Book Review: Shucked – by Erin Byers Murray

I have never eaten an oyster in my life, neither raw nor cooked, at least as far as I know. Maybe there was one in a Jambalaya or other dish once. But I can say with confidence that I have never been much interested in oysters.

I am not a cook. I always say that I am a grateful eater.

I am also not a foodie. I just came back from three days in Washington, DC and I stayed downtown, a couple of blocks from the White House, surrounded by great restaurants, and I didn’t step foot in one of them. When I am alone, Subway and Chipotle seem to do the trick.

So what was it that had me read a 352-page non-fiction book written by a culinary writer about working on an oyster farm in Duxbury, south of Boston? Simple: a friend recommended it, and I loved reading Shucked.

Erin was a young food writer who wanted to fully understand the farm to table process. Where does food come from, and  what does it take to bring it to her table?

She quit her job writing, and started working on the Island Creek Oyster Farm. Initially she was going to just do one season. She went out on the bitter cold New England bay and did backbreakingly hard labor harvesting oysters in March, learning everything about the farming of oysters over the months. Later on she worked with the seeds, the younglings that would have to be raised to be next year’s crop.

In the process, not only did she learn the mechanics of farming oysters, but also the business of oysters. Working on a renowned farm, she had access to some of the country’s most famous chefs. She was invited for a one-day internship in New York’s prestigious restaurant Per Se, and then partook in a 23-course meal that lasted for five hours.

The author vividly describes work on an oyster farm, shows the challenges of the trade, and provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the running of world-famous restaurants.

I learned a lot. I found myself googling the names of many of the chefs she talks about, and their restaurants. The book was very engaging, informative and never dull.

Now I’ll have to go out for an oyster meal, don’t I?

Movie Review: Ticket to Paradise (2022)

Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is 25 years old and just graduated from law school. To reward herself, she and her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) book tickets to Bali for a vacation “in paradise.” When they get there, Lily falls in love with a handsome young local man – a seaweed farmer. She decides to stay in Bali and marry into the family, and give up her career.

When her parents David (George Clooney) and Georgia (Julia Roberts) get the word, they freak out. While David and Georgia have been non-amicably divorced for 20 years, this news unites them and they make a pact to travel to Bali and sabotage Lily’s marriage. They believe she’s about to make the same mistake they did when they first got married, and they want to save her.

Ticket to Paradise is completely predictable. You know what’s going to happen the minute the movie starts, and you check off your predictions one at a time as the events unfold. But that did not seem to matter to me, and I truly enjoyed the story.

It’s funny, at times emotional, and who cannot like the scenery in Bali – paradise after all!

There is a message that comes through in the end, that has already affected some of my decisions since:

“Why save the good stuff for later?”

To find out what this means in the movie and for you as a message, you’re just going to have to go see Ticket to Paradise.

Movie Review: Breaking (2022)

Our nation has been sending young men and women into endless wars in faraway continents for many decades. We supposedly revere our military, we thank them for their service when we see them in airports or in the lines at stores. They go overseas and many of them come home broken. Some never come home. Some come home with limbs missing. Some come home with terrible diseases due to exposure to poisons. Some come home with broken spirits. When they come home, we owe them.

But we don’t seem to pay our debts.

We have the Veterans Administration, or short the VA, whose mission it is to “take care” of our veterans. I am sure sometimes they do. But, as we all know from anecdotes of people we know, from the stories in the media in general, and from the crazy political machinations we watch on TV, all too often our veterans are not taken care of.

Sometimes they end up homeless, begging on street corners, rejected, abused and  addicted to drugs.

According to a study completed in 2021, 30,177 American active duty military and veterans after 9/11 have died by suicide. During that same 20-year period, 7,057 service members were killed in combat. Suicide kills four times as many service members as combat does.

Breaking is based on a true story of the soldier Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine whose disability check gets diverted due to no fault of his own. In a crazy scheme, to get public attention to his plight, he holds up a bank – not to rob money, but to get his $850 check that he says the VA owes him. That’s all he wants.

As he finds out quickly, holding up a bank to get on TV does not work, and he tries to somehow exit the situation with honor and alive.

