Saturday, April 2, 2016

Forever



We came to Forever the ABC TV show in a roundabout way that was, on reflection, probably a good thing.  Had we been watching it real-time over fall 2014 and spring 2015, we would have suffered the anguish of trying to appeal its cancellation and ultimately failing.  On a trip to the US in October 2014, we caught what we didn’t know then was the second episode, DVR’ed on a relative’s machine; through word-of-mouth, we had been recommended the show.  In the same trip, we caught what we didn’t realize was episode 10.  On another trip in March, we caught episode 17.  It helped that all of these episodes were pretty good, episode 2 (in my opinion, and in retrospect) one of the best of the season, and episode 10 with a killer climax. I admit I’m partial to the modern DVD box set method of TV consumption, which can allow you to binge-watch or not, according to your preference or mood.  It’s to its credit that Forever worked well as a binge-watch, that despite its reasonably formulaic quality, this didn’t threaten the integrity of the show and indeed, ramped up suspense to a near-frenzy pitch, for me at least.  

Forever is, to sum it up in an easily digestible format, about Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffud), a doctor who, by 2014, has been alive for over 200 years.  He was shot and drowned in 1814, and every time he’s been killed since then, he pops back up, alive and naked, in the nearest body of water.  By 2014, he’s taken a job at the New York Medical Examiners office, a role that suits him well and puts his many years’ observational skills to good use.  To such good use, in fact, that after he helps solve at least one case for NYPD detective Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza), they become a team.  They are joined by her colleagues Mike Hanson (Donnie Keshawarz) and Lt. Joanna Reece (Lorraine Toussaint) as well as junior pathologist Lucas (Joel David Moore).  Henry’s friend and confidant is Abe (Judd Hirsch), with whom he shares a house (complete with secret basement lab) and antiques store.  Another important character in the story is New York City, the backdrop for countless adventures which up the ante visually and in the narrative[1].

WARNING:  POSSIBLE SPOILERS ALERT – I will try to signpost big spoilers but cannot guarantee the following won’t contain small spoilers that you would learn, for example, in the first two episodes

That Forever succeeded with me personally is a bit of a surprise, given that I don’t really like police procedurals (unless, I suppose, they have some odd anachronistic element like, for example, Ashes to Ashes, about which I had the same devotion); to be honest, I don’t much like US network TV, given its general reliance on formula, its lack of adventurousness, its cookie-cutter characters, and its pat assumptions.  It cannot be argued that Forever doesn’t rely on a formula, and one that gets cemented pretty quickly.  Each episode gives you a case of the week + dollop of flashback + usually something contributing to the overall narrative arc, the mystery that focuses on who and what is Henry Morgan.  The mystery of the week is usually pretty well-written, but the brilliance, I suppose, is the integration of the flashbacks, which give insight both large and small into the life of a man forced into situations most of us mere mortals can only imagine.  

It’s been often said that the crux of a successful TV show is “the gang”; to that end, are Forever’s characters mere types?  The relationship between Abe and Henry is completely unique and powerful in its uniqueness.  Henry and his one-time wife Abigail, a nurse, found Abe as a baby in 1945 in Europe’s concentration camps.  In adopting him, Henry has given Abe an exceptional vantage point as he grows older but his father does not; many characters eventually assume that Henry is Abe’s son.  This means they are protective of each other, and their interactions can range from that of contemporaries to Abe’s disgust with the “old man”’s old-fashionedness (he can’t appreciate jazz, doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t use a computer, and so on).  Abe has to rescue Henry when he turns up naked in the East River after dying[2], and they share a bond over Abe’s disappeared adopted mother, a thread that isn’t resolved until the final episode.  This is underlined by seeing Abe at different ages in the flashbacks, from a baby to a child (1955) to a teen (1965) to a young man and then a middle-aged man (1985). Judd Hirsch, one of the first of the regulars to be cast, is perfect for the role.

Henry—winningly played by Ioan Gruffud—is himself sufficiently interesting to carry the weight of the show; classically handsome (and with the kind of hair that lends itself perfectly to successive historical periods), beautifully able to express emotions, and with good comic timing—Forever is, despite all its moody trappings, marginally a comedy.  There are multiple references to Henry’s similarities to Sherlock Holmes, epitomized by his “Sherlock Scan.”  To be honest I must be one of the few people who haven’t hopped aboard the Sherlock bandwagon, in any form, so I’d be much happier if we could drop the notion Henry Morgan inspired Conan Doyle to write Sherlock.  Furthermore, I normally can’t stand the ubiquitous TV custom of monologues from the characters that offer moral bookends to the action onscreen; yet from a 200-year-old, it seems less pretentious somehow.  I think it’s hard not to be charmed by Henry and his eccentric ways; like the song goes, he’s the Englishman in New York[3].  Furthermore, as his moral dilemmas pile up, it’s hard not sympathize with his (completely fantastical) predicament.  

Nevertheless, in the light of long-lived wanderers (such as, appropriately, Captain Jack Harkness), Henry has stayed a remarkably decent human being whose heart is always in the right place and whose desire to help is genuine.  He is pleasant and seems to enjoy the finer things in life (from food and wine to music and art).  Something must have inspired him in the early decades of the 19th century to become a doctor; his wealthy mercantile background could have made him simply a gentleman.  As the incarcerated priest in “Diamonds Are Forever” seems to indicate, Henry’s curse/affliction/gift seems destined for some purpose.

