Jonathan Franzen is as brilliant an essayist as novelist, and “The End of the End of Earth” collects fifteen essays, mostly, he tells us, from the last half decade. Franzen speaks deepest to me when he describes himself birding, and in “Why birds matter,” he is in full stylistic flight. In that essay, he asks about “our ability to discern right from wrong”: “Doesn’t a unique ability carry with it a unique responsibility?” He slams the bird-decimating “sinkholes” of Albania and Egypt in another essay. The title piece evokes an Antarctic trip conflated with memories of his deceased godfather. Franzen is angry, discerning, and intelligent, and I’d love to say the entire collection is as spellbinding as its peaks. But the major essays sit slightly oddly among odd short essays, book reviews, and appreciations of Edith Wharton and William Vollmann. Overall, this is a deft, if often kinetic collection that readily kills an evening of boredom.
“Roma” is subdued yet stark, arty but earthy, an odd film for someone like me, sitting at the askew end of the mainstream movie-going public. The writer/director/ cinematographer has shot the entire two and a quarter hours in a dreamy black and white palette with an expressive range of grays, and he has an instinct for drawing in close or backing out into chroreographed sweeps. The story of a year in the life of the maid of a Mexican middle-class family in the early 1970s is presented with little setup or concession to storytelling ease, so I was forced to concentrate hard, and I found that intoxicating. Yalitza Apiricio, the newbie actor playing the maid, is stunning, especially in her silences. Her relationship with her mistress’s children is rendered subtly and convincingly. The actual storyline – the plot if you like – is the film’s only drawback. Though there are scenes of great drama – the massacre, the surf – the overall narrative lacks punch. Call it verity if you like but parts of the showing dragged. Overall, a most intriguing expression of a vision, but one that needed, in my opinion, additional dramatic depth.
A gentle book by seemingly gentle Australian naturalist and writer, Harry Saddler, “The Eastern Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird” examines one distinctive species of migratory bird. The Easternn Curlew has a curved bill like an exaggerated scimitar and annually migrates 10,000 kilometers from the Arctic to wintering grounds in Australia, and returns again in time to breed. A few years ago, Saddler traveled to China and Korea, along the Curlew’s flyway, as well as throughout his state of Victoria, to investigate what he already knew, namely the incursions of developers into the shores that are its feeding stops, incursions that are slowly but surely destroying this splendid bird. Saddler writes smoothly and intelligently, with a wonderful air of curiosity, and the slim book is beautifully structured and paced. As he puts it: “And shorebirds can’t exist in the world that we are making. A bird that has long-distance flight so deeply and essentially ingrained in the very fabric of its existence can’t be held in a zoo. Migratory shorebirds will survive in the wild or not at all..” Even if you’re not a birder (and if not, why not?), this is a lovely example of penned naturalism in action.
There’s no one in this world who can immerse us, as watcher or reader, in the murky world of espionage, in which treachery is committed by allies as often as by. enemies, in which the spies are real people, as ably as can Olen Steinhauer. Episode 1 of “Berlin Station Season 3” threatened to unmoor my enthusiasm because its scene setting in Tallinn, Estonia, was so intricate. I’m happy to report that from Episode 2, the mighty engine of Steinhauer’s plotting chops and imagination roar into life. Richard Armitage is at his best as spy Daniel Miller fleeing the Spetnatz, Leland Orser (as Robert Kirsch, second in charge) is magnificently harried and driven, and station head Valerie (played wonderfully by Michelle Forbes) is the cool, principled leader. I was especially delighted when Ismael Cruz Cordova’s cameo role as action agent Rafael Torres explodes into a major constituent. The camerawork is tight and the locales are splendid and the pace simply rocks. No episode fails to deliver a twist, almost always a disastrous one for our heroes. Motives are more circuitous than ever. Oh, I could carry on, and if espionage thrillers are not your bad, look away, but otherwise, clock on for the ride. How can the final five episodes possibly maintain this standard?