After the movie, on the way home, I was not really able to talk. The images of the deep pain and despair haunted me. The pictures of the waiting room at the VA kept flashing through my mind, where seemingly hundreds of dejected men and women were languishing in endless lines, their dignity taken, their spirits broken, almost like cattle at the trough, just to collect what is due them, what we, as a country, owe them for their service: To care for their wounds – that’s all.

Breaking puts a spotlight on their blight.

Thank you for your service.

Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)

 

At the beginning of World War II, the British were desperate for information, and the traditional methods of espionage didn’t seem to work sufficiently.

In an age were women in war were not a common occurrence, Churchill requested that the spy agency, the SOE or Special Operations Executive, recruit women to work behind enemy lines and pass information back home via wireless Morse code transmitters.

Using those transmitters was a very dangerous activity. The units were bulky, the size of a suitcase, had to be set up in secret locations and could only be used for a short time. The problem was that they were easily traceable, so the users had to be on the move all the time. And if a “wireless operator” was intercepted by the enemy, the team that depended on him or her were left stranded without a connection home and had to operate “in the dark.”

Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was the head of the spy department at the SOE. Among many other men and women, she recruited two very unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) was an American woman who had been turned down in her quest to become a diplomat because she had a wooden leg. She was very capable and ambitious, and took on the challenge. The other was a Muslim woman named Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a pacifist, but a soldier nonetheless, because she believed in defending her and her people’s rights. Noor was the wireless operator, and Virginia the relentless spy and operative.

Together they helped to undermine the Nazi regime in France. Albeit at a terrible cost, they left a powerful legacy in their wake.

A Call to Spy was inspired by true stories and the credits at the end listing the fates of the players left me inspired about the heroism of that generation and the tremendous sacrifices they made – so we all could live in this world we built for ourselves after the war.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City – by Erik Larsen

The Eiffel Tower was built for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. It was meant to be one the main attractions at the Fair,  and its focus was the vast constructions in iron and steel that were the great industrial advancement of that time. It took about two years to build and it inspired the world and became one of the most iconic architectural structures in the world. You cannot think of Paris today without the Eiffel tower.

After that, the architects in the United States and particularly in Chicago, the city that was vying to host the next World’s Fair in 1893, were challenged to come up with something greater than the Eiffel tower.

The result was “The White City” built out of swampland along Lake Michigan.

Why do I know all that now?

The Devil in the White City is not a novel. It’s a documentary about the building of the World’s Fair in Chicago. There is no dialog in this book, but narration and exposition of minute facts about the vision and the people who made that vision happen. Real-life characters who were associated with the fair included Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose assassination on June 28, 1914 provided the spark that ignited World War I, and many others. The father of Walt Disney was a carpenter at the fair. Walt probably learned a thing or two there. Finally, there  was a young engineer named Ferris, who had to try several times to propose his idea to build a giant wheel in an effort to out-Eiffel the genius in Paris and his tower. His name eventually also became a household name, as we have all been on a Ferris wheel.

And most of all, Daniel Hudson Burnham, the genius architect who went on and gave the world many buildings, both before and after the Fair, was the relentless driving force behind making the vision a reality. Beyond the White City, one of Burnham’s most recognizable buildings is the Flatiron Building in New York City.

There was also a notorious serial killer associated with the Fair. H. H. Holmes was a young, dashing medical doctor who moved to Chicago and started a spree of fraud and killing, all seemingly in plain sight. Holmes was obviously a psychopath, someone who cares about nobody and nothing but his own ego and satisfaction. To him, human beings, friends and enemies, were simple toys in the game of cat and mouse that kept him entertained. Humans were completely disposable. The book got me into the mind of the psychopath and I must honestly say that Holmes was the most evil person I have ever read about.

In The Devil in the White City, the author Erik Larson switches between telling the story of the Fair and the story of the killer, and it reads like a cliffhanger novel.

Seldom have I read a documentary that is so gripping, so life-like, and one that taught me so much about a time and a place in history that I really had not paid much attention to.

Movie Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)

I read the book when it first came out in 2019 and I gave it four stars in my review.

