Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (2012). This was Wolfe’s last novel, and I liked it better than his penultimate effort (I Am Charlotte Simmons) but probably not as much as A Man in Full, and certainly not as much as his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. This is mainly the story of Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop on the Miami police force who finds himself at the center of large, significant events three times in the course of the story. I found him a little hard to empathize with (because he’s kind of a self-pitying sap), but he does give us a window into various aspects of Miami’s unique culture(s). We also spend quite a bit of time with his ex-girlfriend Magdalena, who dumps him for her boss, a sex-addiction-treating psychiatrist who likes to appear on TV. We see some of Miami’s upper crust through her escapades and through her eyes. The tale, which also involves Russian oligarchs and art forgery, seems a bit implausible, and it’s a smidge over 700 pages long. But Wolfe’s writing is pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed the book enough to finish it.
Emma. (B+). Did we really need another movie of the beloved Jane Austen novel? I guess the box office will tell. This is a fine and, I believe, faithful adaptation of the book, so being an ardent disciple of the divine Miss Austen I quite enjoyed it. Anya Taylor-Joy was an interesting choice for the title role; her large, wide-set eyes give her a somewhat exotic appearance that may have worked better in her other movies like The Witch and Split, but she does a good job on the whole. In this version, I think Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria) at least looks quite a bit younger than he was in the novel (and the familiar 1996 movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam), and perhaps as a result this Emma–Knightley combination actually generates a little romantic heat. What else to say? The music stands out; there’s quite of bit of it, and a lot of it sounds like religious music of the period (or at least some long-past period). In this version, Emma’s older sister and her family come to Highbury for a visit and make a vivid impression; I don’t remember them from the book or prior movies. Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, or period pieces, or romantic comedies, I think you should like this movie.
P.S. Yes, the title of the movie really does have a period at the end, which I noticed on the opening title card. According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film has a period attached to signify it being a period piece.”
1776, by David McCullough (2005). I think this the first book that I’ve read by the prolific McCullough. I must have found it on sale somewhere, because I’m not a big Revolutionary War buff. (Quick, in what year did the British surrender at Yorktown? 1781. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Anyway, this is a brisk and engaging tale of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776. (I got the impression that some significant events were happening down in the Carolinas, but we don’t hear about them.) It was pretty much all news to me. First, Washington’s army drove the British out of Boston. Then he moved his army to New York, where the British soundly defeated him. They chased Washington’s ragtag army into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. All might have been lost, but for Washington’s inspired sneak attack on Trenton, followed by another successfully sally at Princeton. I was surprised to see how inept a commander Washington was in the early going of the war, but apparently he always learned from his mistakes. The book is good, but it could have been MUCH improved by a few battlefield maps to show us exactly what was going on at each of the critical points.
Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal). I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture. This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did. The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later. As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me. Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.
The only political podcast I listen to is the Commentary Magazine Podcast. Commentary is a monthly magazine about politics and culture; it is conservative in outlook, and, given that it was founded by the American Jewish Committee, it gives a lot of coverage to Israel and Judaism. In the twice-weekly podcast, magazine editor John Podhoretz dominates an hour-long conversation with three other pundits about current events. I started listening in 2019, so many or most of the shows I’ve listened to have focused on either the Trump investigations or the Democrat primaries. It makes me feel decently well-informed without actually, say, reading a newspaper or watching a debate. And the podcast’s tenor suits me—conservative, but generally finding lots of folly to marvel at on both sides of the red–blue divide.
Richard Jewell (B). This is a solid, interesting little movie about a real-life event that I only dimly remember. A nail-bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta while that city was hosting the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 (per wikipedia). According to the movie, the federal criminal investigation turned up no real leads, and the FBI decided to focus on Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the bomb before it exploded and seemingly saved lots of lives by alerting law enforcement and helping evacuate the area. (The actual bomber was identified and apprehended only years later.) Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) portrays Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) as a real odd duck—hugely overweight, socially inept, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris), and yearning to be a real policeman. Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) is an unscrupulous reporter dying for a scoop after the explosion, and Jon Hamm (Bridesmaids) is the integrity-challenged FBI agent who tips her off that Jewell is a person of interest. When she breaks the story, Jewell goes from hero to presumed villain in no time flat, and he turns to the only lawyer he knows, a solo practitioner played by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), to help him fight back. Hauser and Rockwell turn in fine performances, and the movie vividly demonstrates how the combined power of the government and the media can unjustly destroy an ordinary guy’s life and reputation (and really upset his mama).
Little Women (2019) (A-). I haven’t seen any of the numerous prior dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, and I haven’t read the book itself in decades, so I was a fairly clean slate. I just remembered it was the story of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) living with their mother “Marmee” in the North while their father was off with the Union army in the Civil War. Director and adapter Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) complicates the narrative by making the “present” some seven years later and having headstrong sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) remember the Civil War-era events in extensive flashbacks.
At first, I didn’t care for the movie very much, but it quickly grew on me. I think it was mainly the story—the little domestic squabbles, setbacks, and victories—that won me over. Aside from Ronan, who’s always good, and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated…) in a small but fun part as the girls’ rich and crusty spinster aunt, I thought the acting was merely adequate. Emma Watson (This Is the End) didn’t have a lot to do as oldest sister Meg. Laura Dern (Star Wars Episode VIII) mostly just beams happily at her wonderful daughters. And I thought Amy, the youngest sister, was miscast. I vaguely remember her as a flighty, spoiled, kid-sister type in the novel, but Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is a sturdy, husky-voiced gal who seemed more mature than all three of her “older” sisters. I expect she’ll be a better fit for her part in the upcoming Marvel movie Black Widow.