Archive | Book Matters

Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014

She was a prickly, complicated woman whose best self could be found in her pages. She said: “The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. That is where we begin.” She also said: “I cannot live with someone who cannot live without me.” The older I get, the more I recognize such thorniness as essential to a woman writer’s survival.

‘Life Itself,’ Roger, and Me

In 2005 Roger Ebert e-mailed me out of the blue to say he liked my tiny cinema blog. I had met him the month before at his yearly celebration of film, then called The Overlooked Film Festival. (Later it became Ebertfest.) We’d discussed our shared love of science fiction at his favorite fast food joint, Steak ‘n Shake, which is where all the attendees – from Jason Patric to Dusty Cohl, the cowboy hat-clad co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival – hung every night after screenings. Our conversation was lively and warm but I was still floored that Roger followed up by checking out my writings. It was an act of unsolicited generosity that I came to recognize as one of his trademarks. Soon after, I was offered the position of the festival’s blogger, which I held until 2010. Even afterward, he remained supportive of my work in ways that meant the world to me.

By the time I met Roger he’d already struggled with a bout of cancer. It was an awkward moment in his life – some of the star that had been attached to him when he was part of the legendary “Siskel and Ebert” team had faded, and he hadn’t yet secured the relationship with a younger generation of critics and fans that he later built through blogging and Twitter. During those years I found him curious, resourceful, benevolent. He was much more than a mere film critic; he was a beacon. Occasionally I also found him egotistical – a king who resented the dwindling of his kingdom – and retrogressive when it came to women despite the fact that he was married to a strong woman himself. Roger preferred deference from others, and that could be wearying. Above all, though, I greatly admired his uncanny work ethic, as well as his willingness to curate and celebrate talent. Continue Reading →

Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Whitey?’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

There was a time when James “Whitey” Bulger was merely a Boston legend. Though he ruled a Massachusetts crime syndicate for more than two decades, he really wasn’t nationally recognized until he landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1994 and a sixteen-year manhunt was launched. (At one point, the award offered for information leading to his capture was second only to the award offered for Osama Bin Laden.) By 2011, when he was arrested in Santa Monica, where he’d practically been living in plain sight, the American imagination was officially hooked. A bona-fide Whitey cottage industry now exists: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is loosely based upon the blue-eyed mobster; a biopic starring Johnny Depp is in the works; and a bevy of firsthand accounts and journalistic tracts have been published.

Part of why Whitey fascinates is his unique brand of sociopathy. With his combed-back pale hair, searing gaze, and apparent pleasure in his work (even in the world of organized crime he is considered vicious), he’s recognized as the most powerful American gangster of the last fifty years – despite the fact that he doesn’t conform to any stereotype of a mob boss. (For one thing, he’s emphatically un-Italian.) But Whitey also fascinates because his reign of terror prevailed, almost wholly unchecked, for so long that it seems apparent he was snug (with a bug) with federal law enforcement agencies. Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger takes a good, hard look at the corruption that likely surrounded his case. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy