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Books & Films

People often ask writers what we read. This page is where I recommend the books (and also audiobooks, DVDs, and related media) that I've most enjoyed lately.

You can readily find all of these recommendations via online (and/or your local) book and DVD vendors, your local library system, audiobooks and radio plays from Audible.com and the BBC's AudioGo, and DVD or digital rentals.

Stars

Autumn 2012: Books

 

The Hippopotamus

by Stephen Fry

 

 

 

 

Written by British actor Stephen Fry (who also does an excellent job of narrating the audiobook), this novel is the engaging and often scathingly funny story of an embittered, liquor-soaked English poet, well past his glory days, who goes to stay at the country estate of old friends in order to investigate a strange claim about unusual events there. The writing is wonderful, and a number of things about this book really surprised me. Initially, for example, I loathed the protagonist so much, I wondered if I'd finish the book; but, to my surprise, I became very attached to him and thoroughly enjoyed his journey through the story. I also really enjoyed not being able to see where the novel was going—and then I thought where it finally went worked very well. Finally, I really liked that this articulate, intelligent book took me out of my comfort zone; there was a lot of edgy or offbeat humor, and there were several scenes which shocked me. (Please note that I do not recommend this book for anyone under eighteen.)

 


Finding Nouf

City of Veils

by Zoe Ferraris

 

Finding nouf

 

City Veils

The American author of this excellent suspense series lived in Saudi Arabia among her Arab husband's extended family for a number of years, which is the background she draws on for these novels. These are murder mysteries set in Jeddah, featuring a Saudi female forensics specialist in the police department who's employed under the auspices of a controversial new government program to allow some women into the work force. She winds up investigating several cases in cooperation with a male desert guide whose rigidly traditional values ensure that he's very uncomfortable with her professional role and even more uncomfortable with the personal relationship that develops between them. I've read the first two books in the series and am looking forward to reading the next one (Kingdom of Strangers). The writing is very good, the characterization is complex and compelling, and the novels fascinatingly explore daily life inside one of the most closed societies in the modern world.

 

Silent Mercy

by Linda Fairstein

Silent mercy

 

 

Hats off to Linda Fairstein, who's still maintaining the quality in her series after more than a dozen books, which is no easy feat. The protagonist of these well-written novels is a sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan—a position which Fairstein held in real life for over two decades, so the books are written with considerable expertise on the subject matter. Fairstein's novels also typically incorporate the history and culture of New York City into the plots. In this instance, it becomes evident that a demented killer is targeting women religious leaders when murder victims are found in some of the city's oldest religious institutions.

 

The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed

by Joseph D'Agnese
and Denise Kiernan

Money Book

 

I was so thrilled to find this book, I sent a "thank you!" email to the authors after I finished reading it. So I pass along this recommendation, in case you (or someone you know) might need it, too. I've been a full-time, self-employed, self-supporting freelance writer for over twenty years—and in all that time, I have never been able to find financial advice aimed at me (or people like me). Not in books, not on TV, no on the radio, not in lectures, not online, and not when I go to see financial people in person. All financial advice that I have ever come across anywhere has always assumed that everyone in the world, including me, earns a salary from an employer and that a specific and unvarying sum of income is reliably deposited into our bank accounts every week. But that's simply not the case for anyone who works freelance or who's self-employed (which is, in fact, millions of people in this country, for goodness sake!). So I was delighted to read this book, the only financial advice I've ever come across for people like me.

 

How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater

Attack of the Theater People

by Marc Acito

 

Audiobook
Audiobook

 

paid college
Attack


Jeff Woodman does a tremendous job narrating the audiobook versions of these two hilarious novels by Marc Acito, both featuring the same protagonist (and including many of the same characters in each book). In How I Paid For College, a high school senior with his heart set on attending Julliard resorts to various money-raising schemes after his father refuses to pay for his education there. In the sequel, Attack of the Theater People, the same young man has to figure out how to cope when things at Julliard don't work out as expected. Both books are fun, energetic comedies set in the world of young aspiring actors and theater students.

