Monthly Archives: June 2016

Floppy Ears And Green Gas From One ‘BFG’

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG.i
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in The BFG.

In an age when computer-generated imagery can make anything possible, effects are expensive and miracles are cheap. So it should be said, as emphatically as possible, that the “big friendly giant” in The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s ingratiating adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, is a spectacular creation. Voiced by Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the BFG interacts seamlessly with its non-digital counterparts and projects a warmth and tremulous humanity that keeps it out of the uncanny valley. Here’s a story about bridging the gap between a plucky orphan and a fantastical giant, and part of that bridge is technical: If we don’t believe they exist in the same space or if their connection doesn’t register on the giant’s face, then the film doesn’t work.

Much like his animated bauble from a few years ago, The Adventures of Tintin, The BFG feels like a low-stakes experiment for Spielberg, a direct appeal to children through the cutting-edge tools of the day. Dusting off an old script by the late Melissa Mathison, whose work on The Black Stallion and his E.T. has a Zen-like storybook economy, Spielberg brightens the darker corners of Dahl’s book and accentuates its sweetness and charm. He delights in its dopey malapropisms, its jars of fairy-light dreams, and the green, rocket-blast farts that the BFG calls “whizpopping.” There’s the tiniest sliver of melancholy in these two lonely, picked-on characters forging an unlikely friendship, but a spirit of slap-happy adventure dominates.

Representing a throwback to an earlier, broader period of Disney live-action movies, Ruby Barnhill plays the orphan Sophie like Wendy Darling in Peter Pan — precocious and headstrong, with plenty of mobility in a floor-length pajama gown. Given to wandering the orphanage after hours, Sophie happens to catch the BFG sneaking around London with a trumpet-like object, which he uses to blow bottled dreams into children’s heads as they sleep. In an effort to contain his secret, the BFG snatches Sophie and takes her back to his humble abode in Giant Country, where he happens to be the lovable runt of much larger and much nastier species. Other giants, like The Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and The Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), are man-eating bullies; the BFG subsists on a disgusting green vegetable called the “snozzcumber.”

The silliness extends all the way to Buckingham Palace, where Sophie and the BFG appeal to no less than the Queen (Penelope Wilson) herself to put a stop to man-eating giants. This leads to the film’s most delightful setpiece, which has the Queen’s guards and servants giving the two a royal welcome, complete with a whizpopping brunch that alights the palace in green gas and giddy embarrassment. It’s slapstick comedy and princess fantasy rolled into one—Sophie scooping great spoonfuls of strawberries-and-cream with the Queen, the BFG breaking up the room with his all-too-earthy mix of awkward gentility and explosive flatulence. Dahl isn’t above a little low humor, and neither is Spielberg.

Far too long at 117 minutes, The BFG finds Spielberg pressing too hard for wonderment at times, particularly when he’s dealing with the giant’s passion for catching and concocting dreams like fireflies in primary color. With John Williams’ score ladling on the sentiment like glaze on a Christmas ham, the film loses some of the deftness necessary for a story this slight. With so few twists and turns in the narrative — orphan meets giant, orphan befriends giant, orphan and giant appeal to the Queen to fight mean giants — there’s nothing gained in gumming up the works.

Yet simplicity reigns supreme, starting with Rylance’s beautiful performance as the giant and the artistry of the effects technicians who animated it. The BFG’s floppy ears alone recall Dumbo in their expressive twitches, which alternately wriggle like a bunny’s nose or curl back attentively. For a little girl with no family or friends, he’s a sympathetic listener, and her enthusiasm and mischievousness coaxes him out of isolation, too. The biggest emotional moments in The BFG combine Rylance’s working-class humility and decency with subtle wrinkles in the animation that suggest a stirring of the soul. It’s the rare CGI wonder that moves as well as awes.

Faith And Fear In A Story Of ‘Innocents’

A group of nuns deals with loss and violence in The Innocents. i

A group of nuns deals with loss and violence in The Innocents.

Music Box Films

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Music Box Films

A group of nuns deals with loss and violence in The Innocents.

A group of nuns deals with loss and violence in The Innocents.

