Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

I go to a lot of movies. I also read a lot of books. So I figure, why not talk about them here? Which I do. A lot.

Stargazer

Stargazer

Anne Hillerman (2021)

This latest novel in the venerable Leaphorn-Chee-Manuelito mystery series came out on April 13, 2021, and if you’re a fan of the series, you need to get hold of this one—and if you’re not, why not?

Tony Hillerman was an award-winning author of the first 18 novels in this series that introduced not only Navajo police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee to the reading public, but also filled the New York Times best-selling novels with fascinating details of southwestern Native American culture and religion in books like Talking God and Sacred Clowns. It was a significant loss to the literature of the American west as well as the mystery lover’s world when Hillerman died in 2008.

But to the joy and delight of those readers, Hillerman’s daughter Anne, herself a journalist and writer of travel guides to New Mexico, took up the torch and dared to continue the series under her own name six years later, with Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2014. Stargazer is the sixth book in Anne Hillerman’s continuation of the series.

Understandably, Anne’s contributions to the series have focused more closely on Deputy Bernadette Manuelito, whom Tony had introduced as a love interest for Chee, and whom Chee married in Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman’s second-to-last Leaphorn-Chee novel. From Anne’s first contribution, in Spider Woman’s Daughter, Leaphorn is disabled by an assassination attempt, and ultimately reduced to an advisory role in future novels. Chee himself gradually takes a back seat, especially in this novel, and by now Bernie’s role is particularly foregrounded.

In Stargazer, an astrophysicist named Steve Jones, who works at New Mexico’s VLA (Very Large Array) institute, is attempting to reunite with his estranged wife, Maya Kelsey, a Navajo woman now working as a teacher. Maya rejects his proposal and presents him, instead, with divorce papers she wants him to sign, at which he loses his temper and threatens her. When the next morning Jones’s body is found dead in his car, shot in the head by his own gun, it appears a likely suicide. But that same morning Bernie gets a call from Maya’s brother Leon reporting her as missing, and Bernie begins a search for the woman, whom we learn was Bernie’s college roommate. 

While out of the office, Bernie gets a call from Tara Williams, a detective from Socorro County with whom she is professionally acquainted. She wants to involve the Navajo police in the investigation into Jones’s death since the car was found on the Navajo reservation. Then things become far more difficult: Bernie’s old friend Maya walks into the police station and confesses to murdering her ex-husband. Bernie is absolutely certain Maya is lying about her involvement, but cannot get Maya to withdraw her confession or give any kind of a motive for the murder.

Bernie ends up assisting Tara with the investigation into Jones’s murder, and despite pressure from all sides to close the case and indict Maya for murder, Bernie keeps asking questions, unable to believe Maya is capable of the deed and almost certain that her ex-roommate is lying. But why?

For answers to this last question, Bernie takes advantage of her relationship with her old mentor, Joe Leaphorn, who helps her clarify her suspicions in this area. But Bernie’s quest is also complicated by a number of other issues: She’s involved in another case involving her discovery of an abused woman and a murdered infant in an abandoned house, which has her bucking the FBI. She also has to deal with her husband’s temporary promotion to supervisor of the Shiprock Station, and the friction it causes when he acts as her boss. She has the usual problems with her family, and her mother’s failing memory. And the case of the murdered astronomer in the car takes some unexpected turns when the victim’s co-workers at his lab reveal that Jones had been depressed lately, possibly over professional squabbles with one of his co-researchers. And to top it off, a letter arrives for Jones’s son, purportedly written by his father before his death, explaining his suicide. Bu there are too many holes in the letter to believe in its authenticity. Did the man Bernie suspects of having written the letter also murder Jones?

I’m not going to provide any spoilers here. Let me just say that there is at least one significant red herring in the plot, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from figuring out whodunnit with plenty of time to spare. But there are subplots aplenty involving Chee and Leaphorn as well as Bernie, and there are a number of seeds planted here that will very likely bloom and flourish in subsequent installments in this thriving series.

This particular book—24th overall in the series—is, despite its predecessors, one that would be perfectly fine for a newcomer to the series to read as a first step. You feel the history there, but it does not impede any understanding of the plot. And you get a feel for the future of the characters, as Chee struggles with his responsibilities and possible future as manager of the Ship Rock station, while Bernie looks into the possibility of advancing her own career in a different department—or agency. And in addition to the interest of the mystery itself, this book, like the others before it, provides entertaining and fascinating details of Navajo life and culture, in particular Navajo lore concerning the origins of the stars and the constellations, and human beings’ place in the cosmos. At the same time, you learn a great deal about one of the more remarkable man-made sites in New Mexico, the Very Large Array, and its function in exploring the universe with its radio telescopes for the past fifty years. And finally, we get a real feeling for the great expanse and stark beauty of the Navajo tribal lands. Definitely worth a read!

Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:

When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.

However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Top Ten Films of 2020

He Said/She Said Top Ten Films of 2020

In the wake of the 93rd Academy Award ceremony, my awesome wife Stacey Margaret Jones and I put together our own list of what we considered the best films of 2020. After coming up with two separate lists, we combined them to come up with a consensus on the year’s best movies. Here they are, with me commenting on the movies I ranked most highly and she doing the same with the films she rated best. And so here they are! These are the best of the year—trust us!

