Lee Child’s Latest Reacher Outing is More Screenplay than Book

Lee Child's Night School with Jack ReacherI’ve read or listened to all 23 of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. So I guess you could mark me down as a died-in-the-wool fan. But Night School, the latest Reacher outing — even when superbly read by Dick Hill — is a disappointment.

For most of the series, Reacher was a very big guy — well over 6 ft and 250 lb — and preternaturally endowed with a remarkable memory, physical prowess, and rumble-in-the-jungle skills enough to take on 3-6 bad guys at once.

Reacher in this outing isn’t so amazing. Actually, he’s a lot like a character Tom Cruise could play.

But that’s not all. Reacher in earlier incarnations was a renegade, an outcast, a loner with a quirky and complex backstory. And each Reacher outing moved him forward in time while referencing some of the others. This Reacher is clever and capable, but definitely an establishment figure whose medals figure more prominently than his meddlesomeness. And the time frame is skewed 20 years back.

This Reacher retains some of the earlier characterizations, particularly the amazing intuition. But that’s overplayed in Night School. And he’s lost some of Reacher’s trademark habits. The old Reacher never changed clothes. He bought a total outfit as cheaply as possible, then discarded it in the store when he bought another. The old Reacher almost always worked alone. This outing is packed with CIA, State Dept, Army and other high level personnel.

Hey, Night School ain’t bad. But it ain’t Reacher either.

Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill is a big book (448 pages or 14 CDs) overflowing with the juicy details of life in the upper class Churchill household.

Clementine the GreatClementine by Sonia Purnell

Purnell’s Clementine looms larger and more remarkable than the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt, her American counterpart!  Her Clementine simultaneously enabled Winston’s outsized career while defining and filling the role of England’s premiere First Lady.

Clementine the Confidant, Adviser, Surrogate

Clementine pampered Winston to excess, personally arranging his homes, his meals, and his guests to his liking and needs. Another might have done that as well. But Clementine also starred in the roles of confidant and stand in. Winston told her everything. She was his sounding board and adviser about politics, government and, especially, war. She helped write his famous speeches, stood in for him on the hustings — keeping him in Parliament continuously for over 40 years — and was his charming and effective surrogate with everybody who was anybody in the UK and beyond. It was her finger that tipped the scales in his favor when Winston was busy being Winston.

Clementine on Her Own

Clementine showed her independent mettle during the great Wars. With Winston busy in the War Office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the YMCA organizing canteens to nourish and comfort the WWI munitions workers. Afterward, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her efforts.

During World War II she was Chairman of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, and President of the YWCA War Time Appeal, among other executive roles. Near war’s end, Russia recognized her contributions, awarding her the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, an honor usually reserved for Russian nationals . (Learning that she was to receive the award from Stalin himself, Winston urged her to explore the Russian leader’s plans and mindset.) After the War, in 1946, the Queen made her a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.

More Stew Than Steak

Unfortunately, the book reads like the first draft of a made-for-TV period drama. (I like Essie Davis for Clementine.) The author, who was a toddler when Clementine was in her dotage, writes as if she were her intimate. Chatty and gossipy, Clementine is a lightly fictionalized biography that sometimes takes liberties with the facts. While the immediacy delivers impact, the closeness diminishes veracity.

There’s a lot to chew on in Clementine, but it’s more stew than steak. To pick and choose, I recommend the print version over the audio, whose reader (Susan Lyons) is as stiff-lipped as the text is extensive.

FDR’s Comeback from Polio

I just finished listening to James Tobin’s The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. Charles Constant narrated the unabridged Tantor edition.

FDR's Comeback from Polio. Tobin's history: The Man He BecameTobin is an award-winning writer and irreverent historian. He takes us from the day FDR contracted polio to his Presidential campaign, when he flaunted his polio to advantage. Taking a fresh look at primary sources, he says polio was a help not a hindrance to Roosevelt’s drive to become President.

Tobin opens by debunking the contemporary myth that FDR hid his polio with the help of the press. In fact, his polio was well known all across America. He headed national fund-raising efforts to eradicate the disease. And the Warm Springs retreat he built in Georgia included a successful sanatorium for the treatment of polio.

The author recounts the heart-breaking and ironic snafus that delayed FDR’s diagnosis and treatment. Because the distinguished elderly physician treating Roosevelt at Campobello wasn’t familiar with polio, FDR didn’t get the serum that might have reduced or eliminated his paralysis. The irony was that his younger regular physician, back in NYC, was a polio expert.

Tobin covers the widely known facts about FDR’s comeback from polio with laconic, matter-of-fact accuracy. He knows FDR had a lot of help. Sara’s money, Eleanor’s support, the Roosevelt name, Louis Howe and Missy LeHand. But Tobin stays focused on the polio and how FDR dealt with it mentally, emotionally and physically day by day.

