Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (novel), by John Berendt (1994)

There’s something unique about the South. My mom and her ancestors grew up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, where Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama intersect, where one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Civil War was fought.

I remember feeling that difference even as a boy—there was just some indescribable difference between our suburban home in Florida and my grandparents’ small town just outside Chattanooga. The iced tea was sweeter, the lightening bugs more plentiful, and the cicadas louder.

It wasn’t just that, though. There was a difference in the people. My grandfather and the butcher would talk for an hour while the butcher cut a customer’s order. People always said “hey” when you passed, whether or not you knew them. For us kids, of course, it was “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.” And no matter what, we never completely fit in. We were “George and Frances’s family from Florida.” That was our protection—everyone was gracious and kind beyond reason—but we didn’t fit in.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is a mostly true account of a scandalous murder in Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah in this book reminds me slightly of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome.” No, the people weren’t trapped and being suffocated, but most Savannahians had no desire to go anywhere else. One of the wealthiest women in the South lived in Savannah. It took her till she was middle-aged even to deign visiting Charleston, and there was no question she’d never be so base as to go to Europe.

The alleged murderer is named Jim Williams. His story goes that a young man who worked for him refinishing antiques came into his house, destroyed furniture, and then aimed a World War 2 Luger at Williams. The kid’s gun jammed, then Williams shot him three times.

There were multiple trials, until finally Williams was acquitted, and returned to polite Savannah society.

The murder and trial are the framework upon which author John Berendt creates his truest, most interesting character: Savannah, and he has captured perfectly the feeling of this odd Georgia gem (I’ve been there). We meet eccentrics and hard-working people in equal amounts. Well, maybe it’s skewed a bit toward the eccentric side. Eccentrics are more interesting, but reading this book, I get the impression Savannah might truly be under its own dome.

We meet a former lawyer who runs lounges out of other people’s houses while their away. He’s one of the happiest people in town, living with “future-wife-number-four.” There’s The Lady Chablis, a drag queen with a fearless, often discomfiting nature. Minerva is my favorite character. She’s a voodoo queen, a witch, or a charlatan—maybe a combination of all three. She goes into the cemetery, digging up dirt—only at a certain side of midnight—arguing with her former voodoo priest/husband-unit as she plants shiny new dimes on his grave. She puts Jim through his paces with rituals. She’s always entertaining.

One character supposedly has a poison so powerful that if he poured it into the city’s water supply, it would kill everyone. He also orders the same breakfast every day at the drugstore’s lunch counter, then stares at it. Sometimes, he’ll eat a bite or two. Mostly, he’ll just pay and leave.

Jim Williams and his murder trial are, again, the book’s core. In this rich and wonderful book–which moves as slowly and deliberately as the Savannah River–who’s the most intriguing character of all?

Savannah, take a bow.

Recommended

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, History, Memoir or Biography, Mysteries/Thrillers, Non Fiction and/or Commentary | Leave a comment

Twenty Films You Should See Before You Die

20 Movies You Ought to Watch

These are just 20 movies that I think either have technical genius (Triumph of the Will) or just crack me the hell up (The Godfather). They aren’t my 20 favorites, nor are they my choices for the 20 best films ever. I just like them, and most of them I can watch multiple times in a week.

Herewith, the list (in no particular order):