Music Box Films

Mathilde (Lou de Laage), the young French Red Cross doctor at the center of The Innocents, is in late-1945 Poland to tend to injured French POWs, patching them up so they can be sent home. She could hardly have expected to be summoned to a local convent to care for nearly a dozen pregnant nuns.

The nunnery is also a surprising locale for writer-director Anne Fontaine, best known for Coco Before Chanel and such erotic capers as Gemma Bovery and The Girl from Monaco, whose accounts of female sexual independence blithely indulge male fantasy. Although it contrives something of a happy ending, The Innocents is darker than the usual Fontaine fare.

Fontaine and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer, who collaborated on Gemma Bovery, adapted an existing script by Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial. Perhaps that’s why this movie is both grimmer and meatier than the director’s previous efforts.

Loosely based on actual events, the movie begins about nine months after one of its principal horrors: Soviet soldiers invaded the convent and repeatedly raped the sisters, including the prim abbess (Agata Kulesza, who played the godless aunt of the nun in Ida).

In reality, many of the nuns were killed. In this version, they suffer only from shame and fear of damnation — and the anguish of having their newborns torn from them. The mother superior wants to minimize “scandal and disorder” by removing the babies as quickly as possible. Partly, the abbess is humiliated by the situation. But she also wants to avoid any blot on the convent now that her Catholic homeland has become a Communist nation, and the status of nuns is by no means assured. Her severity leads to another of the tale’s infamies.

Mathilde is supposed to aid only French nationals, so she must make her risky visits to the convent surreptitiously. She’s aided by Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who speaks French and is more worldly than her cohorts in other ways as well. Eventually, Mathilde enlists her gruff colleague and sometime lover, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), whose parents were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. (“Yes, I’m Jewish,” he barks at the nuns. “There are still a few of us left.”)

Post-war Poland must have been a tough place in which to sustain religious faith, and both Mathilde and Samuel are non-believers. Some of the nuns seem likely to lose their vocations, and their plight elicits theological debates amid the medical practicalities. “Isn’t pride a sin?” asks Mathilde when some of the pregnant sisters refuse to be examined.

Looking much more grown-up than in L’Attesa (The Wait), the assured La Laage proves she can carry a drama in which she appears in nearly every scene. She gets able support from the rest of the cast, notably Kulesza in a most unsympathetic role.

Shot in an abandoned convent in Poland, The Innocents has a stark, muted look that suits both the story and the wintry setting. Daily rituals and plaintive hymns continue amid the cries of women in labor. Yet at this moment in history, the austerity of the nuns’ existence is eclipsed by daily life in Warsaw and environs, while the unwanted babies seem less of a moral dilemma than the plight of the city’s many homeless orphans.

The movie only pulls its punches twice, and if the conclusion doesn’t entirely convince, the attempt at an upbeat resolution is understandable. In a story that turns on a baby boom, however disturbing its source, a little hopefulness is unavoidable.

Le Carre Adaptation Takes ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ On A Tour Of The Underworld

Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) and Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) in Our Kind Of Traitor.i

Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) and Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) in Our Kind Of Traitor.

Roadside Attractions

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Roadside Attractions

Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) and Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) in Our Kind Of Traitor.

Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) and Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) in Our Kind Of Traitor.

Roadside Attractions

Our Kind of Traitor is the first thriller adapted from a John le Carre novel to be directed by a woman — not that you’d notice from the sang froid with which British filmmaker Susanna White serves up the gruesome carnage that opens the movie.

A Russian family, having sold its soul to a soft-spoken local mafioso (Grigoriy Dobrinin), is methodically massacred on its way to safety by a hit man with clear blue eyes and a thousand-yard stare. We’ll run into this assassin later, doing what he does best as we’re swept around glittering capitals of the global economy, pausing to goggle at the depraved doings of brassy new elites in gold-plated nightclubs.

