Thinking About Things: Movies, Series, and Books

By John DeQ Briggs

Books Made Into Movies

Like everyone, I have been deluged with a tsunami of information about COVID-19. Each day the news delivers an endless Möbius strip of virus news, one day pretty much like the prior day but with slight differences. The cable opinion and media OpEd pieces hurling blame diatribes are the differences, and their onslaughts continue as if this were the normal response to a public health and economic catastrophe, teaching us at least two things: (1) there is no politician alive who will not seek a political advantage from a crisis, no matter how catastrophic (interesting opinion piece on that score here thanks to WDM) and (2) sadly, COVID-19 confirms what has been said for a few years now — we have devolved into an unserious nation. We have a strong bipartisan preference for fixing responsibility and blame rather than fixing problems. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In this country, our officials (and media siloed supporters) prefer simply to squabble while the systems begin to collapse.  

So, here we all are, more or less under house arrest. As a result, I have been thinking about how to pass the time and how I can make a modest positive and practical contribution to readers.. First, and most local, The Talbot Spy has been doing a splendid job of providing very useful or interesting information about what is going on here on the Eastern Shore. Have a look here. They do a nice job with a good local focus. Second, less locally, the New York Times did a good piece a few days ago on the general topic of what to do while cooped up at home.

Finally, I offer up my own curated selection of movies, binge-worthy series, and books all of which I heartily suggest are worthy of your attention. By the highly subjective standards of our household they are all either five-star or four-star. I start with movies, since these tend to be two hours or less and do not necessarily demand long-term attention or commitment. Here goes; fasten seat belts.

Movies

Unexpected Jewels: Splendid Movies We Never Heard of Before We Saw Them:

  • The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)
  • The Mission (1986)
  • Cider House Rules (1999)
  • Memento (2000)
  • The Painted Veil (2006)
  • The Illusionist (2006)
  • In Bruges (2008)
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  • The Green Book (2018)

Lasting Favorites (much older stuff)

I’m not going to include well-known super good movies such as Godfather I and II or The Shawshank Redemption, among others, on the assumption that everyone alive knows about them. But like those gems, the following are movies I tend to watch even if I bump into them mid-movie. I lump several of the Tom Hanks movies together even though they are not all equal. I put Saving Private Ryan at the top of my Tom Hanks list. Hard to believe that was 22 years ago!

  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • Goodfellas (1990)
  • Pulp Fiction (1994)
  • Moulin Rouge (2001)
  • Chicago (2002)
  • Our favorite Tom Hanks Movies
    • BIG (1988)
    • Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
    • Apollo 13 (1995)
    • Toy Story (all four: 1995. ’99, ’10, ’19)
    • Saving Private Ryan (1998)
    • The Green Mile (1999)
    • Cast Away (2000)
    • Bridge of Spies (2015)
    • Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood (2019)

Others Hard to Categorize, but Really Good

  • Body Heat (1981)
  • Midnight Run (1988)
  • Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
  • Inglourious Basterds (2009)
  • Life of Pi (2012)
  • 1917 (2019)
  • The Boston Movies (I like the Affleck movies the best and of those probably The Departed the most)
    • Good Will Hunting (1997)
    • Mystic River (2003)
    • The Departed (2006)
    • The Town (2010)
    • Shutter Island (2010)
    • Gone Girl (2014)
    • Spotlight (2015)
    • Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Bingeworthy Series from Around the World

The United States

The breakthrough for this format was The Sopranos, which ran six seasons from and after 1999, 86 episodes. Organized Crime Boss as human with family. Then came Madmen, which started in 2007 and lasted for seven season and 92 episodes, but the first 3-4 years were the best. Madison Avenue in the 1960’s. 2008 brought us Breaking Bad, cancer stricken high school chemistry teacher becomes producer of high-quality crystal meth and gets deep into organized crime. The series lasted five years (62 episodes). I believe this is the best television series ever produced anywhere in the world, ever!

A strong and memorable character in the series was a criminal lawyer named Saul whose billboard was Better Call Saul. A spinoff of that name began in 2015. It is a superb prequel showing how he came to be the character in Breaking Bad. Compelling, and now in its fifth season (46 episodes).

Game of Thrones, eight seasons from 2011-19, 73 episodes.You will either love it, hate it, or not understand it. I loved it. Then of course there is Homeland, which is superb for 3-4 seasons but tails off a bit later. It was based on an Israeli thriller Hatufim. 2011-20. Eight seasons, 91 episodes. Sort of espionage thriller, but more.