  • Casablanca. A lot of people don’t get it the first time, but it’s my favorite movie ever. It has intrigue, crime, Nazis, French Underground agents, Humphrey Bogart in his best role, Claude Rains as the perfect foil for Bogart, and a supporting cast almost all of whom really escaped Hitler’s Third Reich. The tears you see during “La Marseilles” are real. Truly awesome film.
  • Citizen Kane: Some parts of it seem dated now (yellow journalism, e.g.), but the technical and theatrical advancements Orson Welles created with this film make it timeless.
  • Double Indemnity: One of the best examples of film noir, with a perfect tag team of Fred McMurray and Edward G. Robinson trying to figure out who killed Barbara Stanwyck’s husband, and was it only for the insurance money? Plenty of shadows and cigarettes, like any good noir has.
  • Apollo 13. Just awesome filmmaking and acting, all in a claustrophobic space.
  • Cotton Club. Sort of like The Godfather’s musical, African-American cousin. The fictional story is centered around the real Cotton Club, where the entertainers were all black, but no blacks were allowed in the club. Gregory and Maurice Hines show what tap dancing is all about, but Gregory has a solo, a cappella dance toward the end that is damn near perfect.
  • The Godfather. Really? Do I have to describe The Godfather? In one beautiful scene, you can see Brando’s forehead acting. Every other actor who gave a great performance that year probably watched Marlon Brando in The Godfather and thought, oh shit. No use rearranging the shelf this year.
  • Capote. Speaking of Secretariat-like locks on an Oscar…the tragically late Phillip Seymour Hoffman didn’t portray Truman Capote so much as he became Truman Capote. The voice, the mannerisms, the personality—all spot-on. A great script, too, excellent direction, and an Oscar-worthy supporting performance from Catherine Keener.
  • Fanny and Alexander. This movie is three-and-a-half hours, entirely in Swedish, and it is a wonder. Needless to say, it’s not for everybody, but it captures life through the eyes of a twelve-ish-year-old boy. He grows up in a wealthy, loving theater family. Then has to move to austere, cruel surroundings, then back again. This film won four Oscars, and deserved every one. Beautiful, autobiographical film from Ingmar Bergman.
  • Au Revoir Les Enfants. Louis Malle’s autobiographical story from his World War 2 experiences at a boarding school. He befriends a new boy, a Jewish kid the monks are harboring, trying to save him from the Nazis. The ending will break your heart. Great film, though.
  • Giant. At over three hours, Giant is an apt title for this film, based on Edna Ferber’s novel. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have flawless chemistry as a married couple. They live on a ranch, where a twitchy hired hand (James Dean) twitches around, over-acting 75% of the time. If you can forgive that—and I exaggerate his twitchiness, but I swear he method acts sweating—this film will ensorcel you so deeply, that you won’t know it’s three hours long.
  • All the President’s Men. This is one of those films that’s scarier because it’s true. It’s the story of how Woodward and Bernstein investigated and broke the Watergate Scandal wide open. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play “Woodstein,” as editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his role), referred to the two. Thus, we can see the “Bennifer” portmanteau was really preceded by two decades. The film is wonderfully acted, fast paced, and shows how newspapers really work (at least to a point).
  • Good Night, And Good Luck. If All the President’s Men shows how newspapers work, Good Night, And Good Luck takes us into the early days of TV news, when Edward R. Murrow and CBS reigned supreme. David Strathairn gives an amazing performance of the unflappable Murrow, and George Clooney plays Murrow’s producer and friend, Fred Friendly. This cast is amazing, and the film is shot in black and white. Clooney also directs, and does a superb job.
  • His Girl Friday. This is widely considered the first romantic comedy, and is the first film where people’s dialogue actually overlapped, as it does in real life. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are a perfect match as journalists covering a hanging. The problem is, Russell is supposed to get married and go on her honeymoon that day. This pre-WW2 gem is still funny today.
  • JFK. If you believe this film is true, you probably believe in the tooth fairy as well. Even Oliver Stone has said it’s an amalgamation of multiple theories. What it ends up being is a well-told film, with stellar performances from its cast, especially Donald Sutherland and Joe Pesci. To me, the parts between protagonist Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife drag unnecessarily, but that could just be me. Some people hate this film because they disagree with Garrison’s argument—or that he seems to be arresting Tommy Lee Jones’s character (Clay Shaw) with no clear evidence linking him to the JFK assassination—but agree or disagree, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking (try NOT to get the director’s cut, which has extra, terrible scenes, and an even longer closing argument).
  • The Maltese Falcon. A film noir that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Once again, Humphrey Bogart stars as the hard-boiled guy who takes shit from nobody, not the Nazis, the Vichy French, or the San Francisco Police Department. Director John Huston also wrote the screenplay, and the film is seamless, perhaps because of this. Sidney Greenstreet and his “gunsel” are quite a pair, and the whole film is a serious doughnut with a drizzle of comedic glaze.
  • Wings of Desire. Wim Winders’s story features two angels whose assignment has been to watch over what has become modern day Berlin. Now, they can hear people’s thoughts and, while they can’t perform miracles, they can offer comfort and reassurance. Peter Falk (Peter Falk) is in Berlin making a film, and he finds a way to communicate with the angels, one of whom is thinking about quitting and becoming human. (note: Hollywood remade this into a meh film with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.)
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Yes, I went there. The storyline—censorship—is valid, and the kids’ foul mouths is still oddly funny. What amazes me, though, is the songs. The song “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Oscar (although everyone who’s seen it knows which song should have been nominated and won the award), and the film got some surprisingly good reviews.
  • V for Vendetta. I love both the poetic language and violence in this film. If I’m feeling down (or on powerful meds for some reason), this is my go-to film. Natalie Portman does a good English accent as Evie Hammond, but it’s Hugo Weaving’s big-ass voice bellowing Shakespeare before he bashes someone’s skull in that steals the film. Good stuff for the kids. (I’m joking)
  • Triumph of the Will. This is not an entertaining film by any stretch of the imagination. It is Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. It is also the first truly great piece of propaganda ever. Riefenstahl invented techniques and angles, lighting and camera tracking that nobody had done before. If you’ve seen any slick documentary about someone trying to pretend he or she is a god, you’ve seen Ms. Riefenstahl’s work. It’s on YouTube. If nothing else, watch the first five or ten minutes, as we see Hitler emerge—godlike—from the sky. It’s spectacular.
  • Judgment at Nuremberg. As compared to Triumph of the Will, Nuremberg looked verrrrrrry different in Judgment at Nuremberg after the Allies bombed the crap out of it. Oddly, one of the only buildings left standing was the Palace of Justice, and that’s where the infamous Nuremberg Trials took place. Judgment at Nuremberg doesn’t cover the infamous trials. Rather, it follows the trials of four German judges by a three judge panel led by Spencer Tracy. The writing and direction are excellent, but it’s the performances that make this film so good. Spencer Tracy is his usual great self, but a scarred, drug-addled, skeletal Montgomery Clift steals the film. Judy Garland, Richard Widmark, and Burt Lancaster all shine as well. Good God, it’s another three hour movie.

