Live the Big Life in Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

You know you are in a completely different world when you hear a character, Francesca, tell another character, Isabel, why she can’t marry the man she loves, a fellow just made a senior vice president at a large bank. Sure, there’s the issue of his low-ranking family. Even more to the point, Francesca and the other young women agree that he simply earns too little, and that poor Isabel will live life as a pauper, a shunned one at that. His income? As Francesca puts it, “… a measly eight hundred thousand a year.”

It’s a world familiar to none of us, assuming you readers are not in the top one percent. And then there are the cultural differences, very well highlighted and explained by Kevin Kwan, who grew up well-off in Singapore, the setting for most of the novel. Crazy Rich Asians reads like any of the Housewives shows on the most potent steroid imaginable. It’s possibly one of the most gossipy novels you’ll read. And it’s being turned into a movie, and what an eye-popping dazzler it will be if it translates even a quarter of the novel’s settings and fashions on to film.

The overarching story is simple. Rachel Chu, an accomplished woman living in New York, has been in love and living with the equally accomplished and super handsome Nick Young. When Nick becomes his best friend’s groom, Colin Khoo, he decides it’s time to take Rachel to meet the folks in Singapore. Rachel, however, has no idea who Nick and his family are (just the most powerful, influential, and richest of the rich) and the rough ride she’s in for. She meets literally an opera’s worth of people who variously regard her as a rival, a gold digger, and an invader. And they subject her to torments throughout the novel, most petty, mean spirited, and a couple soul crushing. It’s Mean Girls, though, again, on powerful steroids.

Kwan’s writing is serviceable to the task. But what he excels at, and what makes the novel a really delight to read, is how he immerses you in Singapore, from the wealth, to the sights, to the food, and to the customs. Where necessary, he uses footnotes to expand upon concepts and to translate the local lingo. So, what you get is a diversion and something of an education, too. We can only hope the movie is a good as the book. w/c


The Unforgettable Couple: Nick and Nora

The Thin Man

By Dashiell Hammett

Here’s one of the best, if not the very best, comic private detective mysteries you’ll ever read. Nick and Nora Charles, and their dog Asta, visit New York City for the Christmas and New York  holidays at the close of 1932, also the last days of the ill-fated temperance experiment, Prohibition (December 18, 1917 – March 22, 1933, ratification of the 18th and 21st Amendments, respectively). They are there to party, and as Nick likes to say, drink. However, the disappearance of an old client, Clyde Wynant, an eccentric and erratic millionaire inventor, followed by multiple murders, sets them off on finding Wynant and the killer in their midsts. Along the way, they run into an assortment of odd characters, including Wynant family members and a Runyon-esque gallery of rogues.

As with most mysteries, it’s less about the mystery itself than it is about the characters and the telling. What distinguishes The Thin Man is Hammett’s sharp wit, as expressed by Nick and Nora. What’s more is the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by Nick and Nora. On nearly every page, they busy themselves preparing cocktails, regardless of the time of day. Nick frequently imbibes upon waking before taking his breakfast. Of course, Hammett himself was an alcoholic, a disease that he led to his death.

Such a popular novel gave birth to an equally popular film adaptation. While the film departed from the novel in places, it did capture the essence of Nick and Nora, and gave personality to Asta. Once you’ve seen the 1934 film, you’ll find it hard to picture and hear Nick and Nora any differently from William Powell and Myrna Loy. As a matter of fact, it’s probably safe to say that most people will think of Nick himself as the thin man. In fact, the real thin man is Clyde Wynant, but such is the power of the visual association of trim Powell and the film’s title.

If you have never read the novel, it comes to you highly recommended, to be followed by a viewing of the 1934 film adaptation. And the best way to watch the film, of course, is with a shaker of Martinis at hand.

Here for your viewing pleasure is the film’s trailer and a compilation of Nick and Nora’s drinking exchanges. One thing you’ll notice almost immediately: the serving size of drinks is considerably smaller than what you see today. And everybody dresses to the T. How things have changed in the past eighty years. w/c

Is Grace a Murderer or Not?

New: Now Streaming on Netflix

Originally published in 1997, this Margaret Atwood novel recounts a real murder and psychological investigation that took place near Toronto beginning in 1843. People still puzzle over the guilt or innocence of Grace Marks. Now you can not only read the book but watch a six-part adaptation now streaming on Netflix.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood tackles one of Canada’s most mystifying murders that to this day has people wondering: did she do it? The reason to read the novel is not to discover the answer, for it remains unanswerable; it’s to immerse yourself in the atmosphere conjured up by Atwood’s superb writing.

