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.

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Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Ian McEwan’s most recent novel is a departure from his usually realistic, historically-based narratives. Of course, his last novel, Nutshell (2016), was also a departure, being as it was a new twist on the Hamlet story told from the perspective of a fetus. But in Machines Like Me, McEwan enters the realm of alternative history, a genre more commonly associated with science fiction writers, like Philip K. Dick in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Tower (in which it is imagined that the Axis powers won World War II), but which more recently has been used in more mainstream novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada (in which North America was partially settled by Tsarist Russia), Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (in which the Protestant Reformation never took place), Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America (in which pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 U.S. election), or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (in which there is no State of Israel, but many Jews live in an area of Alaska set aside for them by the U.S government).

In this novel, McEwan puts his own spin on the genre with a novel set in a London of 1982, the London of Margaret Thatcher, in which the British navy sets off to fight a war in the Falkland Islands which, in the first jarring clue that the novel is alternative history, turns into a devastating defeat for Britain, crushed by Argentina, which annexes the islands and changes their name to Las Malvinas. The defeat drives Mrs. Thatcher from office, resulting in the rise of a populist Labour candidate and a movement to separate from the European Union—nearly forty years in advance of Brexit.

But these events play a relatively minor role in the novel’s alternative history. For McEwan’s chief question in the book is, what would have happened if the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing hadn’t committed suicide in 1954?

Turing, best known to the general public as Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, was, as that film makes clear, instrumental in developing a prototypical computer during World War II that could discover the settings of the Germans’ Enigma machine, thereby cracking intercepted coded Nazi messages that made it possible for the allies to win the war. The acknowledged father of theoretical computer science, a mathematical genius who was a pioneer in the development of artificial intelligence, Turing ultimately developed what has become known as the “Turing test”: for a machine to be deemed “intelligent,” that is, capable of actual “thought,” Turing suggested, it would have to be impossible for a human interrogator to tell the difference between the machine and another human through conversation.

Just how far the development of computer science and artificial intelligence might have come, or what direction it might have taken, if Turing had lived, is impossible to determine. But he did not live. In 1952, Turing was convicted of what the British law called “gross indecency” because of his sexual orientation, and he was given the choice of going to prison or submitting to a year of what was called “chemical castration.” He was given the drug diethylstilbestrol, which rendered him impotent and caused breast tissue to form. A year later he died by his own hand through cyanide poisoning. He was 41.

In McEwan’s alternate history, Turing chose prison rather than sterilization, and went on to continue the advances in computer science and artificial intelligence he was making. He appears in the novel himself, as a kind of chorus figure. As a result of his continued work, the world achieves an information revolution decades before it reached that stage in actual history. There are electric cars that drive themselves. There is a surprisingly advanced version of the Internet that allows day trading online. And, most important for this novel, there are artificial human beings, androids, who can be ordered, delivered to your house, and programmed with personality traits that you choose for them.

At this stage, admittedly, they are only prototypes. There are twenty-five of them: thirteen males or “Adams,” and twelve females or “Eves.” The novel’s protagonist, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-two-year-old man-child who ironically seems to have no “friends” of his own. He’s a one-time computer whiz who studied physics and anthropology in school but seems never to have held down a steady job, but rather invested in a number of failed get-rich-quick schemes and seems to have barely escaped prison for tax fraud. Now he spends his days in his two-room flat in south London, playing the stock market on his home computer with just enough success to scrape by. But when the new artificial humans come on the market, computer nerd Charlie spends his whole inheritance from his mother, £86,000, on a brand new Adam. He had really wanted an Eve, but they’d all been snapped up already.

But Charlie doesn’t just love robots; he’s also enamored of his upstairs neighbor Miranda. Ten years his junior, she is a graduate student of history, and is the daughter of a famous but reclusive writer. Part of his courting of Miranda consists of Charlie’s allowing her to choose half of Adam’s traits that can be programed into him. In a way, Adam becomes a kind of surrogate child for the two of them as they form a pseudo-family. This becomes complicated when the now totally functional Adam, conversant with computerized data from all over the 1980s Internet, warns Charlie that Miranda is not completely truthful and is hiding a dark secret; more complicated when, after an argument with Charlie, Miranda takes the anatomically correct Adam to bed and the artificial man develops “feelings” for his mistress; and even more complicated still when Miranda, no longer content with her artificial offspring with Charlie, becomes intent on adopting an abused young “real” boy named Mark.

I don’t want to go further since I don’t want to spoil any of the later plot developments for you. And indeed, some reviewers have seen the plot as less unified than they would like. Some have also criticized the world McEwan creates here as not fundamentally different enough from our own to be acceptable as alternate history. Frankly, it seems to me these complaints fall into the trap of criticizing the book for not being the book those critics would have written if they had written the book. Thematically, the novel seems to me perfectly unified. It is, first of all, a representation of a being who passes “Turing’s test” brilliantly: there is a tour de force demonstration of that in a scene when Charlie and Adam visit Miranda’s father, and after their conversation he concludes that Charlie is the robot.

But beyond that the book also explores to a great extent the differences between human and artificial intelligence. One disturbing aspect of the story is that a rash of suicides begins among the artificial humans, as if for some reason they can no longer face a world governed by human beings. Adam, for good or ill, makes his decisions based on assembling all the facts and coming to the most logical conclusions from them. Truth is to him of foremost importance. When it comes to Miranda’s “dark secret,” which involves a moral decision she made which she believes to be justified and ethical even though it involves lying, Adam cannot see it.  And far from being a servant, he ultimately takes matters into his own hands, first by overriding his off switch (an act McEwan refers to, in an allusion to Paradise Lost, as his “first disobedience”), and later by making independent moral decisions without consulting his “masters.”

