Thinking about Prequels

I just finished reading Charles Finch’s newest book in his Lennox series, The Woman in the Water, which is a prequel to the series.  It got me started thinking about the nature of prequels.  When I bought the book at my local bookstore, Mystery on Main, the owner remarked that it seemed a bit strange to have a prequel to a well established series.  Then in this morning’s New York Times Book Review Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves.”

So what is a prequel all about?  I’m thinking mainly about  some television series like Tennison, the prequel to the great Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect and Endeavor about the young John Morse as well as The Woman in the Water.  When there are great characters we always want more.  We want to know more about them.  Who exactly are they?  What makes them tick?  Where did they come from?  These three prequels attempt to answer these questions.

I have to say that I could never get into Tennison.  Maybe because there was no Helen Mirren, but I think it is because it tried too hard.  Perhaps too much focus on Jane Tennison and not enough on the stories.  But I have to admit I only watched the first two episodes.  The character seemed to be much like the older Tennison without much indication of how she got there.  The same tensions with her family and her same predilection for sleeping with the wrong men exist without much explanation.


Fred Thursday and Endeavor Morse.  Photo copyright by ITV,

Endeavor is another story.  I’ve read a number, although not all, of the Colin Dexter books featuring Morse and I totally missed the original Inspector Morse television series with John Thaw.  (One can purchase only the European DVDs that won’t play in U.S. machines.)  So perhaps I love Endeavor because I never saw the original series, but more likely it is because they are great stories on their own plus they have the great Fred Thursday character.  We learn a great deal about the young Morse including that he was raised as a Quaker.  Through the first four seasons, one can see him mature, but also glimpse the seeds of the irascible man he becomes, at least in the books.  But he is at the core always the intuitive detective.  One does get a glimpse of the mature Endeavor Morse through the eyes of Inspector Robbie Lewis in the wonderful TV series, Inspector Lewis as Lewis recalls his old boss in several of the early episodes.  Morse even helps solve a murder from his grave.

blue deathAfter I finished reading The Woman in the Water I went back and re-read the first book in the series, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I first bought the book for my mother who, like me  was a voracious consumer of mysteries.  I remember her saying that Finch was trying too hard to made Charles Lennox into a Peter Wimsey like character.  On my re-reading, I find that somewhat true, but also that it is not as well written as the later books including Woman.  We do learn a great deal about the 23 year old Lennox including his love for Elizabeth (Jane) and how he and his brother lost their father.  In Beautiful Blue Lennox is described as being close to 40.  I wonder if there will be other books filling in that gap.  In the meanwhile, I’m like Marilyn Staiso and just enjoying the the series.




Curling and skating

For me, the Sochi Olympic Games are just about over.  I’ll try to catch the men’s curling finals, but other than that, I’m done.  Yes, I know that there are a few more days to go including hockey, but I probably won’t be watching.  I’ve always loved the skating and this year, decided I needed to figure out curling.  I still don’t understand all the rules of either sport, but I’m getting there.  I just hope that unlike skating, the curling rules don’t keep changing on me.

Curling diagram

Curling diagram

Turns out that curling is very interesting and can be quite dramatic.  It is a game not only of skill, but also of strategy.  As my husband said a reason for kids to learn math and geometry.  It is not fast like hockey, but more like baseball.  Maybe that’s why I like it.

Two stories in the New York Times sum up my feeling about skating this year.  The first was a comment by Gia Kourlas.

…It’s not just the flawed judging system, in which skaters who hope to win a medal must focus more energy on racking up points than on refining their artistic point of view, or even Scott Hamilton’s effusive screech.

Not much has changed since the 2010 Olympics. For many figure skaters, artistry remains that elusive muse. The costumes are appallingly infantile. Why are male skaters so enamored of suspenders? What’s the deal with grown women wearing skating dresses that look as if they were found on the sale rack at the tiara store? It’s as if competitors were still on the junior circuit and hadn’t made a commitment: beauty pageants or skating.

Figure skating is gliding, and a jump is a continuation of that flow, a breathtaking release in which the human body conquers gravity and soars. But in competition, jumps have increasingly become cause for anguish. Must we be made to feel so worried? The men’s final, which took place on Friday, made a case for why figure skating has turned into a coldblooded circus act.

Four years ago, quadruple jumps weren’t the norm. Perhaps by 2018, skaters will have figured out how to land them. This year, it was disheartening to see so many go down, a list that included the Japanese gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu. The men’s free skate was as nuanced as a rodeo on ice, where the quadruple jump was the equivalent of a bucking bronco.

I have to say that I just finished watching the women’s free skate and the top 5 or 6 women did have more skating and artistry than the men did, but one still worried that they would go splat.  For Gracie Gold, it was one of the differences between a medal and 4th place, but looking at the final standing, Adelina Sotnikova used her jumps to beat the artistry of Yu-na Kim and Carolina Kostner.  There will be lots of debate about whether she got a hometown Russian advantage or not.  But still the women were much more fun to watch than the men.