10. One Night in Miami (He said)

Regina King, Oscar-winning actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018, made her feature film directing debut with this movie. Based on a play by Kemp Powers, the film tells the story of four legends of the civil rights movement—activist Malcolm X, pro-football star running back Jim Brown, heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammed Ali) and soul singer Sam Cooke—gathered together on the night of February 25, 1964, immediately following Clay’s shocking upset of champ Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. They discuss their own and each other’s celebrity and the responsibility it brings to empower their fellow African Americans. As Sam Cooke, who undergoes the biggest change of heart during the evening, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. is outstanding and received a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

9. The Dig (She said)

You don’t have to be able to recite Beowulf in West Saxon Old English to understand the fleeting feeling of life on earth as a member of a violent and vulnerable species. The ship Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Brown finds isn’t even a ship, but the memory of one preserved in the earth by the sand that filled in where the ship materials decomposed. Mrs. Pretty, performed pitch perfectly with the sad beauty Carrie Mulligan is so expert at bringing to a role, is ill and facing her own mortality from the ravages of a childhood illness. The war is about to explode on the Continent and men are being called up across England as London prepares for air raids. Mrs. Pretty’s own husband has died, leaving his young son without a father. This film is lousy with memento mori themes. And then Mr. Brown finds a big one at the direction of Mrs. Pretty. So, it’s not a sunny film. And yet the emotional experience of the film is very satisfying, perhaps cathartic, especially during our own period of civilizational upheaval, physical danger and, most of all, loss. This is one of those films that loves its characters, feels attentively made and intimate and comes into the psyche of the willing viewer with a meaningful and tender experience rather than a didactic tone. It helps that the scenery is charming and gentle, that Mrs. Pretty’s clothes are to-die-for feminine ’30s-era beauties, muted, not twee, which she wears comfortably as a rich woman would. In fact, during the film, I posted on Facebook that I wished God would grant me the confident assertiveness of the rich British woman—one of her most appealing traits was that she knew who she was, she knew she held control of her land and resources and that she could clap back at the mansplainers in her presence in favor of what she knew to be right and loyal. I found her to be very inspirational beyond the drum-beat of a reminder that our lives are fleeting. 

8. The Trial of the Chicago Seven (He said)

Another history lesson masquerading as a movie was Aaron Sorkin’s contribution to 2020’s batch of films. For those of us who remember the Democratic National Convention of 1968, the film was a pretty good demonstration of Mayor Daley’s famous declaration: “The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.” Sorkin based his film on the actual transcripts from the famous trial of the ring leaders of the antiwar protestors who disrupted the convention, but takes some liberties with the characterizations of some of the principles and a few of the events, particularly in giving us a West Wing-style speech at the end from Eddie Redmayne playing Tom Hayden. Sorkin structures the film around an internal rivalry between Hayden and Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman, played with appropriate flamboyance by Oscar-nominated Sasha Baron Cohen, with Mark Rylance as their defense attorney acting as referee. Frank Langella as the clearly biased and domineering judge Julius Hoffman  is memorable, as is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who was in Chicago to give a speech and was never anywhere near the convention or the park with the protestors, and who has never met any of the other co-defendants whom he is alleged to have “conspired” with.

7. Minari (She said)

The simple story of this lovingly handmade film is of an American immigrant family, who have recently relocated from California to Arkansas (though it was filmed in Oklahoma, I read). Jacob and Monica are working as chicken-sexers, at which Jacob is a known savant. But they’ve come to Arkansas because Jacob has bought a farm, which comprises a run-down trailer house without steps to the front door or skirting around the outside, and wild-grown acreage along a creek. Their children, Anne and David, have come with them, and soon Monica’s mother joins them from Korea to help with the children. The movie follows the particularities of their difficulties as immigrants in Arkansas as well as their successes, such as they are. What I loved about the film is that it made the story of this family particularly about them while also helping nonimmigrant viewers more understanding of the ravages of the general immigrant. As we know, life is hard for poor, beginning, inexperienced farmers—even harder than it is for well-off, experienced farmers—and things that can’t be helped combine with things that can be helped to throw obstacles in the family’s way. Things break down, situations are dire, what will become of this family and each one of their dreams, for they all hold different hopes that sometimes conflict? I will say that loveliest of all was the hope that emerges from the marriage of the family’s Korean heritage with its 20th-century pioneering hopes. 

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (He said)

In a film destined to be remembered chiefly for Chadwick Boseman’s last performance, Viola Davis turns in a stellar performance here as Blues singer Ma Rainey in this film version of August Wilson’s acclaimed play. As I wrote in our earlier review of the film, “it takes place during a recording session in a Chicago studio in 1927, and focuses on Ma Rainey, the legendary ‘Mother of the Blues,’ and her thorny relationship with her white manager and producer. Determined to control her own music, the crotchety and domineering Rainey cows everyone and bends them to her will—everyone except the young cornet player in her band, Levee….

the film really belongs to Chadwick Boseman as Levee. In his final role before his tragic premature death from cancer earlier this year, Boseman lights up the screen with brazen charisma, youthful charm, and raw talent. Having already given an iconic performance earlier in 2020 in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, Boseman has to be the sentimental favorite for a posthumous Oscar this year.” Of course, that did not happen. But to those who may still be lamenting Boseman’s failure to win the Oscar, he joins several other actors who were posthumously nominated but did not win their Oscar. Think of James Dean, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for two of his three movies. Both nominations were posthumous. And he lost both. But failure to win them has not diminished his legend and posthumous popularity, and it won’t diminish Boseman’s.

5. Sound of Metal (She said)

I wasn’t super excited about this movie because I thought it was about heavy metal music, but that was only the delivery device for a gloriously realized, deeply touching movie about a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. As he struggles to orient himself in this new life in which his means of supporting himself economically and creatively is stolen from him, we also learn he has been a recovering addict, whose very organized and healthy lifestyle has been keeping him sober for six years. His loving girlfriend deposits him with a deaf community with its own sobriety circle, and he flounders and then gains his balance, always with a view to a return to his former capabilities and relationships. He learns sign language and contributes to the community that is helping him save himself by teaching the deaf children how to drum. Aside from the stunning performances by Riz Ahmed in the lead role and Paul Raci as the man behind the deaf community, what I loved most about this movie was how it resisted tropes and plot cliches. I was deliciously surprised at every turn.

