Category Archives: THE BLOG


This list starts with the best and descends to the dregs, but only includes movies I want to say something about, for good or ill. The comments assume you’ve seen the film, or at least have some  idea of its plot.

So, here we go:

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood
There is a moment in this movie where Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, tripping on acid, confronted with a Manson follower’s gun, simply points a finger gun back. It reduces both Manson and the sixties to childish posturing, and it made my jaw drop. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, an aging, obsolete Western TV star, behaves throughout like the nice, morally upright dad from a fifties sitcom. There’s a lot being said here, and you don’t have to like the alternative history presented to appreciate the audacious brilliance of this film.

This film is close to perfect. It falls to second place on my list solely on the basis of a slightly hurried finale, a series of connected inevitabilities that begins a tiny bit too late, and unfolds a tiny bit too clumsily. 

The Farewell
Why is this movie not up for every Oscar there is? It’s observant and fearless, and as much a mind-fuck as The Sixth Sense, which is to say, it’s not really the movie you think you’re watching. I’m troubled at the indignation coming from China; to me, a non-Chinese, this movie is a loving defense of the traditional, communal  viewpoint.

The Irishman
God bless Netflix, and damn all the people voting against it whatever the superior product. This film is a miracle despite the silly, unconvincing de-aging. Watch, or better feel the way Scorsese fills every second with intention, telling the story fully for once, telling it his way. It’s classic mobster cinema, gritty and gruesome and utterly pathetic, but also in perfect synthesis with this director’s spiritual side, and both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are amazing.

Yeah, it’ll keep winning awards, and yeah, that’s because it’s a deliberate masterpiece. It’s the  kind of antiwar film that glorifies wartime heroics, and its awesome scope and unsparing horror lend the movie a questionable importance. But it tells its simple story through stick-figure characters, brave boy scouts as remote from living, speaking human beings as can be imagined. The posturing,  stage-set, Academy-baiting perfection is embarrassing: that coincidence of the mother and the milk! The sound of singing through the trees! And who rang that very convenient church bell? Why? And of course, if you’re starving, avoid the mess tent and go sit under the lone tree with the widescreen view and gaze pensively at photographs. Did I say it was a masterpiece? It is.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
A wonderful and hypnotic movie: one man’s journey into his own past, and then quite literally into a dream.

Jo Jo Rabbit
I put off seeing this one; I was going to skip it altogether given the reviews and a brief synopsis I read online. It seemed so scattered and silly. I was astonished to feel a lump in my throat through the final third of this movie. Many movies show war though a child’s eyes; this one takes place entirely in a child’s fantasy world, then blows it apart.

Pain and Glory
Memory and reconciliation, painstaking and brilliant.

Ash is Purest White
A journey through China’s recent decades of expansion, criminal and otherwise. I greatly admired this movie, but speaking as a woman, when will we ever learn? It makes me crazy.

Just amazing to view; no color except for flesh and blood, and to illuminate a delicate bamboo forest, and it’s bloody as hell in a Game of Thrones way. Not my kind of film, but astonishingly beautiful and engrossing.

Uncut Gems
What a ride! What an Adam Sandler performance! What a whole lot of people I didn’t like! Even the kid is a liar!

Marriage Story
Very nice, but too centered on Adam Driver’s experience! Plus he gets the big musical number (and it’s wonderful).

Little Women
I started out really liking this version; it was fun and intelligent, but time’s eroded that initial opinion. I question putting thoughts into minds that never had the chance to formulate them, because those ideas change everything, they mitigate rage, diminish curiosity and ambition, even limit possibility. Did Amy really understand herself that way, even as an adult, or instead remain secretly frustrated and  resentful? I realize Louisa May Alcott held modern ideas, but did she mean Jo March to share them? I watched Jo hug her book, and felt nothing, but the romantic ending is satisfying, but logically I should feel the reverse. Maybe Jo wasn’t entirely Louisa; maybe Louisa created a separate character. I did take two new insights from this movie and some further research: first, these were privileged girls, well-connected despite their relative poverty, and at that time, that mattered. And also, I wonder why Alcott depicted Amy as a lesser artist, when her own sister was a genuinely gifted painter who married but never abandoned her art? Was Louisa jealous of the sister who claimed both art and love?