That’s where the post-millennial thriller goes for fun these days. Moral compasses are not invited, though a lost soul like college professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) may rise to the desperate occasion if tested. Marking time in a Marrakech dive while on a vacation that’s meant to revive his ailing marriage to Gail (Naomie Harris, latterly Skyfall‘s Moneypenny), Perry is scooped up by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard, enjoying the f-word to its fullest), a burly party animal and money launderer to the mob. Dima’s connection to the slain family has placed him in peril, and, after softening Perry up with a visit to an orgy, he persuades the reluctant prof to slip some classified information to British intelligence in return for safe passage for Dima and his family.

“I need some of your f——— British fair play,” roars Dima. Forgive his fantasies: This is all pre-Brexit, and clearly he hasn’t read the le Carre oeuvre, where even English fair play takes a pounding when MI6 gets into the mix with its own iffy agendas. Perry dithers, Dima yells, and soon the refugees find themselves herded from one scenic or scummy European hot spot to the next, not knowing whom to trust or fear. It’s a whole new multi-culti world of good and evil, in which — admirably — nothing much is made of the sly casting of Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla as a British intelligence agent.

The movie observes its crimes and misdemeanors through warped glass or mirrors set at wonky angles, as if to underscore the moral murk that hovers over pursuers and pursued alike. The ambience of contaminated elegance suggests underlying depth, yet screenwriter Hossein Amini, with input from le Carre himself, is working with pretty thin material. Moral ambiguity has always been one of le Carre’s great subjects, but for my money the writer has never been as comfortable working the post-Soviet, post-Berlin Wall world as he was in his superb Cold War novels. Which may be one reason why the best le Carre film adaptation since 2000 remains Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which took us back to le Carre’s brilliant spy, George Smiley. There’s a Smiley of sorts in Our Kind of Traitor too, an MI6 agent with Old Etonian diction and a trimmer waistline. Played with understated flair by Damian Lewis, Hector Meredith has his own scores to settle, and his own code of honor. But as the keeper of the film’s existential doubt he’s a feeble ghost of the Smiley whose task, as he saw it, was to deploy the unpalatable against the Soviet unspeakable.

Here the villain is the toxic alliance of political corruption with the business underground, and though Our Kind of Traitor has a deft turn of the screw at the end, for all its blather about honor and courage the movie doesn’t really go anywhere with its inquiry into the new evil. That may be because Perry is such a wan construct, dwarfed in every way by his new friend the money launderer. “Why did you choose me?” the plaintive professor asks. “There was no one else in the restaurant,” booms Dima, and roars with laughter as he heads out to do what a man’s gotta do.

This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets ‘Merchant’ In Post-Civil War D.C.

In District Merchants, Akeem Davis plays Lance, a freed slave who has a crisis of conscience when he learns his boss, Shylock, may have been involved in the slave trade.i

In District Merchants, Akeem Davis plays Lance, a freed slave who has a crisis of conscience when he learns his boss, Shylock, may have been involved in the slave trade.

Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

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Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

In District Merchants, Akeem Davis plays Lance, a freed slave who has a crisis of conscience when he learns his boss, Shylock, may have been involved in the slave trade.

In District Merchants, Akeem Davis plays Lance, a freed slave who has a crisis of conscience when he learns his boss, Shylock, may have been involved in the slave trade.

Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

Imagine William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice set in post-Civil War Washington, D.C.; and now make half of the characters former slaves. Suddenly, it’s a completely new play; but it still looks at some of the same themes, including how your actions reflect your beliefs. That new play is Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, currently on stage at Washington’s Folger Theatre. (This fall, it will also be produced by South Coast Repertory outside of Los Angeles.)

The process of reimagining Shakespeare can be summed up in one monologue. You might call it the play’s “should I stay or should I go” speech: In The Merchant of Venice, servant Launcelot grapples with whether or not to quit his job because his boss, the lender Shylock, is Jewish. Here’s an excerpt:

My conscience says, “Launcelot, budge not.” “Budge!” says the fiend. “Budge not,” says my conscience. “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well.” “Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.” To be ruled by my conscience I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil. And to run away from the Jew I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.

You get why The Merchant of Venice has been called anti-Semitic. On top of that, Launcelot is the play’s clown and the monologue is meant to make people laugh. Hilarious, right? That speech just makes Aaron Posner shake his head.