FDR, in this account, comes across as a spoiled brat humbled by polio but able to overcome it by force of will and well-tempered guile. A satisfying read whether you care about FDR and history or not.

George Washington’s Secret Six: A Good Read But Flawed

Brian Kilmeade’s latest book, George Washington’s Secret Six, tells the story of the Culper Spy Ring. Operating between New York City and Long Island, the ring helped shorten the odds for the underdog Patriots. Without the ring, the American Revolution might have faltered or even failed.

George Washington's Secret SixThe book is a good read, stimulating and informative, but it’s flawed as narrative history.

It’s a good read because Brian is an accomplished Fox cable TV presenter. And because his co-author, Don Yaeger, is a best-selling ghostwriter. Together they exude excitement. (Kilmeade narrates the audio edition, ratcheting up the enthusiasm.)

The flaw, of course, is not enthusiasm but invention. The authors stick to the facts, for the most part, but flesh out the narrative with robust dialog that seems too good to be true. And too modern. In fact, the authors invented much of it, as they reveal in the prologue.

They also contrive to tell us how the historical figures felt, what they thought, and what motivated them. A good trick at a remove of over 200 years with no hard evidence.

It is no crime to invent dialog, impute feelings and thoughts, and assign motivation. Narrative history writers don’t do it, but historical fiction writers do it all the time. George Washington’s Secret Six could be superb historical fiction.

But it fails the test of accuracy.

George Washington painted by Charles W. PealeKilmeade and Yaeger make history come alive with their vivid portraits of the six spies. But their portrait of Washington looks a lot like the Great General painted by Charles Willson Peale. How true to life could their Secret Six be when they get George Washington wrong?

Washington was a great leader, but only those who believe the cherry tree myth also believe him a talented tactician. In war, he was lucky, smart enough to learn from his mistakes, and also to rely on good counsel. But he was a military bungler. (Sorry George.)

The book’s other shortcomings are just as naive.  It focuses, as it should, on the Culper Spy Ring, but it skips over or ignores other significant events of the period. Hey guys, it took more than six spies to win the Revolution.

And the book’s paeans to American patriotism and blatant calls to venerate the Secret Six just don’t belong. Not in narrative history, not in historical fiction.

In short, George Washington’s Secret Six is great fun to read. But on a spectrum of historical believability stretching from NPR to the National Enquirer, it ranks like Fox News. No surprise.

Paul Strand at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Paul Strand exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a big deal in many ways. The exhibit, which opened October 21, 2014 and runs through January 4, 2015, includes 2 films and over 250 photographs. It also includes archival prints, negatives, and books — plus works by related contemporaries.

If not the definitive Strand retrospective, it is the most comprehensive. It draws on the museum’s collection of over 4000 works and supplements it with borrowed items. It includes photos and paintings from his cohort — Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, Dove and Marin. Organized chronologically, it covers Strand from tentative beginnings to final master strokes.

Paul Strand "Jug and Fruit"Like Picasso, Strand was a chameleon whose “style” shifted over time. He began as a pictorialist, explored abstraction, and settled on realism. Like his mentor, Lewis Hines, he pursued social and political themes. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made a good living doing what he liked. And unlike most still photographers, he also made films. In fact, for a time, he was best known for his films.

An American who emigrated to France during the McCarthy era, Strand traveled widely. The exhibit includes photos and photo essays from New England, France, Mexico, Italy, the Hebrides, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, and Romania. Strand packaged several of the photo essays as profitable books focused on town and village life.

No matter the venue, Strand’s powerful and sometimes raw street photography and candid portraits demand attention. No surprise. Ditto his early pictorialist forays a la Stieglitz. Stieglitz memorialized Georgia O’Keeffe (and Rebecca) and Strand did Rebecca Strand (and Georgia).

What surprised were the close-ups of nature (rocks, plants, flowers) and machinery. Also surprising were the quasi-abstract photos. “Quasi-abstract” because the staircases, building parts and still life objects are recognizable. But Strand was looking at their shape and arrangement, not their function. We liked his 1915 abstract “Jug and Fruit,” which we snapped with our smartphone.

Bring your walking shoes and allow plenty of time, two hours or more. This is a big exhibit, but well-curated. It’s all about Strand and not about the museum, its sponsors, or the curators’ theses or next book projects. Hooray!

Just one gripe. And it’s not about the Strand exhibit, but about photographic exhibits in general. Many of the photographs in this exhibit are old. Some, like the iconic “Wall Street,” are old enough to qualify as antiques. No wonder this platinum palladium print and others in this show are dark and dingy. What we see is not what Strand saw or intended.