Forget about the perennial question: Is figure skating an art or a sport? The main concern is the disintegration of performance quality. In most programs, you can tell that the word “compete” has replaced “perform,” and the effect is devastating as you endure — if you’re a die-hard — rounds of skaters gritting their teeth as they pop from one element to the next.

You could find solace in two skaters. The American Jason Brown, a happier version of Mitch Kramer in the film “Dazed and Confused,” didn’t attempt a quadruple jump. He’s only 19, but his skating is already rich, enhanced by his flexibility, deep edge-work and fleet spins. He performs as he skates; the two are interchangeable. And the French veteran Brian Joubert, whose scores didn’t reflect his artistry, seemed like the only man out there.

I have to say I was surprised by Joubert’s scores; I enjoyed watching him a lot.  I hope that when Jason Brown gets that quad, I hope he doesn’t give up actually skating and performing.

Torvill and Dean 1984

Torvill and Dean 1984

But my favorite is not pairs, but ice dancing.  I discovered it along with millions of others in 1984 when Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean skated Bolero.  This year the ice dancing was dominated by whether Charlie White and Meryl Davis could pull off a gold or the Canadians would repeat.

Ice dancing ended on Monday, and, as expected, the Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White defeated their Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for the gold. Both couples have soul: Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir meld sophistication with emotional, fervent sensitivity, skating with a sweeping creaminess.

And Ms. Davis and Mr. White are fascinating; like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they’re opposites. The tension between Ms. Davis’s cool, exotic plasticity and Mr. White’s surfer bum earthiness forges an unexpected harmony in their skating. They truly skate as if they were dancing: Floating airily from one edge to the other, they skim over the ice with a velvety touch.

That is what skating should be about as far as I’m concerned.  Yes, like curing, it is an athletic even, but also like curling, it should seem effortless and serious fun.

What was terrific about getting to watch the skating live were the commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir.  If for no other reason one had to tune in to see was Johnny was wearing.  The New York Times had this review of them.

One of the eureka moments of the 2012 London Games was that live television and online coverage helped push viewership upward in prime time.

So NBCSN was endowed with live hours to show team figure skating, pairs, ice dancing, and the men’s and women’s programs. And it got its own announcers: Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s gold medalist, and Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian, along with Terry Gannon, who called figure skating for ABC.

NBCSN’s announcers call every skater, every pair and every dance team. NBC’s team calls a sampling.

For example, NBCSN showed all 30 competitors in the men’s short program. NBC taped eight or nine of them.

“Prime time is so time-structured,” said David Michaels, the coordinating producer of figure skating for NBC Olympics. “We do so much juggling.” But with such a continuous flow on NBCSN, Weir and Lipinski have more time to tell stories, often about skaters who never show up on NBC.

Asked if he wanted to call every skating routine, Hamilton said, with a laugh, “I’m not sure I’d want to work that hard.”

Weir said that his skater-after-skater-after-skater schedule has been exhausting. “Tara and I take our work seriously,” he said. “She’s my work wife. And she’s a slave driver, so we sit up and study until she’s satisfied. We not only plan how we look, but we’re up until three in the morning looking at all the skaters’ backgrounds and biographies.”

Tara and Johnny

Tara and Johnny

And today they even had Terry Gannon color-coordinated with his pocket square.

Weir is generally calmer yet colorful. And his chemistry with Lipinski suggests an ongoing, enthusiastic conversation among confidants.

“We’re very good friends, and we have the best time educating people about our sport,” Weir said. Asked if he thinks he has surprised viewers who might have expected analysis as flashy as his wardrobes, he said: “I come from a small town in Pennsylvania, so I’ve spent a lot of time educating my family about my sport. It’s something I’ve learned to do without being aggressive or arrogant.”

And I did learn a lot about what to look for and how certain moves are done by listening to them.  As Gia Kourlas said in her commentary

While never short of opinions, they’re generally quiet during performances. While they get to the nitty-gritty of technique — pointing out when skaters are flat on their feet, or why they fall out of synchronization — they also have information about more obscure aspects of skating, like how ice temperature affects a performance (speed skating requires harder ice than figure skating) or how male ice dancers have been known to build up their heels for extra height.

It helps that Mr. Weir is a champion of inspired one-liners. While watching several near collisions during a men’s warm-up, he blurted, “It is Nascar out here in the world of rhinestones.”

We were entertained and educated.

So except for men’s curing tomorrow, my Olympics are done.  But I have to say I learned a lot – and had some fun.

Picture of Curling Ice Sheet:

Photograph of Torvill and Dean:  The Daily Mail

Photograph of Lipinski and Weir:  John Berry/Getty Images

Are the Obamas the real life Huxtables?

The Cosby show Huxtable family was never the “typical” African American family or really a typical American.  For one thing, they lived in a New York brownstone had a doctor father and lawyer mother (who were happily married to each other), and they had, with five kids, a larger family than most.  The Cosby Show which premiered in 1984 was revolutionary in depicting through a sit-com format, a happy and successful black family.  Yes, it told America, black people are successful and have the same goals and the same problems as other families.  Whether we were like a sit-com family or not, all of us of a certain age secretly wanted to be like the Nelsons or grow up like the Beaver.  Then we had the Huxtables.