Having read the book gave me a much better understanding of the movie, and I believe I benefitted from that. I don’t know how much a viewer would understand only from the content of the movie alone.

Kya is a little girl when the story starts in 1953. The family lives in a ramshackle house in the coastal swamps of North Carolina. The father is a drunk and he regularly beats his children and his wife for minor reasons. One morning, Kya’s mother walks out and never comes back. In the coming months, all her older siblings disappear, until only she is left living with her father. Then one day, he too does not return. Kya is left fending for herself. She avoids interaction with people, dodges Social Services and maintains herself by selling fresh mussels early in the morning to a friendly local storekeeper. She grows up illiterate, but has an intense love of nature and great artistic ability. She catalogues the ecosystem of the swamp world around her.

Two local boys attract her attention. Tate is a true friend, teaches her to read and write and eventually love. When Tate goes off to college, Chase, another boy from town, courts her. His motives are not as pure as Tate’s and soon Kya’s trust is broken.

Where the Crawdads sing is a wonderful movie that stays quite true to the book, but of course leaves out a lot of detail. As I said above, I think viewers who read the book first will get more out of the experience. The characters and the feeling of the location the movie portrays matched very closely those in my head and rounded out my view of the story.

Movie Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a wacky movie that works exceedingly well. Remember when John Malkovich starred as himself in Being John Malkovich? 

Well, here is Nicholas Cage playing himself: Nick Cage. He is an actor, and when his accountant tells him that his finances are disastrous, he is at a loss as to what to do. Then there is this obscure gig to appear at a billionaire’s birthday party on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. Apparently, the playboy is a huge fan of Nick. After turning it down outright, he later comes to his senses and ends up going.

When he finally meets his fan, Javi Gutierrez, the two quickly become friends. That is, until the CIA approaches him, tells him that Javi is a drug lord and crime boss, and forces him to become an informant.

The action quickly gets out of control, and Nick and Javi are drawn in to a cat and mouse game that could end up deadly for both them and their families.

The film supposedly plays on the island of Mallorca, but it was mostly filmed in Croatia over a period of 15 days in October 2020. Croatia Weekly stated that several scenes were shot in and around “Dubrovnik at Villa Sheherezade, as well as in Konavle, Cavtat, Popovica, Trsteno, and Čilipi Airport.”

Reading this meant more to me than it would have otherwise, since I just came back from a two-week vacation in Croatia, with a stop in – yes – Dubrovnik. While there we saw extensive evidence that many episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed there. We actually saw a number of the locations. This has spawned an entire industry of paraphernalia and tourist attractions related to Game of Thrones. Yet nobody talked about Nick Cage that I remember.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a delightful action comedy that you will enjoy, unless you absolutely hate Nicholas Cage – which is unlikely. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other actor pulling this off – well, maybe John Malkovich could.

Movie Review: Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River is an old masterpiece. I had watched it when it first came out, and while I remembered it “was a good movie,” I had forgotten what it was about.

Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role, and Tim Robbins for best actor in a supporting role.

The story is about three friends from a rough neighborhood in Boston who were best friends as boys. Jimmy Marcus (Sean Penn) was an ex-convict when his daughter Katie was murdered. His friend Dave (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar worker, saw Katie last, making a fool of herself late at night, dancing on the bar in a local watering hole. His other friend was Sean (Kevin Bacon), who happened to be a homicide detective, and he was put on the case. As the three childhood friends deal with this tragedy each in their own way, events unfold that pit them against each other.

There is a backstory, which is woven into the main plot. It turns out that Dave was abducted by child molesters one afternoon in the summer of 1975, when the three boys played in the streets. After days of sexual abuse he escaped and returned, but things were never quite the same for the three friends. The demons of the summer of 1975 come to haunt all three of them when Jimmy’s daughter was killed.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half – by Brit Bennett

The author of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, at age 32, is younger than my youngest child. She apparently grew up in Oceanside, California, which is about 30 minutes down the road from where I have lived for a lot longer than 32 years. Home.

Brit Bennett is an African American woman. For the remainder of this post I will no longer say African American, but use the terms “colored” or “black” or “dark” just as she uses those terms throughout the book.