Posner has directed a dozen Shakespeare plays, many of them more than once. But he was never interested in The Merchant of Venice. “Too problematic,” he says. He was, however, interested in the issues the play raises, like power, greed and moral ambiguity.

In District Merchants, Posner’s Shylock is still Jewish, but half of the other characters are freed slaves, including Shylock’s servant, Lance. Like Launcelot, Lance is also having a crisis of conscience — his “should I stay or should I go” speech is driven by the knowledge that Shylock may have been involved in the slave trade:

To leave or not to leave? That is the question. I hate to say it, but the dilemma goes deep. So the question on which I am ruminating and cogitating at present is as follows: Does good service done for a bad master still count as good service? Or if I do good work for a bad master might I actually be doing bad in the world? And conversely-wise, if I do bad work for a bad master does that somehow make it good? And trickier still, how do I really know if he’s really “bad” or “good”? Deep down.

For actor Akeem Davis, who plays Lance, Posner has taken a mildly amusing Shakespearean monologue and turned it into something deeper and more relatable. “There’s somebody quitting their corporate job right now because they feel like they’re doing too good a job at ruining somebody’s mortgage, you know” Davis says. “We can trick ourselves into thinking that our professional self is divorced from the personal self, but they are always one in the same.”

Posner got the idea for District Merchants from a passing reference to slavery in Shakespeare’s original text. In The Merchant of Venice‘s trial scene, Shylock makes the case for why he deserves a borrower’s “pound of flesh,” a deal the borrower himself agreed to if he couldn’t pay back his loan. Shylock tells the court:

You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which — like your asses and your dogs and mules —
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
“Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands”? You will answer
“The slaves are ours.”

Antoine (Craig Wallace, left) is District Merchants' Antonio, whose "pound of flesh" lender Shylock (Matthew Boston) is after.i

Antoine (Craig Wallace, left) is District Merchants’ Antonio, whose “pound of flesh” lender Shylock (Matthew Boston) is after.

Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

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Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

Antoine (Craig Wallace, left) is District Merchants' Antonio, whose "pound of flesh" lender Shylock (Matthew Boston) is after.

Antoine (Craig Wallace, left) is District Merchants’ Antonio, whose “pound of flesh” lender Shylock (Matthew Boston) is after.

Teresa Wood/Courtesy of the Folger Theatre

“It’s a stark passage,” Posner says. “He’s really just saying, ‘We own what we own.’ ” But Posner says that one little reference “just kicked something off in my brain.” He wondered how the story would function in post-Civil War America. When he first started writing the script, he made Lance Jewish; then he realized it would be more interesting to make him a former slave.

Posner says, “In a play in which I was asking questions about the relationships between blacks and Jews as these two underclasses in Washington at this time, it suddenly seemed more interesting, more dynamic, more fraught to have that be an African-American character. And then once he was African-American serving this Jewish master, it just sort of unwound itself from there.”

In rehearsals, the monologue also got Akeem Davis thinking. “What if the idea in that monologue dawns on Lance that he can quit?” Davis says. “This is a new thing. There had to be an adjustment period for when the Civil War was over and you just had to get use to the idea that, Well, I’m 5/5 now. Things are a little different now. How do I use this status for myself even in the face of opposition?

“It’s part of what makes the Reconstruction setting so potent,” Posner says. “It was such an opportunity — this amazing moment of possibility that went so disastrously wrong.”

District Merchants is part of a long list of Shakespeare adaptations, and yet, Davis says, there are still people who think the Bard’s language shouldn’t be tinkered with. He, of course, isn’t one of them.

“There are examples of what European artists have done with this text that can stand as the end-all be-all, sure,” he says. “But I’m not interested in doing what Laurence Olivier did. I’m a kid from Miami: My Romeo is going to be different; my Launcelot’s going to be different. The play has to resonate from your belly. You can’t be trying to speak in 2016 like you think they would’ve spoken 400 years ago.”

And Posner says that’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing: “Taking history, taking other people’s plays, and coming up with a response.”

District Merchants is Posner’s response to The Merchant of Venice. It’s also an adaptation — and an entirely new play.