4. The Father (He said)

The top four films on this list were so close in our minds that they might have ended up in virtually any order. The Father, another film adapted from a stage play (the third on this list) is directed by Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, adapting his own award-winning French drama Le Père—translated here by Christopher Hampton. I noted in our review that “The experience of watching this film is jarring, disorienting. Less than half an hour into it you are feeling much the same as the protagonist, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who suffers from dementia and hardly knows from one minute to the next where he is or who he is with….Hopkins and Zeller do something here that I don’t think has been done so well before. They actually do put you in Anthony’s shoes. They shake you out of your comfortable role of viewer and drag you into the role of the protagonist to experience everything from his impotent Lear-like raging against the tempest of his confused emotions to the vulnerable childlike pathos of his cries for his mother. It’s a very good thing this movie is only about an hour and a half long. It would be hard to stand it if it were longer. I must present this film with four Hitchcocks, and proclaim it one of the best films of 2020.” And in a moment of prescience, I also wrote “I’ve got to think that Chadwick Boseman is the sentimental favorite this year to win a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor, but Hopkins, nominated for the sixth time for this film (he has won once, for Silence of the Lambs), turns in a stellar performance here that would certainly be worthy of the award.” And trust me, he was.

3. Nomadland (She said)

I hoped Promising Young Woman’s Carrie Mulligan would win the Best Actress statue, but I can so easily live with Frances McDormand winning it for Nomadland instead. This movie is very intense and evocative because it’s so quiet and intimate. By the end, I could see that the life of McDormand’s Fern would not be a life I would feel safe within. At the same time, it shows the grand vistas of the American landscape, from Nevada, to my beautiful home state of South Dakota. And we can also see this beautiful world as very indifferent to the plight of those who try to live on it with few resources. Only the caring and compassion of those who love Fern make enough safe places for her to land. The use of real-life nomads playing themselves as characters in the film was the perfect touch of reality in a fictional story based on a nonfiction book about American “rubber tramps” who travel from job to job living out of their vans and campers.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah (He said)

Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield were both deservingly nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this film (Kaluuya won, as was widely expected). Here’s another historical film, and one dealing with a historical problem that remains a problem in today’s America. I wrote in our review that “The film certainly is unflinching in its examination of power and systemic racism, and in a year when at least three other highly regarded films (One Night in MiamiMa Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods…) deal with similar themes, this one is the most directly political, and may be the best of the lot.” It’s the story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers (who interestingly enough also appears as a minor character in The Trial of the Chicago Seven, earlier on this list). Hampton is a sympathetic social activist, a charismatic and canny political leader who is also an inspirational speaker. But the FBI considers the Black Panthers a more serious threat to America than the Soviet Union, and when Stanfield’s character, a petty car thief named William O’Neal, is busted for impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a car he is recruited by the real FBI to join the local Black Panthers and spy on Hampton. The inner turmoil this causes O’Neal and his FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) provide the chief conflict of the story which, spoiler alert, does not have a happy ending.

1.A Promising Young Woman (She said)

This incredible ride of a film from film’s current It Woman Emerald Fennell is clever, beautifully shot and heart rending all at once, which is kind of like the points it’s making about the plight of women in contemporary America. Carrie Mulligan plays a woman traumatized by a friend’s medical-school trauma so deeply she’s left behind all that was promising about her in order to use her many talents and gifts to exact revenge on patriarchal society, to educate so that those people will know they’ve been educated. The film doesn’t flinch from examining the cost of revenge along with the triumphs of vengeance and how patriarchal culture makes victims of many. Does our promising young woman best the system? I’ll let you decide, but you’ve got to watch this movie if you haven’t already. 

(Honorable mention: MankDa Five BloodsWaiting for the BarbariansThe Way Back, Emma)

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

Shaka King (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Rentable on Prime Video ($20), Vudu, Fandango Now

Length: 2 hour 6 minutes 

Rating: R (Violence/Language)

Names You Might Know: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Martin Sheen

Language: English 

He Said: The promoters and distributers of this film have done some strange things lately, not the least of which was removing it from streaming sites immediately after its six Oscar nominations. After an absence of a couple of weeks, the film returned to streaming venues two weeks ago, so we were able to catch it finally.

The other crazy thing they did—or perhaps it was the Academy itself—was to have the film’s two lead actors, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield—both nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Truly puzzled, I’ve got to ask—if these two guys are in supporting roles, who’s the lead actor in the movie? J. Edgar Hoover? All I can guess is that they didn’t want either of these actors to have to compete with the virtual lock for this year’s Best Actor Oscar, Chadwick Boseman. But…that means they have to compete against each other. What sense does that make? 

Anyway, Kaluuya has already won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Screen Actors’ Guild awards in this category, so I’d say he’s a good bet to take home the Oscar for his portrayal of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Hampton, a sympathetic social activist whose Panthers sponsor free breakfasts for children and neighborhood clinics, and a charismatic political leader who is both an inspirational speaker and a canny politician who seeks to unite the Panthers with more violent Chicago gangs of Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and disenfranchised working class “rednecks.”

But as far as the FBI is concerned in 1968, the Black Panthers are the greatest current threat to America—greater than Red China or the Soviet Union. At least that is the pronouncement of director J. Edgar Hoover, played convincingly in a creepy cameo by Martin Sheen. And so when Stanfield’s character, a petty car thief named William O’Neal, is busted for impersonating an FBI agent in order to steal a car (“A badge,” he says, “is scarier than a gun”), he is recruited by the real FBI to join the local Black Panthers and become an informant against Hampton—his other option being a long prison sentence.

His FBI recruiter and handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is a veteran agent who has been involved in actions against the Klan in Mississippi, though under Hoover’s influence, he believes the Panthers to be the African American equivalent of the KKK. And the essentially apolitical O’Neal begins his assignment convinced he is taking the better path. As he gets to know Hampton, however, he falls more and more under the Chairman’s spell, so that when a disguised Mitchell attends a rally, he observes O’Neal hanging on Hampton’s every word, and reflects “Either this guy deserves an Academy Award or he believes this shit.”

The last time Stanfield and Kaluuya appeared together was in a little thing called Get Out! This is a much different movie—it certainly doesn’t have the campy humor nor the popular appeal of the horror story, but it’s a straight historical drama. But both actors here turn in impressive performances that help push this film into a deserved Best Picture category. Do you agree Jones?