The story starts in the early 1960s, and is about the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a very small town in the country, almost entirely black, but the light version of black. So light, indeed, that the twins pass as white when they are out of their environment. As the twins grow up, they try to break away from the yokes of their ancestry, and each twin has her own way. Desiree is the outgoing one. Stella is the quiet one. When they move into New Orleans to get jobs, one day, Stella disappears. She is never seen again. Even private investigators can’t find her.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the story, because you’ll need to read it for yourself.

The Vanishing Half is about racism in America, and it shows, without ever lecturing or judging, what it is like to be a colored person in our country. The subtle insinuations and the basic assumptions that we all have about black people come to life. As we experience this story, the absurdity of it all becomes obvious. The book deals not just with racism but also transgender issues, always nonchalantly, without getting in our face.

As I read The Vanishing Half, following the twins, their parents, their lovers, the fathers of their children, and their children, through their lives, I felt like I got to know them all intimately, and when the book was finally over, and I flipped the last page, I knew I’d miss the characters. I wanted it to continue. It is that kind of book.

And my awareness of what it’s like to be black in America was hugely elevated.

Brit Bennett, as such a young woman, has written a very wise book, and I will surely pick up her next ones.

And you should pick up this one.

Movie Review: Pig (2021)

Robin Feld (Nicholas Cage), who goes by Rob, is a truffle forager who lives alone, off the grid, in the wilderness in Oregon. He is a recluse. His only companion is a foraging pig, which helps him find the truffles. He obviously loves the pig, kind of like most people love their dogs. I know that pigs are very smart, but of course that’s something I have no direct evidence for.

In the middle of the night someone attacks him with a gun, shoots him, and steals the pig. Rob survives the attack, but is devastated and he embarks on a journey to find and recover the pig.

To do that, he has to face his former life and his demons. As it turns out, he used to be a renowned chef in Portland. Everyone in the culinary community looked up to chef Feld. But that was 15 years before. It all came crashing down when his wife died prematurely. He abandoned his life and career, and walked away into the woods.

Nicholas Cage is almost unrecognizable in this film. If I hadn’t known it was him from the advertisements for the movie, I would not have recognized him.

Pig is a dark movie and it takes an effort to watch, but the story is intriguing, and the unusual love of the man for the pig comes through strong.

I definitely recommend this. It’s one of the better movies of 2021.

Movie Review: Don’t Look Up (2021)

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a doctoral student in astronomy. One night, when working with a telescope, she discovers a new comet. Researching the details with her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), they come to the conclusion that the comet is larger than that of the Chicxulub impact event (see details here) that wiped out 75% of all flora and fauna on earth 65 million years ago. The problem is that the new comet is on its way to hit earth head-on in 6 months and 15 days.

The two understand that they have discovered a planet-killing catastrophe, and that mankind only has a little over 6 months to do something about it. They manage an audience at the White House with the help of the president’s chief science advisor, Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). But when they arrive, President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is completely indifferent. Her political ambitions don’t allow the distraction of an imminent extinction event. Jason (Jonah Hill), the Chief of Staff who is also her son, even ridicules the astronomers and eventually they are sent away. Nothing will be done.

Thunderstruck, the scientists decide to turn the the media instead. They are invited to the popular morning show The Daily Rip, where they are also received as curious, cute scientists and not taken seriously. They are trying to make the  world just “Look Up” and see what’s coming.

Don’t Look Up is a satire, of course, and it is extremely timely. It portrays a White House full of sycophants, staffed by nepotism, with a President who is completely self-absorbed and clueless. Facing a catastrophic event coming up, nobody wants to bother with it. The negative message it creates in social media is simply inconvenient. The industrial complex quickly figures out how they could possibly get very rich off of this, the danger and risk to the world be damned. Nobody takes the scientists seriously. They become the villains.

And that, my friends, is the state of our world today.

Enjoy a good laugh while you’re watching, and don’t worry that it will make you want to cry because of the insanity of it all.

Movie Review: Belfast (2021)

Belfast plays in 1969. Yes, those years when those of us old enough remember there were nightly headlines in the news about Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland.