Pack These Pages: Three Must-Reads For Summer

Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, shares her summer reading recommendations including a graphic novel about trash and a George Eliot classic.i

Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, shares her summer reading recommendations including a graphic novel about trash and a George Eliot classic.

Courtesy Of Harriet Logan

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Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, shares her summer reading recommendations including a graphic novel about trash and a George Eliot classic.

Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, shares her summer reading recommendations including a graphic novel about trash and a George Eliot classic.

Courtesy Of Harriet Logan

In honor of summer and our hope for some leisurely reads, we’ve been talking to booksellers across the country — and they have a lot of suggestions.

So imagine your favorite summer reading spot, and get ready to “Pack These Pages.” Our first guide is Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

  • In Trashed: An Ode To The Crap Jobs Of All Crap Jobs, comic and graphic artist Derf Backderf tells the story of what it’s like to work an old-fashioned trash truck, through the people involved and the history of how trash is generated and where it is kept.
  • George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study Of Provincial Life explores “old-fashioned yet recognizable characters” who live in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Logan calls it the “the ultimate big, beefy book” and says, “You could read it every year and find something new.”
  • The Bear And The Piano by David Litchfield is a children’s book about a bear who stumbles upon a piano in the forest and teaches himself how to play. He becomes a master and goes to New York to become a star, but of course, he misses home.

And if you need more books to add to your summer reading list, Logan suggests:

In The Sounds And Seas by Marnie Galloway, Then Come Back: The Lost Poems by Pablo Neruda, A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Dave Hill, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexi and Yuyi Morales.

Why Does Every New Restaurant Look Like A Factory?

  • Rolf and Daughters, in Nashville, Tenn., boasts exposed brick, bare bulbs and ceiling pipes.

  • Brider, in Denver, features slate gray floors, a chalkboard menu and metal elements throughout.

  • Le Grenier, in Washington, D.C., has exposed brick with graffiti, but owner Marie Ziar has worked to make the brick more historic, rather than warehouse-esque.

  • The Perennial, in San Francisco, combines industrial touches like poured floors with earthier features, like green tile behind the bar.

For the past few years, my friends and I have noticed two trends when dining. First, seemingly every high-end menu rebukes factory farming with an essay about locally sourced pork belly, and second, just about every one of these restaurants looks so much like a factory — with exposed light bulbs, steel details and brick walls — that I’m constantly looking over my shoulder for the foreman.

I like the industrial-chic look, but still, I wondered: Why has it permeated so many restaurants, regardless of cuisine? Hoping for an answer that involved a secret society plot, I called a bunch of restaurateurs and designers to get the low-down on the stripped-down look.

The first rule of industrial chic: You do not talk about industrial chic.

“We don’t like the term ‘industrial chic,’ ” says Jeremy Levitt, co-owner of the New York City-based firm Parts and Labor Design. “The term ‘industrial’ is becoming overused,” he adds. “We certainly stay away from the word ‘chic.'” If you must, try instead “modern industrial” or “deco industrial.”

“I call it ‘manufactured authenticity,’ ” says Cori Sue Morris, co-founder of the cheekily named brunch blogging site Bitches Who Brunch, which reviews eateries in D.C., New York and Chicago.

Call it what you will, it’s everywhere. Restaurant designer Hilary Miners, of D.C.-based CORE architecture firm, had some thoughts about why. She remembers the look was popular as early as 2007, but she thinks the recession gave it staying power.

“A lot of people became a lot more cautious with spending their money, but still wanted an upscale experience without going to a white tablecloth restaurant,” Miners says. The spare look of exposed bulbs, bare brick and concrete was often cheaper for restaurant owners and less intimidating to diners than a French ballroom.

Levitt adds that the aesthetic, which he estimates has been around for 10 years, may also have been a reaction to the 1990s sensibility encapsulated in restaurants like Las Vegas’ SUSHISAMBA, where brightly colored, sculpted waves arch over diners.

“The ’90s was an era of really modern design,” says Levitt, but in the 21st century, people became more interested in the historic, speakeasy character of old brick. As for amber-hued Edison bulbs, he says, “It’s easy on the eyes, and it actually makes people look good.”