She Said: I thought it was riveting, and I went into it knowing almost nothing about the movie and not really sure I wanted to watch it—sometimes Oscar nominees can be “good-for-you” movies. From my own recent reading of Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, I knew more about the Black Panthers’ community-building efforts. And of course we know that systemic racism in the United States produces organizations that fear and fight Black communities and their efforts to combat the destabilizing effects of racism among their people. I had never heard of Fred Hampton or his assassination at the hands of “law enforcement” at the tragic age of only 21. My privilege as a white person in America has kept from me the complications and nuance of the stories of the Black leaders who have fought for equality. 

William O’Neal’s part in the drama as the Judas is also nuanced: Yes, he informs on Hampton and his colleagues as they work to build a survivable community for themselves and their families, but he’s also recruited by white law enforcement in lieu of a prison sentence. You can’t take racism and power out of that equation, and to watch this character proceed in his dual arcs of freeing himself from the consequences of his run-ins with the law while he is awakening to the value of Hampton’s work is truly mesmerizing. I felt myself rooting for him, until I realized I should not do so; in the end I was hoping O’Neal and Hampton would hoodwink the FBI—even while Plemons’ character demonstrates the G-man’s own inner grappling with the racist crimes of the government he serves. (I also recently learned that Plemons is engaged to Kirsten Dunst, she of Marie Antoinette fame. They have a son together, Ennis.) 

What I loved about this film was the examination of the moral failings of authority and what that does in the end to those moral beings when they act against their values to save themselves…even while witnessing what it means to put yourself on the line to serve something greater. What’d you get out of it, Ruud?

He Said: I agree that Plemons’ character was fascinating in itself, and he is remarkable in the role, though of course he’s so overshadowed by the two main characters that you might miss him. In fact, Plemons is the actual supporting actor in this film, and maybe there should be an Oscar category for “Best Performance by an actor who genuinely IS in a supporting role.” He has his own mental adjustments that he must make to allow him to justify in his own mind some of the clearly illegal machinations of Hoover’s FBI. The film certainly is unflinching in its examination of power and systemic racism, and in a year when at least three other highly regarded films (One Night in MiamiMa Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods, which came out so early as to be nearly forgotten by Oscar season) deal with similar themes, this one is the most directly political, and may be the best of the lot.

Kaluuya is a virtual lock for an Oscar. If there is any knock on his performance, it may be that his character is not as complex or completely developed as Stanfield’s. But lest you think that he is merely a two-dimensional Messiah, I would note that he does have his own Mary Magdalene, in the person of Deborah Johnson (BAFTA nominee Dominique Fishback from TV’s The Deuce), who knows how to humanize Hampton and bring him down to earth, and who is nine-months pregnant with his child at the time of his murder (hope that’s not a spoiler!). I’m going to go ahead and give this one four Hitchcocks. How about you, Jones? 

She Said:

I’m with you, Ruud. ALL the Hitchcocks and lots of Oscars for this one! 

This week’s She Watched It And You Should Too

She Said: Babylon, a 2014 dramedy miniseries starring Brit Marling and James Nesbitt, purchased (not included) on Amazon Prime

Hot Take: As a public relations professional of some years, I was fascinated by this British miniseries starring American Brit Marling in her character’s new role as director of communications for London’s Metropolitan Police. Nesbitt, as police commissioner, hires her based on her TED talk about how social media and instantaneous broadcast from any random bystander has made complete honesty and utter transparency mandatory for all organizations seeking public trust. Inside the organization, she battles the die-hard old-school climbers, manipulators and suck-ups and faces farce and tragedy. I’m so glad my hunt for more Nicola Walker streaming content led me here! (Walker plays assistant commissioner).

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:

When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.

However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope (1875)

Trollope never met an 800-page novel he didn’t like. Like Dickens and other Victorian novelists, Trollope wrote many of his novels for periodical publication, and so they were first published one section at a time—and the more serial installments, the more the writer was paid. When those novels were published in book form, they tended to be pretty hefty. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, one of the last significant novels published in serial form, is his longest: 896 pages in the Modern Library paperback edition, 32 hours and 25 minutes in the Audible version that I listened to.

Trollope wrote the novel in 1873 and it was subsequently published in serial form from February 1874 to September 1875, but sales of the serialized book were so disappointing that the publisher brought out the book in a two-volume edition in July of 1875, before the serialization had even finished. Reviews of the book were poor, and popularity with the reading public waned after its publication. But by the 1940s, the book was regarded as a masterpiece, and when interest in Trollope blossomed among literary scholars in the 1990s, The Way We Live Now began to be considered his greatest work. Indeed, recent “Greatest Novels” lists from both The Guardian and The Observer include The Way We Live Now among the greatest books in English.

The unpopularity of the book in its own time might be explained by the vigor with which Trollope criticizes “the way we live” in 1873. In 1872, Trollope returned from an extended visit to Australia and New Zealand that had lasted some 18 months, only to be shocked and appalled by what he found in England at the time. “It seemed there was but one virtue in the world,” Trollope wrote: “commercial enterprise.” What Trollope saw—financial scandals on the one hand and rampant and irresponsible speculative investments (especially in railroads) on the other, that must ultimately lead to the bursting of the great financial bubble—inspired him to write his great sendup of the slippery financial wizard Augustus Melmotte. In Melmotte, Trollope embodies the prototypical financier of dubious ethics who seemed to abound in London prior to the worldwide financial panic that followed in 1873, even as Trollope was writing the book. By the time the book began appearing in 1875, financial scandal was old news, perhaps too familiar to his readers to seem new or interesting. They didn’t need to read about this kind of corruption. They’d lived through it.

