Say No to Consumer Christmas

Ho Ho, No!

Here’s our annual Black Friday “How to Opt Out of Christmas” piece. It gets a yearly refresh. Here's the 2017 version.

Years ago we opted out of Christmas. It wasn’t the money; we simply wanted release from stress and mindless consumerism. Lets' be honest: Christmas in America is more about Adam Smith than Baby Jesus. Or is it Xi Jinping? Communist China manufactures much of what passes for North American Christmas.

A recap of our breaking point: When our nieces and nephew were still children, there came a Christmas morning when they were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. The discarded wrapping paper was twice the height of the youngest! The kids no sooner opened one present than another was thrust at them and soon, they were dazed and numb. By mid-afternoon the wrapping paper and boxes had more allure than the presents. Sadder still, the wreckage represented hundreds of dollars of outlay, much of it from working-class folks that could have used the cash for much better purposes.

Christmas became even dumber for adults, a zero sum game: You buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. Such a system of forced reciprocity is about as sentimental as sharing a cold. And there's the matter of Christmas shopping sending consumers down the rabbit hole of debt. Consider that the average American family now has a negative income; they owe more than they earn.  

Our nieces and nephew are older now and have kids of their own. We have one parent left between us and other extended family members have departed. Now we think about "intentional" family— friends, younger folks, and neighbors whose presence we cherish more than presents.

Still, it's pretty hard for anyone with kids to avoid Christmas altogether—no matter one's religious heritage—because it has become a secular holiday rooted in materialism, not spiritualism. But you don't have to fly a white surrender flag on Black Friday and join the sheeple at a soul-crushing mall. Here are a few alternatives:  

 Step One: Breaking the Habit Through the Power of Guilt.

Help the adults in your life break the materialist habit. We started by asking people not to buy any gifts for us and requesting they instead donate money to a charity. Let them know which ones you'd prefer and ask them which charities they'd like you to support in their name. (By the way, kids get into the idea of donating money to Heifer International and Greenpeace. You know—the cute animal syndrome!) We also found that appeals to how lucky we are to have so much went a long way—especially when linked to the whole notion of Christmas being a season of giving. It took a few years to get everybody on board, but soon adult gift giving stopped to everyone's relief.

Step Two: Be True to Your Principles.

Spend quality time with friends and family. Don't just say you want to get out of the mall and spend QT with them—do it!  Schedule dinners in or out with close friends and family. It doesn't even have to be that complicated. You'd be stunned how much it means when you ask someone you've not seen for a while to chat over a cup of coffee. There's not much that tops sitting in a decorated café with your hands wrapped around a warm mug on a cold December day and laughing with someone you care about. Ho, ho, ho indeed! 

Step Three: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones.

Presents are really a reminder that you care and there are plenty of ways to say that better than junk from Walmart. Do you know anyone who hates homemade baked goods? Can you lighten someone's burden by helping with a household task? Are you craft-oriented? (One friend has a perfect knack for offering small ornaments that fit the personalities of the recipients.) We have a staple of films we watch with others around holiday time: It's a Wonderful Life to be sure, but also the Scottish film Comfort and Joy, and a few that aren't seasonal at all. Make popcorn or crack a few beers as is your pleasure, but watch with someone else. The biggest gift you can give is your time.

Step Four: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones.

Confession: we loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, mall Santas, and blow-up lawn displays. If you share our dislike hollow rituals, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year, date it, and share memories when past ones come out of storage. We celebrate Moosemas on December 16 by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. (Festivus is also good for laughs!) A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores close. Another is strolling in the woods on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished ritual involves annual pre-Christmas dinners at a restaurant with our dearest friends. A favorite new one is pooling resources to buy an expensive bottle of wine that we'd not buy on our own. Merry Châteauneuf-du-Pape! 

Step Five: Step into the Light.

If you live in the North, the stretch between Thanksgiving and Ground Hog’s Day is filled with (way too much) darkness. We like the ritual of bringing light into the darkness. Take a drive and look at the lights; some are garish and awful, but there's also a lot of cleverness and creativity on display. This one also goes down well with kiddos. Take a daylight hike and collect pinecones, boughs, bittersweet, and other such things and fashion them into a centerpiece for a candle. (This is always mirthful moment for us, as we have a distinct lack of talent for such things.)  Other light-themed events include after-sunset shop window gazing, bonfires, and nighttime visits to ice cream shops, cafes, and bars. Call it darkness tempered by atmospheric lighting.