These questions of moral relativity are set against a backdrop of a world full of fairly arbitrary differences from our own—a world where Jimmy Carter was elected to a second term and Ronald Reagan never became president, where the Beatles were reunited in 1982, and in which it turns out JFK was not assassinated after all—but one in which human nature has not changed at all, and everyday life, despite the technological advances, is much the same as it is in our world. Brexit, after all, still occurs. It’s the contrast between that indelible human nature and the artificial intelligence of an Adam that this book is about. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

2019-08-24-09.50.51

Kopp Sisters on the March

Kopp Sisters on the March

Amy Stewart (2019)

Amy Stewart’s “Kopp sisters” novels are feminist literature in the classic sense. That is, they explore, define, and analyze the historic situation of women in the early years of the last century; by demonstrating the unequal and often appalling gap in the political, economic and social rights and status of men vs. women at that time; they indirectly advocate for the permanent elimination of those inequalities; and by presenting as protagonists women who, ahead of their time but not anachronistically so, applaud the heroism and sacrifice of such women, presenting them as figures to admire and to emulate.

Stewart was already a successful non-fiction author of books on gardening, like her 2013 New York Times bestseller The Drunken Botanist, before embarking on her series of novels about three sisters living on a New Jersey farm more than a hundred years ago. The spark was a collection of newspaper articles she came across while researching her botanical books concerning one of the first female deputy sheriffs in American history, Constance Amelie Kopp. If you go to Ms. Stewart’s author website, you can read short descriptions of the historical Constance and her sisters, as well as other characters from the books. Constance herself, according to the website, was born in 1878 and so was 35 years old in Stewart’s first novel, Girl Waits with Gun. She is 39 in the current (fifth) novel in the series, Kopp Sisters on the March. Constance was, according to newspaper descriptions, six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, though as the Kopp sisters books will teach you, you really can’t believe much of what you read about women in the papers, at least in 1913. A clear image of Constance’s character is revealed, however, in a statement she once gave a reporter, quoted on Stewart’s website: After indicating that she had no interest whatsoever in marriage, she went on to say “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

Stewart fictionalizes Constance’s adventures, but does base them on facts as revealed in what sources are available. Constance has two sisters: Norma, five years her junior, is a curmudgeon who runs the no-nonsense household of the farm without a lot of sympathy for any weaknesses the others show; and Fleurette, the much younger and much spoiled teenager who, it is revealed in the first novel, is actually Constance’s daughter born when she herself was 19 and raised as a daughter by Constance and Norma’s mother.

The first four novels of the series focused on Constance’s career as a deputy sheriff under the progressive and humane Sheriff Heath in Bergen County, N.J. They concern the obstacles she faces in the male-dominated politics of the 1910s, and her struggle for recognition as an officer capable of doing the same job as the other (male) deputies, as well as acting as matron for the women prisoners in the county jail. These novels introduce us to eye-opening social injustices of the time, which allowed parents to have daughters arrested as “incorrigible” if they left home to get jobs and live by themselves, or allowed husbands to have wives committed as mentally incompetent without a judge ever having to examine the woman herself. But by the end of the fourth novel, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, Constance has been downsized when the newly elected sheriff decides there is no reason to employ a woman deputy when a man can obviously do the job better. The voters (all men, remember, at the time) agree.

Kopp Sisters on the March begins six months after Constance’s dismissal from the Benton County Sheriff’s office, in the spring of 1917. With Europe in the throes of brutal war, Americans are preparing for what they anticipate will be their own inevitable participation, and Norma has coerced Constance and Fleurette to join her in enrolling at a six-week National Service camp for women, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, whose avowed goals were to train women for the tasks that will be required of them to support the war effort—both on the home front and, in some cases, with the army in France. Constance is simply hoping to get out of the funk she’s been in since losing her deputy job, while Norma is hoping to pique the army’s interest in using the homing pigeons she breeds and trains for carrying messages on the battlefield. Fleurette is mainly just along for the ride, though she does hope to get vaudeville star May Ward to come to the camp to entertain the women, and hopes to take the stage as one of Miss Ward’s backup singers.

Constance suffers a major letdown when she discovers that “preparing women for war service” means, to the men in Washington, teaching them to roll bandages and make beds in a military style. U.S. military leaders had made it clear to the public that the intent of these camps was decidedly not to “produc[e] a modern Amazonian corps.” So the women are given wooden toy guns to march with, but camp officials have no intention of teaching women to shoot real weapons , or to do anything that would actually benefit any of the women who might end up in France and find themselves in a war zone. Constance does find classes in signal corps codes intriguing, through which she is introduced to the story of the new U.S. Bureau of Investigation, designed to ferret out and combat German spies. But other than that, the camp is something of a bust. That is, until an accident to the camp’s matron winds up putting Constance herself in charge of the camp, and allows her to train a small group of the women, those fully intent on joining the war effort in France, in shooting and in martial arts. Secretly, of course.

