—as a novel it just didn’t seem to deserve the reverence in which it was generally held (The movie didn’t impress me either, except when Boo Radley was finally revealed. The young Robert Duvall is so otherwordly in the role that he stayed with me far longer than any other character in the film). Yet “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so far beyond “Go Set a Watchman” that the former’s reputation can only be burnished by its origins.

“Go Set a Watchman” primarily consists of its characters lecturing each other about race, politics, compassion, understanding and other matters of import. As has been widely reported, the heroine is an adult version of Scout, the central character of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The only carryover, so to speak, is Atticus Finch, now a somewhat infirm 70-year-old; Dill makes a cameo appearance in flashback, but Jem, sadly, is absent, having died young of a heart attack. When Jean Louise recounts a story from her childhood or adolescence, the narrative finally becomes vibrant; otherwise, it’s truly D.O.A. And matters are not helped one iota by the sort-of engagement of Jean Louise and Hank Clinton, the attorney who works with her father. Their relationship never rings true for a moment; you have to believe this was the first plot point that Editor Hohoff made it her business to toss.

There is some historical value in “Go Set a Watchman” in its expression of various Southern viewpoints of race during the early 1950’s. To that extent it serves the same purpose as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and “Babbit,” the literary value of which have far been outshone by their documentary-style depiction of middle class values in the early 20th century. But “Go Set a Watchman” fails as a novel; it’s not even interesting as a blueprint in the way that “Trimalcchio,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early version of “The Great Gatsby,” is.

This is one manuscript that should have remained buried.


The Heart of
The Heart of “The Fosters”

A few words about a show I still watch: When “The Fosters” is good, it’s great. When it cranks up the teen angst, it’s time to head for the hills.

What I admire about “The Fosters” is its insistence on dealing with situations that other shows won’t touch. This past season featured a budding romance (kiss included) between Jude and his now-more-than-best-friend Connor, both of whom are 15, if memory serves. The show continues to explore the many problems of the foster care system and matters of race, heritage, homophobia and sexuality.

Yet the show loses so many points by continuing to dwell on the “Will they or won’t they?” of foster-brother and sister, Brandon and Callie (Well, they finally did, so now what?). He’s the dreariest wet blanket around and while she means well, the girl can’t stop screwing up. The twins Marianna and Jesus aren’t that much more interesting, but at least he’s been away on scholarship at an exclusive school for most of the season.

But fundamentally there’s a distinct imbalance in this show and it has to do with talent. Among the kids, Hayden Byerly as Jude is a standout; there’s honesty in his performance though the actors who play his brothers and sisters can be as mannered as Bette Davis (whom I love incidentally, but on her it looks good). And every time Teri Polo and Sheri Saum, as moms Stef and Lena, have a scene together, they make you want to yell “Zip it!” at the kids. The ladies have such great chemistry that you wish Stef and Lena would ditch that brood (except for Jude), desert ABC Family and just head on over to Showtime.


Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta: “Written on Skin”

I finally found the time to watch the DVD of George Benjamin’s opera, “Written on Skin,” and I have to say it stands up to (almost) all of the hype it has received. On the one hand, there’s no denying that the work has benefitted enormously from two extraordinary performances, those of Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, who originated the roles of Agnès and the Protector, and whose appearances in each subsequent production of the opera only increase its stature (While Bejun Mehta, who appears on the DVD, created the role of The Boy, other countertenors have succeeded him). But “Written on Skin” is more than sheer theatrical razzle-dazzle, even with its “Let’s put on a show” framing device (with angels, yet). After you watch the DVD, listen to the recording of the work. The score is intriguing in its reliance on unearthly sounds: the intertwining of soprano and countertenor voices, a countertenor aria accompanied by glass armonica and the prominence of contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, all aided and abetted by a huge range of percussion instruments.

Is it the masterpiece some critics proclaim? Well, it’s definitely a great story. Though based on a 13th century tale, “Written on Skin” is timeless in its clash of a tyrannical husband, an unsatisfied wife and the artist hired to write an illustrated family history on “skin,” or parchment. It’s got a shocker of an ending that’s greatly enhanced by some terrific stagecraft. Above all, its music not only serves the story well, it makes you want to listen. Whether “Written on Skin” will live beyond the moment is yet to be determined, but I for one hope it does.