History and warmth loomed large in the minds of the restaurant owners I spoke to about design.

“We wanted something that felt accessible to everyone,” says Bryan Dayton, the owner of Brider, which opened last December in Denver, Colo., with a slate-gray floor, steel chairs and chalkboard menu.

Marie Ziar, co-owner of Le Grenier, which opened four years ago in Washington, D.C., credited nostalgia. “We are missing something, and I believe we need to go back to a specific time. It’s like we need to go back to the past.” Before opening, she found old art on the brick walls and decided to keep the brick exposed.

When chef Philip Krajeck opened Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, Tenn., in November of 2012, he established the restaurant in a 19th century textile mill. The industrial look offered a connection to history, and it was economical. “It was more a factor of budget and sheer will than sitting down with a Pinterest board,” he says.

To my untrained eye, all of these restaurants seemed somewhat industrial, but the restaurant owners pointed out details — a bright green chair here, some custom historical element there — that kept the designs from feeling clichéd. The look has been around long enough that everyone is aware of the risk of seeming cartoonish.

Professional bruncher Morris says restaurant designs need a reboot. “I loved [the style] when I was 22, five years ago. … But I’ve grown up, and the trend is still here.” She calls the next “it” look “San Francisco style,” a similar industrial design, but with whiter walls and brighter details. CORE’s Miners also said this look is increasingly popular.

To glimpse this future, take a gander at the sustainable restaurant The Perennial in San Francisco, which opened in January. Co-founder Karen Leibowitz explained the reasoning behind the restaurant’s aesthetic — a collision of industrial elements with rural sensibility. The hanging light bulbs are energy-efficient LED bulbs, the walls light gray and the tile behind the bar an organic green.

Levitt says like fashion, interior design moves in cycles. “It’s almost like how fashion regurgitates itself a bit.”

Hmm, regurgitation-chic. I think I’ve coined a new term.

‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ Might Be A Few Too Many

“Stories can be true even if they’re not real,” muses nine-year-old Alex Torrey. His whole life has been steeped in stories: His parents were the stars of a cult favorite science fiction television show, Anomaly, and both have continued their acting careers somewhat successfully. Alex is a budding writer and voracious reader, devouring each installment of a Harry Potter-like young adult book series.

It doesn’t take long for readers of Bob Proehl’s novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds to discover that Alex has been, in a way, living in a world of fiction for most of his life. He knows that his mother, Valerie, is taking him on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his estranged father. But he doesn’t know that the visit will last longer than he imagined, due to a secret Valerie’s been keeping from him for years.

Alex and Valerie’s road trip, punctuated by stops at comic book conventions, where Valerie is in high demand, is the main thread in a novel that — for better and for worse — has quite a few of them. A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a charming, sprawling novel by an author whose ambition, while laudable, sometimes gets the best of him.

As the two travelers go their way from one ocean to the other, they befriend a handful of people who are also on the convention circuit. There’s Brett, a sweet indie comic book artist whose collaboration with his best friend causes him more than a few headaches. There’s Gail, the founder of “a feminist and sometimes misandrist website called” — she’s since ditched blogging for a job writing for a major comic book publisher.

And then there’s a group of women cosplayers, paid by convention organizers to dress up as popular comic book heroes and roam the convention halls. Their main function in the novel is to provide a kind of running commentary about the comic book industry; besides their (sometimes funny) quips, it’s not entirely clear what they’re doing in the book.

There are some things that Proehl does well in A Hundred Thousand Worlds. First of all, he’s a talented and earnest writer who never condescends to his characters. While Valerie doesn’t completely understand the devotion fans had for her show, she’s encouraged by the purity of their fandom: “It’s something she likes quite a bit about this little world: the capability of those within it to get deeply and sincerely excited about things. She wonders how they fare in the real world, where excitement is poorly valued, and she tries to think of things she has been excited about. There are so few.”