Dolemite Is My Name
What a pleasant surprise: a history lesson, and a biography without any dramatic fall from grace and painful rehabilitation. Just great actors in great roles, having a quiet blast.

Yeah, it might be a clinical and political mess, but it was a damn good movie with a truly great lead performance.

The Two Popes
It’s always delightful to overhear intelligent people courteously discuss important ideas, but I found the flashback sequences unconvincing. morally as well as dramatically.

Knives Out
This was clever and enjoyable, if not up to Dame Agatha’s standards. She never considered all rich people corrupt, nor all poor people angelic.

I enjoyed this movie a hell of a lot more than I expected to. Jennifer Lopez pretty much convinced me it was only fair to screw over those banker types.

Wild Rose
A delight. And that voice! All bow before the wonderful Jessie Buckley.

Little Woods
A nice, real, loving American survival tale.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A supurb heartbreaker, exposing a very human emotional messiness. And I like that it understands the importance of things – houses, physical property. No shame in that.

A very good, Casablanca-like effort, or I think so. I can’t make up my mind about his one. It might have been brilliant.

First Love
Yeah! Kick-ass movie of the year! Beheadings and a really intelligent love story.

Ford v Ferrari
Very traditional but fine if you’re into the Formula Just not enough of a movie to inspire interest otherwise.

Really, how feminist to show girls can act like stupid boys. The central relationship seemed phony, the laughter forced. And the concept – that dedication to schoolwork could cause such total ignorance of their classmates’ plans and privileges – was simply absurd.

Another perfectly okay biographical film, with a fine Renee Zellweger performance.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This one left me cold. The leads had no chemistry, and I’m pretty sure the artist sexually abused her young, isolated subject. And that ending, all Elio looking into the fire!

The Lighthouse
WTF?! I mean, seriously, WTF?

The Souvenir
Privilege is being able to make an entire movie about the problems plaguing the privileged. Aren’t we so in love with our own pedestrian experience?

Taron Egerton can actually sing.

One Cut of the Dead
A sweet and funny zombie movie.

Late Night
Two great talents treading water.

The Proposal
There’s something very wrong about this documentary. It’s horrible in concept (I’m not explaining, go look it up) but also utterly illogical unless the entire ‘proposal’ is a setup for this movie, the entire undertaking nothing but a ploy for publicity and leverage.

Apollo 11
It’s wonderful, but it’s just extra footage.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Don’t even.

Photo credits: Nick-Ansell-York-Theatre-Royal-refurbishment-9-CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Filmstrip-by-Mike-Jennings-CC-BY-2.0 / Global-Panorama-Oscar-Award-Image-Courtesy-Davidlohr-Bueso-CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Oscars-David-Torcivia-CC-BY-SA-2.0

And the sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City has ended.



Eve’s Hollywood
Slow Days, Fast Company
Sex and Rage
L.A. Lady
I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, by Eve Babitz
Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., by Lili Anolik

I’m grouping these for convenience, but note that the biography is unworthy of such elite company, being barely adequate. As to Eve’s work, I have feminist issues, and I’m disappointed with her eventual swerve to the political right, but I get it, in fact I’ve writtenit. These works are about the sheer joy of Hollywood, and youth, and art and sex. The diminishes with each successive volume, And eventually you notice the writer skimming over the depths of love, but that’s why these books are generally a straightforward pleasure to read. You’d think they were an equally pleasurable job to write, so they pass that acid test with unabashed, extraordinary ease. I needed Eve this year, and I’m grateful for her.

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, by Jill Abramson
Just – terrifying. Huge, practically endless in fact, but nonetheless required reading. Not merely about the subversion of the news business, but also the blatant who cares of it, the grubbing after clicks, the poisonous self-referential greed, the way that no one even pretends to care. It’s not that ethics are pushed aside, it’s that they don’t exist.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson
Another gigantic volume but WOW! Sometimes Stephenson irritates the hell out of me, coming up with a perfectly brilliant concept and deserting it halfway. Not this time. This time it carries through and it’s terrific, a living exploration of myth and eternity, tech and neuroscience. Add in a valiant quest with notable swordplay and a worthy heroine, and of course a huge talking crow. Trust me, you’ll love it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
Fresh and bloody and once again way too long, but utterly enthralling. Mythology again, of a magical, creature-mad version of Africa fraught wit betrayal and tragedy and love and rage, and always oh so beautiful. Part of a trilogy, I understand, and if so I can’t wait for the next installment.