A further wrinkle in the story comes from one of the Kopp sisters’ tent mates, Beulah Binford. Based on a real-life Richmond woman who had been caught up in a scandalous murder story in which a man she had been in involved with had killed his wife. Beulah, in real life as in the novel, had been made notorious by newspapers all over the country, which had printed her picture and presented her as a notoriously scarlet woman, though she was never implicated, never called to testify in the trial, and never asked by any journalist to give her own side of the story. Much of the novel proceeds in flashbacks from Beulah’s life, and she has come to this camp under an assumed name in the hope of getting a second chance, going to France and starting a new life. How her story ends, and how it becomes entwined with that of the Kopp sisters, I won’t reveal since I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but just so you know, the bang-up conclusion of the novel does offer a lot of satisfaction.

This novel boasts much of the same historical feminist insight as the previous four, helping us experience what the lives of real women in 1917 must have been like. You may find, if you have read the previous four books, that his one may contain less humor than those, and that it may reduce focus on the Kopp sisters (especially Norma and Fleurette) at the expense of its concentration on Beulah. It may also be a bit less focused than previous books—it has a kind of transitional feel, as Constance is moving from her career as “lady deputy” to what I can only assume will be a career with the Bureau of Investigation, the goal on which she has set her sights by the end of the novel. We’ll have to wait until January 2021 to see how that works out, in the sixth installment of the series, Dear Miss Kopp. But you should definitely give this book a read. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

old-timers

Old-Timers

Old-Timers (Staříci)

Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník (2019)

Foreign language films have never been hugely successful in the United States. For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there are a hundred less popular films that make a tiny ripple at some small festival or get a few screenings in some art house in New York but go unrecognized through the rest of the country. After all, Americans don’t want to read a film. They see no need to learn any foreign language when all they need to do is shout louder in English. But I digress. Perhaps that attitude is beginning to change. The recent Netflix success of Roma and, more spectacularly, of Parasite may signal a new more widespread appreciation of foreign-language films, especially when delivered in convenient, streaming form.

And so it may be that the current housebound status of most Americans, while cutting deep into the profits of blockbuster Hollywood films aimed at huge summer audiences, may be a boon to smaller films taking advantage of this new kind of film marketing. And so it may not be a disaster that Little Rock’s Czech That Film Festival, in its ninth year in 2020, has decided to screen its films online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. These films are available, one each week for the next several weeks here. The first film of the festival, which was available from April 27 through May 3, was the film Staříci, that is, “Old-Timers” in English. This film won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for best film of 2019, and also came away with the award for Best Actor for its star, the well-known and highly acclaimed Czech actor Jiří Schmitzer. Schmitzer also won the Best Actor award at the 27th Czech Lion Awards (his fourth such award), and his co-star Ladislav Mrkvička won the Czech Lion for Best Supporting Actor. The directing team of Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník, who were previously known for directing well-received documentaries like A Town Called Hermitage (2007) and Coal in the Soul (2010), also won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for Best Director. For Dušek and Provazník, who also wrote the screenplay, this was their first narrative feature film.

The kernel of the story was planted in 2008, when Dušek saw a story about two elderly former Czech political prisoners, interned under the communist government of the 1950s, who had sought in 2000 to assassinate the former communist prosecutor who had sent them to prison. Their revenge had been thwarted when one of the octogenarians had succumbed to old age during the quest. Dušek was fascinated by the story and approached Provazník about making a documentary about the incident, but Provazník thought it would work much better as a feature film, and so Old-Timers was conceived.

It’s amusing to take a look at the Czech That Film festival’s online Q and A session with the directors here. Apparently Dušek and Provazník thought that one thing that would make directing a feature film easier than a documentary was that they didn’t have to work with “real” people, and could simply tell the actors what they wanted them to do and they would do it. Veteran actors Schmitzer and Mrkvička disabused the directors of that notion fairly quickly, apparently, and at least to hear the directors tell it, the actors spent a lot of time on the set so angry at their directors that they were afraid the actors would come after them with their guns rather than the former communist prosecutor. In the end, though, that anger seems to have been channeled into their performances, and made them even more convincing.

The film begins as the elderly Colonel Vlastimil (“Vlasta”) Reiner (played by Schmitzer, who was only 69 at the time of filming but looks at least 15 years older in the film) returns to the Czech Republic from the United States, where he has been living for some years. In his luggage he has brought a shotgun from America, which airport officials seize and will not allow him to bring into the country, despite his irascible complaints. Vlasta is picked up at the airport by his old friend Antonín (“Tonda,” played by Mrkvička, who looks every bit of his 84 years).  We soon learn that this is not just a meeting of a couple of old friends getting together for one last bash. Vlasta and Tonda are World War II veterans who were imprisoned by the Czech communist regime in the 1950s; the old communist prosecutor who had sentenced them to brutal confinement, and had finally come to trial for his crimes against his fellow countrymen during that period, had been released by the court rather than sentenced for his offenses. This last injustice they cannot bear, and the two old men, both in declining health themselves (Vlasta is in a wheelchair and Tonda is hard of hearing and seems befuddled at times) set out to exact their own kind of justice on the old villain. Tonda is less gung-ho than his friend, and needs some convincing to track down this man who oppressed his own fellow citizens, but Vlasta convinces him. “I went through the Gulag,” Vlasta says at one point, “but the worst butcher was here.”