Step Six: Share the Traditions of Others.

A very good way of breaking bad Christmas habits is to remind kids and yourself that we live in a world with other traditions. We've been honored to join Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah, which occurs December 12-20 this year. On December 1 Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad (Mawlid). It depends on local practices whether outsiders are welcomed, but you can certainly educate kids about it even if you can't attend an event. Dhanu Sankrati is a joyous Hindu holiday that happens December 16 this year, and odds are good a local Indian restaurant will prepare for it. December 8 is Bodhi Day for Buddhists. Spend some time in quiet reflection, as it's the day Siddhartha Gautama became the enlightened one (Buddha).  Need I tell you that Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) is a poignant time to appreciate African American culture and reflect on race relations in America? There are very good collections of Kwanzaa music to enhance the mood.

The holidays are a good time to begin a child's global education. Unicef and other agencies have programs to sponsor a child abroad. Set one up for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where that child lives. Corny as it sounds, a pen pal can be amazing; one of us remembers a Peruvian pen pal better than his Christmas toys! Help your kids write letters, and follow up with lessons on language, food, and culture.

Step Seven: Treat Yourself in December.

Take some of the dough you’re not spending on presents and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Soak in a hot tub. Go to an inn. Ski.

Step Eight: Build Up to Christmas Instead of Piling Up.

Can you recall childhood days in which the anticipation of Christmas often surpassed the event itself? After all, what's left after the presents are opened? Remember those awkward silences sitting amidst the loot and wondering, "Now what?" Think of money-saving ways to anticipate Christmas Day.

Let's face it, Americans don't do delayed gratification very well; many of us already have most of what we want. If it's the thought that counts, why not spend the weeks before Christmas doing "secret projects" with your kids. Let them make "special gifts" for each other and for adults. Sure, they'll be silly and ephemeral. As opposed to, say, the cheap toy that breaks in a week?  Let them bake things, build stuff, and create. Buy a little, not a lot. I suspect that they will get just as much pleasure from the homemade stuff they give and receive as the store-bought items.

Step Nine: Remember the Box Rule.

Overindulge children and you run the risk of overwhelming them (or having them grow up to be pampered brats). Kids need to exercise their imaginations so when you buy, gravitate toward things in which they can participate, not merely consume. A box fort is fun—says an uncle who used to dive right in with the kids!  So too are time-tested things that last: Lincoln logs, blocks, Legos, bikes, fantasy dolls, interactive books, musical instruments…. It's telling that the National Toy Hall of Fame contains exactly two electronic games in its entire collection (Atari, Nintendo), which suggests that this year's glitzy über-expensive “hot” toys will be landfill by Easter.

Step Ten: Make a Wish.

When buying for kids, don't confuse quantity with quality. You can establish some very solid life lessons if you make your kids set priorities. Instead of buying everything under the sun, ask your kids a simple question: If you could only get a few things, what would you really like? (You could even tell the young ones they have to choose so Santa doesn’t run out of gifts for other children.) Select a few of the reasonable ones because, hey, a pony won't fit into the kitchen! Save them for last on Christmas Day; let the handmade gifts and anticipation come first.

Step Eleven:  Socks are not Stinky!

It’s horribly environmentally unsound, but debris is part of Christmas. So who says the stuff inside the paper has to cost an arm, a leg, and a kidney? Sock gifts are a lot of fun–dollar store Etch-a-Sketches, crayons, tops, and wind-up toys for kids, inexpensive foodstuffs for adults, card games to share…. You can get very creative about sock gifts and you can fill a sock for a fraction of what it costs to buy 'big' gifts.

Step Twelve: Make Christmas all about the Food.

Polls tell us that America's favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and not because it's our only non-religious non-patriotic event. It’s about food, family, friends, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy that aforementioned really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.   


Toni Erdmann a Funny Film? Nope!!!


