Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Rainy October

metsclinch
My Boys!

Autumn has been rainy and gloomy so far—that is, until the Mets came through and clinched a Wild Card spot in baseball’s post-season playoffs. Back in late July this seemed impossible. They couldn’t hit, they had already lost Matt Harvey and David Wright for the season, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz had been diagnosed with bone spurs and they were two games under .500. Worst of all, they needed to jump over five other teams to secure Wild Card status.

But then the team came together. Yoenis Cespedes started hitting. Asdrubal Cabrera, this year’s Mets MVP, hands down, came back from the disabled list and bad knees and all, could not be shut down once he had a bat in his hands. An “aged” rookie, T.J. Rivera (he’s all of 28), may have just Wally Pipped Neil Walker at second base, the discarded James Loney, whom the Mets picked up for a song, did an admirable job at first, Wilmer Flores proved he could hit, Jose Reyes proved the team needed a spark plug, and three minor league pitchers, Seth Lugo, Gabriel Ynoa and Robert Gsellman (all correctly spelled, folks) patched up this team’s hobbled rotation. And, after looking like the Dud Trade of the Year, Jay Bruce went on a rampage during the last two weeks of the season, making certain the Metropolitans would not be denied.

Watching the Mets play at the top of their game was reward enough—making the post-season is just icing on the cake. Of course I want them to beat the Giants and go on to play the Cubs, but I have no illusions. It’ll be a difficult progression, but to my way of thinking they’ve already won the season.

Thank you, boys!

westworld1
“Westworld”: Dr. Ford Quizzes His Creation

LOOK OUT: SPOILERS BELOW

Robots run amok have always been a staple of the sci-fi genre, but HBO has upped the ante with a new version of “Westworld” that premiered this past Sunday. Based on the 1973 film of the same name that starred Yul Brynner as a cyborg gunslinger with a mind of his own, the HBO version has added some intriguing layers to both story and effects. The artificial humans, or “hosts,” who populate the luxury resort of Westworld are so improved that they’re barely discernible from the visiting guests, a fact brought home when we watch Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the cyborg inventor, knock back a few with Buffalo Bill, one of his earliest creations (Cute reference there to “Silence of the Lambs”). Bill is all herky-jerky, his speech is repetitious and in short, he looks and acts like a large mechanical toy.

Not so the hosts that populate the Wild West area of the resort (if I heard correctly, there are a total of 12 different worlds available to tourists, so there’s a great deal of room for the show to grow). They can react to innumerable variations posed by the guests and can even assist their programmers, headed by Bernard Lowe (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright), in diagnosing any glitches in their code. But things start going awry when they’re reprogrammed to be even more human, against the objections of Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of cyborg maintenance and Bernard’s rival on staff. Some have reveries, one accesses past programmed lives on his own, another goes off script altogether. An even greater threat is posed by Peter Abernathy, the “father” of the Wild West cyborg heroine, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), when he unearths a photograph of an urban scene, prompting him to question the reality of his existence. It’s chilling, yet sad, to see his forced retirement into cyborg storage after Dr. Ford determines that it’s too dangerous to keep him working—Peter marches into oblivion with a tear in his eye.

HBO did a fine job with the first episode of “Westworld,” and the cast couldn’t be better. Thandie Newton is the saloon madam (I assume she’ll have far more to do in the coming weeks–she only had five lines last night), James Marsden is Dolores’ cyborg hero-boyfriend, Teddy, and best of all, Ed Harris is the villainous guest, The Man in Black, who appears to be a corporate spy (he “scalps” a cyborg in order to steal the circuitry in his skull). It goes without saying that the special effects are outstanding. My only quibble is that composer Ramin Djawadi’s theme music for this show is basically a ripoff of what he wrote for “Game of Thrones.” The music is so similar it’s distracting. I’m hoping the powers that be enlist the services of a new composer or order a rewrite, pronto.

The next episode can’t air soon enough.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a (Melting) Winter Wonderland

Only three days after a two-foot snowfall the temperature turned a balmy 45 degrees. Hallelujah! Now the melting snow is creating new waterways over roads, at curbs and in cracked sidewalks. Let’s just hope the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing tonight—we’re not ready to go ice skating without skates again any time soon.

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Regina King, André Benjamin: “American Crime”

Too many quality TV shows, too little time.