And so begins a highly unconventional road movie, with two superannuated buddies on a quest to exact revenge for something the rest of their society seems to want to ignore—it all happened so long ago, why does it matter anymore? It’s not exactly Hope and Crosby, but there is a good deal of dark comedy in this road trip: Tonda, prevented by his son and grandson from taking his ancient camper van out on the road, ends up stealing the van at night by hotwiring it. He also refuses to go on the trip without his pair of faithful dogs, Max and Beti, who end up causing some problems later. The funniest scene in the film occurs when the two vigilantes, in need of weapons since Vlasta’s gun has been confiscated, visit the farmstead of a former communist collaborator where Vlasta had hidden a stash of weapons in a crumbling wall more than 50 years earlier. The old collaborator’s family, taking Vlasta to be an old friend of their aged relative, invite him to lunch, at which the petulant Vlasta pulls no punches in telling them what an awful person that old man was. Meanwhile Tonda is smashing through a colorful new façade the family has placed over the old crumbling wall, and has retrieved the guns.

Since I want to recommend that you see the film yourself, I don’t want to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that there are other obstacles that need to be overcome (including—one small spoiler—the wheelchair-bound octogenarian Vlasta disarming a policeman one quarter his age). This is a quirky film that I suspect most viewers will enjoy. Schmitzer and Mrkvička make a crusty but watchable pair of “grumpy old men” and the story of the film is fascinating in itself. The image of Tonda smashing through the colorful new façade to reveal the crumbling decay within is as striking a metaphor as could be imagined for a modern Czech society trying to ignore a past it would rather not be reminded of.

Some viewers might wish for a little more backstory about the two men’s relationship and their imprisonment, but at a brisk 90 minutes the film has been stripped of much of that exposition. Directors Dušek and Provazník have said they wanted to make the film more universal than simply being about long-smoldering resentments against the old regime. In a sense the story is a universal statement of the burning passions that may still lie in the hearts of elders whom we may tend to underestimate. Nobody in the film, or in the film’s audience, thinks that old van is going to start. But it does.

Three Tennysons for this one. It’s no longer available on the Czech That Film Festival site; I hope you can find it elsewhere. This week, the film being screened on the site is Karel, Me and You, which the website describes as a “dramedy” that “portrays relationship ups and downs of thirty-somethings living in Prague.”

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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The Club Dumas

The Club Dumas

Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1993)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

A rare book dealer—of all things—is presented with a job involving the authentication of a manuscript version of a chapter from The Three Musketeers in Alexander Dumas’ own hand, but the search leads him into a more dangerous mystery involving three copies of a proscribed book called De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis (i.e. “Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows”): books that purportedly contain a secret code that can be used to summon the Devil himself. The adventure, which leads the book dealer to exotic venues like Madrid, Paris, Sintra, and Toledo, reads for all the world like a Dan Brown novel, except for one thing: it’s actually very well written.

And like a Dan Brown novel, this book, by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte (author of the popular Captain Alatriste series, and other gems) was also made into a movie. Released in 1999, the film was directed by none other than Roman Polansky, who focused mainly on the occult aspects of the novel (a subject he’d been interested in ever since Rosemary’s Baby in the late ’60s). Polansky’s script eliminated the Dumas plot altogether, and so the film was entitled The Nine Gates. Despite a cast that included Johnny Depp, Lena Olin and Frank Langella, the movie was something of a critical and box office failure, particularly in North America. One reason may be the ending of the movie: The first two-thirds of the film follow the book’s plot fairly closely, while the last third departs considerably from the novel’s surprising and intellectually satisfying ending. Still, a few people liked the movie, and read the book afterwards, and as a result were actually disappointed with the end of the novel. Some of these readers have posted reviews of the book based on this experience. I recommend you ignore those reviews.

Pérez-Reverte is a popular, respected but controversial Spanish novelist, a member of the Royal Spanish Academy who has often refused to have his novels translated into any language other than French and who has twice been accused of plagiarism. Eventually, obviously, many of his novels (in particular the Alatriste series) were translated into English, The Club Dumas by Sonia Soto in 1997, when it was promptly nominated for an Anthony Award and a Macavity Award, both for best mystery novel of the year, a World Fantasy Award for best fantasy novel, and an International Dublin Literary Award for best novel.

These accolades are not surprising, since in The Club Dumas Pérez-Reverte has created the kind of post-modern self-reflexive and highly allusive tour de force that book-lovers love to read. Not only is The Three Musketeers a plot device, but Dumas’ novel also provides a blueprint for the plot and characters of the book. Other Dumas works, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, are also important to the novel. Sherlock Holmes, particularly Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” seems to have inspired the detective genre played on in the novel, which also seems to channel Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and other “hard-boiled” detective writers. Pérez-Reverte’s Spanish roots cannot resist allusions to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but he includes Dante and Milton as well. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Victor Hugo are also part of the wide-ranging tastes of the novel’s characters and narrator, and Melville’s Moby-Dick gets its own group of avid admirers in the book.

Add to these the novel’s detailed discussions of the manner in which Dumas created his huge literary output, including the work of his little-known collaborator Auguste Maquet, who apparently created a good portion of Dumas’ plots, which the master fleshed out—not unlike an apprentice in an artist’s workshop; and details on how a modern forger might fake an antique printed book, including ways to age paper by washing it in tea; and you have a novel that tingles a  book lover’s toes on every page. A significant part of this readerly satisfaction comes in the ending (the part Polansky couldn’t find a way to cinematize): It is no secret that in a good detective novel, the reader vicariously takes on the role of the detective, interpreting every clue and fitting it in to a pattern that, like the detective, the reader builds in his/her mind. An ending that deconstructs that reading process, that explodes the pattern so carefully wrought by both sleuth and reader, revealing how it is the reader who imagines connections where in fact they may not exist at all, is an ending that is likely to enchant, rather than frustrate, the true lover of reading. And that is what happens here.