At any rate, that’s my own suggestion as to why the book wasn’t particularly popular in its own day. But the fact is that even now, nearly 150 years later, there is something quite familiar about the financial flim-flam man and the kind of financial dealings that can cause economic ruin. Just think 2008 all over again. So Melmotte is a timely villain, whatever else he is. He is ruthless, corrupt, and bullying, and quite secretive about his dealings. His origins are shadowy—nobody knows where he came from or whether he actually has all the money that he seems to have. There are rumors that he came to London to escape some economic scandal on the continent. Some say he may be Jewish, although he takes steps to suggest he is a Protestant, and also that he is secretly a Catholic. These latter implications are a part of his political campaign as, being the talk of the town, he decides to run for a seat in Parliament for Westminster as a conservative. He has no political experience, but money can buy anything, right? Including, maybe especially, political influence. He knows absolutely nothing about government or about how Parliament works, but as a recognized star of the business world, he and other gullible people figure he must know how to govern the country. He’s elected, naturally, but this, of course, turns out as badly as you might expect. Mainly, though, Melmotte’s story is of a bloated spider-like presence at the middle of a financial scam involving speculation in a proposed railroad in North America, between San Francisco and Vera Cruz, Mexico, until that scheme collapses and Melmotte is disgraced.

There are, of course, other important characters and myriad subplots in this 100-chapter novel. Of particular interest is Lady Carbury, a widowed author whose books are essentially trash but who seeks, through her connections with newspaper editors with whom she flirts outrageously, to have her books reviewed positively so that she can sell some of them to help with her income. Put simply, she does not desire to write good books, but books that are reputed to be good. She has a fairly worthless son named Felix who is technically a Viscount but has no property, has gambled away every penny his father left him, and is a good bet to burn through every penny his mother has as well. (The gambling that is the passion of all the young gentlemen in the novel is essentially the equivalent of the financial speculation—it’s all gambling and it’s all about money, or the lack of it). Not surprisingly, Felix has a seat on the board of directors for Melmotte’s railroad company, since he’s just the sort of young nobleman who can give Melmotte’s business a certain respectability while at the same time providing a complete dupe for Melmotte’s machinations. And oh yeah, Lady Carbury is constantly after Felix to woo Melmotte’s daughter and only child Marie, assumed to be the most eligible heiress in England. But if Melmotte is going to marry his daughter to a penniless British aristocrat, it’s going to be somebody of a higher rank than viscount.

As for Lady Carbury’s beautiful daughter Hetta, her mother has plans for her as well—to marry her off to her rich cousin Roger, who didn’t get the Carbury title but did get the Carbury property, which is quite lucrative. Roger is somewhat older than Hetta, but loves her sincerely. Hetta, though, is in love with Roger’s young friend and protégé Paul Montague. Montague, the original investor in the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, is another member of the board of directors, and the only one who actually will spend any time questioning Melmotte as to the details of the company—questions which Melmotte, of course, never answers directly. Paul, Roger, and Hetta are all rather sympathetic characters, in whom Trollope freely admitted he was not all that interested. More interesting, for him and probably us as readers, is Paul’s ex-fiancée Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, who has followed him back to London from San Francisco, and who has a past in which she is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon and to still have a living husband in Texas.

Without revealing any spoilers, let me try to consider this novel’s ultimate effect. The novel has generally been considered a melodrama, like those Victorian plays with exaggerated characters and sensational events designed to appeal to the emotions. But the characters here are hardly so exaggerated—we see plenty of their like in contemporary America. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a tragedy, for the fall of Melmotte is certainly sudden and from a great height, and is of his own making. But we can have little sympathy for him and can’t help but think he simply gets his just deserts, which is not how we’re supposed to feel about a tragic hero. Maybe in fact the book is essentially a comedy: It deals chiefly with folly and vice rather than pure evil, and ultimately most of the characters end up happy, with the chief blocking figure, Melmotte himself, eliminated from the new society that rises after he is out of the picture. Of course, that new society still contains a lot of vicious and foolish people, and doesn’t seem all that much reformed, so if we call this a comedy it’s definitely a dark one—a surprisingly relevant one. In his autobiography, Trollope said of this book:

“If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.”

Even 150 years on, we can still read this book and say yes, it really is about the way we live now.

Four Shakespeare’s for this one, Trollope’s masterpiece.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:


When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.


However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

The Father

The Father

Florian Zeller (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Rentable on Prime Video ($20), Apple TV, Fandango Now

Length: 1 hour 37 minutes 

Rating: PG-13

Names You Might Know: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman

Language: English 

He Said: The experience of watching this film is jarring, disorienting. Less than half an hour into it you are feeling much the same as the protagonist, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who suffers from dementia and hardly knows from one minute to the next where he is or who he is with—sometimes it seems like his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), and sometimes it seems like a stranger, when his daughter Anne is being played by Olivia Williams. As the viewer, you may not be sure which is really her, or whether she’s going to pop up in the next scene being played by Olivia Newton-John. We’re not even sure whether or not she’s married. She seems to have been divorced from somebody named James for five years, but in other scenes she seems to be married to somebody named Paul, who’s either Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) or Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle), neither of whom seems particularly sympathetic to the vulnerable old man—and at least one of whom may have stolen his watch.

Or maybe that was his former nurse, whom he seems to have frightened away. The watch, a chicken, a painting, and the fate of Anthony’s younger daughter Lucy are all motifs that keep reappearing in one form or another throughout the film. And like Anthony himself, we are never quite sure exactly what the truth is concerning any of these things. All we know is we are not leaving our apartment! Or is this our daughter’s apartment? And/or her husband’s? Or is it a nursing home?

I’ve got to think that Chadwick Boseman is the sentimental favorite this year to win a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor, but Hopkins, nominated for the sixth time for this film (he has won once, for Silence of the Lambs), turns in a stellar performance here that would certainly be worthy of the award. If you’re of a certain age, you may well want to cringe every time you see the confusion on his face as a new situation challenges his understanding.