Commuting into New York is absolutely killing my ability to keep up with some great shows. Early to bed, (too) early to rise eliminates watching shows that air at 10:00 pm, so I’m scrambling to get acquainted with PBS’ “Mercy Street.” Showtime’s “Billions” is opposite “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights, and as much as I think the “Masterpiece Theater” import will ultimately just collapse across the finish line, I’m still interested in how it’ll turn out (more about that later). I’ve only seen the first episodes each of “Mozart in the Jungle” (shame on this classical music fanatic), “The Man in the High Castle” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though I’ve actually gotten through the first two episodes of “Jessica Jones.” But no “Sense8” or “Angie Tribeca” yet for me, sad to say.

My work schedule was also behind my losing track of one of the better shows last year, though thankfully I’m able to become engrossed in its second season courtesy of the “On Demand” button on my remote. ABC’s “American Crime” (not to be confused with the soon-to-be premiering, O.J. Simpson-centric “American Crime Story”) is repertory theater at its best. Each season covers a different crime, with the same starring actors in different roles: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Elvis Nolasco, with key recurring appearances this season by Hope Davis and André Benjamin. That’s some potent talent.

The current run of “American Crime” outdoes “Law & Order: SVU” in being ripped from the headlines. It’s a timely mix of high school sports, male rape and internet shaming, all of which are even more timely in light of reports of the latest hazing atrocity. This season of “American Crime” focuses on a tony private school with a championship basketball team (Headmistress: Felicity Huffman, Head Coach: Timothy Hutton). Going viral are lewd images of a male scholarship student from the other side of the tracks at a party hosted by the basketball captains. The student has no clear memory of what happened, though he senses “something was done to [me]” (Connor Jessup gives a beautifully modulated performance as the victim). His mother (the superb Lili Taylor), having been refused a meaningful investigation by the school, reports the incident as a rape and contacts a local reporter. Naturally various parents, administrators, students and basketball team members have their own interests at stake and a list of issues to hide, but it’s their reactions and interactions with respect to the crime that prove fascinating.

It’s an unusual show. There’s no razzle-dazzle; it builds incrementally. It’s as far removed from the fevered pitch of “Law & Order:SVU” as you can get; the contrast in tone is easily seen, given that “American Crime” airs in the time slot immediately following “SVU” (Just for the record, I’m still a huge fan of Olivia Benson, Fin, Rollins and Carisi). “American Crime” is an exceptionally well-observed show. The writing reflects a very adult sensibility in how the characters are drawn; the audience is encouraged to consider their strengths and inconsistencies at some length. The result affords the actors a key opportunity to be expansive without having to overplay. Regina King, as the mother of one of the basketball captains, is a sophisticated corporate executive with extensive political and law enforcement connections. She lectures her son day and night about society’s expectations of young black men and vetoes the girls who aren’t good enough for him, yet her response to news of the crime is clueless: “Boys can’t be raped.” Yet somehow the gifted Ms. King presents this as just one more layer in a very complicated character.

“American Crime” makes you look forward to seeing what will be unveiled next. I’m glad it’s back.

Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: "Billions"
Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: “Billions”

A few notes are in order before I hurry off to catch up on those shows I’ve missed:

Even if “Billions” featured only Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, I’d be riveted. Fortunately it’s got so much more going for it: Paul Giamatti as one kink-chasing U.S. Attorney, Maggie Siff as his wife who supplies the kink in 5-inch heels and who works for billionaire Bobby, and Jeffrey DeMunn, Malin Ackerman and a slew of wonderful actors. There’s money, shady dealings, the S.E.C., zingy one-liners and secrets with a capital “S” (What’s the deal with Bobby Axelrod’s whereabouts on the morning of 9/11?). Thank you, Showtime, for one heady brew.

Before there was Discovery Channel, ID, History Channel and the 1000 other channels that grace your cable bill every month, there was PBS. And one of its best shows has always been “American Experience.” I was reminded of this last week when I managed to find an hour to watch its “Bonnie and Clyde” episode, which told as much about the Depression as it did about the two people it featured. On “American Experience” context is all, which is why its episodes linger in memory. PBS’ terrific website features “American Experience” episodes in full along with a wealth of related material. No need to pay for Hulu or Amazon Prime—PBS is all free, all the time.

After four episodes into its final season, does anyone doubt how “Downton Abbey” will end? Odds are, in no particular order:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate.
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word.

Remember, you saw it here first. And if you do know what happens, don’t spoil.

 

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Posted in Baseball, Books, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

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.

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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!

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Music, Television

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano
© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost).

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for
At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller.