Directed by Maren Ade
Soda Pictures, 162 minutes, R (graphic sex, nudity, language)
In German, English, Romanian (with subtitles)

Sight and Sound, the London Critics Circle, the European Film Academy, and jurors at festivals in Brussels, Denver, Toronto, and Vancouver declared Toni Erdmann the best film of 2016. 92% of critics posting to Rotten Tomatoes rated it highly. Count me among the proud 8% who hated it—and that's not too strong of a word. I am baffled as to why such an unfunny mess has been so highly praised.

Let me ask this: If you had a family member whose idea of hilarity was to carry a set of fake buck teeth in his shirt pocket and plop them in every time you looked away, how often would this be funny? What if this was his entire shtick? How soon until he was expunged from your dinner guest list and you were "too busy" to visit him? Meet Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonisckek), a part-time elementary school music teacher with a taste for the macabre, schlock, and embarrassing humor. Perhaps he's an old hippie or a wannabe Goth, but probably he's just odd. Not surprisingly, he's divorced and his lukewarm friends see him as harmless, but wearisome. He's also estranged from Ines (Sandra Hüller), his 30s-something daughter, who is his polar opposite: heart-attack serious, ambitious, and the lead team member of a business consulting firm that advises German companies how to manage takeovers in poorer European Union countries, outsource the work, and slash payroll. A real sweetheart! She's currently posted in Bucharest, where she's courting a contract from Henneberg, a high-powered oil CEO.

On impulse, Winfried flies to Bucharest in hopes of reconciling with Ines. She's 'round-the-clock busy, he's an embarrassment, and their rapprochement is an epic failure. Ines is in the process of telling associates how relieved she is that he has left, only to find him eavesdropping at the next table, but wearing his fake teeth, a wig, a new suit, and sporting the assumed name of Toni Erdmann. If we believe the premise of this "comedy-drama," as it's billed, Toni manages to amuse and charm Henneberg, which suddenly makes him an unwanted but essential part of Ines' hopes to land the consulting contract. With that and a little flirtation with women who find him odd enough to be entertaining, he becomes an accomplice in economic schemes that he philosophically opposes.

We learn that Ines is ruthless, but deeply unhappy—her life filled with non-stop work, playing flunky for spoiled clients, feigning agreement with everything they say, and having kinky sex with one of her team members. She wants it all, but has no clue what "it" actually might be. Will daddy's goofiness help her take stock and reboot? In case you still want to see this film—and you shouldn't—let me add that some of the plot devices involve a side trip through Romanian poverty and potties, a naked party, crashing an Easter dinner, donning a monster costume—a Bulgarian kakeri if you're keeping score—and coerced singing of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All." Look up the word "broad" and apply liberally.

Maybe I'm a snob, but I found this film's humor to be roughly on par with the laughs I rack up sorting my sock drawer. On top of everything else, it checks in at a glacially paced 162 minutes, much of it filled with trips to Winfried/Toni's shirt pocket. I think we are also supposed to draw lessons about haves and have-nots in the European Union. Perhaps Winifred and Toni are stand-ins for Germany's bifurcated soul—the serious versus the lighthearted, former West versus former East, materialist versus humane…. Maybe we're even meant to ponder whether Germany abandoned military nationalism in favor of economic imperialism. If you will, this film lacks the teeth for such weighty subjects. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, I stumbled upon this distressing news: A Hollywood remake is under consideration that would star Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. I'd rather go to the dentist!

Rob Weir


Trenton Makes a Searing Look at Dreams and Identity


By Tadzio Koelb
Knopf, 224 pages

If John Steinbeck had been born later, he might have tackled something akin to Trenton Makes. There are decided Steinbeck elements to Tadzio Koelb's debut novel, including the use of intercalary chapters, the elegiac sweep of his prose, and nods to the forgotten man. Except for Koelb, the forgotten "man" is a woman who assumes a male identity.

Trenton Makes unfolds in two acts, the first set between 1946 and 1952, the second occurring in 1971. This means the plot is bookended by the end of World War Two and surging disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Call it a metaphorical shift from triumphalism to the beginning of the end of the American Century, a major component of which was loss of America's near monopoly of global capitalism and its slide toward an uncertain economic future. Officially, stagflation and recession began in 1973, but Rust Belt cities such as Trenton, New Jersey were tragically precocious in their demise.
Koelb takes this a step further by casting doubt as to whether the American Century was real in the first place. If it was an illusion, perhaps so too is the American Dream. After all, that concept was always problematic for people of color, recent immigrants, those living near the margins, and women—all of whom had (in Langston Hughes' words) dreams deferred.   

