9 min read

June Reviews: Hazy

"Fer-Der-Lance" by Rex Stout, "Elementary" on HULU, "Book Club: The Next Chapter," "What Matters Most" by Ben Folds, "One More Cup of Coffee" cover by FAWA
The image is of wooden stairs leading down to beach.
Photo by Khachik Simonian

“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly.”―Pablo Neruda

June Notes

Time to walk the beach & relax. (Even if you have to wear a mask to filter out the wildfire smoke.)

What I review here is the art that keeps me going. No affiliate marketing. No promotions. If I write about it, there is something good in it that keeps me writing and on my feet.

I have to tell you that YouTube is making it hard to share music as they hard sell their music service and block most of the videos I want to show. My mission to share the best live music I can has become difficult. I will continue to do what I can.

I have a new story in Portland Monthly coming out this summer entitled Surprisingly Cold. It is an excerpt from my new novella Red Island Ghost which will be out this fall under a pen name. I will let you all know in advance and get out as many free review copies as they allow. Expect excerpts, for sure.

Here's to a great summer. It's good to get outside.

Please give what you can to the American Red Cross. If you wish please designate the donation for Ukraine. The summer months will be very difficult for the citizens of Ukraine.

BOOK: Fer-Der-Lance by Rex Stout #1 in the Nero Wolfe series

Rex Stout's career as a writer and activist is legendary and completely deserved.

Raised in a Quaker family, and after serving in the Navy from 1906 to 1908, he wrote more than 40 stories published between 1912 and 1918 in genres that included romance, adventure, science fiction/fantasy, and detective fiction, including two serialized murder mystery novellas that prefigured elements of his successful Nero Wolfe series that was first published in 1934.

I could not find the dates, but I also read that for some years after he served in the Navy he traveled throughout Europe writing literary fiction, but was disappointed by the lack of income in that genre.

Before he started the Nero Wolfe series, he published the experimental novel How Like a God, a psychological story written in the second person and published by the Vanguard Press in 1929, a press he had helped to start in 1926 with Scott Nearing. During this phase of his writing career, Stout also published a pioneering political thriller The President Vanishes in 1934.

In 1937, in the novel The Hand in the Glove, he introduced the character of Theodolinda "Dol" Bonner, a female private detective who would appear in later Wolfe stories and who is an early and significant example of the woman fictional Private Investigator.

Perhaps in reaction to his Quaker upbringing, Stout could be bellicose. He famously called himself a "pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left-liberal," but his political statements during World War II were at times decidedly not humanistic. He wanted to crush Germany and keep it crushed. He made large personal sacrifices to work for the war effort advocating with the group Friends of Democracy, chairing the Writers' War Board, and supporting the embryonic United Nations. He also had an FBI file that accused him of being a communist pawn, which was ridiculous to the point of being hallucinogenic.

Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories featuring Wolfe from 1934 to 1975, most of them set in New York City. I am only 10 novels into the series and despite the occasional politically incorrect anachronism, these books are thrilling, funny, and incredibly influential. We would not have the world-famous USA Private Investigator protagonist without Wolfe's right-hand man, the anxious, impatient, and physically confident Archie Goodwin.

I have researched every possible version of Nero Wolfe on screen and to my mind, they do not work. In the novels, nearly every crime is solved in Wolfe's study as he addresses the suspects and announces who is guilty. These "drawing room" mysteries work on the page and move like lightning, but, in my opinion, will never be captured effectively on screen despite the best efforts of writers, actors, and producers. Nero Wolfe is not "likable," sexy, or even very mobile. He is a large, eccentric, well-read, and well-traveled brain with incredible powers of observation and deduction. While this works on the page, no one has been able to make it work visually. In fact, every version I have seen has Wolfe walking around his office which, if you know the books, is ridiculous. He expends no energy at all except when it is absolutely necessary, such as to open his next bottle of beer.

I highly recommend the books. The structures and characters hold up extremely well and they move like high-balling freight trains. The perfect summer read.

I am not a member, but I support the WGA. There is plenty of money being made by producers, how about they share some so writers don't have to work two jobs to pay rent.

SCREEN: "Elementary" the CBS TV Series now on HULU

While the protagonist Nero Wolfe has never been captured well on screen, Sherlock Holmes most certainly has. He is that perfect screen combination--a bent character of incredible mind and courageous action.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle has his protagonist Holmes say, "The game is afoot, Watson," he usually describes him grabbing his hat and running out of the door of 221B Baker Street in full stride. Action.

CBS's Elementary is a contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes that first aired in 2012 starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, and Jon Michael Hill. The acting is excellent throughout the 7 seasons and 154 episodes. The final season premiered on May 23, 2019, and concluded on August 15, 2019. Each episode is approximately 40 minutes long, the standard TV hour, and is now available commercial-free on HULU. (How anyone watched these episodes with an additional 20 minutes of commercials is beyond me.)