The Father is at last streaming on Amazon Prime and a few other venues, after being available only in theaters since February 26. Now nominated for six Academy Awards, the film can be viewed on your laptop so you don’t have to risk your life in a COVID-infested movie house to see it.  My awesome wife Stacey Margaret Jones said, “This movie must have been a play,” with its limited number of actors and its limited setting in a single apartment—which then becomes another apartment and then a single room. She was, of course, right. Florian Zeller in his directorial debut, adapts his own award-winning French drama Le Père—translated here by Christopher Hampton (Atonement) in an Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay. So let me ask you this, Jones: If you imagine this as the play it originally was, do you think it makes a better movie? And who would you cast in the play?

She Said: Well, I do love the words, “She was, of course, right.” So glad you feel that way! I’m not sure that it makes “a better” either one, for the movie is so very like a play, it feels like they filmed the production in situ. And how could I possibly recast it, except to include Kevin Costner somewhere, because you know I love him, maybe as one of the iterations of the douchey husband? 

I think I loved this so much because I almost always love movies that feel like plays, because as a writer, I love to hear actors saying the words of writers. So many movies substitute looks and pointed glances and scenery for dialogue, so it’s a joy to hear people talking to each other, which is how people really do forge, reforge and break their relationships. And I think the limited settings of the movie help to make the viewer feel trapped, as Anthony does, in the maze of his mind. The set doesn’t change, but, for the viewer and for Anthony, the players do, and even when they remain the same, they say different things, or tell him they don’t know what he’s talking about when he mentions something they just told him, like his daughter’s imminent move to France or her bringing home a chicken for supper. I had a stress stomach ache from the switching realities of the film, which I imagine is the point, because that is the reality of Hopkins’ character, which is shifting grasp on what is indeed reality. 

As I mentioned while we watched, it reminded me so much of Viggo Mortensen’s interview on the Armchair Expert podcast, in which he spoke at length about his experiences with older family members with dementia. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, “They aren’t confused until you challenge them,” referring to the idea that if your dad says he went to lunch with someone that day who has been dead for 30 years, the confusion and disorientation only come when a carer says, “Bill’s been dead for decades! You didn’t have lunch with him!” Instead, Mortensen said to respond, “What’d you talk about? How is Bill?” After seeing this movie, I feel even more that we correct those with dementia for our own comfort, not for theirs, and we should learn to focus on the feelings and thoughts they have and what they want to express, instead of the facts of their day-to-day life. I certainly hope that’s done for me, after watching the pain Anthony experiences at every disoriented turn in this film.

And I guess that says a lot about the real feeling of the film, that a fictional portrayal could make me take refuge in very real interpersonal strategies. And I think another thing it does very well is that it doesn’t give you an empirical reality. We know where Anthony ends up, but we don’t know the exact reasons why, and that is because Anthony doesn’t either, or he knows them sometimes. It’s a tall order to experience dementia from inside. How do you think the film did in this task, Ruud?

He Said: A douchey Kevin Costner? How could you! You’re right, though, after seeing this, it’s hard to imagine anybody else in the role of Anthony: Hopkins puts on a Master Class in acting in this role. Though it’s interesting to note that when the translated play premiered in London and in New York, Alfred Molina played the part in England, and Frank Langella in America. 

But to answer your question, I think when we have seen dementia or Alzheimer’s depicted in film, we have always seen it from the outside looking in, from the point of view of a friend or family member watching a loved one mentally slip away, because of course that is an experience we may recognize and relate to. I think particularly of something like Away from Her, the brilliant Julie Christie performance in a 2006 adaptation of an Alice Munro short story. But Hopkins and Zeller do something here that I don’t think has been done so well before. They actually do put you in Anthony’s shoes. They shake you out of your comfortable role of viewer and drag you into the role of the protagonist to experience everything from his impotent Lear-like raging against the tempest of his confused emotions to the vulnerable childlike pathos of his cries for his mother. It’s a very good thing this movie is only about an hour and a half long. It would be hard to stand it if it were longer. I must present this film with four Hitchcocks, and proclaim it one of the best films of 2020.

She Said: I concur, Ruud. This is a stellar film. 

This week’s She Watched It And You Should Too

She Said: The Split
Hot Take: Continuing toward my goal of watching as much of Nicola Walker as possible, I recently binge-watched the two seasons of this British drama that is a coproduction of BBC One and Sundance TV, about a family of family-law solicitors in London that follows their cases at work and their personal lives at home. Walker plays the eldest daughter of three, who has recently left the family law firm to work for a bigger, slicker outfit, right around the time the sisters’ father reappears in their lives after a 30-year absence. No one’s relationships are reliably solid, and every character is infuriating and vulnerable, just like actual people. I loved it, and I can’t wait for Season 3.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:

When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.


However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Minari

Minari

Lee Isaac Chung (2020)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Rentable on Prime Video, Apple TV, VUDU, Fandango Now 

Length: 1 hour 55 minutes 

Rating: PG-13

Names You Might Know: Steven Yeun, Will Patton, Yuh-Jung Youn

Language: Mostly Korean with English Subtitles

She Said: We fired this up in an Oscars-nominated-movie watching quest. I was thinking it would be a “good for me” film, because I thought there is no way it could be as enjoyable as last year’s Korean stunner, Parasite. In the end, I enjoyed it more, and it’s stuck with me in a more meaningful way.

The simple story is of an American immigrant family, who have recently relocated from California to Arkansas (though it was filmed in Oklahoma, I read). Jacob and Monica are working as chicken-sexers, at which Jacob is a known savant. But they’ve come to Arkansas because Jacob has bought a farm, which comprises a run-down trailer house without steps to the front door or skirting around the outside, and wild-grown acreage along a creek. Their children, Anne and David, have come with them, and soon Monica’s mother joins them from Korea to help with the children. 

The move is not easy on Monica, who does not like the trailer home, the isolation and the farming life. She doesn’t share Jacob’s dream of making a success on the farm, and she is very concerned about the distance the home is from the hospital because her son’s David’s heart has a hole in it. The first scene shows them arriving at the farmstead, and as the children begin to explore, Monica calls out to her son, “Don’t run!” He’s 5 or 6 years old, and this seems an impossible command, but he obeys, and we see instantly that he is used to doing so.