Questions of identity lie at the heart of Trenton Makes. Its protagonist is Abe Kunstler—both of them. The first Abe is a psychologically scarred World War Two veteran who wants his slice of the American Dream. Part of that Dream is economic—a good job—but a major part of it is rooted in prevailing social norms of male privilege. Abe probably would have been a bland, but decent guy, if only drink, financial frustration, lust, and social scripts hadn't gotten in the way. He befriends and ultimately seeks to possess a taxi dancer named Inez, but allows his demons to overwhelm his better angels. During one of his frequent drunken, abusive, and libidinal moments, Inez fights back, murders Abe, butchers his body, and feeds it to the basement furnace. The parallel between Abe's burning and Trenton's industrial smoke is both poignant and a harbinger. Inez's own violence comes from pent up rage for which Abe is a sacrifice for past wrongs:

… until the war she was never allowed to do any but the most meaningless work and she was condemned to poverty, which seemed to her as much a feature  of her women's form as any physical part. The only ladder meeting the wall of constraint was a man, so she traded the little she had, which was the still body beneath the one that bucked and jerked, and in return received as much or as little as these were able or willing to offer her.

Koelb uses this singular horror to infer the collective horrors of postwar women whose dreams were replaced by proscribed subservience. Departed Abe, of course, never really knew Inez, or other women like her. The taxi driver he tried to lord over had honed her strength on wartime assembly lines, preparation for future work as a factory wirepuller. The book's opening epigraph is from Nietzsche: "Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?" Inez's attempt is a radical one: she assumes Abe's identity and spends much of her time passing as a man.

However, Koelb's use of Nietzsche is more ironic than profound. It's one thing to take action, yet quite another to overcome. Like all double lives, that of Inez is fraught with logistical nightmares and the ever-present fear of exposure, not to mention a child and being so haunted by her bloody deed that Abe inhabits her as much as she inhabits him. How does one walk such a tightrope when the only lifeline is a wisp of factory smoke?

Part two delves into transference. Does inhabiting another mean you also host their demons? Can one hope to escape poverty in a place such as Trenton? It's hard with a mutilated hand, closed factories, and dead-end service industry alternatives. There's another transference that I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that the burden of secrets, indiscretion, estrangement, the rise of the counterculture, decaying conditions in Vietnam, and Trenton's concomitant decline aren't compatible with a happy ending.

This is a tough, but occasionally brilliant book. Earlier I alluded to Steinbeck, which is quite a load to ask someone to bear, and Koelb can't always hoist it. Steinbeck excelled at fusing elegant prose with masterful storytelling. Koelb is a superb wordsmith, but sometimes he's too clever for his own good. I suspect other writers will rank this book higher than the reading public, parts of which will find the story thread hard to stitch. The book has two parts, but it's not linear within them and careful focus is needed to keep straight when Koelb is writing about Abe, Inez as Abe, Abe/Inez as Inez, or perhaps another person altogether. The motives of secondary characters are often as clouded as the true paternity of Inez's child and, to be frank, part two often feels forced.

Maybe this is okay and Koelb has little interest in narrative for its own sake. He certainly has important things to say and infer about American society. An iconic Delaware River bridge in Trenton bears the slogan: "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." Koelb suggests we should emphasize the second part and be wary of what is made in the first. Whether the proverbial average reader will get this remains to be seen, but props to Koelb for trying.

Rob Weir
Off-Center Views


Andy Weir's Artemis Releases Tomorrow


ARTEMIS (2017)
By Andy Weir
Crown, 320 pages.

The Martian, Andy Weir's debut novel, was a smashing success. His follow-up, Artemis, is too good to be called a sophomore slump, but it's at best a mixed bag. Fans of nerdy science will find plenty to contemplate, though the literature side of it yaws more toward Dan Brown than to Ursula K. LeGuin or Robert Heinlein.    