We clean, restore and repair other works of art, from medieval frescoes to paintings by the great Masters. Why not photos? Show “Wall Street” in its present condition. But show it side-by-side with a digitally refreshed rendition. Show us the Wall Street Strand saw and chose to immortalize. Or something like it.

The Shelburne Museum in Vermont: A Must-See

The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne Vermont resists comparison. The eclectic creation of Electra Havemeyer Webb, it is like no other.

Restored stage coach in the Red Barn at Shelburne

Restored stage coach at the Shelburne

Like the Barnes in Philadelphia, it includes a splendid collection of Impressionist art. But it also owns Rembrandts, American paintings, folk art, quilts and rugs.

Like Williamsburg, it includes themed buildings — a jail, print shop, weavery, lighthouse, schoolroom, etc. — but it spans a broader period, from the 17th-20th centuries.

Like the Long Island Museum, it has a large collection of horse drawn vehicles, but it also displays many horse drawn sleighs. And it has a unique collection of carousel horses and also miniature circus vehicles drawn by animals.

Like Filoli, it boasts many formal gardens, but also kitchen gardens, a sensory garden, a hat and fragrance garden. There are over 700 peonies and 400 lilacs!

1920's Carousel at Shelburne

1920’s Carousel at Shelburne

Like the Mercer, it has an almost bewildering array of collections, many with replicate pieces. But the Shelburne’s collections are all clean, restored in most cases, and well-displayed.

Unlike most modern museums, the Shelburne has a story to tell but no theses to defend. The curating is unobtrusive and pertinent. Neither the curating nor the many docents — every exhibit or building has at least one — talk down to visitors.

In short, the Shelburne Museum is unique.

Some of my favorites:

  • Steamboat Ticonderoga at Shelburne

    Steamboat Ticonderoga at Shelburne

    The Ticonderoga, a restored paddle-wheel steam boat. Electra moved it intact from Lake Champlain at a cost of $250,000 in 1955.

  • The Round Barn, which displays restored horse-drawn carriages and sleighs. (More in the Horseshoe Barn.)
  • The Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. It contains several complete rooms from her NYC apartment including Rembrandts, Monets, Degas.
  • The working 1920’s carousel outside the Circus building is a great ride. But no brass ring!
  • The 1890 luxury private rail car, the Grand Isle. Hitched to steam Locomotive 220. All at the complete 1890 Shelburne railroad station. All aboard!
  • Exquisite American furniture and decorative arts in the Vermont House circa 1790.
  • Folk art, trade signs, ship carvings and more at the circa 1787 Stagecoach Inn.

Leave plenty of time for the Shelburne. We visited for about 10 hours over 3 days and still have a wish list for next time.

Photos Copyright© Louis J. Bruno, 2014. All rights reserved.

Windjammer Restaurant So Burlington VT — A Tasty Treat

We liked lunch at the Windjammer Restaurant in South Burlington VT so much, we returned the same day for dinner.

Lantern at nautically themed Windjammer RestaurantThe food was fresh, most from local sources, well-prepared and appetizing. The menu features salads, including a tasty salad bar, steak and fish. Portions are generous and prices moderate. The missus says her filet mignon was the best ever. Maybe because they age their beef for at least 28 days.

The Windjammer Restaurant pays careful attention to folks with dietary restrictions and allergies. They have a gluten free menu, and their servers make notes for and are quick to check with the chef.

The dining rooms are well-appointed with a tasteful nautical theme. The booths and tables are comfortable.

The wine list is interesting and extensive. They supplement it with a variety of craft brews. I enjoyed a hearty Oktoberfest-like brew with dinner.

Service at the Windjammer Restaurant is cheerful and sprightly. The restaurant accommodates tourists and business travelers, but also has a strong local following.

The Windjammer also operates the Upper Deck Pub on the same premises. That’s a sports bar with separate menu. We’ll check out the pub next time.

Hopper Illustrations at the Rockwell

The Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA is much improved since our last visit about 10 years ago. More parking, more attractive landscaping, and best of all, a new building. All to the good.

Crop of an Edward Hopper illustration of Parisian couple chattingWhile it’s always nice to visit with old friends, i.e. Norman Rockwell, the impetus for this visit was the new exhibit — Edward Hopper as Illustrator. The exhibit runs through October 26, 2014. This is a must-see, eye-opener for Hopper fans and students of early 20th century illustration.

If you’re familiar with Hopper, you know he did watercolors and etchings as well as his better-known oils. But you do you know that he spent the first 20 years of his career as an illustrator? Hopper thought of himself as a fine artist from a young age. But his parents convinced him to work as a commercial artist — which he hated — to make a living.