Henry’s more mundane colleagues at NYPD are less complex, though the format of the series seems to limit character development.  Mike Hanson and Lucas are played mainly for laughs, and I would have liked to have seen an episode skewed toward Lucas to make him more than the ultimate fan-boy (though this facet of his character is acknowledged and subverted a number of times, most memorably in “The Frustrating Thing About Psychopaths” as his knowledge and devotion to graphic novels becomes crucial to the plot and also serves as provocation for the complicated ethics of that episode).  That “Punk Is Dead” is able to tell us some new things about Hanson is mainly down to production team and fan response.  This is true of the “tough cop in charge,” Lt. Reece, whose personality breaks free from time to time (most notably in “6 AM”) but mostly remains a type.   I was hoping we’d get to see some flashback to her as a cop on the beat, and evidently many of the deleted scenes in the episodes served to flesh her out.

When I dropped in on episodes 2 and 10, I felt pretty cynically toward Jo Martinez.  She looks like a Disney princess made flesh (as Henry himself points out, her proportions make her particularly attractive), and I felt like this relationship was the height of predictability.  However, I was wrong.  I have been used to some slow-burners in series before, but none quite so slow as this one.  It is allegedly not even certain that Jo and Henry (or “Mortinez” as the shippers are calling them) would have become a couple in season 2 or ever.  Martinez still tends ever-so-slightly toward character shorthand, and I would have liked to have seen an episode that focused on her character development without having to do with her dead husband or her n’er-do-well father (her Bechdel test triumphs only by her complete devotion to work).  Strangely—and this may not be a good thing—her character comes alive a bit more when she is romanced by millionaire hotelier Isaac Monroe (think Billy Shipton in “Blink”) in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales” and “Best Foot Forward.”  

Henry’s romantic entanglements are more mixed; I found Iona Payne, the dominatrix therapist, slightly irritating in her first episode “The Ecstasy of Agony” though she was more rounded as a character in “Memories of Murder” and I wasn’t totally against the idea of her and Henry (okay, so I am a bit of a “Mortinez” myself).  

Henry is fascinated by death, not through a morbid interest but because he would like to understand his condition—and perhaps die someday.  From the first episode, he becomes aware that he may not be alone, as his mystery caller purports to be a 2,000-year-old immortal.  The situation throws Henry into a panic; as he observes to Abe, in the past when his trail has been discovered, he has moved away and outlived his accuser.  With “Adam,” this proves impossible, leading us down an inevitable path riddled with tension. 

WARNING:  BIGGER SPOILERS AHEAD

I was very pleased to find out that Adam was being played by an underrated[4] actor, Burn Gorman, who I suppose was chosen for the role for, among other things, his ability to play more-English-than-the-English harmless[5] as well as stone-facedly-evil-but-somehow-American-accented psychopath.  The suspense ramped up by “The Man in the Killer Suit” and “Skinny Dipper” was so great that I couldn’t imagine where the series was going (and with half of the season to go!).  “Skinny Dipper” must rank as one of the most un-Christmasy Christmas episodes of all time, though the look on Henry’s face as Adam is finally revealed (as the mild-mannered, tea-sipping psychologist who totally manipulated Henry), is absolutely shocking and terrifying.  

I did wonder if the final episodes were going to be able to deliver on the heights we’d achieved in the pilot, “Look Before You Leap,” “The Night in Question” (which drops some exquisite bombshells about the disappearance of Abigail) and “The Last Death of Henry Morgan.”  While I was a bit disappointed that Henry would resort to cheaper and cheaper tricks when faced with dire situations, and while I felt “The Last Death . . .” was sliiiightly less gripping than “Skinny Dipper,” it did tie up some loose ends nicely as a bookend to the rip-roaring pilot.    Forever ends in a way that could easily be picked up again later, though I was impressed at the way Henry chose to deal with Adam in their final confrontation.  

Reportedly, all of the cast seem to have appreciated the history embedded in the series and this served in part to attract them to their roles.  This is part of what delighted me about Forever and made me a devoted fan.  Certainly, the strokes are broad, but they are focused on two Big Issues:  the Holocaust and slavery.  The former is embodied in Abe but comes to a head in one of my favorite episodes, “Hitler on the Half Shell,” which, while not excusing the atrocities of the Nazi regime, shows that evil is unpredictable and not absolute.  The audience cringes in horror as Adam shows up at Abe’s Antiques; after what Adam tells him, Henry has to accept that even “evil” has aspects of grey.  This episode sees Abe identify his birth parents for the first time, which is touching.  

The latter is tied directly to Henry’s identity and immortality, sensitively fleshed out, I thought, in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales.”  Henry is in this sense startlingly modern in his outlook, as he berates his father for involvement in the slave trade and dies on the Empress of Africa trying to save the life of a slave.  It comes as a rather shocking further revelation that he was going to stage a slave revolt on the ship and fears that his death caused the destruction of the ship and death of the 300 people on board.  In “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” it is rather miraculously proven that his efforts did allow the slaves to escape to freedom (Canada?).    