Same for Us, Captain!
Same for Us, Captain!

As a die-hard Mets fan, I can’t tell you how much I’m relishing their stretch run to a pennant. After an incredible April, only to be followed by David Wright’s spinal stenosis and a slew of injuries to Travis d’Arnaud and others, not to mention the ineptitude of the “not ready for prime time” minor leaguers the Mets were subsequently forced to play, we finally saw hope in July with the acquisition of Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, true pros who know how to play the game. Then, wonder of wonders, that Big Bat, which we’d been screaming for, finally arrived in the form of Yoenis Cespedes, aka Superman. With the return of David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets took off like a rocket. As of this writing they’re 10 games up on the Washington Nationals, whose coming off-season I wouldn’t wish on a dog.

But much as I’m looking forward to the post-season, there’s something I want more. Even if they have to float a bond issue, the Mets have got to sign Yoenis Cespedes to a long-term contract. They haven’t had a big bopper since Mike Piazza, and it’s high time to end the lean years. They’ve got to support that young staff of pitching phenoms that’ll be working at CitiField for the next several years (Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz), but more than that, we fans need him. The past few years have been excruciating—it was bad enough to see things come to naught in 2006 and (ouch) 2007, not to mention what came after. We’ve waited long enough.

So Let’s Go Mets!

Line of Duty

Honest, that’s Keeley Hawes (with Martin Compston and Vicky McClure)

I’ve just spent six hours watching the best suspense drama I’ve seen in a very long time. Series 2 of “Line of Duty,” a BBC product now available in the U.S. on DVD, is certainly not your average procedural. Its inner engine is an uncanny combination of outstanding writing by Jed Mercurio and a superb performance by Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton. To see television acting and writing so intertwined and executed at such a high level is a rarity.

The series opens with a tense sequence that you’ll need to replay later on, probably more than once. Denton is the replacement duty officer on the night she catches an emergency call from another officer in charge of a witness in protective custody. The witness has been threatened and must be relocated that night. But things take a horrific twist when the two-car convoy transferring the witness is ambushed, Lindsay’s car is sideswiped into a tree and the vehicle carrying the witness and three police officers is sprayed by automatic weapon fire, doused with gasoline and set alight. Only Lindsay and the horribly burned witness survive.

Because this botched operation screams “inside job,” Lindsay comes under the scrutiny of AC-12, a police anti-corruption unit. Lindsay is initially interviewed by Police Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). She comes across as a drab, put-upon drudge (If Ms. Hawes’ name weren’t on the DVD case, I never would have recognized her minus makeup and sporting what must be the ugliest brunette wig ever created). Unmarried, she’s had to downsize in order to afford her mother’s nursing home care. As the story unfolds, the members of the AC-12 team variously suspect her of incompetence, recklessness and outright corruption. Her finances are scrutinized for bribes. DC Kate Fleming (Vicki McClure), another member of the AC-12 team, goes undercover to serve as her aide in investigating missing persons cases while keeping a close eye on her. There’s never a moment when Lindsay is not under scrutiny.

It’s the “Is she or isn’t she?” that makes this vehicle go. You’re never sure of Lindsay. On the one hand you feel sorry for her. When she protests at one point “Being a police officer is the only thing left to me and now you want to take it away,” it seems AC-12, and Kate Fleming in particular, have gone off the deep end with their suspicions. And yet there are times when Lindsay seems far too glib, too ready with an explanation or excuse when an investigator points out an inconsistency in her story. And in fact, when you go back to the rapidly unfolding events of that first episode, there are certain points at which her reactions and responses seem somewhat off. Even more damning is the fact that she’s got a mean streak–at one point she smashes a bottle into the face of a noisy neighbor and bangs her head into the ground. So don’t be surprised to find yourself siding with the doubters in AC-12 on more than one occasion.

As Keeley Hawes notes in a special features interview in the DVD set, “When I first read through the scripts to the end of Episode 5, I still couldn’t tell whether she was a goodie or a baddie.” That’s what makes this series of “Line of Duty” so extraordinary—the ability of Jed Mercurio and Ms. Hawes to sustain that ambiguity over six hours without faltering for a moment. Ultimately all is revealed, but it’s to the credit of Mr. Mercurio that he never flinches in telling this story. There are a number of brutal events that occur—the murder of yet another police officer, Lindsay’s treatment by her fellow officers and her arrest and imprisonment, all of which are shocking in their unexpectedness. But the resolution—if you can call it that—while not necessarily a happy one, is not unexpected in a drama that treats its audience like adults.