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo
So lovely and fated; I loved its varied, questioning cast, and I loved all that it left gloriously unexplained.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
A wonderful book about the evolving generations of everyone’s immigrant family.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
I was yes and no about this one. It was excellent, but also expected.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne
Really nice, gritty and desperate and alive. I was fully there.

The Wych Elm, by Tana French
First I was disappointed and rather contemptuous, but it’s kind of grown on me. I don’t love it but it makes its point.

The Heavens, by Sandra Newman
This was perfectly okay, just not as much fun as I expected.

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski:
I still can’t get a proper handle on Bukowski. I was there for the ride, is all. I find the realism deceptive. I was there for the 70s Hollywood stuff, just a passenger enjoying the trip, but not sure what to make of it all.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Yeah, endearing and all.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Oh God this was terrible, and signaled so far ahead, and ultimately made no sense whatsoever: why conceal a crime but save the evidence for the family to find! And how come Miss Nature Marsh Girl didn’t realize about the footprints?

Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
An intellectual exercise without much point beyond the obvious. One of those books people rave about that I just don’t get.

Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
See Trust Exercise, but much more so, all that insistent, intelligent privilege.

Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes
Don’t even. Like a Hallmark movie pretending to be better, but it’s not.

Also these three:
A Better Man, by Louise Penny
The Girl Who Lived Twice, by David Lagercrantz
Twisted Twenty-Six, by Janet Evanovich
I have to stop knee-jerk reading these series – especially Lagercrantz, those are a travesty. Evanovich is on auto-pilot and the thrill is long gone. Granted, Penny is still doing fine. Still.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
I didn’t buy into the theory; it seemed a little convenient, even slick. Okay. Forgettable.

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone
Part of my retro reading. A perfectly adequate and reasonable read about moral and cultural earthquakes. I realize it’s supposed  to be a classic, but blah.

Photo credits: thierry ehrmann, le four alchimique…Nutrisco Et Extinguo (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0) / Revise_D, Novel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

And yes, Worthy of This Great City remains on sale until the end of the month.


Is there any hope for the novel?

I ask because I’ve spent time this summer with crawdads and Evvie and stupid self-involved conversations with idiotic young women, and I wonder if the whole art form is over, and even if that’s maybe a good thing whatever my personal preferences.

Which are to passionately clutch my book to my heart and spew invective at the uncaring universe.

Only, if the novel can survive this current self-referential vapidity, what then? Where to, what next, and more to the point, how? And what is it, exactly, that’s savorless here: the form, or the stagnant, artificially sweetened thinking poured into it? 

I know, I know: I’ve been down this road before, but I think I’m a proven, trustworthy pathfinder for this particular journey. (Those who’ve encountered my own fiction might disagree; I’ll take that argument.) But there are plenty of fellow travelers: this blog was inspired in part by a comment by Ross Douthat on the passing of Toni Morrison, quoted by Brigid Delaney in The Guardian:  “Something has changed in the cultural status of the novel.” What a genteel little understatement! Delaney wonders about the impact of social media; I suspect that’s symptomatic of a wider, even more critical disturbance.

This is only a quick post on an off week, which is to say I haven’t thought all this through yet, but next weekend’s a holiday and I hope to post something better Labor Day. Until then, it’s a matter of letting the questions themselves point the way: is the novel still an important form, one that can move or enlighten societies, even nations? If not, why not? If yes, what the hell happened?

Suggestions welcome.



Photo credit: Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What’s Not New in Fiction

Ah, sour grapes. Listen, I read a fair amount of fiction, but if I wanted to describe what I’ve seen in the past few years I could do it with  a sadly short list of topics and types. They tend to overlap, I presume by necessity, which means they can be freely combined should you wish to construct a generic bestseller:

1. The woman who discovers / recovers herself. These stories tend to be pretty straightforward, even Little Women grade straightforward, which is really odd for a contemporary theme. They’re all: When will she finally figure out what everyone’s known all along? She never, ever figures out anything everyone hasn’t known all along, except maybe a relatively unimportant plot point. 

2. The New York or California novel (can be Dublin, etc.). This is what I think of as a DIRTY book, one you find again six months later and wonder: “Did I read that yet?” It’s highly intelligent and wannabe edgy, drops the names of artists and rappers, invariably details what the protagonist has for breakfast, if rife with job dissatisfaction, has a troubled but uninteresting romance, and  why the hell am I reading this pretentious, self-involved crap anyway?