Madness is also a theme of Forever, mainly in “The Ecstasy of Agony” and “Social Engineering” as this introduces Henry’s first wife, Nora.  In a subversion of the literary motif, it’s Nora who puts her husband in an asylum and apparently suffers no qualms; it isn’t clear what she thinks of his escape and disappearance a year later, but the past comes back to literally haunt Henry in 1865.  Working at a London hospital, Henry is discovered again by the aged Nora, though her remorse over his confinement leads to tragedy.  I was surprised that the fact Henry consented to his first wife being confined to an asylum in poetic justice of his previous plight got so little examination, especially in a quite rigorous episode like “Social Engineering.”  There’s room for a lot of historical periods dramatized weekly, though the fallow periods give room for thought.  

I’m sincerely glad I got to watch this show, and I hope you will considering watching it, too.  I hope it will come back for another series someday! 


[1] Though one wonders if the scale of the show contributed to an expense that was an element in the show’s cancellation?
[2] It’s never quite clear how Abe knows.
[3] It’s interesting to me that Gruffud’s accent is allowed to go Welsh as much as it likes but he’s always described as the ultimate Englishman.  That’s a journal article in itself, representing nationalism in Forever.
[4] Though he seems to be getting a lot more work recently and is playing more three-dimensional characters, though it would be nice to see him actually play a hero.
[5] Quite similar to his role in Pacific Rim, actually!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books Read 2015



Poems Dead and Undead  - ed Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell

A really excellent collection of poetry, many poets I’d never heard of, many quite contemporary, but a restrained and mature range of every possible pre-modern contributor, too. 
A sample:

From IN THE PINES

Vertical spindles of shadow, the black
Firs & violet pines surround
This open meadow broken
Only by a pond
Illuminated like an old Bible
With flakes of gold leaf; & beside
The pond, a hunter’s decrepit shack
I’ve claimed, its split planks
Chinked with plaster & old rags.  Just
Today, I’ve spent
The morning poking out a bird’s nest
Lodged in the crooked brick chimney
Pointing up
Through the roof like a single
Broken finger . . . Here, the only
Accusing voices are those
Of the branches snapping & smoking
In the stove, of the gray squirrels chasing
The one albino out of their trees
To, I imagine,
Some ghetto of oak or maple
Reserved for him; & look, his tail
Is as erect as a white feather
Pen, a plume dipped into its tiny, snowy
Inkwell, the spine of the tail quivering
As the fronds of hair
Are blown by a rising breeze.

David St. John



The Case for Christ – Lee Strobel

This was a very readable and interesting look at Biblical and theological “facts.”  It was certainly thought-provoking and an interesting approach, though I would be interested in reading a more recent edition.

The Far Side of the World – Patrick O’Brian

I failed to read a Patrick O’Brian novel last year, so I’m in deficit.  Of all the books in this series that I have read so far, this was the most disappointing.  Something was not quite right about the first two-thirds—the pacing seemed much too slow and there were no twisty, turny narratives as in Treason’s Harbour.  The last third really picked up, with some of the most startling imagery of the books so far (and that’s saying something).  However, the abrupt ending, the complete alteration from the film (that’s not the book’s fault, but the film feels by and large superior), and little annoying tics like Jack realizing at last that he’s fat and Stephen falling for his “type” yet again, not to mention the rather strange missed opportunities for some of the characters, made me feel this was definitely a low point.

Kraken – China Miéville

The first book chosen for our ill-fated book club.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was definitely not what this book ended up being.  Parts of it were creative and interesting and much of it was genuinely suspenseful and an interesting adventure.  I just thought much of it was ponderous and overwritten and derivative.  Billy Harrow was a washout as a hero, and Saira the Londonmancer was paper-thin on characterization.  The villains were far more visceral and real, and aside from Dane and, at times, Collingswood, the goodies were somewhat vaporous, overpowered.  To be fair, though, some of the images stayed with me, making me think Miéville is probably a better poet.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians:  An Alternative Roman History –Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

I really enjoyed this and learned a lot, though I thought there was going to be more information on Roman Africa.  It was much easier to read than An Imperial Possession, but took much the same stance and was far from romantic about the Romans.  You could feel Jones’ antipathy for the Catholic Church surging under the surface though he let the deeds speak for themselves in a much more measured way than Eduardo Galleano.  I would be interested to know what the scholarly response was to the book.

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

My yearly dose of Dickens.  “Dickens’s feelings are involved on both sides, and it is this vertiginous doubleness of sympathy, with the violent and the victimized, that informs the many great passages and chapters of what is at once a flawed and a magnificent, startling novel”—from the introduction by Philip Horne.

In some ways I suppose I was faintly disappointed—it was rougher round the edges than the more mature works like Bleak House and Little Dorrit—but it fairly seethed with strongly-felt social critique in a much more urgent way than anyone growing up on a diet of Christmas Carol would imagine possible.  For example, early in the novel, Oliver goes with the undertaker to a poor person’s house who has just died.  The husband refuses to let the undertaker have a look at her, while the mother-in-law acts crazy, somewhat reminiscent of later characters in North and South.  “I say she starved to death.  I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her, and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the dark—in the dark.  She couldn’t even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their names.  I begged for her in the streets, and they sent me to prison.  When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they starved her to death!”