My favorite American production after Breaking Bad is The Americans, which I found scarily addictive. Russian KGB agents posing as U.S. citizens with children they were required to produce to protect their cover. They end up living in suburban Virginia across the street from the FBI agent (and his family) charged with finding Russian “illegals.” Seven seasons from 2013-18, 75 episodes. Constant tension. You end up fearing for the Russians if not affirmatively rooting for them. Brilliant.

An especially worthy shorter series is the Coen Brothers Fargo, three seasons, 30 episodes from 2014, ’15, ’17 and a fourth season in the works for 2020. Each year a different story and different cast. All excellent, but first season especially so for Billy Bob Thornton fans like me. Goliath is another Billy Bob Thornton series. Solo lawyer fights big boys. Excellent. Three seasons, 24 episodes, with fourth season in the offing.

The Wire was a sleeper when it first came out. Today it is thought to be one of the finest American series ever produced. And it all takes place in the 410-area code in Baltimore and environs. Familiar places and people. All star cast and program. Many people watch the entire series again a year later just to be reminded how much they loved it. Each season takes on a different feature of Baltimore: drugs, politics, the press, the harbor, etc. Hard not to watch at least two episodes at a time. Sometimes three.

A current offering, Ozark, just began season three this last weekend. Corrupt but engaging and clever financial advisor forced to leave Chicago after a money laundering scheme goes wrong. He takes his family to a small town on Lake Ozark to hide out. But he is found and must make amends to a Mexican cartel by laundering huge amounts of their cash, no easy feat. A touch of Breaking Bad, but quite different and right now the most popular thing in the land after a slow viewership start. Three seasons so far, 30 episodes.  

A hidden gem is the first season of True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and other excellent actors. The season is set in Louisiana and follows a pair of Louisiana State police detectives in their pursuit of a serial killer over a 17-year period. The second season set in Los Angeles is ordinary and forgettable, but it returns to quality in the third season, with the episodes set in the Ozarks. Each season is eight episodes. There is no connection between the cast or the storyline season to season. But it is really just the first season that puts the program on this list.

Big Little Lies is upscale soap opera with a cast of best actress winners, including Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon. Set in Monterey, it is a dark comedy murder mystery. Not great drama or a great story, but great acting. Light, frothy, a fine escape as was Revenge (although that had little acting talent to speak of and a weak storyline). Two seasons (2017-18), 14 episodes.

Ken Burns serieslike Baseball and Vietnam are nearly always binge-worthy. These two especially.

Britain

Downton Abbey woke me and the world up to the extraordinarily fine offerings of British filmmaking. It started in 2010 and ran six season, 53 episodes. Starts in 1912 and ends well after WWI and the start of the decline of the landed gentry and the splendid country houses. An updated and higher quality variation on the old Upstairs Downstairs series that ran from 1971-75. Also, now a movie, but the series is must see tv.

Once one begins to explore British television series (via Britbox, Acorn TV, BBC America, Netflix, Amazon Prime and others), there is too much to mention here. Many but not all of the series are murder mysteries of one or another sort. The granddaddy of these is Midsomer Murders, now in its 21st year and still going strong. It began in 1997 and thus far there are 124 episodes, most of which are 90-minutues and so each is almost movie length. The shows are engaging but not too demanding. And one can watch an episode 10 years later (or two years later) and enjoy it as much as first time since one can never remember the vital details of any one episode.

Even before that there was Prime Suspect, which introduced Helen Mirren to the world as a young female Chief Inspector in London’s Metropolitan Police Service. It lasted seven seasons but only two episodes per season. It ran from 1991-96 and then 2003 and 2006. Really good!

The Crown, still ongoing, has thus far served up three seasons and 30 episodes following the reign of Queen Elizabeth from her youth until the recent past. It is a drama, not a biography, but it seems broadly faithful to historical fact. If that sounds dull, it is not. It is simply spellbinding. For its genre, this is in a class of its own. Queen Victoria is a similar genre, but not quite as superb. Three seasons. 25 episodes.