It is set in the near future in Artemis, a small city of 2,000 clustered in five bio bubbles on the Moon (Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard) that has solved the problem of producing enough oxygen to keep everyone inside alive. Artemis is run by the Kenyan Space Corporation (KSC) and headed by Administrator Fidelis Ngugi, the woman who figured out how to make Kenya a leader in the space program. She is one of the many politically correct boxes Weir ticks off; there are also gay characters, Latinos, Scandinavians, a hunky Ukrainian researcher, Brazilian and Chinese baddies, our protagonist, Jasmine ("Jazz") Bashara, is of Saudi extraction, and her welder father, Ammar is a devout Muslim for whom Jazz is a disappointment. Jazz, aged 27, has lived on the Moon since she was six and considers herself an Artemisian. She's certainly not a good Muslim; she's a hard drinker, sleeps around, and walks on the razor's edge. Her biggest fear is that head of security Rudy DuBois will someday bust her small-scale smuggling operation and deport her back to Earth.

Artemis is like a big extended village, but it's not a utopia—more like Deep Space Nine set on the lunar surface and stripped of its aliens. Lots of Earth stuff is conveniently ignored: the legal drinking age, corporate monopolies, petty crime, casual sexual relations, etc. Only its wealthiest members get to eat anything other than Gunk, flavored algae, and everyone is in one way or another in thrall to KSC as the Artemisian currency, slugs, is credit from the KSC. (It's shorthand for soft-landed grams and each one is pegged to a gram of Earth cargo.) Still, tourists fly to the moon to gawk and bounce around on the surface in "hamster bubbles," and many of residents such as Jazz prefer its Mild West vibe of drinking, hookups, cussing, libertarian values, and improvised ways of making a living.

Jazz, however, wouldn't mind having a bigger living space, and that sucks her into a Get Slugs Quick scheme from a regular smuggling customer, the ridiculously rich Tron Landvik. All she has to do is slip outside the city and destroy four mineral harvesters belonging to the Sanchez Aluminum Company. As such things go, Tron's stated reason for wanting them taken down isn't his real reason. Let the caper begin. It will involve murder, a crime syndicate, geeky technology, double-dealing, hair-raising danger, an unlikely set of partnerships, and beat-the-clock scenarios.

How you'll feel about all of this takes me back to my Dan Brown analogy. Do you buy into computer-like minds that are able to do the science, overcome physical threats, and concoct improvised solutions in a parsec, or does it stretch your credulity? I can't assess Weir's science—my Ph.D. is in history, not STEM—but his solutions at least sounded logical to my right-brained thinking. His human responses, however, often rang false. To me, this novel has Hollywood thriller written all over it. Its central drama is pretty much the template for such projects, especially the put-aside-existing-prejudices-for-the-good-of-all setup.

Mind, I have no objection if Artemis becomes a good Hollywood thriller, though somehow I doubt it has the capacity to match the gravitas of Blade Runner or even The Martian. Artemis is a decent read and bad girl Jazz will grow on you as she evolves. Ultimately, though, Artemis is a pretty standard thriller dressed in enough respectable scientific garb to make it appear weighty in a setting with 16% of Earth's gravity. But, hey, I like Dan Brown.

Rob Weir*

*Note: Though we bear the same last name, to my knowledge I am in no way related to Andy Weir.


More from Canada's National Gallery


Art Road Trip: Ottawa Part Two

In an earlier post I featured Canadian art from the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Ontario. In this post I feature a few other things to investigate.

Canada is, by area, the world's second largest nation, though the bulk of its population lives within a hundred miles of the US border. Yet those large, underpopulated regions have dramatic influence upon weather pattern, hence Canadians are also among the most geographically aware people on the planet. It should thus come as little surprise that Canadians and landscape painting go together like love and maple syrup—a Gordon Lightfoot reference for those wondering about the analogy. 

Varley: Stormy Weather Georgian Bay

Thomson: Jack Pine
MacDonald:The Solemn Land

Lawren Harris

Emily Carr
Probably the most famous of all of Canada's art coteries was the Group of Seven—landscape painters whose peak period was the 1920s and 1930s. Originally they included Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, but it was a changing lineup that wasn't always seven. In fact, two of its most famous members were not originals: Tom Thomson and, a personal favorite, Emily Carr, whose depictions of totem poles and the Canadian West differentiated her from the rest, who were mainly Ontarians and Quebecers. These days, thanks to Steve Martin, Lawren Harris is probably the best known of the bunch.