Where I sought to understand Nancy and Sikes’ relationship, I found I could not; the Artful Dodger got written out as if the author was too fond to see him meted out justice; I found a surprising strain of social conservatism à la Emma in that Oliver was actually of good, aristocratic stock to begin with and this at least as much as his good character ensured his ascendance.  That isn’t to say I didn’t find it shocking, moving, amusing, or entertaining. 


“Dogs are not generally apt to revenge injuries inflicted upon them by their masters, but Mr Sikes’ dog, having faults of temper in common with his owner, and labouring perhaps, at this moment, under a powerful sense of injury, made no more ado but at once fixed his teeth in one of his half-boots, and, having given it a good hearty shake, retired, growling, under a form; whereby just escaping the pewter measure which Mr Sikes levelled at its head.
‘You would, would you?’ said Sikes, seizing the poker in one hand and deliberately opening with the other a large clasp-knife, which he drew from his pocket.  ‘Come here, you born devil!  Come here!  D’ye hear?’
“The dog no doubt heard, because Mr Sikes spoke to it in the very harshest key of a very harsh voice; but appearing to entertain some unaccountable objection to having his throat cut, he remained where he was, and growled more fiercely than before, at the same time grasping the poker between his teeth and biting at it like a wild beast.”

To write characters like that at twenty-five demands respect.



That Awkward Age – Roger McGough

Some truly weird poems, but most of them middle-of-the-road, not quite as good as Wendy Cope but quite pleasant to read.

Best Poems in the Underground – Ed. Gerard Benson, Judith Chernalle, Cicely Herbert

A good mix, many short and snappy, all easy to get into.

Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The second book chosen for the book club.  This was both what I was expecting and not what I was expecting.  He was certainly a writer who was building up portraits of his characters brushstroke by brushstroke in a jittery, impressionistic style which made them still enigmatic but not in an unpleasant or unconvincing way, I found.  Dr Diver as a character made a very strong impression on me.  Rosemary Hoyt was a bit disappointing as a character, and Nicole was the most ephemeral of all.  Still, I thought it was a much more interesting picture of expats than Mavis Gallant’s stories.

The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present – Harold C. Schonberg

This was very entertaining and made me wish I could understand music more so I could explain why I’m partial to Glenn Gould.  I wish it had been more up-to-date than 1987 (and didn’t so much bear the unmistakable traces of sexism), but it was quite an impressive achievement in terms of making so much information readable.

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

The third book club book, and the one I chose.  I was unsure if I would like this as I had always gotten the impression Amis was the kind of person I would dislike and his books were meant to be quite sexist.  There are certainly traces of sexism in Lucky Jim (particularly in the character of Margaret) but it is striking how far things seem to have come since Tender Is the Night.  In any case, I thought this book was absolutely hysterical, giving vent to the feelings we all have for annoying people who wield power over us.  I didn’t want it to end, and was quite surprised at the happy ending.  I’ll certainly give his other books a chance.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimanda Ngozi Adiche

This was a very well-written book; I introduced me to cultures and historical events about which I was totally ignorant.  The characters were very skilfully written, and I couldn’t help getting caught up in their lives.  It made me very depressed and tense while I read it, much like Wild Swans when I read that.  I was disappointed that Richard, the only white character, seemed to be good for nothing other than to be a plot catalyst—unless I misread the whole thing.  I would definitely read more of Adiche’s work; I’m a little jealous of her talent.

The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien

I read In the Forest nine years ago, and now that I think about it, I didn’t like it very much.  Nevertheless, for something different, I gave this a try.  It was a quick, easy read, the humor and pathos organized along the thread of dread:  would the young heroine get deflowered by the suave, much older Mr Gentleman, and was he a pervert or was he truly in love with her?  I felt a bit disappointed by the ending, but O’Brien had a very confident voice, and it’s easy to see why this straightforward book, with its implied criticism of convent school, Irish patriarchy, and the options open to lower class women, would have distressed the status quo.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeannette Winterson

The fourth book club read.  Despite the extreme pretensions of the author, this was a fast read, very funny and quite an interesting unconventional novel(la).  I felt it fell a bit apart at the end, but the characterizations of Elsie, Miss Jewesbury, and Mother were very good—I think if I were teaching I would include this as required reading on voice.

The French and Indian War:  Deciding the Fate of North America – Walter R. Borneman

To any casual student of history, I would have no problem recommending this as a compact, well-paced overview of the French and Indian War, opinionated but concise, lively but almost terse.  It told me very little I hadn’t already read in the longer histories (except I got a lot more detail on the war in the Caribbean and Pontiac’s War).  The omission of Washington’s culpability at Little Meadows was bizarre, especially as the book kept pointing out “here goes Gates, Gage, Clinton, Howe, etc” (though the elder Howe’s death was poignant—I’ve never encountered anyone who had the courage to suggest the younger Howe’s performance was predicated on his and his brother’s sympathy to the Americans rather than incompetence, lethargy, lechery, etc).  I will definitely look at Borneman’s book on the War of 1812.  It’s a nice book to have on the shelf for references.

Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest – Richard Meltzer

Great pictorial history work—good starting point and definitely worth having on the shelf. 