Wolf Hall, released in 2015, is just one season, 6 episodes and it leaves one waiting anxiously for another to continue the saga. Based on Hillary Mantel’s’ “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up The Bodies,” it follows the career of Thomas Cromwell and is faithful to the main historical events of the period under Henry VIII between 1529 and 1536, covering the downfall of Katherine of Aragon, Cardinal Woolsey, Thomas More and, in 1536, the beheading of Ann Boleyn. We burned through it in two evenings. The final book in the Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light just came out. I have not yet read it, although the ending is not a mystery. Thomas Cromwell himself goes to the block in 1640. But the story between his beheading and that of Ann Boleyn in 1736 is apparently the range of the third volume.

Foyle’s War is a hidden gem that started in 2002 and lasted eight seasons, but only 28 episodes. Michael Kitchens, a superb actor, is Chief Superintendent Foyle in Hastings, Sussex. The lovable Honeysuckle Weeks (great name BTW) is his driver Samantha. The series begins with a murder victim found in the rubble of a bombed building after a German raid on London in 1940. Crime solving during wartime. The series progresses with various British-centric war events chronologically in the background. Totally addictive. Another war-related show that engages is The Bletchley Circle, two seasons, 7 episodes about four women who worked as code breakers. The series evolves into early fifties detective work. Very good stuff.

Other really good British crime drama offerings include Luther, starring Idris Elba (who also features prominently in The Wire). Five seasons 2010-19, 20 episodes. Then there is Sherlock, a 21st century hi-tech Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Four seasons, 20 episodes. Back in the USA, there is also a competing Sherlock, Elementary, seven seasons starting in 2012 and 154 episodes. Set largely in New York. Uneven, but mostly very good.

Back in Britain we have Happy Valley, set in west Yorkshire. Started 2014. Two seasons, 12 episodes. Sad to see it end. Ditto Broadchurch (2013-17, 24 episodes) and Vera (2011-20, 40 episodes). All excellent classic British mysteries. Murder in Paradise is a frothy mystery series. Unserious and almost comedic. Filmed in the Caribbean. Light but pleasant entertainment. One gets attached to the characters.

The Night Manager, a six-hour rendering of the John le Carré novel, is my all-time favorite short series. Even the opening credits are masterful. I find John le Carré to be an outstanding writer in any genre, and his novels are impossible to squish into a two-hour movie. Their depth and complexity demand several hours of immersion in his story, its many layers, and the characters. This one is near perfect in doing just that. But see also the 1979 7-part series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. While slightly dated, it is the perfect melding of actor and character.

One of the most popular series ever in Britain is Line of Duty, which began in 2012, and ran five seasons with 29 episodes. It is focused on an anti-corruption unit called AC-12. It gets into the deep-rooted corruption involving the police and organized crime. Riveting.

The Honourable Woman, a 2014 8-episode political spy thriller set in the Middle East. Hard not to blow through it in three days.

Not all British television is police and spies. There is medical humor in Doc Martin. Short 30-minute episodes too, quite a rarity these days. You cannot help becoming very attached to all the recurring (and quirky) characters. Wonderful. Nine series, 70 episodes. There is also Mr. Selfridge, a period drama about Harry Selfridge and his department store in London set from 1908-28. Four seasons, 40 episodes. Similarly themed is the costume drama The Paradise, co-produced by the BBC and Masterpiece. It is set in 1875 London and revolves around the lives of the store’s owner and employees. As good as, but not as successful as, Mr. Selfridge. Two seasons, 16 episodes.

Then there is Outlander (2014-20), involving time travel. Do not let this be off-putting. Married British nurse (1946) visiting Inverness during postwar deferred honeymoon finds herself hurled back in time to the same area a couple of years before the 1746 Battle of Culloden. She is eventually smitten by a young Scot, a Highlander Jacobite leader from Clan McKenzie. It has some Back to The Future qualities but not comedic at all. Serious drama. The slaughter of the Jacobites by the redcoats at Culloden cannot be changed despite efforts. First two seasons (set in Scotland and Paris) are especially gripping and addictive. It slows down a bit as they escape the redcoats to North Carolina and the New World, but it picks up again. Now in the middle of Season five. 61 episodes.

There are also short stand-alone pieces like A Very English Scandal. Just three episodes. Hugh Grant as MP Jeremy Thorpe. To say much more would be to reveal spoilers. A terrific one evening 3-hour binge perhaps.

European Offerings

Once you get deeply into British offerings, it is a short hop to get to Scotland, Ireland, and Europe, especially northern Europe and Scandinavia. Here are a few good ones. Skip if you cannot handle foreign languages or subtitles. Your loss though.