Kudos all around.

“Forsyte” Times Two

forsyte 3
Soames (Eric Porter) and Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter), 1967 Version

Who doesn’t like a story of family rivalry and strife?

When PBS aired the BBC version of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga,” in 1969, television drama in this country was irrevocably changed. Audiences loved the 26-episode multi-generational story, and the clamor for more eventually gave birth to “Masterpiece Theater” and its host of British imports. The popularity of the mini-series in this era was phenomenal—where would American television in the 70’s have been without “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”?

I’m a huge fan of “The Forsyte Saga” in all its black-and-white video glory, but I confess I promptly tuned out the 2002 remake when it first aired. Gina McKee as Irene was no Nyree Dawn Porter, who was superb in the earlier version. But I found myself drawn in last week when I came across my local PBS station’s airing of the later version. An absorbing story will always carry the day, though some faults in execution remain.

“Forsyte” 2.0 consists of ten episodes covering the first three novels of the “Saga,” ending with Fleur’s marriage to Michael Mont (The original series, which continues on with Galsworthy’s second trilogy, ends with Soames’ death). The 2002 edition departs from Galsworthy’s narrative at certain points and changes the thrust at others. Some of this is dramatized quite well—the emphasis on the lowly status of women, both legally and socially, in the Victorian Era, and later, the rise of feminism in the context of the women’s suffrage movement as portrayed in Irene and Winifred’s stories and in June’s rabble-rousing “Votes for Women” speech, respectively. In addition some relationships have been rethought. Winifred and Soames are not always staunch allies, though her lambasting of her brother and his male-dominated view of the world during her divorce proceedings proves to be one of the best scenes of the show. And the context of Soames’ rape of Irene in the 2002 edition is closer to Galsworthy’s intention: Soames enters her unlocked bedroom as opposed to chasing her up the stairs and ripping off her blouse in a scene that’s still shocking almost 50 years later.

Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter) and Young Jolyon (Kenneth More), 1967
Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter) and Young Jolyon (Kenneth More), 1967

In terms of visual appeal there’s no contest between the two “Forsytes”: the 2002 edition is in color and its production design is excellent. I love its conception of Robin Hill: who knew Philip Bosinney was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright? I won’t lie–despite its pleasures the 1967 version may be hard to view for some. Given the necessities of video taping in that era, the makeup is thick, the actresses’ eyelashes and frosted lipstick are straight out of the 1960’s and all wigs are of the bouffant variety, whether worn by women or men. And of course it’s in black and white. As Kenneth More notes in an interview that accompanies the DVD version, the show missed being taped in color by only a year, yet waiting would have prevented the appearance of some key actors who had other commitments pending. It’s a shame, because the on-set still you see here shows how sumptuous this version of “The Forsyte Saga” would have looked.

However, 1967’s “Forsyte Saga” was very well cast and put a number of its actors squarely on the map. Kenneth More was dream casting for Young Jolyon, Margaret Tyzack was phenomenally right as Winifred (it’s amusing that she appears to be far more comfortable playing older rather than younger as the teenaged Winifred whom we first meet at her engagement party), and Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene) and Eric Porter (Soames) were unforgettable (the Porters were not related). However, several performances in the 2002 version are an improvement over the original: Gillian Kearney is exceptionally likeable as June, Ioan Grufudd is the “young buccaneer” Phillip Bosinney to the life, and Corin Redgrave is a magnificent Old Jolyon. It’s also refreshing to see such young actors in the roles of Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Jon (Lee Williams), though Susan Hampshire was phenomenal as the original Fleur, particularly in the second half of the 1967 series.