The Ninjas – Jane Yeh

This was slightly disappointing.  Too many ekphrastic poems that, to me, had nothing new to say.  The style was this combination of absurd opposites that didn’t gel for me when coupled with the almost deadpan voice you could never trust to be genuine.  Not my cup of tea.

Black Snow – Mikhail Bulgakov


“There is a certain sort of young man who must have seen about Moscow.  They hang around editorial offices on publication day, but they are not writers; they are at every theatre for the dress rehearsals, although they are not actors; they go to art exhibitions, but they do not paint.  They refer to operatic prima donnas by their first names, as they do to many other public figures whom they have never so much as met.  At premiers at the Bolshoi, pushing their way between the seventh and eighth rows they wave to someone in the dress circle; at the Metropole they are to be found sitting at little tables right by the fountain and the multi-coloured bulbs light up their wide-bottomed trousers” (36).


Wow, the more I read Bulgakov, the more I adore him!  This novel was hysterical, and spoke so much to the writer’s life I would combine it with Russell T Davies’ A Writer’s Tale to teach a class about reflexive writing.  It was short and sweet, and what a wicked ending!  What a cutting dismissal of Method Acting, too.  I’m convinced I need to read the entire oeuvre now.

Scars Upon My Heart:  Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War

A real range of quality—though Vera Brittain was represented, most poets were not of her calibre.  Nevertheless, some interesting readings. 

Good to Go:  A Guide to Preparing for the End of Life – Jo Myers

A disaster of a book.  Beautifully edited and packaged, written as though a down-homey schizophrenic was at the typewriter.  A few nuggets of helpful tips, but mostly “Google this” and stories and anecdotes that led nowhere or were inappropriate.

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

The fifth book for book club.  I really can’t say I understand the hype.  There is certainly a mastery of voice that sucks you in, particularly at the beginning, and I guess if you like Naturalistic novels where there isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) foreshadowing, parallel structure, pathetic fallacy, or standard plot devices (apparently there’s symbolism in this book, but I didn’t know what it was), you probably get more out of it than I did.  I felt the characterizations of the tragic female leads was crass and exploitative.  The sex was such that many a fan fiction writer has written (and with more justification, I might add).  I was left thinking, what was the point?  I don’t know that the translation was a good one, either. 

Lost City Radio – Daniel Alarcón


“The phone collapsed distances, just as the radio did, and like the radio, it relied on the miracle of imagination” (152).


It was hard for me to get over the lack of specificity—an unidentifiable Latin American country—for obvious reasons.  The almost cinematic, almost speed-of-thought transitions between scenes was also a bit difficult to reconcile at first.  However, the narrative payoff was quite enjoyable, especially after the experience of Murukami, and it was interesting and engaging.  It certainly understood how radio works.  One of the few books I can remember that meandered in the middle but pulled it all together in the end.  Also especially good with suspense and chronology. 

Collected Poems – Chinua Achebe

I preferred his later poems; they were a bit less abstract and more original.

The Peasant Prince:  Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution – A. Storczynski

A great subject for a book, and Storczynski brings together so much that I didn’t know about Poland, making it instantly accessible.  He bent over backwards to make Gates seem blameless, though from the evidence of the way they treated Black people, Kosciuszko and Gates were light years ahead of Jefferson and Washington, though it pains me to say it.  The Polish battles for freedom were incredibly exciting, and I really ached for Kosciuszko when he got to the end of his life without having found true love or having led Poland to a victory over its oppressors.  An occasional typo or inaccuracy was put into sharp relief because the rest of the book was really quite good.

Kosciuszko was an impressive human being. He was born into a highly stratified society.  The Kosciuszkos were part of the top 10% of Polish society, the szlachta, but above them was the top 1%, such as the Czartoryskis, the Potockis, and the Radziwills.  After his father’s death, Kosciuszko’s mother, Tekla Ratomska, ran the homestead, managing the estate.  When he was 18, Kosciuszko learned that Prince Czartoryski was looking for recruits to the Royal Knight school.  The prince arranged for a scholarship to send Kosciuszko to the academy in Warsaw.  Once there, Kosciuszko was so eager to start his studies he had the night watchman tug on a string tied to his wrist with the other end in the hallway, waking him up at 3 am.  He learned about fort construction, topography, practical geometry, trigonometry, drawing, and engineering. “When fighting broke out Kosciuszko had the difficult choice of joining Pulaski’s confederates, who wanted to overthrow the king and drive out the Russians, or supporting his patrons, the monarch and the Czartoryski family, who favoured a gradual strategy of shaking off Russian domination”—he and his friend Captain Joseph Orlowski chose to go abroad instead! (12).

Lord Sosnowski hired Kosciuszko as a tutor to his daughters Catherine and Louise, but Kosciuszko fell in love with Louise.  Louise was his intellectual equal; he was lecturing the sisters on the theories of Quesnay, they told him they had been the first to translate his work into Polish.  After the disastrous end to their affair, Kosciuszko went abroad again, searching for a place to use his talents, believing that Pulaski was already in America (he was hiding in France; there was a price on his head).  

