LIZ SMITH: Books and Movies

We Love Books! We Love Movies! We Love … HBO, Nicole Kidman, and Michael Thomas!
 by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

London Library post-Blitz, c. 1940.

“A PROPER personal library is about rereading as much as anything else. About having at hand the authors and subjects you find yourself suddenly wanting to revisit … a library will satisfy both the intentional and the contingent, strike some kind of balance between happy accidents and careful planning. It will incorporate the blessings of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

That’s the veteran Michael Thomas, writing in the current issue of Quest, “Appreciations: The Joys of a Proper Library.”

Not sure whether or not I have what Mr. Thomas might consider a “proper” library. But despite periodic sweeps, many books crowd the shelves. The beside, the floor near the couch, etc.

Michael in front of his beloved library.

THREE BOOKS passed through, all read within a period of days, eliciting a myriad of emotions.

I WANTED Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on The American Right” to help me to understand the “other side” — the winning side of this past election.

The author spent several years in the environmentally devastated Louisiana bayou country. She befriended many, and her book is a repeated call to empathize and relate to these people, most of whom she insists are “good” and “kind.” I won’t argue her personal experiences. But in the end, her empathy was not enough.

The poor and unhealthy in this area refuse to accept “government handouts” (although they do, actually) and will continue to vote for the very politicians who ruin their land and livelihood. The disdain and dislike for liberals, northerners, and the “elite” is hardwired.

Hochschild offers no solutions at all. One is left as deeply depressed as ever that we can ever come together. It’s worth reading for the particular tales of hard living and admirable endurance, but we are left adrift in a polluted sinkhole of pride and prejudice that seems impossible to repair.

Author Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Next up was Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” an ambitious novel about a seemingly perfect couple who are (naturally) not at all. Although very well written, the two main characters, and all the supporting players, are relentlessly unlikeable.

The book picks up in the second part — told from the wife’s point of view — but her tale turns dramatically soap-opera-ish and doesn’t make her any more sympathetic or understandable. It’s a gloomy look at marital secrets and pretending. Don’t read this if your faith in human nature is tenuous or you cling to the myth of absolute truth in marriage.

Finally, I tore through Christopher Bollen’s “The Destroyers.” I’d loved his dark, dazzling 2015 thriller, “Orient” and although “The Destroyers” set in the deceptively crystalline Aegean, doesn’t quite match his North Fork Long Island tale, it comes awfully close.

What impressed me about this one is that nothing, plot wise, is really new. Old friends you haven’t seen in a while are not who you remember them to be … women who love you, perhaps don’t … power corrupts … wealth distorts … desperation leads one to astonishing decisions … you are not the nice person you thought you were. But Bollen writes so extraordinarily well, conjures up such striking imagery, smart dialogue and even a few jolting surprises. I loved it, and pondered the future of each character — those who survived, at any rate.

I did read one other book, as per the above mentioned Michael Thomas’ quote about “rereading.”

Trying to weed out some unnecessary titles I came across Steven Bach’s monumental 1992 biography “Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend.” Six hundred pages and not a word wasted! Richard Schickel, the noted film historian who just left us, declared that Bach’s “Marlene” was “the kind of biography all great stars deserve, but few ever receive.”

I thought I might read a few pages. I stayed for the entire meal — from Dietrich the 1920’s cabaret star in Berlin right through to her self-imposed exile in Paris! It is the absolute final word on Marlene, who really might have been the greatest star, by far. (There is also daughter Maria Riva’s equally gigantic memoir, with its fascinating if somewhat jaundiced point of view.)

I didn’t toss out Bach’s book. (Or Riva’s, either!)


THIS N’ THAT:

… WATCHING now: HBO’s “Big Little Lies” miniseries (finale this coming Sunday) Great performances by Reese Witherspoon (in one of those roles she was born to play), Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley. (Woodley is so much improved here she is like another actress!) Perhaps most striking of all, Nicole Kidman, as a woman coming to terms with an abusive marriage. Her therapy session scene last week, struggling through what she knows and what she can’t face (“every marriage has its problems”) offered some of the best acting of her career.


MOVIES I missed, but thank goodness for Netflix! “Passengers,” with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, was roasted by critics and ignored by audiences. I was more than pleasantly surprised. It is indeed a romance-drama-lost-in-space-sci-fi offering. (Critics said this was a bad thing.) But Lawrence is very good, and Pratt is very good indeed, as a man who does a terrible thing out of desperate loneliness. It is visually splendid. Of course there are “plot holes” — but come on, the science fiction genre is one big plot hole. It’s a movie, folks.

Also just caught up with “Jason Bourne.” The weakest of the Bourne franchise, with endless car chases attempting to shore up a risible plot, and absurd choices by people on the run. (Julia Stiles, vibrantly blonde and easily recognized — clearly, she never watched “The Americans.” Yeah, those disguises are silly, but at least they’re trying!) And I still don’t understand anything about Alicia Vikander’s role. I doubt she did, either. Matt Damon was suitably grim, still chasing his memory. This one made a lot of money, but maybe it’s time to let Jason B. off the cinematic hook. No reboots, either! All things must end.

… FINALLY, “Kong: Skull Island” is everything you want in total escapist entertainment. It’s popcorn heaven and a total suspension of disbelief. Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly — all terrific. Hugely enjoyable; nothing to see here but a good time, folks.

ONE last thing, another shout-out to Michael Thomas, who I often see at Le Veau d’Or restaurant on East 60th Street in Manhattan. We have a “wave-but-don’t-come-over” love affair.


Michael (at an uncharastically close distance) with Linda Yellen at Le Veau d’Or.

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