In 1843, near Toronto, James McDermott and fifteen-year-old maid Grace Marks were accused of murdering their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery. There seemed to be no question about McDermott’s guilt; he paid for his crime with his life, on the gallows. However, because of her age, her demeanor, and her wits, many were not convinced that Grace Marks voluntarily participated in the murders, the belief being McDermott coerced her into taking part and that she was insane, at least at the time. For these reasons, the uncertainty and the apparent insanity, her death sentence was changed to life in prison. Part of that sentence, she served in an asylum until officials deemed her well enough to enter the general prison population. It’s there where we meet her awaiting Dr. Simon Jordan, a budding psychologist in the days when psychology was a new and developing science. We learn her story, pretty much every aspect of her life in her own words, as she relates it to Jordan. Additionally, we learn about the current thinking of the times on psychology through Jordan.

Of course, though, we learn much more, among them these things: the toughness of life in the mid-1800s, the subservient status of women that puts poor women fully at the mercy of men, the hardships of prison life, the difficulties of servant life down to chores and meals, the constrictions of the sexual mores of those days on both men (who indisputably had more leeway) and women and the pent-up frustration produced by those restrictive standards. It’s here that the novel shines and earns its merit.

Atwood bases her retelling on archived facts of the case and material published at the time of the crime and since. She fills in the missing parts, which are vast, by extrapolating her fiction from the facts of the case and knowledge of life in Canada at mid eighteenth century. You’ll definitely draw conclusions about her guilt or innocence as you progress through the novel, only have them cast into doubt at the end. For, if anything, Grace Marks continues to prove herself to be an elusive woman. w/c

War: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Arms and the Man (1894)

By George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was a playwright (and critic, let’s not forget) possessing penetrating insight and the ability to express himself with the driest wit imaginable. His comedies often are riotous flurries of sharp dialogue, almost too much and too fast to fully comprehend at first hearing. Which makes the printed play an asset either before or after seeing a play like Arms and the Man. If you have the druthers, see it first, if you can, and follow up by reading it.

In Arms and the Man, Shaw satirizes war; that is the glory we attribute to it and the men who engage in the fighting. Though more than a hundred years old, it’s really a play for our times, when it feels as if we Americans are fetishizing the military (i.e., the flag protests about the protests, and the like).

Shaw sets the action near the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 (actually November 14 to November 28, a short affair indeed, which might be why he chose it). The play opens with young Bulgarian Raina Petkoff gushing over the excitement and drama of war, and in particular the reported heroic calvary charge led by her fiancé, Sergius Saranoff. Suddenly, the war comes to her doorstep in the form of the fleeing Swiss mercenary (on the Serb side) Captain Bluntschli. Much witty exchange ensues in which Bluntschli disabuses Raina of her notions of glamor and informs her that Saranoff’s charge was an act of supreme foolhardiness; that the Serbs had no ammo at hand saved him and his men. Eventually, Raina and her mother hide and then spirit Bluntschli out to safety. Her father and Saranoff return and in addition to being quite idiotic, Saranoff proves to be a strutting popinjay of a man. Soon Raina and Saranoff become disenchanted with each other. Saranoff finds the very saucy servant girl more to his liking, while Raina finds herself drawn to her “chocolate-cream soldier.” All’s well that ends well, but not before both war and the fickle nature of human romance gets thoroughly skewered.

This was Shaw’s first big success and he was present on opening night. Called onto the stage, he received the praise of the audience and, reportedly, the boos of one heckler. Shaw’s reported to have remarked to the man, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” And, apparently, Shaw wasn’t kidding, as he felt himself reduced to a writer of sparkling trifles. w/c

Making Choices in Nazi Germany

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives

Karin Wieland

If Karin Wieland’s dual biography does nothing else, it vividly illustrates that your choices do make a difference.

In the case of Marlene Dietrich, her move to the U.S. and particularly her active support of the Allied war effort enhanced her reputation, even when some of the films she made were not the best.

By contrast, though Riefenstahl proved herself a prodigious filmmaking skill, she achieved her greatest successes by dubious methods and in the service of the greatest evil in a century that witnessed a good deal of murderous events.