And that’s it. Twenty films that have some merit or another, be it humor, tragedy, or technical excellence. Oh, and you’ll find yourself singing that Terence and Phillip song in “South Park” all day long. ;-)

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American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

american tabloid
Kemper Boyd—suave FBI Agent infiltrating car theft rings. His best friend, Ward Littel, also an FBI agent, but a bored one stuck in Chicago. Pete Bondurant: a six-foot-five fixer for various underworld figures, including getting drugs for Howard Hughes.

Howard Hughes is not a fictional character, obviously. Nor are Jimmy
Hoffa and the very real mafia. Best of all, Boyd, Littel, and Bondurant team up with the mafia, militant Cubans, and KKK members to set up Bay of Pigs, then after JFK calls off the second airstrike, anti-Kennedy vitriol explodes in the criminal underworld.

“American Tabloid” is a mash-up of these disparate groups of characters. We feel like we’re in the Carlysle with the Kennedys, or in an FBI listening post hearing real mobsters. Sometimes, this type of novel fails, because the author calls attention to it: “Jake walked into the room where the real President John F. Kennedy, who served from…”

“American Tabloid” is seamless. Boyd and Jack are both rather oversexed. Littel had an apostasy about RFK, and went from huge fan to mortal enemy.

Along the way, “Tabloid” provides vivid crimes, drug importing, covert CIA murders, true icepick through the eyeball stuff. It’s the kind of book that will make you want to take a really long shower after you read it, and immature or queasy readers should pick something else.

But this grim, grimy ride is probably my second or third favorite book ever, and I’ve read it at least ten times.

I’ve taken a lot of showers.

Most Incredibly Highly Recommended

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, General Fiction, Literary or Genre Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers, series | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Why Are You Atheists So ANGRY? 99 Things That Piss-Off the Godless, by Greta Christina

Why Are You Atheists So ANGRY?
99 Things That Piss Off the Godless
By
Greta Christina

Again, let me disclaim that I am neither atheist nor agnostic. I’m hardly a zealot either. I’ve found my own belief structure, and that works for me. I think everyone does this to some extent. (nb. I neither sacrifice, burn, torture, nor circumcise any animal, nor do I light things on fire, use mystical hidden symbols, or wear odd robes (Dan Brown would never write a book about me)).