 

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

by Patrick Radden Keefe


Snakehead

 

Among the various books I've been reading as background material for The Misfortune Cookie (Esther Diamond #6, scheduled for 2013 release), this one stands out as a riveting read even for someone who's not researching a novel. Snakeheads are smugglers of human cargo—illegal immigrants from China. The most famous snakehead in our time went to prison after a ship full of her customers floundered within sight of New York City and tragedy ensued. This book covers the story of that woman, this ship, and its survivors, and it expands from there to explore the history of Chinese immigration, legal and illegal, over the decades. While that probably doesn't sound exciting (I mean, I didn't think so when I picked it up; I was just doing research), this is actually a fascinating, well-researched, and well-written book which reads like an unputdownable thriller.

 

A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance

by William Manchester

 

World Fire

 

This is a wonderfully written and fascinating book which explores the transition from the medieval world to the Renaissance and the dawn of the modern age, mostly in terms of how Europeans of the 14c-16c saw and thought about their world. It's about the societal shift away from an era when very little changed at all over the course of centuries, to an era when there were huge societal upheavals within an average lifetime. The book is chock full of interesting information, absorbing anecdotes, and amazing (also appalling) historical figures.

 

The Submission

by Amy Waldman


 

In this bestselling novel, New York holds a contest for the design of a memorial to the victims of 9/11, to be constructed at Ground Zero. After reviewing several thousand anonymous submissions, the committee members in charge of selecting the winner... discover they've chosen a design submitted by a Muslim. He's an American, a resident of New York, and a professional architect; but from the moment he's chosen, the fact that he's a Muslim (though he isn't at all religious) becomes the focus of intense and widespread controversy which leads to an ever-more complicated and conflicted situation for everyone involved. I thought the issues raised in this novel were things a reader could only find new or thought-provoking if she's been chained to the floor of an underwater cave for the past decade, since they've all been hashed over (and are still being hashed over) in our society ever since 9/11. Nonetheless, I thought it was a very well-written, well-structured, and absorbing novel. Above all, I thought the characterization was very well done. Instead of making the Muslim architect a sympathetic character with whom the reader naturally sides, Waldman wrote a frustrating and puzzling character—the way people can be, damn them! And I think that made a tremendous difference in how good this book was.


Stars

Radio Plays
Radio


I'm a huge fan of radio plays! Although it's a form of entertainment which essentially vanished from the US after the advent of TV and has never made a serious comeback, radio plays are still popular in the UK and still regularly produced there (mostly by the BBC). Thanks to the BBC's excellent online audio store, AudioGo, we in the US can easily access their truly massive catalogue of wonderful radio plays. These are some of my favorites, all of them available as downloads from AudioGo. (Look for audiobooks there, too. They've got a huge selection.)



Sherlock Holmes
Holmes


This BBC series seems to have adapted the complete Holmes canon. There are huge number of radio play here, each of them about 45 minutes long, all of them starring Clive Merrison—who has a fantastic voice and who has become my all-time favorite Holmes. These are extremely well-done, with good scripts, fine actors, and excellent production values.

 

Agatha Christie
Pale HorseCrooked House3-Act Tragedy


BBC Radio has also adapted a huge number of Agatha Christie's works: Miss Marple mysteries, Hercule Poirot mysteries, stand-alone mysteries—all of them typically 90-150 minutes—and short stories (adapted as half-hour radio plays). These are all very well done, and the casts include quite a few familiar actors.

 

Old Harry's Game
Old Harry's game


This blasphemously delightful comedy series, which ran for about 6 seasons, features comedian Andy Hamilton playing Satan, engaged in a complicated relationship with the Professor (a deceased rational humanist who doesn't believe in Hell, despite being there) while being troubled by his demon underlings having identity crises as they torment the unrepentant damned.