Hopper’s early illustrations, for books, magazine covers and posters, were competent but undistinguished. His later illustrations, enlivened by his developing personal style and interests are exceptional. Still, his commercial illustrations rarely equaled those of his contemporaries. Pyle, Wyeth, Parrish and Rockwell all enjoyed their work and knew it was “art.” Hopper kept fighting it.

The Hopper exhibition at the Rockwell Museum also includes an insightful video.  Altogether, it’s a joy for Hopper fans and a bonus for Rockwell aficionados. Make the trip if you can.

Garry Winogrand Retrospective at the Met

The Garry Winogrand exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art runs through September 21, 2014. It displays over 175 black & white photographs. Most are from New York City during the 60’s and 70’s. Others are from Chicago and other U.S. locations.

Winogrfand at the MetWinogrand ‘s photos appeared in Life, Look, Sports Illustrated and Collier’s, but none of those are in the exhibit. The exhibit shows his personal photography in three groups — Down from the Bronx, A Student of America, and Boom and Bust. It includes some of the work from his three Guggenheim Fellowships.

The exhibit is rich but not satisfying. The problem is that Winogrand was prolific but unfinished. He died at 56 with thousands of rolls of film undeveloped, unedited, or unprinted. This exhibit displays prints he developed and exhibited alongside photos he never saw. The experience is dark and maybe uncharacteristic.

Winogrand was a street photographer, called the central photographer of his generation by Szarkowski. But the street shots in this exhibit are snarky and demeaning. Did he despise the people he immortalized in his photographs? Or did the curators fail to channel the artist?

The curators say Winogrand liked women and enjoyed photographing them. In fact, Winogrand published Women are Beautiful, which he introduced saying “Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her.” So why are many, if not most, of the pictures of women in the exhibit unflattering?

We can only go by what Winogrand exhibited, what he published, what he printed, and what he selected on contact sheets. On that basis, we think he would have chosen a different pallette for his first major retrospective in 25 years.

Go see the exhibit for yourself. It’s strong and provocative, whether it’s vintage Winogrand or a somewhat misguided mashup.

Lewis Hine Exhibit at Eastman House

The Lewis Hine exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester runs through September 7, 2014. The fifth and final stop of an international tour, it displays over 150 original prints owned by Eastman house. Catch it if you can.

Sociologist Turned Photographer
Lewis Hine was a sociologist by training and a photographer by design. He taught sociology at the Ethical Culture School in New York, but abandoned that to champion the oppressed. An early photographic essay captured the bewilderment of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. His later forays were more powerful. He used his pen and camera to campaign for child labor laws, for healthy living conditions for the poor, and for aid to Europe after WWI.

Addie Card with her loom. 1910

Addie Card at her loom.

Early Work: Powerful but Raw
Most of Lewis Hine’s early photographs look like box camera pictures with drugstore processing. The lighting, composition, exposure and printing are amateurish. But the images are compelling, memorable, and often heart-wrenching, despite their technical shortcomings.

His early photos show steerage class immigrants facing their first American day. They show children as young as five picking cotton, cleaning fish and working in mills and mines. They also record children doing “home work” — sewing, mending, crafting — in crowded, unsanitary tenements.

The Thomas Paine of His Era
Hine carved a niche, then rushed to fill it. He combined powerful photos and provocative text to stir the contemporary social conscience. Hine used his photo essays to shape ethical movements and change the child labor laws. The Eastman House exhibit includes many of his early photo essays.

Later Work
The exhibit also includes highlights of Hine’s later work. During WWI, he took pictures for the Red Cross overseas. Returning home, he documented construction of the Empire State Building and several government projects.

Powerhouse Mechanic at Empire State Building

Powerhouse Mechanic at Empire State Building

Slicker but Still Sympathetic
Hine’s later work continues his sympathetic treatment of working people. But it also derives power from his new-found photographic skills. The Empire State Building project shows Hine at the height of his career.

The Sky as Studio
The photos are all about the men who risked their lives to build the Empire State Building. Hine risked his life too, taking the pictures while suspended thousands of feet in the air in a basket. The results are spectacular. Each photo is dramatic, well-framed, well-lighted, and a model of good composition.

Bring in the Clones
The prints in the exhibition are for the most part those that Hine made himself. That’s as it should be for historical accuracy. But that means many of the older prints are small (8″ x 10″) and dark. Eastman House could exhibit larger, enhanced prints next to the originals. It has digitized Hine’s plates and negatives and could use the digital images to better show what Hines saw.

Worth the Trip
Lewis Hine at the George Eastman House is worth the trip for anyone interested in history and photography. It’s a must for those studying the development of social movements in America.