forsyte 2
Irene (Gina McKee) and Old Jolyon (Corin Redgrave), 2002

However, the casting of the three leads in “Forsyte” 2.0 is somewhat off. They’re all fine actors, but something’s missing. Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon probably comes off best. He’s the “amiable fellow” his father speaks of, but because of his age (39 when the series was filmed) and his wide-eyed open expression (still there in “Last Tango in Halifax” thirteen years later) he looks as young as June, his oldest child, and isn’t as convincing as Kenneth More in the older but wiser version of the character in middle and later age. Damian Lewis is clearly hampered by the show creators’ view of the younger Soames as an obsessed misogynist; they show us less of Soames’ “smother love” than his outright weirdness. In contrast Eric Porter gave us the pathos of a man who is absolutely bewildered by Irene’s non-responsiveness. When he comes as close as he can to begging her for affection, you feel for him, if only momentarily; when Damian Lewis plays the same scene after he sees Irene smiling at Bosinney, it feels robotic—there’s no resonance. Unlike Galsworthy’s or Porter’s Soames, Lewis’ version shows no horror or even passing remorse in the aftermath of his rape of Irene, except in his confession to Fleur many years later in a scene concocted by the show’s writers. He just comes across as a flat-out monster who seemingly loves no one but his father and later, his daughter. His passion for ownership as a “Man of Property,” is very apparent, but there should have been more.

Gina McKee has a tall order to fill as Irene, a character whom Galsworthy shows us exclusively through the eyes of others. McKee lacks Nyree Dawn Porter’s allure in the role, and like her co-star, she seems restricted by the show creators’ conception of the character. In the 1967 version we, along with Soames, meet Irene Heron as a lively young woman in her late teens; Ms. Porter practically bubbles with Irene’s warmth and enthusiasm for life. Yet McKee’s Irene seems consistently morose from the start except in the scene where she dances; there’s no real heat in her passion for Bosinney nor later, in her love for Young Jolyon (In contrast, Mr. More and Ms. Porter, who had excellent chemistry, raised the temperature of the room considerably when they finally got together). Fortunately both Ms. McKee and Mr. Lewis improve significantly as older versions of their characters in the last four episodes of the series that feature Fleur and Jon’s story.

Finally, certain changes in the ending of the 2002 version prove somewhat surprising. Jon’s backtracking from his decision to end it with Fleur and especially the final meeting of Irene and Soames simply don’t ring true, given what we know of these characters. It may have been that the show runners were initially looking to continue on with the “Saga” since they leave Jon marooned in America; there’s also that charming American girl he met in Paris who no doubt was set for a reappearance in future scenes set in the U.S. Obviously this didn’t come to pass, so they tried to tie things up in a bow with a final handshake between Irene and Soames.

Somehow I don’t think John Galsworthy would have been pleased.

Brain Bits for a Hot July

The weather is definitely turning steamy and tempers are running short. Patti LuPone has emerged as the Anti-Cell Phone Avenger, to which I say loudly and emphatically “AMEN.” Is there a regular theater-goer or opera or concert attendee who hasn’t been disturbed by some moron who refuses to turn the infernal machine off or worse, texts during the performance? (Incidentally, that was me about to strangle the young idiot sitting next to me who drank beer and texted throughout that performance of “Wozzeck” at the Met).

So thank you, Ms. LuPone, for sticking up for the rest of us, who revel in that quaint concept of live performance uninterrupted by the Electronic Age. By all means, steal as many cell phones as you need to stop the madness.


Nurse Jackie finale
Even God needs medical help at times

One by one my favorite shows are ending their lives on the tube. First “Mad Men,” now “Nurse Jackie.”

After seven years and several stints at rehab and jail-induced detox, our last image of Jackie Peyton was as an OD’d junkie stretched out on the floor of All Saints’ ER. “Nurse Jackie” ended as it should have—despite her lengthy penance in the Diversion Program, she remained an Incurable addict. She seemed incapable of comprehending how her addiction and the accompanying lying and cheating impacted the lives of people she seemingly cared most about. As Eleanor O’Hara (thank you, Eve Best, for returning for the series finale) told her point-blank “You make it so damned hard to be your friend.” Truthfully the reality of her situation made it so damned hard to watch. The last straw came when, after fighting so hard to get her nursing license back and enduring one humiliation after another in doing so, she pops a mouthful of pills seconds after donning those blue nursing scrubs again.