 

Charles Dickens
TalePickwick


I particularly like these radio plays of my two favorite Dickens tales, A Tale of Two Cities (very atmospheric) and The Pickwick Papers (tremendously charming and lighthearted). These are fairly long plays, several hours each.

 

Lord Peter Wimsey
Wimsey


All of Dorothy L. Sayers' novels about a charming, aristocratic, man-about-town amateur sleuth have been adapted as full-length radio plays, featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.

 

Jeremy Hardy Speaks To the Nation


Probably my favorite comedian, Jeremy Hardy is a regular weekly panelist on the BBC's Friday Night Comedy, which is my favorite podcast. He has also recorded (so far) 8 seasons of this wonderfully witty and entertaining half-hour sketch-comedy show. Some of the political satire will perhaps be lost on you (as it often is on me), since it involves domestic British politics (and, moreover, is a few years old by now), but this is nonetheless a thoroughly engaging comedy series.

 

Saturday Night Fry
Fry

Before he partnered in the wonderful sketch-comedy series on television, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Stephen Fry created this oddball sketch-comedy series on the radio in the late 1980s. There were only six episodes (possibly because Fry & Laurie soon thereafter moved to TV), and this collection is a real gem of offbeat, witty comedy. Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson join Fry in most of the episodes.

Stars

Autumn 2011 : DVDs

 

I'm assuming you've seen or at least heard about Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey; if not, then I assume you've been dead and buried for well over a year. Either way, you certainly don't need me to tell you about them. I'll stick to suggesting things you could conceivably have missed. (Note: I don't watch cable/broadcast TV or go to the cinema; so anything I recommend here is available via purchase, rental, and/or library loan.)
The Hour
(2011)

 

Hour

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this detailed, engaging, intelligent, British thriller, which had a very strong script, good direction, tremendous production design, and a wonderful cast. Set in the early days of BBC TV , it's the story of a weekly news analysis TV show, a fairly new concept at the time (1950s), peopled by talented journalists but hampered by government control of the BBC's reporting standards. The central plotline is an eccentric young journalist's (Ben Whishaw) dogged investigation of what appears to be a society girl's suicide, but which gradually grows into a political scandal of murder, espionage, and treason as the reporter untangles the threads. Whishaw is particularly outstanding as the journalist pursuing the "suicide" story, but the whole cast is very strong—and I particularly enjoyed the always-excellent Anna Chancellor as a tough foreign correspondent who's brilliant at her job but haunted by the things she has seen during war. I gather there's going to be a second season of this show, and I look forward to it!

Lemon Tree
(2008)

In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles


 

Lemon Tree

 

Hiam Abbass gives a tremendous performance as a Palestinian widow whose lemon grove is about to be destroyed because the Israeli government thinks the grove poses a security threat to the Israeli government official who has recently moved in next door to her farm. Having lived a quiet, conventional life until now, the widow decides to fight this injustice all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, and she befriends a young Palestinian lawyer who helps her do so. The men of her village, having cheerfully refused to help her when she consulted them, soon start trying to menace and bully her, condemning her for associating with the lawyer and for trying to take charge of her fate. Meanwhile, the Israeli government official's marriage starts unraveling as he veers between genuine security concerns and shallow political ploys in his determination not to back down as the widow's cause attracts national and international attention. Overall, this is a very good portrayal of how ordinary people, such as this widow on her farm, are squeezed on all sides by the Arab-Israeli conflict. I worked in this region for six months, the year before this film was made, and I encountered many situations like this.

 

Up At the Villa
(2000)

 

Up Villa

 

The setting of this movie, an extravagantly beautiful, lush Italian villa near pre-WWII Florence, is enchantingly seductive, and this elegant film makes the most of it. Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as a pleasant, attractive English widow who comes across as sensible and who certainly has some spine, but who nonetheless consistently makes ill-considered choices (particularly where men are concerned) that affect her fate. A number of the supporting cast are so good, I would have enjoyed seeing them have more screen time, such as Ann Bancroft (poisonously engaging as an older woman who married for money and position) and Derek Jacobi (delightful as a notorious hanger-on), and I found Edward Fox endearing as the conventional, accomplished, older bastion of the establishment who wants to marry the unwise heroine. I thought Sean Penn was badly miscast here as a European-educated, American upper-crust playboy born with a silver spoon in his mouth; but I thought he nonetheless gave a well-crafted performance in a role to which he just happened to be inherently ill-suited.