From Germany Babylon Berlin, fourth season just now released. Neo noir. The entire series takes place in Berlin during the Weimar Republic starting in 1929. The lead character is a WW I veteran suffering from shell shock (PTSD). He is a police Inspector from Cologne on a secret mission to dismantle an extortion ring thought to have compromising pornographic material implicating senior government leaders. Everything about the program is just about pitch perfect. Cabaret combined with tense police procedural with Nazis on the rise. Also, from Germany comes Deutschland 83 about a young east German military officer sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the east German intelligence service. The first season has eight episodes. The second was re-titled Deutschland 86, and the third season, Deutschland 89, will be released this year. Slight resemblance to The Americans, but very slight.

From Norway, we like Occupied (political thriller 2015-16, original idea by Joe Nesbø, third season just released. Now 24 episodes) and The Heavy Water War, a 6-episode series about the effort to disable the Norwegian plant that produced heavy water, to deny it to the German effort to develop a nuclear weapon. The story is said to be historically accurate although some historians quibble. Very good.

Canada

Bad Blood, two seasons, 14 episodes. Canadian organized crime in Quebec and Montreal. Loved it.

Also WDM especially likes Flashpoint about a SWAT team in Toronto. Tense shooting scenes balanced by fascinating character development in the ensemble cast. Contrasts with US shows in attitudes toward firearms. Five seasons, 40 episodes.

France

Engrenage (Spiral). French police, lawyers, judges. Darker than The Wire, and not as addictive. But addictive still. Seven seasons, 70 episodes. Ongoing.

Mixed Productions

Chernobyl, 2019 5-episode series.British/US collaboration. No excuse not to watch this splendid (and somewhat chilling) series.

Scotland

Hamish Macbeth (1995-97, 20 episodes. Slightly dated but still charming police procedural. Light escape. Unlike many of these, suitable for children.

And again thanks to WDM, Shetland, following Detective Inspector Henshall, who has returned to the Shetland Islands after his wife’s death to raise his daughter. In the beginning, he takes on local crimes, but then increasingly bad criminals as the series moves forward. You may need subtitles to master the Scottish accents, happily a feature that most Smart TVs or portals offer (even for programs in English). Five seasons, 26 episodes.

Spain

High Seas. Two seasons so far, 16 episodes. Soap Opera on a ship. Period piece. Entertaining. Not “riveting” but nice to watch.

Israel

Fauda. This translates to “chaos” from the Hebrew. It deals with frontline issues in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Compelling and tense. Third season just released. 36 episodes so far. Quite intense.

Spy, 6-episode miniseries about an Israeli Mossad Arab agent sent into Syria via Buenos Aires to spy in the time leading up to the 1967 6-day war. He is uncovered in the end by the Russians and executed. This is not a spoiler as we learn this in the first few minutes. The tension is in how it all unfolds.

Ireland

Dublin Murders. We are just now almost through this. This 8-episode miniseries is complex, riveting, and very engaging. A murder in the woods in 2006 is related to a murder in 1985 in the same woods and the detective inspector in charge of the 2006 investigation was with the children when they disappeared in 1985; his female partner has a mysterious past as an undercover police officer, revealed in bits and flashbacks. There is constant tension from many angles throughout each episode. We shall finish it before this is published.

Books

More than a decade ago, I started listening to books using the audible.com software. Commuting for several years back and forth every weekday from Easton to Washington (about four hours per day in the car) was a perfect way to get through one or two books each week, which became about 80+ books per year. Over time, our “audible books listened to list” came to number in the hundreds. Now the technology has advanced. I can and do buy a Kindle edition, and then also get the audible version. I can read the Kindle and then pick up in the last spot listening, and then pick up where I stopped listening on the Kindle. Talk about the best of all worlds. Also, a smart phone can be placed under the pillow, a timer set, and the reader will either keep you awake or read you to sleep, depending on the book and the point in the book. But I also still buy actual books whenever I find a local independent locally owned bookstore, which at the moment seems to be only in St. Michaels now that the News Center closed, an unpleasant surprise from which I may never recover.  