In a sense the end was foreshadowed from the first episode of this season. I was never on Team Eddie. No matter what she did, he remained King of the Enablers—they consistently brought out the worst in each other, and their being together was one huge amber light. On the other hand, Dr. Bernie Prince, Coop’s replacement, was an intriguing counterbalance. The fact that he was played by Tony Shalhoub made it even better. I so wish the showrunners had introduced his character at least a season ago–he and Jackie would have made a great team, whether in the working or romantic sense, or both.

What made “Nurse Jackie” unique was its unapologetic portrait of a female anti-hero (and kudos to Edie Falco for having the guts to portray her). Jackie could be insensitive and irresponsible, but at some level she was never uncaring. And she excelled at her profession, though her addiction was making it more likely that this would eventually—and conclusively—be lost to her. Another major plus of the show was that none of the characters ever turned into a cartoon. They sometimes exasperated you, and several times you may have wanted to smack Coop upside the head, particularly in his early days, but most of the time they behaved in a realistic manner. Zoe grew, and to her credit outgrew Jackie. And so, in her oddball way, did Dr. Roman. Coop finally matured and moved on. And Dr. Prince, with his massive brain tumor, ended up in Death’s waiting room. Only those with addictions—Jackie to her pills, Eddie to his love for Jackie—remained stuck in their repetitive, destructive behavior.

Such is life.


A God in RuinsEven after finishing Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” a month ago, I’m still thinking about it. This is her “companion volume,” not a sequel, to her wonderful “Life After Life,” which featured the many possibilities of the life of Ursula Todd during England’s twentieth century. While the two novels feature many of the same characters, the tone is quite different. And the conclusion is somewhat maddening.

“A God in Ruins” is a biography of Teddy Todd, Ursula’s adored younger brother. In “Life After Life” he’s a golden boy—the model for Augustus, his aunt’s scamp of a literary creation, his mother’s favorite and ultimately the heroic RAF pilot seemingly lost during World War II. “A God in Ruins” presents a more detailed portrait of Teddy. He’s still a caring young man, though it’s clear his father, not his mother, is his favored parent; his affection for sisters Pamela and Ursula remains the same. He’s somewhat at loose ends when the war begins. Teddy’s two attempts at a career have failed—his year in France as a would-be poet ends when he concludes his work is trite, and a stint at a banking job is utterly soul-killing. In actuality this gentle young man’s best talent is killing as he pilots a Halifax bomber in countless runs over Germany.

Unlike “Life After Life” with its magical changes in Ursula’s path, “A God in Ruins” shows us a protagonist who, after flying so high, becomes utterly grounded. His post-war life seems to be one grind after another, both in career and in his personal life. He no longer shines except perhaps later in life when as a grandfather he provides love and shelter to his grandchildren when their own mother is unwilling to do so.

At times you may feel Kate Atkinson deliberately set out to contradict what she created in “Life After Life.” In the earlier novel the romance of Teddy and Nancy Shawcross seems to be deep and eternal; in “A God in Ruins,” we learn that while Teddy’s love is present, there’s little passion. Although the revision may be closer to reality since they grew up as neighbors with little left to reveal, you don’t want that version. You want the magic. And while the nature of Teddy’s end is easy to foresee, Ursula’s final word at the conclusion of “A God in Ruins” may make you want to demand a refund.

But what makes “A God in Ruins” so engrossing is Atkinson’s account of Teddy’s war: the close calls, the camaraderie with his crew, his miraculous surviveability, his being the “old man” of his squadron at the age of 23. I don’t think I’ve seen a novel drive home what was actually at stake during that time so completely, epitomized by the Morse coded dit-dit-dit-dah (V for Victory) transmitted to Teddy’s plane from a Dutch civilian (“It was a message of both faith and comfort that they saw frequently”), capped by “You could sometimes forget that there were entire nations for whom you were the last hope.” Atkinson does well by these young men who undertook what was in essence a last stand.

“A God in Ruins” is a novel well worth reading due to Atkinson’s artistry. If you haven’t read “Life After Life” yet, I suggest you read the later novel first just so you can move from reality to fantasy rather than the other way around. It’s so much more fun that way.

Game of Thrones: At a Crossroads

gotarenaAfter two days the ‘net is still buzzing over the final twist in this season’s finale to “Game of Thrones.” Theories are posited, interviews with the cast and the showrunners are endlessly re-posted, and George R.R. Martin seems to be denying it all.