The Secrets In Their Eyes
(2010)

In Spanish, with English subtitles

 

Secrets Eyes

 

This compelling film stayed with me long after I watched it. A retired Argentine police detective starts working on a novel in which he reexamines a Buenos Aires murder case that he investigated and which has haunted him for 20 years. His exploration reopens old wounds, renews an old love, and reveals a shocking resolution to the case which, though darkly disturbing, frees him at last from his anguish. The movie is well-written, well-acted, tautly directed, and full of twists and turns that are both surpising and yet logical. Beautifully done and very memorable.

Sherlock
(2010-2012)

 



This enjoyable British series sets Sherlock Holmes in the modern world, investigating cases in 21st century London while his pal, an ex-army doctor named John Watson, makes him famous by blogging about his exploits. Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes is edgy, interesting, and engaging, thoroughly believable as an eccentric and flawed genius with extraordinary deductive skills. The stories and characters in the series create modern riffs on old favorites, and the series is generally a lot of fun.

 

The City of Your Final Destination
(2009)

 


City Destination

 

A timid writer travels to an isolated, crumbling estate in Uruguay to convince a reluctant family to authorize him to write the biography of the deceased novelist who was the leading light of their oddball private world. This is a movie that could have been extremely tedious in less capable hands. But, as is often the case with Merchant Ivory productions, it was done so skillfully that it works: gorgeous scenery and settings, beautiful cinematography, gentle and subtle direction that keeps the story moving along, an excellent and well-crafted script adaptation, and very strong performances by actors capable of making us feel some affection for these peculiar characters (some of whom could easily be repellant if played by less skillful actors). I really enjoyed it.

The Secret Life of Words
(2005)

Secret Words

 

This film gets off to such a slow start, I considered turning it off after a while. But because of the strong acting, I decided to stick with it—and am very glad I did. It builds to a very powerful and moving climax. Sarah Polley plays a survivor of war crimes who winds up as temporary nurse to the survivor of an oil rig accident, and the two of them gradually form a close, healing bond. Its a very uncluttered film, with a sincere script, gentle direction, and solid acting.

Undertow
(2009)

In Spanish with English subtitles

 

undertow


This is a beautifully done film about a fisherman in a small, traditional village in Peru who struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality and his love for another man. One of the things I really liked about this film was how strong the fisherman's wife was, and the way the various characters struggled with and confronted their problems and choices. The characters are real individuals, and the decisions they reach are very personal and specific—and so this story works well. I also enjoyed the strong performances from all the actors, particularly the three leads.

 



Carlos: Miniseries
(2010)

In English, and in multiple languages with English subtitles

carlos


I found this miniseries about the life of Carlos, the world's most notorious terrorist for 20 years, absolutely riveting. I wound up watching the whole thing compusively in a two-day period, completely absorbed and fascinated. Since this series covers a long period and Carlos was, to say the least, peripatetic, you have to pay attention, and the movie counts on you to fill in some gaps yourself (ex. Carlos goes through women almost as fast as he goes through cigarettes, and the movie seldom explains when/how/why he recruits them or sheds them). The acting, the script, the direction, and the pace are all excellent, carrying you through a very complicated life. The period setting is also excellent—I really felt I was watching the 1970s, rather than something self-consciously set in the 1970s. In particular, Edgar Ramirez gives an amazing performance in the lead role, including aging believably over the course of the two decades of Carlos' life portrayed here. Carlos is absolutely repellant—but also so compelling that I couldn't look away for the 6 hours this story takes to tell.