Yvonne Houser: Rossport Lake Superior

Canadian landscapes often covey a sense of largeness and majesty. Most lack human subjects and if you've been to the Canadian Shield, the Rockies, or the Far North, you can understand why. I've not been north, but those other places have a way of making you think humans are pretty damn puny compared to the settings in which they roam. There's also a hard-to-describe mystery about some of those places. Harris portrays hat quite well in paintings whose subjects are at once real and surreal. Thomson does this as well, but with interplay of light and natural features.

William Raphael: Behind Bonsecouers Market, Montreal
Houser: Cobalt
Oddly, Canadian town and cityscapes often take on toy-like features: wooden structures that that evoke building blocks, streets filled with figures that border on folk art, and villages set amidst outsized features. Canadian painters also tackle historical subjects such as the coming of railroads, contacts with First Nations people, and so on. And, let's face it; Canada gets a lot of snow, a detail in all sorts of painting.   

Alex Colville (1920-2013) isn't very well known outside of Canada, but he's one of my all-time favorite artists. He painted with the same sparseness and evocations of emotional isolation as Edward Hopper and is sometimes called the Canadian Hopper. People look everywhere except at each other, but where they gaze is as debatable as the Mona Lisa's smile. There are also echoes of Winslow Homer.

Like any other museum, I have personal favorites. A few are depicted below.

Joseph Legare: Josephine Ourne
Prudence Howard Rollande
Harris: Toronto Street

Liubov Popova: The Pianist


The Dressmaker Has Too Many Loose Seams


Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Universal Pictures, 118 minutes, R (language)

The Dressmaker, an Australian comedy, concludes with a delicious revenge scenario. Would that everything that came before it been as good. Alas, Jocelyn Moorhouse serves us a film that's quirky, but not quirky enough; weird, but not weird enough; goofy, but not goofy enough; and surreal, but not surreal enough. Detect a pattern?

The Aussies have a talent for offbeat comedy and have produced such small gems as The Castle, Strictly Ballroom, Malcolm, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This one seeks, but doesn't quite find, that same vibe.* It takes us to the Outback settlement of Dungatar, which would be nowhere at all except inexplicably it's near another town, Winyerp, and the two are rivals. It opens in 1951 when Myrtle ("Tilly") Dunnage (Kate Winslet), arrives at the local train station dressed to the nines, her red lipstick a rare flash of color amidst the parched gray and yellow landscape. Her mother, known as Mad Molly (Judy Davis), lives in Dungatar, but Tilly's not there to see mum and mum doesn't want to see her. Tilly wants to know what happened 25 years earlier. All she can remember is that she was accused of being responsible for young Stewart Pettyman's death in 1928, when they were both eight and that she was exiled from the town. Was she really the young murderess she was accused of being? Does this explain why she feels cursed? 

In her exile to the city (Melbourne?), Tilly picked up some serious seamstress skills. She wears clothes that disgust the local women—until they see how she turns the heads of every man who looks at her. Locals still think she's a cold-blooded killer, but when her red dress turns a soccer match against Winyerp to Dungatar's favor and her dressmaking skills help frumpy Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) ensnare a beau, they are willing to hold their noses and beg her to make frocks for them. Soon we are treated to the absurdity of windblown Outback matrons decked out in high couture. That's a pretty funny idea, but the subtexts are labored. Stewart's father, town councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) hates Tilly, blames her for his son's death, poisons townsfolk against her, and even recruits a rival dressmaker to compete with her. Her only friends in town are hunky Teddy McSwiney (Liam Helmsworth), his half-witted brother, Barney (Gyton Grantley), and local police sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who loves the gowns Tilly sews and can't wait to try them on!

As you can see, The Dressmaker has all the makings of a Joel and Ethan Coen film—except that it never lives up to that potential. The search for what really happened in 1928 rests on a pretty lame repressed memory device and all the primping and preening starts to feel like a really bad mall fashion show. To underscore an earlier critique, a key pivot point comes new tragedies unfold, except they're not sad enough to be poignant, nor camp enough to be funny. Then we get the reveal and payback, the latter of which is vicious and satisfying, though its tone is out of keeping with that of the rest of the film.