The story follows a middle-aged book dealer named Lucas Corso, a man described as a “mercenary of the book world,” who is contacted by a book collector and translator named Boris Balkan. Balkan hires Corso to authenticate a manuscript copy of a chapter from Dumas’ Three Musketeers. In Madrid, Corso attempts to contact the manuscript’s previous owner, but he has killed himself, and his beautiful widow, Liana Taillefer, says the manuscript is a fake but wants to take it back from him anyway. When Corso won’t surrender the manuscript, she becomes his enemy, creating a situation that compels Corso to think of her as “Milady de Winter” from Dumas’ novel. The lady’s associate, a dark man with a scar who keeps following Corso and seems to leave a series of bodies in his wake, Corso thinks of as Milady’s evil accomplice “Rochefort” from Dumas’ story.

From Madrid, Corso is called to Toledo by another wealthy collector named Varo Borja, who has come into the possession of a legendary occult volume, Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book reputedly based on an ancient text composed by Lucifer himself, containing secret instructions for calling up the Devil. The book’s Venetian publisher, Aristide Torchia, had been tortured and finally burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1667, claiming that there was one copy of the text still extant, but hidden away. Trouble is, there are two other copies of the book known to be in existence, so two of the copies must be forgeries. Corso must determine which of the three copies is genuine, and bring it back to Borja, no matter what the cost.

He takes Borja’s copy and travels to Lisbon to confer with eccentric collector Victor Fargas, who owns one of the copies. En route he meets a beautiful young blonde who may actually be a demon (at least that is what she implies) but says she is there to protect him (from what?). She becomes his companion, calling herself “Irene Adler”—the name of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” When Corso compares his copy of The Nine Doors to Fargas’s, he notices only a few small but suggestive differences in the nine woodcut illustrations in the text. Fargas refuses to sell his copy to Corso, and before Corso can contrive a plan to steal the book, he is attacked by “Rochefort,” whom “Irene” helps him to fight off. But he discovers soon after that Fargas has been killed and his copy of the book burned.

In Paris, Corso seeks out Baroness Ungern, head of a charitable organization with a huge collection of occult texts. When he examines her copy of The Nine Doors, he finds again that there are differences in the woodcuts, and comes to realize that the illustrations contain a key to the entire mystery. But “Irene” calls to warn him that “Rochefort” is once again waiting for him outside the Baroness’s building. Though he escapes “Rochefort’s” malice again through “Irene’s” aid, he learns shortly afterward that the Baroness, too, has been killed, and her library burned.

I won’t spoil the ending, but you’ll be kept on your toes throughout the reading, trying to figure out what Dumas has to do with The Nine Doors, and why all these characters seem to have literary antecedents. Was Dumas’ talent, as we are led to contemplate at one point, the result of a Faustian pact with the Devil? If you are a book nerd, a lover of mysteries and puzzles and hard-boiled detective stories, this is the book for you. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

3000-2

The Current War

The Current War (Director’s Cut)

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2019)

The Current War is a not-so-current movie whose strange and troubled history makes it surprising that you can even get to see it today on the interwebs, but if you’re looking for a movie to stream while you’re locked up and can’t get to a movie theater, you might take a chance on this one. It chronicles the engaging story of the late nineteenth-century competition between Thomas Edison’s electric company, pushing its DC current, and that of George Westinghouse and his rival AC current.

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (best known as a television director for Glee and American HorrorStory), from a script written by respected playwright Michael Mitnick and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, the original version of The Current War bombed at its premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. The studio planned to release it anyway in late November of that year, but something got in the way. Co-produced by Harvey Weinstein and slated to be distributed by the Weinstein Company, the film was yanked from distribution after the sexual abuse charges were brought against Weinstein, and rights to distribute the film were eventually sold by Lantern Entertainment to 101 Studios. Gomez-Rejon, who had insisted the film was not ready for consumption prior to its showing in Toronto, was meanwhile able to get the approval of the film’s other co-producer, Martin Scorsese (whose contract gave him final edit approval), to agree to trim the film’s running time and to shoot five new scenes with Cumberbatch and others. The film was finally released without much fanfare on October 25, 2019. It made barely $10 million in theaters, only about a third of what it cost to make, but it has found new life again, streaming during the current pandemic. Now 60 percent of critics on Rottentomatoes.com give the new “Director’s Cut” version of the film a positive rating, while 79 percent of audience members do the same.

The film opens in 1880 with Edison (Cumberbatch) lighting up a field near his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory as a media stunt to lay his claim as the world’s master of electricity, having invented a light bulb that could hold its glow all night long. Using Direct Current, Edison plans to light up entire city blocks using a form of energy cheaper and safer than the currently popular gas lights. Meanwhile George Westinghouse (Shannon), a successful businessman (and the inventor of a brake system for locomotives) has the notion that, using Alternating Current, he can light up broader areas for less cost. Having invited Edison to dinner hoping to discuss the future of electricity with him, Westinghouse waits on a train platform with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston of Logan Lucky) as Edison’s train flashes by without stopping—Edison has blown him off.