No. I’m not controversial. I have a St. Jude medal around my neck right now, as I write. I don’t have a shrine or anything; I don’t believe that St. Jude is arguing my case before God, but I like the symbolism: the Patron Saint of Seriously Difficult Cases, and that’s me right now.

Anyway. I was raised Presbyterian, a denomination unlikely to piss off mainstream America, and–though I don’t claim that faith now–I am not angry at those who believe differently.

With Atheists, it’s been a different road. They HAVE suffered various slights and prejudices through history, and they have some things to be angry about, in some cases, very, very angry.

With a huge rise in American non-believers, I’ve spent part of my reading year trying to learn the hows and whys, and thus I believe this is my third book about Atheism.

Greta Christina writes with verve and passion; her anger is palpable and personal, and I was able to look at some of the “99 things that piss off the godless” and nod, acknowledging that these would piss off anyone.

This is especially true for civil and legal matters.

Anyway, the “99 things” part was interesting, even to—perhaps especially to—a non-Atheist, someone who could say, “Ohhh. I get it now.”

Then, the book takes a complete left turn, and becomes a screed telling Atheists how to be better Atheists. Maybe I missed the point of the book—that happens sometimes—but I thought the point was to point out the ways they’ve been oppressed, and perhaps gently convert us, if not nudge us in that direction.

Instead, Ms. Christina begins preaching to the already disconverted, talking about organizing meetings and groups, passing out leaflets, just being flaming activists for godlessness.

In many ways, this seemed like two books. I felt like the first one was aimed right square at me, a theist. The second book was perfectly designed for my Atheist friends.

This is why I’ve rated the book so low: I think it loses its original mission in the rage Ms. Christina feels. It’s as if, because we have been told 99 things that annoy Atheists, we have become Atheists and are rarin’ to go out and slap the God out of believers.

It doesn’t work that way, or it didn’t in this case. Not for me.

By the way, I have no animosity toward Atheists. I have a number of Atheist friends. We get along fine, because we don’t discuss religion at work or over dinner or wherever we happen to be.

And if one of them were to mockingly ask why I’m wearing a St. Jude medal around my neck, I’d respond as logically as possible: “Because, BITE ME!”

I can always ask for forgiveness, after all.

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The Ghosts of Nagasaki, by Daniel Clausen (2012)

So, so, so many books have exactly the same plots, just with different characters. There are brave, heroic men to smite bad guys; there are brainy women, doctors who use their brains to solve crimes. There are usually multiple killings, a little romance for spice, and a red herring for omega-3 fish oils.

Okay. That last line was silly, but so are so many of what I call “supermarket novels,” because they share an aisle, usually with chips and dip, and are about as nutritious literarily.

Daniel Clausen’s 2012 novel, “The Ghosts of Nagasaki,” avoids every one of those cliches.

In “The Ghosts of Nagasaki,” Clausen evokes authors like Milan Kundera, who weave together seemingly dissonant notes until they meld into the perfect chord.

In “Nagasaki,” the unnamed narrator starts out in his Tokyo apartment. Something drives him to begin writing, and he’s unable to stop. Rather than narrate the story in a straight line—as most authors do—Clausen tells his tale the way our memories work: we flash between present and past, and between different eras of our past, different events.

I was exchanging emails with an ex-girlfriend tonight. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, I met her in 2009. Our first date was…” I told her how I’m doing, and she updated me, but while we were talking tonight, I was remembering when we made-out in the rain in an Olive Garden parking lot. She might have been thinking about how angry she got when I started dating a coworker after we broke up.

TMI, I know, but the point is that neither of us remembers our relationship the same way, or in the same order, or with the same colors and textures.

“Nagasaki” takes that a light year forward. The author deftly guides us through various times and spaces, some on either side of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. We move through a four year period, then up to a lifetime later.

“Nagasaki” swirls, like a beautiful mist, a novel whose steps are impossible to predict or anticipate. All we can do is follow the author, as he leads us through these intersecting, cherry blossom-strewn, beautifully written worlds.

This novel is not for every reader. If you’re used to banal, factory-created pulp paperbacks, you probably won’t get this at all. For fans of excellent literary fiction, “The Spirits of Nagasaki” will leave your book-lover’s heart enchanted.