I ran across this story in the Guardian this morning wondering if the Obama family were not somehow the real life Huxtables.

Americans have always been fascinated by the lives of first families, much as Brits are with the royal family. The people who live in the White House however, unlike the occupants of Buckingham Palace, are meant to reflect ordinary lives and hopes and dreams. It rarely happens, of course. Nobody would say the Kennedys, the Reagans, the Clintons and the Bushes were normal folks. But many Americans do recognise themselves in the Obamas.

“From the kids with braces and basketball games to the Portuguese water dog and the date nights, the Obamas are right out of central casting as an upper-middle class American family with, of course, the very big exception that they live in the White House,” says Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize for journalism and the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a book that documents the migration of black Americans across their own country.

“I think they’ve exposed the country and the world to a slice of African-American family life that is larger than many people realise – college-educated people with high ideals for their children. They’re like The Cosby Show come to life. They have endured an intense amount of attention and scrutiny and come out about as normal and quintessentially American as anyone might hope to see.”

I think the Obamas have worked hard to make life in the White House as normal as possible.

…Michelle Obama is the “mom-in-chief” but she expects the president to do his share.

When the children were younger, she has said she would rise early to go to the gym and her husband would feed and dress the girls. The family sits down to dinner at 6.30 most days when he is in Washington, and on Sunday afternoons the president has a standing date to play basketball with his daughters. They try to make their White House quarters as much like a normal home as possible. The girls have to clean their rooms and make their beds, and Malia does her own laundry. There is no TV until homework is finished.

With four more years in the White House, the Obamas are aware that their daughters will spend their formative teenage years in the spotlight. The press corps in Washington has agreed not to routinely write about the girls unless they are with their parents at formal events. Both girls are regularly spotted around town with their friends and they have been allowed rite-of-passage experiences such as attending summer camp – though with secret service agents in tow.

I know the President has joked about the moment his daughters start to date saying he won’t be too worried because they have men with guns with them.

“I think they are the first kids in the White House growing up where everybody’s got a cell phone and everybody’s watching,” Michelle Obama told the women’s website iVillage last month. She has warned her daughters not to be “bratty”. “You may be having a moment but somebody could use that moment and try to define you for ever,” she told them.

So far, it seems the girls are making their parents proud. There was a touching moment on stage last week when 11-year-old Sasha nudged her father several times as he celebrated his win. “Turn around, Daddy!” she said, urging him not to forget the people on the other side of the stage. He duly heeded her advice and the crowd roared its approval.

We Americans should be proud that we have a real family in the White House.  Whether the Obamas are the Huxtables or not, the girls are fun to watch grow up.

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, right, and their daughters Malia and Sasha, left.

The Obama family on November 7.  Photography by Jason Reed/REUTERS

Al Franken, Superhero



According to the Minnesota Independent

As we reported this morning, Sen. Al Franken will be the subject of a new comic book that — unlike the one recently created about Rep. Michele Bachmann — is expected to be largely favorable. The maker of the new book, Bluewater Productions, sends artwork for the cover of the new comic, which is part of its Political Power line of biography comics.

According to Michael Cavna’s Comic Riffs blog in the Washington Post

For its line of political comic books, Bluewater Productions has featured such figures as Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. In May, the publisher will have an entirely new subject.Why? Because — as the old “Saturday Night Live” catchphrase went — he’s Al Franken.

Bluewater announces its bio-comic “Political Power: Al Franken” — to hit comic shops in May — will “trace the senator’s rise ‘from Saturday Night Live’ writer … to radio talk-show host to viable Senate candidate.”

The comic’s writer, Jerome Maida says his research gleaned just how multifaceted Franken is. Maida says he learned that Franken became smitten with comics at a young age and that Franken co-wrote the Meg Ryan/Andy Garcia film “When a Man Loves a Woman,” based it on his own wife’s alcoholism. Maida also notes that his digging showed Franken to be “a real person, a character instead of a caricature.”

Because he’s not just Stuart Smalley.

Paul Newman

Paul Newman has long been one of my very favorite actors. While other may say The Sting  or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are their favorite movies, I have always love Absence of Malice which I think is one of the great political movies.  I also like that potboiler Exodus in which he was very miscast even though he was half Jewish.  I’ve even seen what he called “the worst movie ever made,” The Silver Chalice.  It was, as I recall, pretty bad.

Growing up, I loved the fact that my father went to the same college as Paul Newman – Kenyon College in Ohio.  I have memories of trying to convince my father that he should go to a reunion and take my sister and me so we could maybe meet Mr. Newman.  I also remember him in a Nation magazine ad and seeing his name as a supporter.  I think my first hint that we shared a political viewpoint was when I heard that he was a Gene McCarthy delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1968.

I’m looking forward to seeing lots of Paul Newman movies over the next few weeks and months.