The two companies begin a competition to sell their respective systems to cities across America. Edison, who we are told “could be the richest man in America but he doesn’t care about money,” hits up J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen from Pride and Prejudice) for half a million to get his DC campaign going. Meanwhile Westinghouse relies on two demonstrable facts: His AC system is more efficient, and it is cheaper. Edison hires a young immigrant inventor named Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hault from Tolkien)—who by the way insists that AC is a better system—but fails to appreciate his ideas and the two part ways. Meanwhile Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland, the new film Spiderman) also thinks AC is the way to go, and tries to rein Edison in from his more aggressive attacks on Westinghouse. But Edison, still smarting over what he feels was Alexander Graham Bell’s infringement on his own inventions to claim credit for the telephone, does not want something similar to happen as electricity is harnessed to light America’s cities. Tesla, meanwhile, has left Edison and gone out on his own, unsuccessfully. Westinghouse hires him to help ensure the triumph of his AC current. The rivalry ultimately comes down to a competition over who will light up the Chicago’s 1893 “World Columbian Exposition,” with its projected 30 million attendees.

The film’s real turning point comes in what some critics have considered a distraction from the main plot: Edison’s involvement with the development of the electric chair. This development culminates in character-defining moments for both principals. Edison has consistently, and publicly, refused to ever take part in contracts for the military (despite the urging of Morgan and others), vowing never to invent any device that could be used to kill human beings. Indeed, his chief objection to Alternating Current is that he believes it to be dangerous and that it will result in deaths, and so he lambastes Westinghouse to the press as being cavalier about the dangers of his system, sacrificing the safety of American citizens simply for the sake of profit. Westinghouse, meanwhile, declines to criticize Edison to the media, refusing to sink to his level, despite the urging of his wife Marguerite and others. When Edison demonstrates the dangers of AC by killing a horse as a media show (one of a dozen such demonstrations), he is approached by a social reformer looking for a “painless” alternative to hanging for the execution of convicted murderers. Edison agrees to help, as long as the actual execution proclaims it is Westinghouse’s system being used to kill. Westinghouse, obtaining proof of Edison’s involvement, gives the evidence to the press. Thus both men betray their respective standards in order to win the ultimate prize.

Telling you how it all comes out would be too much of a spoiler, though I may have said too much already. My overall impression of the film is positive, and I do think that after a confusing start it gets better as it goes along. The script seems episodic, even disjunct at times, and the opening scenes in particular are short, almost choppy. Since the film covers a thirteen-year period in the lives of two busy men who have a lot of other things going on, it may be that there is too much ground being covered, and that seems particularly to affect the character of Tesla, whose contribution seems unclear and marginal as presented here. Apparently Mitnick’s screenplay went through some sixty drafts over a ten-year period, and began as a script for a musical. The end result might show some of that uncertainty.

But the recreation of late nineteenth-century America, in costumes, art direction and CGI effects (for the Chicago world’s fair) is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The subject matter itself is so inherently interesting that it transcends any flaws in its execution. Shannon is perfect as the businesslike, unflappable Westinghouse, and nobody plays an arrogant, volatile genius like Cumberbatch—it’s just that this time he does it with an American accent. Macfadyen as Morgan, with a shiny red nose, is believable as Edison’s sometimes exasperated bankroller. Neither Hoult nor Holland is given much to work with. But the most memorable performance in the film comes from Waterston as Westinghouse’s wife Marguerite: She is smart, funny, supportive, and honest as needed, and gives a virtuoso performance in a role smaller than any of the men.

This is a great story told in a serviceable film with some fine performances, and it overcame a lot of hurdles to get where it is. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

9781433299261

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

Joseph Conrad (1907)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Back when I was in school, if you were reading Joseph Conrad it meant you were reading The Heart of Darkness, that haunting portrait of human depravity and horror beneath the veneer of civilization. If you were going to delve deeper into Conrad, you might take on those adventurous classics, Nostromo or Lord Jim. Nobody I knew ever read The Secret Agent—it was just a name on a list of “Conrad’s Other Novels” that you might run across while reading those aforementioned giants.

Fast forward several decades and, in the post-9/11 world, The Secret Agent has suddenly become Conrad’s most relevant work. On Modern Library’s famous (and controversial) list of the top 100 novels in English, it was The Secret Agent that ranked higher (at No. 46) than anything else by Conrad (though those other three novels were also on the list).

The reason for this resurgence in popularity for the novel, which, though one of Conrad’s best, was not particularly well-received in its own time, is its focus on terrorism and on political intrigue—themes of significant import in our current milieu. In fact, they were subjects of interest in 1907 as well, when political assassinations and anarchist bombs were often in the news (U.S. president McKinley had been assassinated six years earlier, and it was seven years later, you might recall, that the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand detonated the powder keg that ignited the First World War). Conrad made no secret of the fact that he was loosely basing his story on an incident that had occurred in London in 1894: A French anarchist named Martial Bourdin had blown himself up in Greenwich Park when a bomb he had been carrying—for an attack, it was speculated, on the Greenwich Observatory—exploded prematurely. In the preface to his 1920 republication of The Secret Agent, Conrad recalls that the kernel of the idea for the story came in a 1906 conversation about that strange case he was having with his friend, novelist Ford Madox Ford. Conrad had pointed out that Bourdin’s efforts had been completely futile, that the observatory itself had suffered no trace of harm from the attack. Ford had answered casually that Bourdin was “half an idiot,” and recalled that his sister had “committed suicide afterwards.” And thus the novel was born.