Proehl’s best accomplishment in the book, though, is the very realistic, and very sweet, relationship between Valerie and Alex, “this lifesaver, this impossible child.” Alex is precocious, but he never acts like anything other than a nine-year-old, and his observations manage to be both childlike and wise: “There are practically no other kids [at the comic book convention], which is stupid, because there’s so much stuff for kids here.”

But the novel is, unfortunately, way too busy, and the other characters aren’t as well-realized as Valerie and Alex. Brett exists in the book chiefly to be a foil for Alex, who’s taken a shine to the mopey artist. And Gail comes off as a stand-in, inserted into the novel to rail against the problems of the comic book industry: discrimination against (and objectification of) women, homophobia, the unchecked use of sexual assault as a plot device in comic books.

Those are, of course, real problems in the comic book industry (and so many other ones, too), and it’s refreshing to see a writer aware of them. But it’s awkwardly shoehorned in, and it’s a distraction from the main story. This is a common problem with debut novelists — they frequently have the urge to incorporate every idea they’ve ever had into their first book.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds is messy at times, but it’s not without its charms, and Proehl’s wit and insight make it very likely he’ll write a great novel some day. And writing a novel is a lot harder than it looks, of course — as Gail puts it: “It’s tougher when you’re moving things to an ending. Beginnings are so much simpler — everything can sprawl out. But endings have to winnow to a point, and it’s easier to trip and stumble into it than to smoothly spiral downward.”

‘They May Not Mean To, But They Do’ Is A Sparkling, Sad Family Affair


This is FRESH AIR. Aging is a hot subject these days, particularly in memoirs. Cathleen Schine’s new novel explores how one character’s physical and mental decline ripples out and becomes a family affair. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Schine’s novel called “They May Not Mean To, But They Do.”

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Cathleen Schine’s latest novel is full of pee. It opens on a Lear-like vision of an old man who stumbles out of his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, urine-soaked pajamas and adult diapers collapsed around his ankles.

Images of the weak-bladdered follow – a poorly housebroken dog who requires puppy pads, an elderly woman who frequents the ladies’ room, a drunken young man charged with public urination.

Schine’s book, which is called “They May Not Mean To, But They Do,” may be the only novel I’ve ever read that relies on pee as its major symbol. And what a unifying symbol it is – cross-generational, stinging and humiliating. That omnipresent tinkle reminds us of our common fragility – of what a leaky vessel we’re all in throughout this voyage of life.

If Schine’s title sounds familiar, you know your nasty poetry. It’s from Philip Larkin’s infamous poem about family called “This Be The Verse.” The first stanza, which I must edit, reads – (reading) they bleep you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you.

That poem serves as Schine’s lodestar throughout this compact novel of manners about family, loss, aging and resilience. At one point, Joy Bergman, the 86-year-old Jewish matriarch of this tale, cites Larkin’s lines, but flips them, reflecting that her adult children can, in their own way, mess up their parents.

And the mixture of comedy and despair in Larkin’s verse has pretty much been Schine’s signature tone ever since her first novel, “Alice In Bed,” about a sexually active college student who finds herself partially paralyzed and stuck in a hospital room. Schine’s latest book takes readers back to the sick bed for a space.

But this time, the prone patient is at the end of his biblically-allotted life span. Aaron Bergman, the diapered and damp figure I alluded to earlier, is dying of old age. The early chapters of this book dramatize what a toll Aaron’s long fall through palliative care to hospice to death takes on his wife, adult children and grandchildren.

Through the novel’s omniscient narrator, we get a panoramic vision here of exhaustion. For instance, daughter Molly, who lives in California with her wife, flies back to New York several times within a few months to tend to her parents, to try to organize their medications in little plastic boxes labeled with the days of the week and set up Spotify and program it to endlessly play Frank Sinatra.

Joy suffers a minor stroke and a scary infection, courtesy of her close daily contact with her dying husband’s colostomy bag. When Aaron finally does die, it’s a relief to his family and a mundane tragedy. Here’s Joy waking up in the apartment the couple shared for decades.