Much later, after Kosciuszko’s valuable contribution to the American Revolution, the freedom fighter turned to his own besieged nation, particularly the rights of the serfs.  “By mentioning the Jews in the same context as the peasants, Kosciusko made it clear that he would stand up for the two largest disenfranchised groups in Polish society” (136).  Later, Kosciuszko was “secretly lobbying the Vatican to help Poland.  He made friends in Vatican hierarchy and nearly became head of the Pope’s army, but conservative cardinals viewed his participation in the American Revolution as too radical” (177).  

After having been defeated and imprisoned by Catherine the Great, Kosciuszko had his second trip to the US, where he was fêted and appreciated, yet he was “frustrated that France was fighting with the democratic United States rather than Poland’s tyrannous enemies” (231). 

Heartbreakingly, Kosciuszko ended his life in exile and penury, and his exploits were not recognized for a long time.  The sable that Thomas Jefferson wore in his famous portrait by Rembrandt Peale was a gift from Kosciuszko who got it from Czar Paul.  When he died, K’s heart was placed in a bronze urn to be returned to his country only when Poland was free – it took until WWI for this to happen.  “When news of his death in exile spread through Europe, funeral masses were held in Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches.  Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques also held services where worshippers prayed for Kosciuszko’s soul” (278).  Sadly, by the 1850s, “none of the money that Kosciuszko had set aside to free and educate [American] slaves [entrusted to Jefferson] went for its intended purpose” (282).  He was certainly a man ahead of his time.

Funny Poems – ed. Wendy Cope

A witty and accessible collection.

Hiroshima – John Hershey

I agree with the statement on the cover:  everyone who can read should read this book.  It presents as objective a viewpoint as it’s possible to get without losing sensitivity to the humanity of the six hibakusha it profiles.  I learned a lot and was both sad and inspired to read the further life stories of these people in the last chapter.

In Evil Hour – Gabriel Garcia Márquez

I liked some of the collected short stories better, though there were many character crossovers.

Leaf Storm – Gabriel Garcia Márquez

As experiment in form that was very successful although I’m not sure I completely understood it.

Country Girl – Edna O’Brien

I really enjoyed this, despite the conviction in places that O’Brien is really weird.  She’s a brilliant, poetic writer, and it’s hard not to empathize with her as a human being.  The ellipses, the hinted at absences remain just that, and enigmatic—her relationship with her father and her brother and her latter years of relationship with her mother—the lives of her sons after the divorce.  I thought the name-dropping got to be a little much—or else I misunderstood its purpose.  But definitely, a good book for another writer to read.

The Dead Sea Poems – Simon Armitage

Very good wordsmith, crafting each line to count, but a bit too ambiguous for my personal taste.

Connemara Blues – John O’Donohue

It’s difficult to explain what was lacking here; perhaps a sharp sense of sameness, a liturgical rhythm, that willed some good (not great) images and perhaps the annoying stanza similarity?  It was a disappointing collection, but I’m not sure what I would have advised the author to change.

The First Muslim:  The Story of Muhammad – Lesley Hazelton

This was an accessible biography that looked mainly to the early chronicles of Muhammad’s life, composed largely of first-hand accounts, but it is also sometimes sceptical of later clerical flourishes or misinterpretations.  It is respectful and tries to understand Muhammad as a real-life person.  As Hazelton says, his life was in fact very well-documented (far more so than is Christ’s or Shakespeare’s!) so it’s reasonable to build up this kind of picture of him. 

Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

I don’t see why the author felt the need to apologize for this book; it was delightful from beginning to end and wonderfully illustrated narrative unity.  The characters were excellent, the vocabulary staggering, and it was much in the vein of an arch, modernist Sabatini or a more fanciful On the Road to Samarkand.  I don’t think, though, that I’m much encouraged to read his other books given the way he’s dismissed this one.  How much fun it would be adapt for radio!!

Lords of the Storm – David A. McIntee

Vintage Doctor Who Missing Adventure stuff.  An Indian-caste-inspired world; while from a white guy’s perspective, it seemed to chime all right.  The Doctor wasn’t protesting against the inequality of the caste system; he was more worried about the planet Ragni getting caught in the Sontaran/Rutan crossfire.  Featuring a strong female lead and a particularly well-written Turlough. 

Toast – Nigel Slater

I really liked the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Eating for England, and when I couldn’t find that on the shelves of the library, I got this instead.  I wasn’t prepared for all the sex, but in other ways this was surreally like Adrian Mole for real—obviously set two decades earlier and with a descriptive emphasis on food that rivals M.F.K.Fisher’s.  


“At Christmas the windows would light up with clementines in coloured foil, biscuits in tins with stagecoaches on the lids, fresh pineapples, whole peaches in tins, trifle sponges and packets of silver balls and sugared almonds.  Mother would buy wooden caskets of Turkish delight and crystallised figs, sugared plums and jars of cherries in brandy” (24).


Where Fisher was coy about the personal, Slater is almost uncomfortably, blisteringly honest in his disappointment with his mother, his dislike of his father, and his irration with his stepmother.  He hasn’t got a lot of time to be sympathetic with any of them—after all, I suppose it was his childhood and it appears he reckons they scarred him for life! 