Most Highly Recommended

(I received a review copy of this book from the publisher)

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God is NOT Good: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (2009)

This is the part where I tell you that I’m neither an atheist nor an agnostic. I was raised Protestant, dipped a toe in Catholicism, and came out with my own system of beliefs. They are just that: my own beliefs.

Nope. It’s my job to review Christopher Hitchens’s book, “God is NOT Good: How Religion Poisons Everything.” Of the “Big Three” recent atheist writers–the now deceased Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris–Hitchens’s works stand out for me. They’re like riding at 110 mph through the Blue Ridge Parkway, while the guy driving the car is talking to you and somebody on Bluetooth at the same time.

Not to say that he’s disorganized or lacks focus. Indeed, he lays out his arguments in clear bites–it’s just fun to have him driving the Porsche 949 up and down the hills, and through the hairpin turns.

Another thing  I admire about Christopher Hitchens is that he does his homework. He’s been in mosques, temples, synagogues, cathedrals–you name it. He debated dozens, maybe hundreds, and there’s an exuberance in his prose that is hard to beat.

His thesis? I can agree with part of it–there have been numerous times when religion has caused wars, mistreatment, and–God forbid–now multiple religions have atomic bombs. Great.

Where I disagree with Hitchens is his complete disavowal of a God, gods, etc. I don’t know how we got to be here. I’m sure it was a long process of evolution, not *finger snap* EARTH!

To me, it’s a simple matter of faith. The Big Bang happened. Was a Deity behind it or not? Is there an afterlife after this, or does our energy get dumped back into the cosmic slop bucket?

When asked about religion–which seems to happen more than  it should, since I’m not a theologian–I simply say, there are billions and billions of people on this earth with theories and predictions…and every one is wrong.

With “God is NOT Good,” Chris Hitchens has left us–if not answers–some very interesting ideas to ponder

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, Non Fiction and/or Commentary, Religion/Spirituality, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We Are The Goldens, by Dana Reinhardt (2014)

We Are the Goldens (2014)

By

Dana Reinhardt

Nellayla

That’s what a young Nell used to call herself, because she was so close to her older sister. Layla would laugh: “I am Layla,” and [Layla] tapped [her] chest, then you reached out to touch mine. “You are Nell.”

Dana Reinhardt chose the title–”We Are the Goldens” advisedly: the two sisters were golden in a sense: the sisters shone, a close team, both soccer stars, best friends, popular, with Nell happily basking in Layla’s long shadow. There was something golden about them, at least at the beginning.

Nellayla. Gradually, they grew apart as siblings do, until one day, a schism opened that threatened to explode the sisters’ relation forever.

Layla had found a man, a charming predator, of sorts, who was too old to be with a sixteen-year-old girl. But he was.

Nell got her first clue by accidentally looking at a text on Layla’s phone. One by one, more oddities occurred, until Nell figured out who the man was, and just how treacherous he could be.

She tried to make Layla understand, but it was for naught. Teenagers in love overlook a lot of faults–think of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in the movie “Badlands” (highly recommended, btw).

The more Nell pressured Layla to end the affair, the further apart the sisters grew. It was like the poles of a magnet reversing from pure attraction to repulsion. Nell grew so concerned about her sister having her heart broken, that she did the strongest thing she could think of.

“We are the Goldens” stops there, and it’s a perfect way to end this novel.

The entire novel is narrated by Nell, and she’s smart and sassy, funny and confident. She doesn’t mind being known as “Layla’s little sister”–she idolizes Layla so much, it’s the ultimate compliment. This makes her the best possible narrator, because she loves her sister so much, and she wants to stop this new problem before it gets worse.

The ultimate question is whether the two sisters will ever reconcile. Or if l Layla’s feeling of betrayal ruins the sisters’ relationship forever. We–as readers–are left to ponder that on our own.

The way author Dana Reinhardt sets it up, she’s tapping herself in the chest saying, “I am the author,” then reaches out to touch our chests and says, “and you are the reader. I’ve gotten you to the last step. You figure out how it plays out.”

One thing is clear: Nellayla is gone forever, and this is the perfect way to end a beautifully written book.

Most Highly Recommended

(nb: I received an advanced review copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley)

 

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