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lifeafterlife

Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Busting Out June

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” looms ahead, and by my count, we have two potential shockers to go if the show runners intend to wrap up the events in “A Storm of Swords,” the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s saga, this Sunday. Can it be done in one episode? If not, I’m curious to see their choice as we’ll soon start another countdown to a new season.

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Until “Orange is the New Black” appeared with new episodes on Netflix last Friday (I’m now 5.5 episodes in, and it’s as good as, if not better than Season One), spring had me focused on books and baseball. The baseball you already know about. The books, though, unlike the New York Mets, have been more consistently rewarding.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI had been disappointed by Donna Tartt before—there are few novels with a bigger letdown than “The Little Friend,” particularly if you’ve read her first book, the riveting”The Secret History.” But “The Goldfinch,” her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is far more satisfying—that is, until 7/8ths through, when things take an oblique left turn.

“The Goldfinch” is about loss and recovery, in both the literal and figurative senses. Not to mention life’s many shades of gray, flim-flammery (both borderline and more classically criminal), loyalty and love at first sight. Thirteen year-old Theodore Decker and his mother, on a spur of the moment visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are among the victims of a terrorist bombing. Her death sets Theo off on a fourteen year journey that begins in the rubble of the explosion. A dying fellow victim urges him to salvage the Dutch master Fabritius’ portrait of a goldfinch, which becomes Theo’s talisman.

“The Goldfinch” is Dickensian in event and scope; the characters, ranging from the Park Avenue family that takes Theo in, to the inimitable Boris, who befriends Theo when he later relocates to Las Vegas, are wonderfully drawn. Equally fascinating are Tartt’s excursions into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, the profession of Hobie, Theo’s benefactor. To my surprise, these digressions, rather than detracting from the story, enrich the novel and the characters to such an extent that you wish Tartt had spent more time in this world.

But it’s Theo’s mother, beautifully drawn by the author, who may stay with you the longest. In spite of her death, she’s never really gone; her character is so vividly presented that you find yourself wondering, at the various turns Theo’s life takes, what she’d think of all this. He knows what he’s lost in her, which makes her absence even more heartbreaking.

The tale is a long one but quite rewarding, even if you feel, as I did, that the climax of “The Goldfinch” is more than a little outrageous. You’ll still enjoy the journey.

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A little book-related anecdote:

Begley_UpdikeWhen I attended law school in Boston, I lived on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. It was then a rabbit warren of studio and one bedroom apartments occupied for the most part by students (It should not surprise you that since then the area has gone so co-op and condo it’s off the charts). My building was fairly standard issue with one exception—we had a laundromat in the basement so we drew a fair amount of traffic from the neighborhood.

One weekday afternoon there I sat with highlighter and law book in hand while my clothes cycled through washer and dryer. A man walked into the laundromat with a full basket of wash and I was immediately bombarded by a machine gun, rat-a-tat series of impressions: “He’s not a student” “OH MY GOD that’s John Updike!” “How can it be John Updike? He’s too short.”

I immediately put my detective mind into overdrive. He was older than average student age: I would have said late 30’s, though that in itself wasn’t unusual since a number of older, post-grad students, primarily Viet Nam vets, lived in the neighborhood. However, he was wearing a beautiful and quite expensive-looking tweed jacket (this was the height of the bell-bottom era), which would have indicated he actually worked for a living. The nose was unmistakable, but the mystery remained. Why would John Updike be doing laundry in a rundown student ghetto? I knew he lived in Massachusetts, but why would he be doing his wash on Marlborough Street?

I was still in my shy years, so I didn’t have the nerve to just go up to him with “Aren’t you…?” Part of me was afraid that if this was John Updike, I’d start gushing over “Couples” which remains one of my all-time favorite novels (and I think few works have better portrayed mid- and late-twentieth century America than the Rabbit books). Another part of me was just plain awed into silence at the thought of speaking with him. So I let the moment pass as he loaded up a couple of machines and departed. Having spun and dried, my laundry was done and I returned upstairs to my tiny studio apartment and hours of Evidence, Estates and Trusts and the Uniform Commercial Code. I never saw him again.

Flash forward to this past Saturday when I took Adam Begley’s new biography of Updike out of the library. Naturally I sought out the good parts first—how much of “Couples” was based on his own marriage and/or those of his neighbors in Ipswich, MA (answer: plenty). And then finally after all those years, I had my confirmation: the man in the laundromat had indeed been John Updike. I saw him when he was living in a small apartment on Beacon Street, right around the corner from me, after he had split from his first wife.

Long time coming, but I’m glad for the verification. And by the way, Begley’s book is fascinating.