The movie follows the particularities of their difficulties as immigrants in Arkansas as well as their successes, such as they are. What I loved about the film is that it resisted the tropes of such coming-to-America films. Jacob finds a local man to hire to help him grow Korean vegetables to sell in regional markets, and while Paul’s (Will Patton) Pentecostal Christianity is very different from Jacob and Monica’s experience of the religion, the relationship is a positive one, as Paul gets behind Jacob’s vision and encourages his new boss. But as we know, life is hard for poor, beginning, inexperienced farmers—even harder than it is for well-off, experienced farmers—and things that can’t be helped combine with things that can be helped to throw obstacles in the family’s way. Things break down, situations are dire, what will become of this family and each one of their dreams, for they all hold different hopes that sometimes conflict. 

Each character is relatable and likeable and fallible. I was reminded of that Buddhist saying, “You are perfect just as you are, and you could use some improvement.” I won’t spoil the movie by outlining the ups and downs, but I will say that loveliest of all was the hope that emerges from the marriage of the family’s Korean heritage with its 20th-century pioneering hopes. Or do you feel differently, Ruud?

He Said: You’re so right, Jones. The hope that emerges is symbolized by the minari (hence the movie’s title), which is a peppery Korean vegetable, something like watercress, which the grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn of TV’s Series8) plants along the creekbed. Minari apparently can take root anywhere and grow and thrive. The Yis of this movie are, it turns out, an immigrant family that, like the minari itself, can thrive where they are planted, even if that’s in rural Arkansas.

But they do go through a great deal of difficulties. Jacob (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead) has bought his farm in the 1980s, a time when, according to his banker, “Reagan’s out to make sure the farmers are happy.” And Jacob’s plan is to grow specialized crops that will appeal to the 30,000 Korean immigrants arriving in the United States every year. And he hires a quirky but kind local farmhand (Patton from TV’s 24 and The Good Wife) who helps him get his farm going, but he is plagued by setbacks until you begin to think this is just not going to work out.

But it’s not all about immigrants struggling on the land, like a Reagan-era Korean Willa Cather novel. There’s a rather delightful sub-plot involving the antagonistic relationship between Grandma and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim), a rivalry that begins when the boy is forced to share a bedroom with his grandmother, whom he resents for making him drink a rather disgusting Korean concoction and, he insists, because she “smells like Korea.” As a Grandma, David feels, she falls short in not baking the way grandmothers are supposed to do. Indeed, this grandma’s childcare consists of dealing cards, swearing heavily in Korean, and watching wrestling on TV.

Kim is a very watchable young actor, and recently received the 2021 “Critics’ Choice Award” for “Best Young Actor/Actress.” But other performances in the film are outstanding as well, with Yeun as Jacob Yi nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and Youn as Grandma nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Director Lee Isaac Chung is also nominated, both for directing and for Best Original Screenplay. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, which accounts for the very vivid details that seem to come straight out of real life. Chung was a young boy on an Arkansas farm himself, and thus it’s no surprise that much of the movie seems to be seen from David’s perspective.

Interesting that you mention the success of last year’s Parasite, Jones. Without the prior example of that film, it’s hard to imagine this movie actually being made in America with mostly Korean dialogue—or at least getting as much recognition as it has. But it’s an extremely timely film, in terms of its focus on immigrants, and in view of the alarming current issues of violence against Asian Americans. What do you think about that, Jones?

She Said: I agree that it’s a timely movie and gives a deep look into the struggles of those who believe and want to participate in the “American dream,” and that those people may not only be Caucasian from Europe. I think the film succeeds because it isn’t didactic; the Yis are hardworking, and focused on their children, but they are also imperfect. As I said while we watched the movie, Monica is a “tough crowd” in her judgment of her husband’s behavior, and his machinations with the family’s water supply to keep the crops growing aren’t exactly honest. But they are so relatable! The little boy and the grandmother are examples of what the film does well: They’re both so watchable because they are appealing and surprising, as all humans can be when you zoom in.

I give this movie four Hitchcocks; it’s a masterclass in being good at what it’s good for… and more!

He Said: I’m gonna have to go along with your four Hitchcocks in this case. I really didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did, but it’s so real, and the performances so spot on, that it’s hard to see any serious flaws in it. You just get caught up in the characters’ lives, and your emotions go up and down with what happens to them. There’s one memorable scene when the parents are arguing and the worried children make paper airplanes to toss with the message “Don’t Fight!” that just kind of sticks with you long after the movie ends. Unless you just have an aversion to all movies like this—relatively quiet movies about real life issues, or about rural areas, or largely in a foreign language—you can’t help but like this film.

This week’s We Watched It and You Might Want To

He Said: Inspector Morse

Hot Take: If you’re looking for a great classic series to stream (and let’s face it, who isn’t these days?), you might want to take a look at this British crime drama (available on BritBox) that aired for seven seasons and five “special” episodes (33 total 100-minute episodes) stretching from 1987 to 2000. Based on a series of books by Colin Dexter, and set in Oxford, with the stately university buildings as background, this is a highly entertaining series. It won three BAFTA Awards for Best Drama Series, and John Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse won three BAFTAs for Best Actor. Morse, who loves classical music and a pint in a pub, solves the most difficult crimes with the help of his sometimes plodding sidekick, Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately), who bears Morse’s irascible personality like a saint. And if you like this series, there are two long-lived spinoffs—the sequel Inspector Lewis and the prequel Endeavor—for you to continue with!

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:


When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.


However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Homeland Elegies

Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel certainly does not read like a novel. I mean, the narrator is a guy by the name of Ayad Akhtar, who is the American-born son of physician parents who immigrated from Pakistan. He was born in Staten Island and raised in Wisconsin, and won a Pulitzer Prize for a play he wrote called Disgraced. And he’s writing a book dealing mainly with the experience of being a Muslim in post-9/11 America, particularly in the increasingly xenophobic milieu of a Trump presidency. So far, it looks a lot more like a memoir than a novel.