3. The psychological mystery, increasingly feminist, although I suspect that tag is sometimes added after the fact. Here the violence is extreme, the danger real, secrets often span generations, and if it’s set in a small town things aren’t remotely what they seem. You know where you’re heading with this one; it’ll be unpleasant but cathartic. Have a fun trip.

4. The immigrant experience, which turns out to be difficult and often depressing. There’s generally a return to the home country, where strangely, things seem to be going better. This one is important, but on its own too familiar.

5. The fantasy element book, usually employing some kind of convergence or warp in time, and interesting because it exists. It hasn’t been done right yet. This renewed interest in the way time works is about something actually profound that deserves a decent book, and I think I’ll write it.

6. The adolescent experience, inner city or rural, featuring drugs and/or incest and/or physical abuse. It will end with the protagonist in a new if not necessarily more favorable situation.

7. The book about the gay / trans experience. This overlaps one or more other categories; I don’t know that I’ve seen it standing alone, but maybe that’s just me.  A couple of weeks ago I read a novel / memoir about a gay semi-rural immigrant dealing and the opioid epidemic. It was valid and quite decently done, simultaneously fresh and tired.  

8. The science fiction book about the Internet or else a dystopian future / the science fiction book about alien invaders or a mission to Mars. Sometimes a random gleam of light, an actual idea, winds through the simple survival mechanics of this genre; merely an invention, mind you, not an insight or revelation, not that kind of raw concept.

None of the above are anything like great, although they’re constantly described as such. All those pages, all those characters, and not one truly tears the heart. Compare, for example The Goldfinch, which is objectively a terrible book, derivative and sloppy, and I loved it.

Well, once artificial intelligence takes over the publishing business along with everything else, it will automatically select only excellent works of fiction precisely fitted to the above urgent topics. That’s because  AI is entirely self-referential. And after all, if you have to choose between equally good books, and you really can’t tell which is best, or why, go for the one that’ll make it a better world. The book-buying public, passionate adherents to the cause,  will naturally love it. 

I suggest AI favor climate change as well. I definitely need some fresh air.

And speaking of fiction, see the Home page for a link to purchase Worthy of This Great City, or read the Prologue on the Excerpts page.

Photo credits: Giang, Bookstore (CC BY 2.0) / Bovee and Thill, Artificial Intelligence (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0)

A republic, if you can keep it.

A Bastille Day update: Today in America we postulate a living, evolving, and therefore potentially inclusive constitution. We place our faith in its imperatives, expecting them to supersede the dictates of the past: of race and religion and political belief and individual need. If our faith is so strong, why should we fear the immigrant?

(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City has ended, as advised, and it’s back to $7.99. Hardly a fortune; how about a little support for the arts!)

July 7, 2019: So Mr. Franklin reportedly replied, when asked what form of government this little invention of a nation would take, and he had reason to wonder. We were so scattered, so lacking any kind of cohesion or clear purpose beyond just getting rid of the Brits.

Declaration of Independence, Independence Hall

I spent the 4th wandering my city, taking bad photos with my phone, wondering what all the revelers were celebrating. Certainly not the same thing. It reminded me of the Bicentennial, another scattered, regional or local event. Each to his own, baby. For liberty, for a day off from work, for a concert or food on the Ben Franklin Parkway, for splashing in a fountain or in the jets at Dilworth Plaza, or waiting in line to tour Independence Hall. For fireworks, of course.

Ben Franklin Parkway, July 4th 2019

 A republic, and not to push the old “as opposed to a democracy” argument, but here we are decrying the electoral vote because it did exactly what it was supposed to do; it provided  some measure of solidarity by forcing us to actually look at each other, if not willingly or with respect. Is it better to look away sometimes, and simply forge ahead? Is that necessary? Perhaps it is, but these things must be carefully weighed. 

Dilworth Plaza, 4th of July 2019

Then think about upholding ideas carefully crafted out of compromise and intelligence and forethought down in Philadelphia’s historic district, and whether those familiar, hallowed concepts could possibly endanger their own existence. Because that’s what I hear.

And this is no time for a crisis of faith.


(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City continues one more week only ($2.99).


Fountain at Logan Circle