Some Catholics and Protestants have been hating and killing each other in England for almost 500 years. When Henry VIII wanted to have his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled, pope Clement VII refused to consent. This angered Henry VIII sufficiently to decide to separate the entire country of England from the Catholic Church.

Religious unrest has plagued the country ever since. Just read some of Ken Follett’s books to get firsthand accounts. A Place Called Freedom is one of those books.

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical account from the childhood of the director, Kenneth Branaugh.

Buddy is a 10-year-old boy from whose viewpoint the story is told. In the photograph above he is next to his grandfather and father, both caring men who do their best to keep their families happy and safe, but can’t overcome the epic battles taking place right outside their front doors.

The entire film is in black and white, except for explosions and when the characters watch movies or stage shows. Those are in color. This creates an odd mood.

The story starts slowly, almost boring, but it builds in intensity. While the subject matter is about extreme violence, there is no actual blood and gore shown. We just see people ransacking property, setting cars on fire and throwing firebombs, nobody is ever actually shown hurt. As we get to know the characters in this family, we get drawn in, and we can’t help but walk out in the end and call it a solid movie, a superb performance by the young boy Jude Hill as Buddy, and a film that will likely attract some Oscars this year.

Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is a young man in a poor village in India. With poverty and corruption all around him, he decides to make a better life for himself. I manages to become the chauffeur of the son of a rich man, who just returned to India after living in the United States, with his American girlfriend by his side.

As the servant class is trained to do, he makes himself indispensable to his master. When trouble arises, however, the rich family betrays him and sets him up to be the fall guy to save themselves. He realizes that the class system is rigged against him, and corruption is keeping him low. Eventually he rebels and becomes his own kind of master.

The irony is that in order to escape poverty, overt oppression, and a corrupt system, he has to become corrupt himself.

And so he does.

Movie Review: Pieces of a Woman

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are a young and loving couple in Boston, awaiting their first baby. The room is ready. The expecting mother is radiant. Sean works in heavy construction, currently building a large bridge. When he comes home he becomes a doting husband and excited father to be. They are planning on a birth at their home, assisted by a midwife.

During the birth, things go unexpectedly wrong, and the baby dies minutes after birth. Their lives change as they are each independently trying to cope with the terrible loss. Her own mother, a domineering and challenging woman, meddles and makes Martha’s life even more impossible. Everything comes to the breaking point.

This movie is challenging to watch. The extensive birth section at a the beginning sets the stage. It is, by far, the most graphic and realistic birth scene I have ever watched. You’re right in the room with them, especially when the baby’s heartbeat starts slowing down.

I am not sure if I would recommend to young couples who are expecting childbirth to watch this, or not. I can say for sure, they’ll learn a lot.

The story is about the human spirit, and how it eventually transcends challenges. But it’s not a happy movie at all.

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Ben and Leslie Cash live somewhere in the mountains in the State of Washington, off the grid, in cabin in the woods, with their six children. They gave each of the children a made-up name so they would be unique in the world. Their names are Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai.

The children are homeschooled and unregistered. Even though they have no academic record whatsoever, the 8-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights and give an interpretation. The oldest, Bodevan, has been accepted at Harvard, Stanford and another 10 top universities. Ben is a survivalist and socialist. He teaches his children how to survive in the wild, by hunting, identifying edible plants, and growing their own food. The children have taken it all in and are remarkable each in their own way.

Leslie was a lawyer who gave up her practice to raise the children with their ideals. But she is bi-polar, and her illness starts escalating after giving birth to her first son. Even though he does not believe in modern medicine, Ben sends his wife to get treatment in a hospital near where her sister lives.

While at the hospital, Leslie commits suicide.

The family that can survive anything is almost broken by the loss of their mother. That’s when their battle with the “real world” starts.

In today’s gross-national-product-world, Captain Fantastic depicts a family that tossed it all away in favor of a simpler, yet much harder and harsher world. The elaborate idealism of facing the truth, no matter how adverse, how inconvenient, and how disturbing it might be, will work to some degree, but in the end the children all try to find their own balance and their own way. The question is, can Ben face that reality?