Anyway, the following selections are subjective, sometimes organized around writers, sometimes organized about readers, and sometimes barely organized at all. But I will start with Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague), written in 1947. In a commercial port in Algeria, a disease appears, as if from nowhere. It begins inconspicuously, with the appearance of a few disordered rats, then works its way virulently through the human population, aided by indifference, hypocrisy, laziness. Shops close, streets empty. But the infection picks up steam, spreading according to a geometric progression, producing a steeply rising “death graph.” En masse, the city is quarantined, but inside its walls there is a shortage of medical staff and lifesaving equipment and a controversy over whether masks are useless. And much more. It’s relevance to Covid-19 “lashes you across the face.” The perfect companion to the times … unless you seek a total escape from the times.

Now, I move to readers because there are some readers who are so outstanding to my ear that I will “read” (that is, listen to) anything they do. At the top of this list for me is Patrick Tull. He is dead now (2006) but he was my introduction to great books through listening. Here is the best of what he has done that I have listened to.

  1. The entire Master and Commander series, comprising 20½ books, each about 10-12 hours. This is the series by Patrick O’Brien that captivates nearly all men who read the books (and a few women too). They are set around the Napoleonic wars and center on Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. Readers come away with broad and deep knowledge of much of the history of that era, not to mention vast knowledge of the many details of sailing vessels of the era. Many people who have actually read the books choose then to listen to them once they discover Patrick Tull.
  2. Many Dickens novels, most notably Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield. These books come alive under his command. Incidentally, The Pickwick Papers, Dicken’s first book is not well known. As read by Tull it is beyond hilarious. A true treasure.
  3. Rumpole of the Bailey Series. Tull does not read all of these but those he does read are not to be missed. Each story is maybe 40 minutes, so they are quickly digestible one at a time (there are dozens too). The constant humor is understated British droll to a tea (or a bottle of Chateau Thames). Excellent material, especially for lawyers. Their author is John Mortimer a brilliant British lawyer and writer. His autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage, is read by Tull and should be heard.
  4. The Brother Cadfael Chronicles. This is a series of some 20-odd books featuring Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine Monk. The books are set in a monastery in twelfth century England and are a specie of crime drama. Nearly all are narrated by Tull and those are well worth the time.

There are other readers who pair with writers. John le Carré reads a lot of his own books and most of those he does not read are read by Michael Jayston, whose voice seems almost the same.  There is not a le Carré book I would not recommend, whether by reading or by listening. For the spy/international dramatic story, there is no better writer. He is a writers’ writer. But even other great writers consider him to be the master, and not just of one genre, but simply as a writer of great novels involving complicated stories and nuanced characters.

Another writer whom I find strong and engaging is Robert Harris, also British. Four of his books in particular I found unusually good.  An Officer and a Spy is a spellbinding dramatic historical novel about the Dryfuss Affair in France in the late 19th century. Just as good, in fact even better in a way, is the Cicero trilogy: Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator. Taken together, these are heavily researched dramatizations of the life of Marcus Aurelius Cicero and the transmogrification of Rome from Republic into dictatorship. The books, narrated by his slave/secretary, are set in the period from 80-45 BC, a time when Caesar, Pompei, Mark Anthony, Cicero and Cato all vied for influence within the increasingly fractious dissolving Roman republic. These are a great way to learn more than you might have thought possible about this era while turning pages (or listening) with full attention. His The Ghost Writer, is not a “great book”, but a wonderful and cleverly developed espionage story.

A few years ago, we stumbled across a small but extraordinary collection of books about China. Three of the best of these are written or co-authored by Jung Chang, who survived the cultural Revolution and ended up at Yale and then London. Her masterpiece is Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). The sweep and extraordinarily researched detail of this book is beyond astonishing. It is the most detailed biography of Mao ever written and it puts almost everything else ever written about him to shame. Its only critic, so far as I can tell, is Henry Kissinger, who evidently was thoroughly misled by Mao and his cadres and has his reputation and credibility to defend. He loses. This is a long book that proceeds slowly and chronologically with great patience and detail. Anyone wanting to know about China in general and Mao must read or listen to it. Once it has been read or heard, the reader will never think about China or Mao in the same way ever again. Mao was one of the worst mass murderers in history. Probably worse than Hitler or Stalin. Until now, the details of all that were simply not known outside China.

Jung Chang has written two other superb books: Wild Swans (1991) and Empress Dowager Cixi (2013). The former is the story of her grandmother and mother (and her young self eventually) and their survival under the Japanese, the Nationalists (Chung Kai Shek) and eventually Mao and the Communists. It is a harrowing tale, presented in a way that it cannot be put down for long. The latter is a n engaging biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, the Chinese empress dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing Dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908.