“Since my mother had gone, my father’s evening meals had been an almost steady stream of toasted cheese and Cadbury’s Mini-Rolls.  He had his pipe, of course, but I wasn’t sure if that constituted a meal or not. . . . Every meal was seasoned with guilt.  His.  Mine.  ‘You might at least do the plates.’  He said it just once.  From then on I washed up after every meal, standing on a stool to reach into the deep steel sink” (110).


Nevertheless, as memoirs go, this is extremely well-written.  Despite the schadenfreude, I didn’t want it to end.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson


“It started again, as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them, to know how well prepared they were against it, waiting to hear if they were afraid.  So suddenly that Eleanor leaped back against the bed and Theodora gasped and cried out, the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, higher than either of them could reach, higher than Luke or the doctor would reach, and the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door” (130).


This was very well-written, very well-crafted, an unsettling ghost story.  I can’t help but think it was inspired by an episode of I Love aMystery.  Nevertheless, it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and I couldn’t help but marvel at its potency and narrative eloquence.  I wished in some places it was less obvious where Eleanor was going insane and more ambiguous as to what role the house was playing, but I really really enjoyed reading this. 

Printer’s Devil Court – Susan Hill

Unfortunately, reading Susan Hill is a series of diminishing returns.  This was a badly edited book with superfluous illustrations.  When the ghost finally showed up, things got to be entertaining and perfect reading for early October, but most of the (very short) book felt derivative. 

Poe:  Nineteen New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe – ed. Ellen Datlow

Very strangely, I thought all the weakest stories were at the beginning and slowly we got to the really good stuff toward the end.  I think the authors showed tribute to Poe’s more obscure works just as well or even better than the famous ones.  I appreciated most of them, though I guess the ones that stayed with me the longest were “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” by Lucius Shepard, “The Red Piano” by Delia Sherman, “The Mountain House” by Sharyn McCrumb, “Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas, “The Brink of Eternity” by Barbara Rodin, and “Flitting Away” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Note these are mostly female authors.

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories – MR James

Compulsively page-turning, though having read them all it’s easier to see that they are definitely full of recognizable motifs from the same pen.  Despite all that, they are quite addictive.  My two favorites were probably “A Residence at Whitminster” and “A View from a Hill,” both of them deceptively prosaically-named.

Black Poppies:  Britain’s Black Community and the Great War – Stephen Borne

A really excellent book—I learned so much.  Bourne is self-educated and not an academic, but he is able to tell stories that need telling and have been neglected for too long. 

Olivier – Philip Ziegler

I saw this book when it was published last year in paperback and was immediately desirous of reading it, but I’m afraid it wasn’t until it became more affordable in paperback that I was able to read it.   It was an enjoyable and well-researched biography—I quite like reading biographies of twentieth-century actors.  Despite the fact Ziegler found many similarities between Olivier and Earl Mountbatten, I found many similarities between the young Orson Welles and the young Olivier (as hinted in the play Orson’s Shadow which I saw earlier this year).  I was fascinated with Olivier when I first saw Richard III many years ago, but now I am convinced I must see his other films, even if they are inevitably a pale shadow of his theatrical genius.

And the graphic novels: 

Daredevil:  Cruel and Unusual – by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka, art by Paul Azaceta, Michael Lark, and Stefano Gaudiano

Unsurprising to have two excellent writers on the case, though I have to say I didn’t like it quite as much as Waid/Samnee.  The story is actually freakily close to Serial, which makes it very entertaining indeed. The idea that Matt Murdock can hear a convict’s confession on tape and be able to hear if he’s lying is very appealing. 

Daredevil:  Here Comes the Man Without Fear 5 – by Mike Waid, art by Chris Samnee

I could have done without the Spider-Man/Doc Ock interlude (just isn’t my bag) but even that was well-written and kind of amusing.  So nicely drawn, too.  I love the exchange in Issue 22 about how the blind deal with cash.  


MATT:  Yes, it’s a pain that American paper currency is of a uniform size regardless of denomination.  . . . But my most helpful tip:  surrender to the 21st century and use a debit card as much as possible.  It’s always good to have a little cash in your pocket, but the debit card is the blind man’s best friend.
>>This ATM provides spoken instructions for your convenience. 
>>You have exceeded your account balance.  Please try again.
MATT:  Except when it isn’t.

Daredevil:  Here Comes the Man Without Fear 7 – by Mike Waid, art by Chris Samnee, Jason Copland, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez

Another enjoyable Waid/Samnee outing, although a bit far-fetched.  (DD is more far-fetched than I generally like my comics—okay, so it is Marvel—but this story more so than the others I’ve read so far.)  Of course I appreciate it when DD uses his hearing (rather than his superpowers) in a way that elevates him beyond all us normal sighted people, as he does here.  Foggy Nelson is wonderful, as always; Dr Strange makes a flying visit.  The best part, however, is the opening to Issue #33, as it portrays how DD dreams. 

Batman:  Knightfall Part One:  Broken Bat – by Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon, art by Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Scott Hanna, Tom Mandrake, Bob Wiacek, Joe Rubinstein, Dick Giordano

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. The art is actually very good—I think it’s the primitivism of the coloring (though hats off to Adrienne Roy, who did ALL the coloring) that really dates it as being of the early 1990s.  (Though some of the villains’ hair styles don’t help!)