Jonathan Creek
(1997-2010)

 

This quirky British mystery series ran for four seasons (about six episodes per season), as well as airing four stand-alone specials (about ninety minutes each). The central character is the brilliant, nerdy, rumpled Jonathan Creek, likeably portrayed by British comedian Alan Davies. Know for his "lateral thinking," Creek's day job is designing ingenius illusions and contraptions for a famous stage magician (a hilariously narcissistic oaf, played charmingly by Stuart Milligan from the second season onward). In his down time, Creek investigates bizarre locked-room murders in partnership with a temperamental investigative journalist (played by the delightful Caroline Quentin), dismissing the obvious in order to figure out how seemingly impossible crimes were done. Quentin moved on after the third season, and although her replacement (the tart Julia Sawalha) was fine, the quality of the scripts declined sharply around that time, though the show is still fairly enjoyable. In any case, the first three years are absolutely delightful.

 

Jab We Met
(2007)

In Hindi with English subtitles

 

Jab We met


A depressed young businessman (Shaihd Kapur) inadvertently winds up on a road trip with a wacky, maddening Sikh girl (played by Kareena Kapoor) with whom he eventually falls in love as she changes his outlook on life. This is a pleasant Bollywood romantic comedy, with the usual twists and turns. Nothing very surprising, but an enjoyable ride, nicely done. I'm not a Kareena Kapoor fan, but she does a capable job with her engaging role. I thought Shahid Kapur was wonderful in this, especially considering how easily his soft-spoken, diffident character could've been (but was not) completely overshadowed by the madcap, eccentric heroine and her emotional extremes. In particular, I enjoyed the potrayal of the hero's love for the heroine being expressed through his supportive friendship and his strong desire to see her happy. The film is rounded out with some gorgeous rural and mountain scenery that's an additional pleasure to see onscreen.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(2006)

 

This story follows the members of a rural division of the Provos/IRA 1920-22 in Ireland, a very turbulent period in Ireland's overall turbulent history. It focuses in particular on the compelling story of Damien, a young man who would, above all, really rather go study medicine, but who eventually decides he has no honorable choice but to join the Irish rebellion, and who subsequently commits acts which he feels can only be justified by the establishment of a free Irish Republic... which the eventual peace treaty doesn't really satisfy. The movie portrays how complicated and factionalized Ireland was in 1920, and how little that situation changed when the independence treaty was ratified, though various players assumed different positions as matters progressed. A very powerful and interesting movie (though you may, like me, struggle a bit with understanding the dialect).

The Ghost Whisperer
(2005-2010)

 

ghost Whisperer

I watched all five seasons of this show on DVD this past year and enjoyed it very much. Jennifer Love Hewitt carries the series very well as a strong young woman who embraces her supernatural gift, the ability to see and talk to ghosts, and who balances this with her life as a small-town antiques dealer, wife, and (eventually) mother. She's ably supported by an engaging cast of characters. I particularly liked David Conrad as her good-natured husband, but my favorite supporting character is the delightfully quirky anthropologist, played by Jay Mohr. There's always a nice mix of comedy, drama, and sentiment in the stories, and although often corny, the plot resolutions are done with enough sincerity to make it work. The stories can be very emotional and the hauntings are often initially scary or creepy, but the show never gets too dark and never goes overboard with gore or scare-factor. I thought this was all-round a nicely-done paranormal series with a good feel to it, one that kept me coming back to enjoy more episodes for the whole run.

Breaking the Maya Code
(2008)

 

Maya Code

 

Absolutely fascinating 90-miunute documentary, well worth watching. It covers more than a century of scholars all over the world trying to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs found in lost cities excavated in the jungles of Central America and also in the few remaining Mayan books which survived destruction by the Conquistadores. This is a riveting portrayal of an elaborate and playful system of writing, the lost world and history it reveals across the centuries, and the various colorful, dedicated people who worked for decades to decode the mysterious writing system. One of the things I found so interesting was how many key figures in solving the puzzle of Maya script stumbled into the subject by chance and came from backgrounds such as art or architecture rather than archaeology.