Still on China there are these, in rough order of my preference: The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom, John Pomfret (detailing the history of the complex and shifting relationship between of China and America from1776 to now); The Hundred Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury (the struggle between China and the U.S for dominance; criticized as factually unreliable and too political, but still very readable); Midnight in Peking, Paul French (true crime genre, chronicling the aftermath of the brutal killing of a British schoolgirl in January 1937); Fifth Chinese Daughter, Jade Snow Wong (autobiography detailing the challenges to an American born Chinese girl); The China Mission, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan (George Marshall’s unfinished war, 1945-47 is the subtitle.) Compare this to Mao. Marshall was likley taken in by Mao more even than Kissinger.

I must mention two books that shed serious light into the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea. The first is fiction: The Orphan Masters Son by a Stanford professor of writing (Adam Johnson) who made more than a dozen trips to North Korea. So, while a fiction novel, it is masterful in providing information about life in that totaloitarian country. It got the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The other is autobiographical, and equally fascinating although in a wholly different way. The book is The Girl with Seven Names, by Lee Hyeon-seo, a defector who escaped and later guided her family out through China and Laos. Surprisingly, her mother disliked the west and wanted to go back. This alone should tease you into wanting to read the book.

General Knowledge books of great merit to me are: Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (from opening sentence to last paragraph one of the best non-fiction books I have read. Stupefyingly good. I also ripped through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Body, A Guide for Occupants. I dedicate a separate paragraph to Bill Bryson. I read all his stuff and love much of it.  

One can and should get captured by history books about London during the Second World War. My two favorites are both by Lynn Olsen: Citizens of London and Lost Hope Island. Read them and you will never think of WWII in the same way again. The former provides insights into Churchill not elsewhere unearthed. His inexcusable abuse at the hands of Roosevelt in the presence of Stalin and his failure to attend Roosevelt’s funeral have been airbrushed out of American history, but fully explained here.

There is a new flood of books detailing the roots of The Great War and the changed world thereafter. Years ago, I read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and thought myself knowledgeable. Wrong. Three years ago, I went deeper and read Margaret McMillan’s two masterpieces: The War that Ended Peace and Paris 1919. These are brilliant histories and once you read them you thirst for more detail. Such is provided in The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark and The End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lievens. These all provide a keen sense of the inexorable pull to World War starting in 1870 with the Franco Prussian war and many other events, including the Russo-Japanese War, the Serbian regicide, the two Balkan wars and much more. This period from 1870 to 1919 was perhaps among the most consequential of any fifty years in history. Of the thousands of books covering the period, these may be among the very best (although how would I know as I have not read all those others).

These books led, sort of by free association, to a strong interest in the Ottoman Empire. I have not gone as deep here as I intend but am starting to do so. I started with Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, by Thomas McFadden, detailing the founding of the city by the Greeks in about 660 BC and its development into the 21st century. Spellbinding for a historical novel focused on the single city or area. Then came The Fall of The Ottomans, by Eugene Rogan, a detailed and complex revelation for most western readers under the age of 100. As the Times book review in 2015 put it:

In November 1914, the world’s only great Muslim empire was drawn into a life-or-death struggle against three historically Christian powers — Britain, France and Russia. All parties made frantic calculations about the likely intertwining of religion and strategy. The playing out, and surprise overturning, of these calculations informs every page of Eugene Rogan’s intricately worked but very readable account of the Ottoman theocracy’s demise.

It is a good starting point for further reading, which is where I am on this subject. There is much to read and scratching the surface, as I have done, is hardly enough. But these books do intersect in a lot of helpful ways with several of the WW I books mentioned above.

World War II period novels. I happen to have been totally seduced a few years ago by all the Alan Furst books from first to last. The first was Night Soldiers (1988), the most recent is Under Occupation (2019). These are pure fiction, but in the context of mostly real pre-war and wartime (for Europeans) events. They are generally set in the period 1937-1941. Many are set in Poland and Paris or Paris and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The books capture a certain mood of prewar and early war Europe and frequently or almost always involve some flavor of espionage. But they are storytelling “mood novels”, not “action novels”. Still, they are taut and, in my view, excellent. If you do not like the first one or two you won’t like the rest, so stop. If you do like the first one or two, you will be addicted. They are best read in order, at least the first few, but all stand well alone too.