Furthermore, the book is not a continuous narrative, but consists of eight rather loosely linked chapters that vary from autobiography to episodic fiction to essay to historical and cultural commentary. Is that what we’re calling a novel these days?

Of course it is. This is a novel that is not only post-modern, but also post-truth in the most Trumpian sense. Akhtar has said that he wanted the book to simulate a scroll through social media, during which one might click on a variety of links in a somewhat haphazard way. In an NPR interview, he said

“I wanted to reach a reader today who is addicted to the thrill of breaking news and absorbed in the Instagram scroll feed.”

In that same interview, discussing the line between autobiography and fiction, the author stated, “I wanted to find a form that would express this confusion between fact and fiction which seems to increasingly become the texture of our reality or unreality.” As a result, Akhtar goes on, “I had to pilfer from my life. I had to use fact. I had to convince the reader at various times that what I was writing was real, and yet I’m calling it a novel.” And so we end up with a book that perfectly reflects the Trump-era confusion of fact and fiction, the distrust of objectively factual news stories in favor of the most irresponsible misrepresentation, until we can’t be sure what in the book is real and what is not. Did Akhtar’s father support Trump’s candidacy because he had once actually been his heart doctor? Who knows? Did Akhtar himself fall under the spell of a Muslim hedge fund manager and succumb to the lure of easy money? Maybe. Was Akhtar’s father sued for malpractice in La Crosse? Probably. But who knows?

Philosophically, that uncertain gap between truth and fiction is an underlying theme of the book. Sociologically, Akhtar’s experiences as perhaps representative of the experience of being Muslim in post-9/11 America take center stage. Akhtar delineates his own experiences as representative of mainly white reactions to him after that attack. One lengthy section of the book concerns his experiences in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when his car breaks down. He delineates his interactions with a suspicious state trooper, then with a repair shop whose owner is related to the trooper and pretty blatantly holds him up, doing work on the car that he does not authorize and so giving him a bill he cannot afford. But feeling all the while under scrutiny as a possible terrorist, he cannot complain or make a scene or appear quarrelsome. He even identifies as Indian rather than Pakistani. And he says, “If all this sounds somewhat paranoid, I am happy for you. Clearly you have not been beset by daily worries of being perceived — and therefore treated — as a foe of the republic rather than a member of it.”

On his professional level, also, Akhtar is a conflicted Muslim-American, finding that in some senses the two halves of that designation may be incompatible. Ten years after 9/11, Akhtar the writer (as well as Akhtar, the character in the novel) writes the play Disgraced, in which a Manhattan dinner party goes ballistic with arguments over politics and religion. The dinner’s host, a Muslim named Amir Kapoor, responds to the goading of one of the guests suggesting that he might have felt proud when the planes crashed into the towers with the statement, “If I’m honest, yes.”

Such a climax is shocking, and of course non-Muslims would be anxious to know how much such sentiments reflected Akhtar’s own, or those of his family or fellow Muslims (hence the subsequent deliberate blending of fiction and autobiography in the novel). Nor did the depiction of Amir make him any friends among Muslim-Americans, who may see his complex rendering of Muslim-Americans as feeding negative stereotypes.

The psychological theme of the novel, then, explores this divided self in the author’s depiction of his parents and their own experiences as Muslim immigrants in a racist country that hates immigrants. On the one hand, his father Sikander—at least the character Sikander—is a gung-ho immigrant roused to jingoistic celebration of a country that allows him, as an eminent heart specialist, to amass significant wealth. “Love for America and a firm belief in its supremacy, was creed in our home,” the author/narrator says. This essentially unreflective patriotism, and his previous acquaintance with the Apprentice personality, inspires Akhtar to join the MAGA crowd, and to continue to give blind support to the man even through his post-Charlottesville comments and his anti-Muslim actions—supported him, Akhtar says, “well past the point that any rational nonwhite American (let alone sometime immigrant!) could possibly have justified to himself or anyone else.” Seduced by the American Dream, his father makes a great deal of money—and loses a great deal, mainly through gambling, until the chauvinistic immigrant packs it in and heads back for Pakistan.

For a time Akhtar himself, or his fictional surrogate, is seduced by money and fame, after his Pulitzer in 2013, when he joins the Riaz Rind foundation and begins an ultimately empty flirtation with capitalism and high society. But at the same time, he is pulled in another direction by his mother Fatima who, in contrast with his father, did not much like her new country: as Akhtar puts it, “my mother never found in the various bounties of her new country anything like sufficient compensation for the loss of what she’d left behind.” In fact, it turns out that it was Akhtar’s mother who was the source for that shocking comment from the protagonist of his prize-winning play. After reviewing the tarnished history of American diplomacy in the Middle East, his incensed mother remarks, concerning the bombing of American embassies there (and not about 9/11 in the following decade), “They deserve what they got.” Her bitterness, she believes, is the cause of the cancer that kills her.

The fictional, and the actual, Akhtar avoids the extremes of both his parents. In fact the book begins and ends with his favorite professor, Mary Moroni, who taught him to love American literature, particularly Whitman, while encouraging him to follow his dream of writing, and who also taught him critical thinking. And that meant thinking critically about the country he lived in—to think about America during the Reagan presidency as “a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought.” Her words, he says, were “a corrective to a tradition of endless American self-congratulation.” For one who loves his country, it is important to see its faults as well as its virtues, the more to make it a finer place. Thus in the end, he meets Mary again as a distinguished guest lecturer at her college for a discussion of politics, when challenged by an audience member who asks why, if he sees so much wrong with this country, he doesn’t leave, he can answer in all honesty: 

“I’m here because I was born and raised here. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. For better, for worse—and it’s always a bit of both—I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve never even thought about it. America is my home.”

The term “elegy” has two meanings in literary vocabulary. An elegy can be, like Milton’s “Lycidas,” a lament for the dead. Or it can be more generally, like Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a pensive and reflective poem. For America’s sake, let us hope that Homeland Elegies is the latter, and not the former, kind of elegy.

NOW AVAILABLE

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:


When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.


However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.