Greetings. We had a big snowstorm last week and now have a lot of snow on the ground. It’s been cold too! Ouch. Nonetheless my husband and I went cross-country skiing both days this past weekend, which was fun, and now have been watching quite a bit of the Olympics. Some of the events have already been spectacular such as when the Norwegians made a medal sweep of the cross-country “skiathlon” race — in which the skier fell at the beginning, was trampled, and still got up and won the race after being in last place: Wow. Can you tell I’m already in deep watching the Games? I’ll be cheering on a couple hometown skiers — Go Trevor! — among others. I’m also wondering if the women’s Canadian hockey team will win its fifth Olympic gold in a row. You hear about such things when you live here. No pressure or anything, right? I’m also rooting for the big team down south and various other athletes as well. I’m all over the place.
Meanwhile recently I went through a “Big Little Lies” phase — not me personally — but I’m talking about the 2014 novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty and the HBO TV series that’s based on it. I finished both — as I had to see what all the fuss was about … since the TV series recently won 4 Golden Globes as well as 8 Emmys. I was curious: was it really that good? I think I hadn’t picked up the popular, bestselling novel before because it seemed to be essentially chick-lit, which in full-blown mode isn’t usually my cup of tea, but there’s a bit more to this novel than just that. For one thing it’s done well and for another it takes quite a stand. For those who don’t know what the book’s about:
It takes place in an idyllic Australian seaside town where you find out at the beginning that someone has died at the parents’ Trivia Night — a part of the elementary school’s fundraiser. You don’t know who it is or what has happened but eventually the story leads up to that. Backtrack six months earlier, and you meet the characters who appear to be the possible victims or perpetrators at the school’s kindergarten orientation.
There’s Chloe’s mom, the remarried Madeline who is gregarious and knows everyone and everything going on in town, but is having issues with her ex-husband and their teenage daughter who wants to move in with her dad’s new family. And then there’s her best friend Celeste, who seems to have the perfect life, rich and beautiful with twin boys and a hedge fund manager husband, though it’s far from the happiness it appears. And lastly Jane, who Madeline and Celeste befriend, is a young single mom who’s just moved to town with her son Ziggy and seems to have something dark hidden in her past.
All of them seem to be having family issues or have secrets that unfold as times goes on. But it’s after Jane’s son Ziggy is accused of bullying at school that sides are drawn and tensions mount among cliques of moms at school and within marriages, which eventually boil over on the night of the fundraiser.
Oh my, it’s more than you bargained for. I liked how the novel effectively takes on such serious issues as bullying and domestic abuse — as well as being a bit satirical and funny in places about the whole school gossipy scene and these well-off parents with families who behave badly. I thought it made some interesting connections and conclusions and was pretty much an easy page-turner about the three women’s lives, though the long countdown the chapters take to get to what happens at the school’s fundraiser drove me sort of crazy. It felt a bit long at 486 pages and I didn’t really care for the group narrative that acted like a Greek chorus at the end of each chapter. Those seemed to bog things down though I’m sure they’re meant to show various viewpoints and for comic relief. Despite these minor gripes, I’m glad I read the novel, and I eagerly took on the show.
The TV series follows the novel pretty closely though it adds a couple of things too. One noticeable change is that it’s set in Monterey, California, instead of Australia, though it seems to work well and the scenery is gorgeous. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley are all quite good as the three friends whose kids are in kindergarten together and whose lives involve some sticky family issues. Laura Dern too is great as the parent whose child is being bullied and who lashes out at the child she thinks is responsible.
The show is a bit soap opera-y about the well-off, but it makes for total escape watching and an entertaining show … beautiful people in a beautiful landscape behaving badly. You know the kind. And by the end you find out what happens at the school’s fundraiser and who dies. I enjoyed it and perhaps liked it maybe more than the book. Even my husband liked it, ha, which was a test. Apparently Meryl Streep has been cast in the show’s Season 2, which has yet to be filmed and which goes beyond the book, since that ended with Season 1.
Next up I finished debut author Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller “Need to Know.” It’s about a CIA analyst named Vivian — a wife and mother of four children — who finds out in a secret dossier that someone close to her is a part of a Russian sleeper cell and everything she thought she knew and trusted is not what it was. Oh my, this is a plot that might appeal to fans of the TV show “The Americans,” which, as you probably know, is about two Soviet KGB officers in the 1980s that pose as an American married couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., with their two children. (I think I only watched Season 1, but the sixth and final season is supposed to start in March.)
Anyways, this story made me feel quite uncomfortable at first because the main character Vivian seems to be giving in to the Russians to shield the person close to her. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be about “breaking bad” and handing over classified information, which felt awful, but luckily towards the end the story takes a turn and Vivian gets more of a backbone. Thank goodness. I still had trouble believing some of her earlier decisions, but I thought her fear felt pretty palpable and the situation to be as bad as one of your worst nightmares.
It’s quite a fast-paced book, one that mixes a family drama with a spy thriller. Apparently the author was a CIA analyst herself so she knows her way around Langley and those who fight to keep secrets. I think I gave it a 3.5 on Goodreads. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a series, which I guess I wouldn’t mind checking out more of.
Lastly my husband and I saw the movie “The Post,” which we both liked. There are a few facets to the movie that make it quite a story to see, especially in the era when the press is quite often vilified and attacked under the current administration. Is it any wonder that Steven Spielberg rushed to make the film after Trump was elected and got it into theaters in six months flat.
Set during a few weeks in 1971, the movie revisits the Washington Post’s decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, a classified report about America’s involvement in Vietnam. It runs through the events as they unfolded in an suspenseful fashion: about how the New York Times had broken the story but had been ordered to stop publishing the papers; and how the Washington Post then obtained them and what was at stake to publish them; and how the newspaper could’ve been ruined.
It’s an anxious ride revisiting this episode in history — and what it meant to freedom of the press, as the movie shows, and being able to hold the government accountable, which is so essential to our democracy. What I liked too about the movie is how it shows Katharine Graham coming into her own as publisher of The Post during a time when the industry and government was very male run. She had a lot on the line (she was about to take her company public at the time of the Pentagon Papers) and she held the reins and came through big time.
It’s interesting to note that Graham was an unlikely feminist pioneer of the times who was quite shy and prone to self-doubt, but she was thrust into the spotlight after her husband’s death when she took over The Post and went on to become quite a newspaper icon. I am grateful that I got a chance to hear her speak a few times when I worked at The Post in the 1990s. I recommend reading her autobiography, if you haven’t already, called “Personal History,” which is fascinating.
Indeed some of the best parts of the movie are just the quiet performances and interactions between Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee. Meryl is particularly wonderful in the role — she seems to be able to conjure up the late Mrs. Graham. And what’s best too are the scenes of the old linotype machines and the newspaper going to press. Ahh those were the days. I told you I was crazy about newspaper movies, and this one is no exception.
What about you — have you seen or read any of these works, and if so, what did you think?