 

Summer Hours
(2008)

In French with English subtitles

Summer Hours


This is not normally my sort of movie, since it's basically a slice-of-life story without a strong plot or any real conflict; and yet I really enjoyed it. Set in contemporary France, it's about three adult siblings whose mother dies, leaving them to settle her estate, which includes a rambling country house and a valuable collection of art and antiques. The film follows the siblings as they make disposition for all these things during the months following their mother's death. The house and its contents have been in the family for several generations, and every object contains memories, stories, and personal associations. There's a sense of sadness about this family's continuity coming to an end; the next generation of this scattered clan will never know this house or its stories. But there's also an acknowledgment that change is natural; the mother's attachment to the past and to the objects in the house is seen by most of the younger generation as something best allowed to pass away with her. Done with a light touch and a very naturalistic style, this is an unusual gem of a film, and well worth seeing.

 

Detroit 1-8-7
(2010)
Detroit


It's a shame this series got canceled after just one season. It's very good. A solid police procedural series with good scripts, strong performances, and interesting characters—and the most interesting character of all is the setting itself, the city of Detroit. Speaking as someone who occasionally visits friends in the Detroit area, I now realize how much I've failed to appreciate about this tormented, interesting city. Although the scripts keep their focus on the investigations and characters, many of the episodes include information about the history of Detroit and its current conflicts, as well as the different neigborhoods and activities there. The show's strong feel for its setting is enhanced by the production's on-site location filming, which includes many shots of amazing architecture and interesting cityscapes. It's so rare to see US TV series with authentic regional texture set any place besides New York or L.A., it's really a shame this show got canceled.


Mongol
(2007)

English subtitles

 

Mongol


Portraying the rise of Genghis Khan, this is an old-fashioned, high-adventure, sweeping historical epic tale of larger than life characters and struggles, a visually gorgeous film with charismatic actors and exotically unfamiliar costumes, settings, and customs. It does a good job of focusing on the more personal events of Genghis Khan's early life, such as his loss of his father, finding a wife, escaping captivity by his enemies (multiple times), and so on. It is, however, disjointed in other places, relying heavily on miraculous events to solve some of the protagonist's biggest problems, and sometimes changing his circumstances drastically without explanation (such as portraying him alone and friendless in one scene, and then as the leader of many loyal men in the next scene). The film ends at the point in his life where Genghis Khan united all the fractious Mongol clans under his rule. I gather this was the first film of a planned trilogy, but it's so far the only one I can find. I hope they're able to make the rest of the story, since I'd really like to see it.

 

 

Smash
(2012)

Smash

 

I read recently that this series has been renewed for next season, and—speaking as an addicted fan of the show—I'm delighted! The first season portrays the (fictional) writing, casting, fundraising, and mounting of a Broadway musical, from initial concept through the first out-of-town performance (so we're not on Broadway yet, Virginia). The show is the brainchild of Theresa Rebeck, who's originally from my hometown of Cincinnati, and whose Broadway play, Seminar (starring Alan Rickman), I saw earlier this year in New York. The characters in Smash include a successful musical-theatre writing team who are each having problems with their personal lives, a producer in the middle of a bitter divorce, a womanizing director who can't get along with anyone, a couple of talented young actresses vying for the lead role in the new musical, a spoiled Hollywood star whom the show's backers would rather see in the lead role, and a dangerously ambitious production assistant. The regular cast members are all terrific (and there are many familiar faces and names here—ex. Debra Messing, Jack Davenport, Anjelica Huston ), and there are numerous engaging guest appearances, too (ex. Bernadette Peters). I thoroughly enjoyed the first season and look foward to the second.

 


Previous Recommendations

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Perennial Favorites

Autumn 2010
Winter 2010
Summer 2009
Autumn 2008
Summer 2008
Bollywood Special Edition