Regarding Dietrich, you could admire her talent openly and happily, whereas you might concede Riefenstahl’s talent, but given the subject and the service to which she put it, a qualifier must follow any positive comment. This is not a biography devoid of a viewpoint, being very much black and white in favor of Dietrich.

Worthwhile for those interested in early filmmaking, Nazi Germany, and, of course, the actress and the propagandist. While the book includes an assortment of photos, a wider selection keyed to some of the events covered would be appreciated. Includes footnotes, a brief reading list, and a helpful index. w/c

For Disappointed Orville Watchers

Galaxy Quest (Parisot, 1999)

Are you among those let down by The Orville, new on Fox. We sure are.

While it looks pretty good visually, though the computer animation is a bit too blatant, it falls flat in several ways. First, the stories are uninteresting. We’ve watched the pilot, “Old Wounds,” and the second episode, “Command Performance,” and both share the same lameness.

The ex husband/wife shtick may have sounded good in the pitch to executives but the execution is predictable. We expected sharper jokes, childish, for sure, but not groaners, and not in the good way.

While the cast is okay, given they have little to work with, Seth MacFarlane disappoints. It’s as if he sent a cardboard cutout of himself as a substitute. Sad to say, but it is coming off our DVR.

If you find yourself as disappointed as we are, we suggest you assuage your devastated expectations by watch Galaxy Quest a couple of times. What can we say: we’ve watched the movie a dozen times. It just never gets old.

While it parodies Star Trek, you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy it. Though you probably are, if you have tuned into The Orville, definitely a Star Trek parody. 

For younger viewers, it holds up as a good syfy with plenty of action and laughs. Older ones who’ve been through the mill of life can easily identify with the theme: what do I do for a second act?

Even watched many times, you’ll still find yourself laughing at how a troupe of out-of-work actors transport to another galaxy, help save a trusting and naïve people from an evil menace set on their extermination, and win back a revival of their space opera TV series.

It just never gets old. Take a look at the trailer, then get a copy and enjoy this evening. Also here, The Orville trailer. w/c


Why Read It When You Know It?

The Maltese Falcon (1929)

By Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon played by Humphrey Bogart is a story and a character we believe we know pretty much by heart. What’s the point of reading the novel, especially when the film does such a good and true job of capturing the book? Well, Brigid O’Shaughnessy has red hair, not Mary Astor’s dark brown. Minor, yes, especially in black and white, but you get the point. No matter how true the film adaptation, there will always be differences, sometimes minor, sometimes substantial, between the original and the interpretive copy. And therein lies the biggest reason for reading the book, particularly if you liked the movie.

What you see on your screen when you view The Maltese Falcon is director John Huston’s interpretation of the Hammett’s text. While Huston renders the book quite exactly, it remains that he colors it to match his vision. Really, can it be any other way? Bogart does a terrific job of capturing most aspects of Sam Spade’s character, which swings from backslapping, to brooding, to amorous, to brutally aggressive, to cunning, to dumb, to nearly always manipulative. Which aspect of Spade’s character dominates? Maybe you can discern this from the film; maybe you’d be better able to understand Spade’s true nature by reading Hammett’s words; or maybe, eh, who cares. Perhaps you’d like to read somethings that never made it onto the screen. The novel has some strong sexual content, given how many of us filter the past through a lens of greater comity. Hm, people will be people, today, in the Middle Ages, and in 1929, when The Maltese Falcon published.

Then there is the pure satisfaction of reading Hammett’s writing, his descriptions, his superb dialogue, and his steady pacing of plot revelations and twists. The dialogue here is the best. Yes, you will find some words and syntax peculiar to the time, but what makes Hammett’s dialogue outstanding, and serves as a lesson to budding writers, is how these define the character, define them better than any wordy description can. And there’s no better example than that of the Fatman, Kasper Gutman, delivered brilliantly by Sidney Greenstreet in the film. Essentially, Gutman’s the jolly fat man, until he releases his ruthless side, jolly too, but potentially deadly. Huston smartly transferred most of Hammett’s dialogue to film. Still, it pays to read the words for yourself to see how Hammett uses them to create character or change mood. It’s the syntax that truly defines the character of Gutman and everybody else in the novel.

So, if you enjoyed the movie and wonder why you would want to read the book, here’s why: Reading the book will increase immensely your enjoyment of the movie, and viscera. w/c