Some American history and biography. Ron Chernow’s Washington and Hamilton are the new gold standard. They are page turners. David McCullough’s  John Adams is one of some 400 biographies of Adams, none of which I have read other than McCullough’s. People more well-read than I say it is the best. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is superb, although the recent onset of spasmodic cancellation culture has put his reputation at risk, as has the fact that his slave mistress Sally Hemings (with whom he had six[!] children) turns out to have been his wife’s half-sister. Say what?

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. As a Mayflower descendant through two passengers, this book was a distressing revelation. Americans are taught about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. What they next learn about American history leaps forward 150 years to the battles of Concord and Lexington. This cartoon version of history is a canard. This book sheds uncomfortable light on the viciousness of the Pilgrims during the roughly five decades after the Plymouth settlement: 1622-75, the time period covered by this book. By the middle of the book, one gets the feeling that these Puritans were more like an American Taliban than a people seeking to escape persecution. They come across as persecutors. One example: having been saved by the Indian Squanto at the time of the first Thanksgiving (in whose honor there stands a huge statue in Plymouth, Massachusetts), they later sold his children into slavery in Haiti. This is an unsettling and myth busting book insofar as it sheds light on a post-Plymouth Rock historical period about which even educated Americans seem to know almost nothing. It was news to me.

Finally, in this area of focused American history, is Russell Shorto’s, The Island at the Center of the World, based on newly discovered archives in Dutch at the New York Public Library. They were hiding in plain sight. The result is a masterful book about the fifty years of New York (then New Amsterdam, the capitol of New Netherlands) under the Dutch (1624 et seq.), whose imprint on New York was probably far greater than that of the British. This is fully explained in the brilliant page turner book.

This has gotten way too long, but I cannot let it pass without mentioning my strong recommendation that readers read or listen to anything by Graham Green, who was “forced” on me by Steve and Joan Calkins during a visit to Dublin a few years ago. The Quiet American, written in 1955 andset in Vietnam in 1954 is my favorite. It anticipates precisely what happened after the Americans took over from the French in their opposition to Ho Chi Min. Our Man in Havana and The Power and The Glory are also on my “top of Graham Greene” list. But frankly there is nothing by him not worth reading. His serious books seriously involve his Catholic religion. But what he called his “entertainments,” are no less worthy as novels.

Other writers I recommend are: Cormac McCarthy (especially No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and The Road); Ian McEwen (especially Atonement, The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent); Margaret Atwood (especially The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, and the Oryx and Crake trilogy); Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns); and Daniel Silva The English Spy and The Black Widow).

There are several writers who have written many fine books, but I have only read one of them. A short list of these is Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir; Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski; Serena, by Ron Rash; Restless, by William Boyd; Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse; Midddlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides; Stones Fall by Ian Pears; A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles; Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese; and The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddux Ford. All very worthy of attention. I recommend listening, as readers are outstanding in all cases.

Special mention for a new translation by Julie Rose of Victor Hugo’s 1862 Les Misérables. The reader brings this truly massive book and its memorable characters (the hunted man Jean Valjean, his relentless pursuer Javert, Cossette, Mario, and many others) alive and lets its greatness shine through. Also, best heard.

Lastly, I have lived in Europe, and briefly in London. The bookstores in London are full of books with titles like “who lost America” and so forth. A relatively new blockbuster is out by an American named Jackson O’Shaughnessy. The book is The Men Who Lost America. It is an extraordinary read. The war was unpopular in England. The French and the Spanish were far more threatening. Parliament was against the war. Much of the government was against the war. The generals were against the war on the ground it could never be “won.” In this book, the war comes across much like the Vietnam war was in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Everybody hated it, but Senior Government, especially George III, wanted to see it through. However, the supply lines were too long, horses and troops were hard to move across the ocean (plus the ships were needed to confront the French and the Spanish in the Caribbean and elsewhere) and George Washington’s army kept retreating thus avoiding any major confrontation until the British army blundered into Yorktown, a peninsula that could be shut off relatively easily. And the French Navy led by Admiral Rochambeau happened to be out there at the other end of the peninsula. Game over. A truly fascinating book. Heavily researched with much reliance of primary source documents from the period. The British never had a chance. This is somewhat different from the heroic mythology of my very American education.

Reader, if you have gotten this far, bless you. I apologize for the length of this, which began as a short blurb. But we are all mostly housebound and so we have time to find, and maybe interest in finding, things to watch and read. I hope this might help you pick and choose.

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