Conrad sets his novel in 1886 London, a few years before the incident that inspired it. His protagonist is Adolf Verloc, an Englishman with French ties who runs a small shop that sells curiosities and pornography, and he lives above the shop with his wife Winnie, her mother, and her brother Stevie, who is a grown boy but has the mental age of a child. Winnie, who has married Verloc solely to have someone to provide for her mother and brother, nevertheless is a devoted wife, and one who prefers not to think deeply about things, or question Verloc’s activities. She is most concerned with taking care of her aging mother, and of her developmentally challenged brother as if he were her own child. For his part, Stevie is revealed to be highly sensitive, and unusually sympathetic to anyone, human or animal, who is suffering.

During his evening hours, Verdoc meets with a small group of professed anarchists in his own house: The group includes Alexander Ossipon, a former medical student who now lives by seducing working class women and living off their earnings, and who subscribes to the degeneracy theories of the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso—he contemplates the features of Stevie, for example, and identifies him as a born degenerate. Another member of the group, Karl Yundt, known as “the old terrorist,” considers Lombroso an ass. “The Professor,” the most antisocial member of this anarchist group, wants to tear down society and looks forward to a new Darwinian world order in which all degenerates (like Stevie)—all who are weak—will be eliminated to make way for the strong. “The Professor” is a specialist in explosives. (He was in fact a character highly admired by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who as a teenager was never without a copy of The Secret Agent. But that’s another story.) In a monologue eerily prescient in light of contemporary terrorist attacks, “The Professor” describes how he always walks London streets with a bomb under his coat, so that if anyone tries to arrest him he can detonate the bomb by squeezing a rubber ball in his pocket, thereby destroying himself and anyone else in range.

Best known of the members of Verloc’s group is the philosophical nihilist Michaelis, a man who famously spent some years in prison for anarchist activities and has come out hugely obese (in this Conrad deliberately alludes to the life of the famous anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, a fit man who emerged after a dozen years in prison weighing close to 300 flabby pounds). Philosophically, though, Michaelis is modeled after Prince Peter Kropotkin, the Russian revolutionary who, after imprisonment after the 1882 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, was like Michaelis living in England at the time Conrad’s novel was published, and was, like Michaelis, popular in London society.

Verloc’s little anarchist cell is notable for putting out a weekly pamphlet called F.P.(i.e., The Future of the Proletariat), and for talking a lot but not doing anything. Turns out this inactivity becomes something of a problem for Verloc, for this whole life is merely a front for his true occupation, which is acting as an agent provocateur for a foreign government. What sets the plot of the book in motion is Verloc’s being summoned to an unidentified foreign embassy by a certain Mr. Vladimir, new First Secretary of the Embassy. The name “Vladimir,” of course, suggests that the country is Russia, and Conrad was quite familiar with exiled Russian revolutionaries living in England: His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, had been forced into exile for his revolutionary activities against the Russian empire on behalf of Poland. However, Vladimir’s predecessor in his position, who had employed Verloc in the first place, had the very Germanic sounding name of Baron Stott-Wartenheim. So the Embassy may just as well be German or, given the turbulent situation in the Balkans at the time, Austrian. In any case, it belongs to a European country appalled by Great Britain’s cavalier policy of allowing exiled revolutionaries and terrorists to take refuge in England where, it is suspected, they freely meet to plan new terrorist activities unchecked by the British police force.

It also appears that Verloc has been doing virtually nothing to earn his monthly stipend from the Embassy—Conrad makes it clear that laziness is Verloc’s dominant character trait. And Mr. Vladimir insists that Verloc do something to earn his keep or risk being cut off, thus making him unable to support his needy household. Vladimir gives him one month to carry out a terrorist act on British soil—something that can be blamed on the exiled anarchists living in London, and so incite public opinion to advocate change in British policy toward these revolutionaries. And the target Vladimir chooses is Greenwich Observatory.

As in some of his other narratives (Lord Jim, for instance), Conrad never actually describes the climactic moment of the novel, the attempted bombing itself. He fast-forwards the story to after the failed attempt on the observatory, when the police find the address of Verloc’s shop stitched into the collar of the coat the bomber had been wearing before blowing himself up. Two police officers begin investigating the bombing: One is Chief Inspector Heat, who, it turns out, has been employing Verloc as an informant for some time, and who wants to pin the bombing on Michaelis; the other, Heat’s boss, is the unnamed Assistant Commissioner, whose wife is a Great Lady at the center of London’s social world and a great admirer of Michaelis, and who therefore is determined to steer the investigation in another direction.

The novel takes at least three major twists as it moves inexorably toward its conclusion, and I don’t want to spoil it for any readers with this review. I do want to say that this novel is a fine example of Conrad at the height of his powers. Like few writers since, Conrad is able, as here, to create a page-turning story that also, in terms of characterization, prose style, thematic complexity, and narrative structure, warms the cockles of literary scholars’ hearts. Even if you’ve never liked Conrad, I believe you will like this book. Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

554902_m1583273477

Banana Split

Banana Split

Benjamin Kasulke (2018)

In our current state of affairs, in which closed movie theaters force us into streaming whatever new fare we can find on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, one flick that might be a little under your radar but that seems to be a current darling among critics, is the high school romance Banana Split. It’s actually more of a female bromance (is there a term for that? Bramance?) along the lines of Booksmart, but less bookie and more smart.