Winslet is fine in the film, but it's really just a walk through for her, Davis, Hemsworth, and Weaving. There are a few laughs and that final scene, which could have only been improved had someone more acid, like Tilda Swinton been in the role of Tilly. Overall, there's nothing inherently awful about The Dressmaker and it would certainly fit the bill as a download for a night in which you don't want to do much except crump in your favorite chair and veg out for a few hours. Just keep your expectations low.

Rob Weir

* Oddly, The Dressmaker was Australia's top box office grosser for 2015. That probably explains why Universal picked it up for a 2016 release in the US.


The Black Widow: Novel, Screed, or Clarion Call?


By Daniel Silva
HarperCollins, 517 pages

This is the 16th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, though you need not have read any of the others to appreciate it. For those who don't know Allon, he's an urbane, sophisticated, and deadly Israeli master spy—think a more compact and domesticated version of James Bond. In this novel, Allon is rumored to have been killed in his last assignment. Actually, he's trying his best to be retired and is living a secluded life—a necessity for a man every Muslim terrorist would love to murder—with his Italian wife Chiara, recently born twins, and his other passion: art restoration.  He has no desire to get back in the game and, frankly, he's getting a bit long in the tooth for such activities.

Gabriel's plans go awry when he inherits a Van Gogh—the hard way. An ISIS bomb explodes in the Marais district of Paris and kills dozens of people, including the woman who entrusted her priceless Van Gogh to Gabriel. French intelligence is paralyzed and Israeli intelligence wants Allon to takeover for longtime head Uzi Navot, whom they view as past his sell-by date. This sets the stage for a sprawling novel that takes us from Paris and Israel to Beirut, Syria, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Israeli intelligence knows that something much bigger is afoot and Allon's job is to bring down an ISIS cell headed by a mysterious figure known by his nom de guerre, Saladin.

This time, though, Allon needs information, not a daring assassin. Little is known about Saladin except his penchant for recruiting revenge-seeking "black widows," women who have lost husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers in the terror wars and blame Israel for their heartaches. In short, Allon needs an insider. To that end, he recruits Dr. Nathalie Mizarhi, a multilingual French Jew, and transforms her into Dr. Leila Hadawi, a Palestinian black widow. It's a dangerous game for many reasons: Mizarhi sees herself as apolitical, she'll be beheaded if caught, and even if she's not, Saladin likes to turn female recruits into suicide bombers.

Allon is clever and his network strong, but is Saladin his Professor Moriarty? The book's drama is gripping, Silva masterfully builds the suspense, his characters have depth, and he throws in many unexpected twists that take you places you wouldn't expect. For many readers, though, Silva's politics will cause as much anxiety as his plot. In an afterword Silva pulls no punches when asserting that that ISIS and much of the Muslim world is engaged in a literal crusade against the West. The novel's U.S. president is clearly modeled on Barack Obama, and Silva sees him as a naive fool who thinks the US can ignore ISIS and disengage from the Middle East. The French are hogtied, the British are inept, and the Dutch and Belgians are clueless about the severity of the threats in their midst. Where analysts see dozens of terrorists hiding in places such as the Molenbeek section of Brussels, Silva sees thousands. To put it bluntly, The Black Widow is an apocalyptic warning masquerading as a novel.
Is he right? I happen to share Silva's view that Obama's worldview was/is overly optimistic, but it's also easy to tar Silva's as hysteria bordering on paranoia. I'll get back to politics, but for review purposes, how good is this novel? The answer, in my view, is that it's a mixed effort—an assessment that is surely open to the charge that my own take on terrorism lies between those of Barack Obama and Daniel Silva. Silva is a skilled writer whom we must take seriously within the suspense/spy/thriller genres. Past Gabriel Allon novels work very well in part because the dance between heroes and villains operates within the relatable intimacy of personal encounters-even when broader networks are involved. ISIS is a different lump of gefilte fish. Saladin has a personality, but ISIS does not—it's more akin to the swarm mind of the Borg in Star Trek. Its objectives are nihilistic and annihilistic. Saladin aside, The Black Widow has too many villains without faces. In addition, critical parts of the novel seem like something out of the movie Independence Day.

Readers ultimately face questions of whether this is a work of fiction, or a screed—a novel, or a call to arms. Silva tries to have it both ways, but I am torn as to whether he has chosen the right forum to promote mobilization. But then again, I am also torn between the feeling that Silva is overly alarmist and the gnawing fear that maybe he's not.