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, this is a must-watch. If you are not, catch a couple of episodes and see if this works for you. Except for a few brief lapses in the beginning season, the series keeps the violence mostly off-camera and relies on fast, smart dialogue to make the episodes move quickly. You can watch the writers and producers experimenting in the first season. Will this be a romantic thing? Will it be a CSI rip-off? It finally settles down and is consistently good. The series was critically acclaimed, nominated for 19 Emmys, and won 6.

In February 2015, Titan Books published the first official tie-in novel, Elementary: The Ghost Line (ISBN9781781169841), written by Adam Christopher. A second novel, also written by Adam Christopher and titled Elementary: Blood and Ink, was published on 26 April 2016 (ISBN9781785650277). I've ordered them to see how they read.

I grant you this is not Sherlock the BBC / PBS-funded contemporary version of Holmes created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Those 12 "episodes," if you can call them that, were 90 minutes long and shot like full films with incredible attention to production design and released from 2010 to 2017. Those versions starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The nemesis of Holmes, the uber-villain Moriarty, is played so well by the actor Andrew Scott in this series that you wonder how he could possibly play anything else. This award-winning series is outstanding and overwhelming. It created a standard for a contemporary Holmes that I doubt will ever be matched.

Then there are the 14 black-and-white Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson produced from 1939 to 1946. They ran these films late at night on the only station I could get in Iowa City on my little black and white TV in the '70s. I later learned there was a Holmes cult in that city consisting of insomniacs like myself. This series is so respectful to the novels and so unique that there is nothing I can say about it except that Rathbone is perfection as Holmes and Bruce's version of Watson is a triumph of understated acting.

I am not even going to mention the two Robert Downey, Jr films from 2009 and 2011. They tried hard and failed in my opinion.

Without commercials interrupting the flow of the Elementary episodes, the writing, acting, and production elements can be appreciated on HULU. The show's creator and producer Robert Doherty did an admirable job. Definitely recommended.

SCREEN: Book Club: The Next Chapter

This is the best bad movie you will see this year. It's often unintentionally hilarious to watch these divas elbow their way into their scenes and funnier still to imagine the writers scrambling to make sure these stars got their big dramatic moments one after the other, usually wielding rambling dramatic monologues. It's a speechifying comedy and, of course, the stars had approval over every line and joke which is why most of the jokes land like a dropped clutch purse, and still, the audience laughs. It is supposed to be funny and so it must be.

I'm not complaining. Jane Fonda is an icon, and deserves all the success and respect she receives. God knows she has survived endless criticism for her brave politics, her human mistakes, and her ground-breaking entrepreneurship. Candace Bergen is genuine and honestly world-weary and her lines are the sharpest. Mary Steenburgen has a wary intelligence that comes through even when she has to sell the most ridiculous plot devices. Diane Keaton continues with her shtick of intense sincerity, but it turns poignant when she praises Jane Fonda's character in the film. You can feel Keaton is serious when she thanks Fonda's character for breaking glass ceilings for women.

The movie does manage to be funny at times and not particularly painful. The vistas of Italy were gorgeous.

I watched this in a real theater with real popcorn. The place was packed and most of the audience talked to each other throughout the film. They oooohed and ahhhed and sighed and laughed. It is really going to be hard to get people to go back to the movies for a communal experience when the audience is louder than the actors on screen. Or the music. A woman two seats to my left sang along with one of the songs on the movie soundtrack. I got a duet at no extra charge.

MUSIC: What Matters Most by Ben Folds

I hope the music videos are here when the reviews go out. If not, you'll have to search YouTube for them.

What Matters Most is the upcoming sixth studio album by American singer-songwriter Ben Folds, his first album since So There in 2015. The album was released on June 2, 2023, by New West Records.

"More than anything, I wanted to make an album that was generous, that was useful," says Ben Folds. "I want you to finish this record with something you didn't have when you started."

I am not in love with every cut on this album, but overall, this is brilliant work. Ben Folds is writing songs like no one else out there and honestly trying to make the world a better place. Yes. That matters. As Costello and Lowe would say, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?

The image is an album cover. An elderly couple holding hands on a sky background. Words in white read "ben folds" and in smaller printe it reads "what matters most". what matters most.

MUSIC: FAWA covers One More Cup of Coffee by Bob Dylan  

This is why I love YouTube. I could find almost no information on this group FAWA, but I loved this short live recording and had to share it.  My brilliant editor Amy Barnett managed to find the musicians' names: Odeliya Iloose on vocals, Bar Zakay on guitar, and Guy Gavriel on drums. She believes this was recorded in the Middle East. I can find only one other live recording of this group. Great feeling in this Dylan cover.  

And here is the original. Live.

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The image is of picket signs in the air supporting the Writers Guild of America strike.