I have to admit that I was not really feeling it during the first ten minutes or so of this movie. At my age there is a kind of culture shock as I enter the virtual world of Gen Z teens. It ain’t exactly American Graffiti up in here. I couldn’t understand the language, the motivations, or the culture of these kids, and watching felt like an anthropological study. Even—or maybe especially—the music, which featured a largely feminist compilation with a score by Annie Hart and songs from acts like X-Ray Spex and Junglepussy, bands that I have never heard or heard of—it seemed like it was chosen strictly for the cool kids, and that I was definitely not in their clique. But as my wife would remind me, I was not the intended audience.

Benjamin Kasulke makes his directing debut in this feature. Chiefly known as a cinematographer on independent films like Laggies and Safety Not Guaranteed, Kasulke teamed up here with Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joey Power (with whom she also co-wrote After Everything, which she directed). Marks also stars as April in the film (she was a regular on TV’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).

April’s story is this: in those first ten minutes, we’re treated to a montage that moves very quickly through her high-school romance with Nick (Dylan Sprouse of TV’s The Suite Life on Deck), sporting a haircut that looks like it’s come right off a romance novel cover. The ten minutes take us through two years of high school, the romance moving from initial infatuation through the obligatory sexual encounters through arguments that seem like they’re happening between an old married couple, through April’s acceptance to Boston University and Dylan’s to the University of California Santa Barbara and the inevitable breakup, which April only finds out about when she sees pictures of Nick with a new girlfriend on Instagram. Man, that’s cold. Do the kids still say that?

The new girlfriend is Clara (Liana Liberato of TV’s Light as a Feather), who has just moved to town from Fresno, and happens to be a childhood friend of Nick’s best friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts from Hail Caesar!). April does not take the breakup well as she slides into the awkward summer between high school graduation and college orientation. She becomes alienated from her long-suffering single mom Susan (Jessica Hecht from TV’s Breaking Bad) and her trash-talking scene-stealing tween sister Agnes (Addison Riecke of TV’s The Thundermans), who hopes to move in on Nick herself now that April is out of the picture, and who provides the film’s two most hilarious scenes in sparring with April and her mom at the dinner table. April’s slide into depression can also be seen as she Googles “anxiety vs actual heart attack” and when, at her summer job at the concession stand in her local movie theater, she refuses to sell a customer a hot dog because she doesn’t believe he should be annoying other customers with the ground pig smell. He can have popcorn and soda, but that’s it!

What ultimately raises April out of the morass of self-pity is, ironically, her chance meeting with Clara at a party that Nick had skipped. Expecting to confront the boyfriend-stealing wench and give her what for, April actually finds that she relates to the gentle and sympathetic Clara in a way that is more natural and real than any other relationship in her life, and she and Clara become close, spending every minute of their lives together—except when Clara is with Nick. The two decide early on that their relationship has to have rules, a la Fight Club (they even take on code names, April calling herself Brad Pitt and Clara George Clooney, whom she mistakenly thinks was in Fight Club): first rule of this Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Nick.

And they don’t. It’s also important to them that Nick never finds out that April and Clara are best friends. This becomes a bit of a stumbling block for Ben, who as Clara’s earliest friend and Nick’s best friend is caught in the middle, especially when it becomes clear that he has feelings of his own about April. He hangs around with the two girls when they are in the mood for a third wheel, always with a low-grade anxiety about his liminal position.

The film really is a love story, but not the romantic story we may be conditioned to expect in these teen comedies. This is a love story about two female friends who—April is careful to point out several times—are not sexually attracted to each other but are simply close girlfriends: It turns out they don’t need to be talking about men all the time. It’s a film that seems deliberately made to pass, in a showy and obvious way, what is known as the Bechdel Test.

If you aren’t familiar with the details of the Bachdel Test (as I was not until my wife woke me to it) let me just touch on the salient points: The “test” was first formulated in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel gave credit to her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, and was sure Wallace got the notion from Virginia Woof’s A Room of One’s Own. As formulated by Bechdel, the test has three requirements:

  1. The movie (/book/play) must have at least two women characters,
  2. Who actually talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

The scene in which April and Clara are beginning to bond with each other by, first, laughing about things that Nick does, and which ends with their making a rule about not talking about Nick, becomes, then, a direct allusion to the Bechdel Test, and a kind of commitment that all their future conversations are going to pass that test, damn it!

The Bechdel Test, of course, doesn’t really do anything other than underscore how few movies are made every year that can actually pass the test, and that our society has some way to go before achieving any kind of balanced representation in its cultural output. But passing the test doesn’t automatically erase any flaws in a film, this one included. The flaw here is a rather stagnant plot. There is really no reason for us to care about April’s relationship with Nick, since the real point is simply that she is dumped, so the fact that we barely see them together is no big deal. But unfortunately, in the relationship between April and Clara, nothing much happens. We see them hanging out together in a few self-contained scenes, but the movie’s not going anywhere. Nick has to be reinserted late in the film to introduce a conflict. That happens just about the time Ben acts on his crush on April, but because his role is so underwritten, we don’t really get to relate to his feelings much either.

These are not minor issues, but none of them is enough to sink the movie. It may not be as comically memorable as Ferris Bueller or as profound as The Graduate, but Banana Split turns out to be a fun romp that goes further than most high-school graduation summer flicks to make a statement worth hearing. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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.