It’s so painful and yet riveting to watch how far Batman can push himself even though he knows there is no good way for this to end.  It’s almost as if he’s on a suicide mission—if he pushes hard enough, he will have a release, and the responsibility of protecting Gotham will pass on to someone else because he’ll be dead.  The last few pages were just Bane beating up Batman—you know the outcome, and yet I found myself flipping the pages really fast.  

I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight Rises very much (well, I enjoyed the bits with Catwoman and “Robin”), and I see that the reasons for that are planted in Knightfall: I just don’t get Bane.  I know that in the comics he’s this Mexican wrestler pumped full of venom (which, for reality’s sake, they were right to dispense with in the Nolan!verse).  However, his motivation just doesn’t make much sense.  Maybe I’ll be able to deal with it better when I read Part Two.  Also, I thought they really missed a trick here—Bane is seen without his mask, and he looks like a normal guy (though with hideously hairy shoulders . . . ugh!).  Why not keep him hidden under the mask?  That really would have contributed to his mystique.  It was also bizarre to see him sitting with his feet up watching TV in his hideout with his ridiculous henchmen.  At least the Nolan!verse Bane did no such thing. 
I suppose a variety of circumstances made Bane’s plan in Knightfall—setting free Arkham Asylum’s prisoners—not appropriate in The Dark Knight Rises, though I suppose they nodded to it.  In Knightfall it allows for a rogues gallery assault not unlike the one Loeb/Sale come up with in Batman:  The Long Halloween.  

I guess perhaps what surprised me most was how much I liked Tim Drake’s presence as Robin.  He was a nice antidote to all the pain and gloom.

The Hedge Knight – by George R. R. Martin and Ben Avery, art by Mike S. Miller and Mike Crowell

My first experience with George R. R. Martin.  The pencils were impressive, but somehow I wasn’t blown away by the art (and my God, those panels were crowded and FULL of text).  The story was interesting and I did want to keep reading, but the female characters were atrocious.  I believe it was waaaay toned down as far as violence, swearing, sex, and nudity were concerned, so I don’t know how true a portrait of Martin it is.  *shrug* What makes it so much better than all the medieval-esque fantasy already out there?

The Crow – Special Edition -  by James O’Barr

As Clive Barker announces on the back cover, “O’Barr’s intensity frightens me.”  This is an intense piece of work, The Shadow + the most vengeful moments of Matt Dillon + Labyrinth—the late ‘80s/early ‘90s style reminded me of the Batman Elseworlds titles that I both enjoy (Red Rain, Gotham by Gaslight) and revere (Masque).  As luck would have it, O’Barr noted that he named his character Eric after The Phantom of the Opera (though his Eric has more in common with the Cockney Rebel music video than either ALW or the original novel).  Still, I find it strangely moving to think O’Barr identified Erik with the super-human, supernatural, angsty force of the Crow.  The artwork isn’t perfect, but O’Barr certainly knows how to tell a story via graphic novel.  Unlike superhero comics, the sexualization/objectification is equal opportunities, Eric being in uneasy pin-up form much more often than angelic Shelly.  He’s more Bowie and Césare from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; I can’t always condone the excessiveness of his blood purge—at the very least, it feels very uncomfortable against the moral example of Batman.  I was inspired to watch the movie for the first time and loved it.

Richard Stark’s Parker:  The Hunter -  by Donald Westlake/Darwyn Cooke

This was really disappointing.  The art was good, as ever, but the story was disgustingly misogynistic and not even that interesting.  Remind me to steer clear of Richard Stark.

Woman Rebel:  The Margaret Sanger Story – by Peter Bagge

Totally pretentious introduction aside, this was a wonderful graphic biography; Bagge’s admiration for Sanger, warts and all, comes through.  It’s funny, incredibly interesting, and very absorbing—also induces shock and anger.  Certainly, the lifestyle we take for granted would not have been possible without Sanger’s tireless efforts.  She seemed like quite a character, as well.  Bagge is an enthusiastic and meticulous storyteller; I loved the fact he devoted the final 12 or so pages to explaining where he had to fictionalize slightly and provided photographs as well. 

Daredevil:  Born Again – by Frank Miller/David Mazzuchelli

Miller-tropes aside (what’s with the junkie girlfriend?), I really quite enjoyed this.  It’s the same principle as Knightfall—push Daredevil to the wall—but with a very different outcome (at least compared to Knightfall part 1).

Batwoman:  Hydrology Vol.1 The New 52 – by J.H. Williams/W. Haden Blackman

The art in this was really incredible—I know I go on about good art quite a lot, but the amazing double-page spreads really lent themselves to the misty, swirly forms of La Llorona—a superb idea for a villain and gorgeously—and creepily—portrayed by J.H. Williams.  As ever, I’m not privy to all the back story, especially Kate Kane’s past baggage, but as Rolling Stone says on the back cover:  “In our world, barriers slowly erode; in superhero stories, they get smashed.”  On the whole, I wouldn’t say that’s true, but they are certainly disregarded in Hydrology, as Kate Kane is an unashamed lesbian and has a real connection with Detective Maggie Sawyer (already outed as a lesbian courtesy of Greg Rucka).  

Fiction  20/52  38%

Nonfiction  13/52  25%

Poetry 9/52  17%

Graphic Novels 10/52   19%