(Reading) Joy woke up. And as usual, Aaron was dead. What was coming was clear to her. And it was a vast emptiness – a blank, much like the winter with its white horizon, dense and low – no distance to the sky at all. Her daughter Molly had gotten her a medical alert contraption that came with a wristband with a button on it. Sometimes, she pushed the button by accident and a man’s voice from the machine asked her if she was all right. It was company.

I bet some of you are thinking, who needs a novel about colostomy bags and grief? Oh, but you do need Schine’s novel. At least, you do if you’re a reader who relishes acute psychological perceptions and lots of laughs to leaven the existential grimness, like those other literary domestic goddesses to whom she’s sometimes compared, Jane Austen and Nora Ephron.

Schine can’t help but crack a joke at the most inappropriate moments. Thus, we’re told that poor Aaron was prescribed various painkillers that teenagers in shrinking Midwestern towns abused. The fun and bad behavior really kicks into high gear when the widow Joy meets an old flame who proposes to lift her out of her grief.

That’s when her loving adult children begin behaving like the graying toddlers that deep down they also still are. Does anyone really ever do anyone else any good? That’s the question this sparkling and sad novel mulls over and answers with a wry shrug. After all, as Larkin told us, imperfect as we may be, we’re all we’ve got.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” by Cathleen Schine. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the posthumously released final album by pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint. This is FRESH AIR.

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‘The Big Sheep’ Plays Hardboiled Sci-Fi To The Hilt

It’s not hard to parse the two main influences on Robert Kroese’s new novel The Big Sheep. The title itself mashes them up: Raymond Chandler’s 1939 hardboiled masterpiece The Big Sleep and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the film Blade Runner). The question is: Does Kroese’s book transcend the obviousness of that literary portmanteau? Thankfully, yes. While Kroese draws deeply from Chandler’s gritty atmosphere and Dick’s gonzo concepts, he adds his own third dimension — humor, and plenty of it.

The Big Sheep takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, following an economic collapse that’s fractured the area into the city proper and a section known as the Disincorporated Zone, or DZ, that’s reverted to barbarism (with a tip of the hat to John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.) In this brave new city, two detectives, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler, are hired to solve the mystery of a missing sheep, genetically modified to incubate human organs for transplant. Soon after, the pair get another job: In this increasingly entertainment-reliant version of our world, a superstar actress named Priya Mistry fears she’s the target of an assassin.

As the two investigations dovetail — a bit too predictably, but not without some finesse; Kroese weaves plots like a master — the tribal politics of the DZ boils to the surface. An over-the-top, would-be warlord who calls himself Mag-Lev is trying to seize power, and it’s causing a ripple effect that threatens to upend Keane and Fowler’s cases. Meanwhile, the mega-conglomerate Flagship Media exerts its own gravity on the investigation — all while Keane guards a secret past and Fowler is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Gwen.

Kroese’s story is intricate, and his pace is refreshingly relentless, but what really carries The Big Sheep is the laughs. Clever, wry, and not above a little groan-inducing wordplay of the very best kind, the book’s humor not only keeps the mood light, it cements Keane and Fowler’s characters. Their dialogue is pistol-whip sharp, and it quickly becomes clear that Kroese is pulling from a third major influence: Arthur Conan Doyle. The dynamic between the mad-genius Keane and the no-nonsense Fowler is pure Holmes-and-Watson, right down to Fowler’s first-person narration. In one of the novel’s driest understatements, Fowler calls his boss “an unconventional thinker”; Keane prefers the term “phenomenological inquisitor” over the mundane “private investigator,” and the philosophical ruminations fly fast and furiously. And funnily. At one point, Fowler — in the grips of a villain — remarks, “It was never a good thing when a bad guy started quoting Nietzsche.”

There’s no doubt that Kroese pays loving homage to his influences, but there’s a spark to The Big Sheep that transcends them. Even when the word “sheep” from the book’s title winds up assuming a multiple meaning that’s a little heavy-handed, Kroese handles it with a wink and plenty of wit, poking America’s obsession with celebrity with a pointed, satirical stick. Dystopian novels these days continue to be pumped out faster than greenhouse gases, but The Big Sheep offers a welcome break: a tale of our miserable tomorrow that’s simultaneously sobering and fun.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.