If Season 5 were a baseball player, I’d say we had one streaky hitter on our hands. While there were some great moments (Daenerys flying away on Drogon’s back was something we had waited a couple of years to see), there were some questionable if not outright disappointing developments. And where we go from here is problematical because the showrunners have come to the end of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books published to date in their storytelling. While Martin has shared the plotlines of the two books to come in the series with the showrunners, it appears that the HBO series will be taking off in its own universe in the future.

My biggest concern was the extent to which the show has upped the ante in the “Horrific Events” Department. Each season has had its moment when I almost turned the set off (the beheading of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, Oberyn Martell’s eyes popping out of his head, etc.), but it seemed the showrunners went out of their way with the sacrifice of Shireen. This has to be the most disturbing GoT scene aired to date, and while I understood the point, I suspect there may have been some chuckling in the Writers’ Room: “How can we gross the audience out even more?” Well, it worked in the story since Stannis’ sellswords bolted with the horses, half his army deserted and his wife killed herself. Result achieved. But this begs the question of how far is it possible to go? By the time Arya stabbed Meryn Trant in the eyes, I didn’t even flinch. Granted, he was a pedophile, a murderer and Number 5 on Arya’s Hit Parade, but this kind of desensitization is not a good thing.

Season 5 also reminded us of a recurring fault in GoT: stretching out a story beyond its interest (c.f., the torture porn featuring Ramsey Snow and Theon Greyjoy a couple of seasons back), in this case having Arya in the dark washing dead bodies for far too many episodes without hinting at the direction of the plot. It was really late in the game to be introducing that House of Faces. And what is she in training to become? If she becomes No One, that means she’s no longer a Stark, and we really need to remember the North.

The reality is there are too many storylines for a ten-episode season. Season 5 underscored this by having key people either disappear after a couple of episodes or go MIA altogether. At least Varys returned in the finale for some prime repartee with Tyrion, but what happened to Margaery? Loris Tyrell? Littlefinger? GoT really needs twelve episodes a season. True, it’s very expensive to shoot, what with so many locations in play, but this show is the biggest HBO hit to date. The money has to be there.

After the criticism comes the praise, and there were a number of extraordinary events. Heading the list is Tyrion’s meet-up with Daenerys. Having these two combine their resources (her army, his brain) was a particularly neat development. In fact I enjoyed every twist and turn of his story, from his escape from King’s Landing to his kidnapping by Jorah Marmont to their encounter with the Stone Men to Tyrion’s sit-down with Daenerys. My favorite sequence of this season in fact was the arena scene in Episode Nine. The sight of the audience standing up as one in their Harpy masks was a shocking visual, only to be capped by the arrival of Drogon.

And in no particular order:

Night Watch/Wildlings vs. Whitewalkers. You knew that wildling mother who put her kids on the boat was dead meat from the start.

Stannis’ facial expression as the Bolton army bore down on him and his men, reduced to facing battle on foot. There was resignation, but also “I’m their King. I must share their fate,” as he drew his sword.  Kudos to actor Stephen Dillane for a wonderful moment.

Daenerys’ reboot. Better brush up on that Dothraki, babe.

Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes. Enough said.

Several interesting cliffhangers: Can the Lannisters break the Sparrows’ power? Did Bronn manage to keep some antidote so he can save Myrcella? Will there be a Dorne/King’s Landing war if he didn’t? Did Sansa and Theon survive their leap to freedom? Did Brienne in fact execute Stannis?

And finally, is Jon Snow really dead? Actor Kit Harrington, who plays him, says so. But leaving him that way, without his revival by Melisandre, who’s now in the house at Castle Black, would be a shame. While GoT has a number of heroic figures, the show needs the type of Hero We Can All Love. Jamie Lannister, while he’s been wonderfully rehabilitated from the roles of Kingslayer and would-be child killer, can’t ever be that man. Even if we meet up with Gendry again, we really don’t know him. On the other hand, we knew Jon and all his faults, and even if he knew nothing, he had our sympathy and support. House Stark needed to live on in him (My theory: He was the son of Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna, and Robert Baratheon). Bran, who conceivably could be that Hero, was a long way from filling the bill when last we saw him.

Best to sit back and relax, though. The next chapter is a year away.