Miniseries, Movie Stars, Short Stories, Coulrophobia, & Mama Cass | What We’re Reading/Watching

This edition of “What We’re Reading (and Watching)” has two new fresh voices: LJ Art Director Irving Cumberbatch shares his nighttime obsessions, and SLJ Assistant Editor Della Farrell escapes to Greece and ponders a Goodnight Moon appearance in a sf thriller. The rest of us get comfy with aging movie stars, scary clowns, 1960s rock and rollers, a 1950s wild child, rag-ripping minidramas, and prize-winning story collections.

Tiffanys.WassonEllen Abrams, WWR/WWW emerita
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
is not one of my favorite movies. Lots of film fans love it, but I find it shallow and not exactly credible. Of course, when you cast the lovely and classy Audrey Hepburn as a call girl, you’re just asking for trouble in the believability department. Critiques aside, it’s almost always fun to read about the making of even a so-so movie, which brings us to Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman (HarperCollins). Wasson’s book tells readers everything they never knew they wanted to know about the film adapted from Truman Capote’s much more daring novella of the same name. While I might disagree with the premise that Holly Golightly ushered in the feminist revolution, Wasson’s behind-the-camera tales about casting, actor upsets, choosing a director and screenwriter, the rag-ripping minidrama that signaled the beginning of the end of famed movie costume designer Edith Head, and, of course, Henry Mancini’s poignant theme song, “Moon River,” are as fun and entertaining as any good movie backstory.

bigLittleLiesIrving Cumberbatch, Art Director, LJ
As a nighttime soap aficionado, I have seen many a drama come and go through the television landscape, from the 1980s excess of Dynasty through to the current urban fabulousness of Empire. HBO’s latest offering is Big Little Lies, based on the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty, or as I affectionately call it, Really Desperate Housewives. This limited series has all the hallmarks of a good nighttime soap: love, sex, betrayal, catfights, and more sex. The show takes place in a wealthy community in the scenic city of Monterey, CA, and centers on the lives of four women: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), wife, mother, and town busybody; Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a woman trapped in an abusive marriage; Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mom running from her mysterious past; and Renata (Laura Dern), a type-A superbitch who wrestles with the guilt of being a working mom. All four women have children entering the first grade. On the first day of school, Jane’s son is accused of bullying Renata’s daughter. It is left to the viewer to decide whether Ziggy is guilty of terrorizing Amabella. While this story line plays out in the series, we see the unraveling of each of these women’s lies. Madeline has to deal with infidelity in her marriage, Celeste is covering up signs of her husband’s abuse, Jane is succumbing to her paranoia, and Renata is hell-bent on punishing anyone who endangers her perfect life. Oh, and did I mention the murder mystery thrown into the mix? We’ve seen this well-worn story before, beautiful people doing bad things. The subtext of income inequality is also woven in but never fully explored. How is Jane able to afford living in a modest home with no discernable income?  Despite the uneven writing and at times gaping plot holes, this series provides engaging performances that have me wanting to discover more about each of these characters.

CalifCass.BagieuMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, SLJ
As a big fan of pop and rock and roll from the 1960s and 1970s, I have quite a few beloved musical icons: Ronnie Spector, John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Janis Joplin, among others. To this lineup, I’ve recently added Cass Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas. Though I’ve always enjoyed the group’s signature hit, “California Dreamin’,” along with “Monday Monday” and “I Saw Her Again,” after reading Penelope Bagieu’s California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second), a stunning graphic biography, all loose, doodlelike lines, evoking perfectly the creative yet often haphazard feeling of the 1960s counterculture, I was inspired to seek out more videos of the quartet’s performances. While Denny Doherty was crush-worthy, and Michelle Phillips one gorgeous tall drink of water, it was Cass who utterly charmed me—her funny quips, her infectious energy, her bold moves, and her voice: by turns soaring and achingly tender.

Still eager for more about my newest idol, I’m making my way through Eddi Fiegel’s Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot (Chicago Review, 2017). I’m enjoying just about everything in Fiegel’s affectionate tribute to Cass. I particularly appreciated that, like me, Cass was an enthusiastic fan of John Lennon; in fact, in the Mamas and the Papas’ cover of the Beatles tune “I Call Your Name,” Cass can be heard whispering John’s name during the instrumental bridge. A great singer with amazing music taste—what more do you need?

Kitamura.SeparationDella Farrell, Assistant Editor, SLJ Reviews
I read Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (Riverhead) more than a week ago and I’m still thinking about it. Kitamura takes a relatively simple premise—a woman goes in search of her estranged husband—and coolly sets the stage for a twist, but doesn’t end there. It’s the narrator’s thoughtful musings on marriage, knowability, the strangeness of violence, and the things we do and do not say that propel the work forward. Set in Gerolimenas, Greece, this is also perfect for anyone who’s tired of winter weather.

I also recently saw the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, in which Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon makes a startling and quite perplexing cameo.

Friis.BodyRemembersLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
LJ’s Fiction Editor Wilda Williams played Santa Claus in springtime, giving me ARCs of three suspense/thriller books to devour. First I dove into Agnete Friis’s solo debut, What My Body Remembers (Soho). Friis coauthored with Lene Kaaberbøl the “Nina Borg” series, which I really enjoyed. Book 3, set partially in Ukraine, was my favorite, though the opening title, The Boy in the Suitcase, was a twisty, white-knuckle ride as well. I definitely caught some Borgisms in Friis’s book, but I didn’t love it like I did the Ninas. The plot was very thin in some parts and contained a few implausibilities, and I figured out the villain pretty quickly. But the setting and the main characters—a broken, angry mother and her plucky son—rang true. And I was struck by a side character’s soliloquy about family, when trying to convince the quasiorphaned Ella to visit her estranged grandmother:

 “You’ve never had a family, so you don’t know what you’re missing. Family isn’t love. That’s nothing but sentimental blubber. Family is an extension of your own body. Many youngsters believe they can live without the bonds they are born with, but for most of us, these bonds are the only ties we have in the universe. This you will realize when you’re older, but right now, I am here as your grandmother’s friend. Not yours. She has lost everyone who has meant anything to her, and now she would like to see you. And your son.

On the “What We’re Watching” front, I’m now deeply embedded in FX’s Feud, to the point of obsessive googling: Was Joan Crawford’s maid/factotum “Mamacita” real? Did Crawford really steal the 1963 Oscars ceremony from Bette Davis? Did Bette and Joan really detest each other? Online searching led me to some prime footage of Davis on the Tonight show near the end of her life, splendidly arrayed in a leopard ensemble, croaking wise with host Johnny Carson about sex, acting, and her face. Definitely one to watch, that Bette Davis.

Bosworth.MenDaryl Grabarek, Senior Editor, SLJ Reviews
I just started The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan (Harper) by biographer Patricia Bosworth. Bosworth’s father, Bartley Crum, was a San Francisco lawyer, who, after defending the Hollywood Ten (think Sen. Joe McCarthy and the witch hunts of the 1950s) saw his career spiral downward (aided by alcohol and pills). Her mother, Gertrude, was known as an entertainer and a best-selling novelist. With her beloved—and gifted—brother, Bart Jr., Bosworth was able to weather the often tumultuous family life, but as the two emerged from adolescence, Bart became more distant. It’s a family story peopled with Hollywood and literary friends but also a coming-of-age tale of a privileged and talented young woman who struggled to carve a path for herself after a disastrous first marriage at 18 and family tragedy. I’m only a quarter of the way in (she’s still in her early 20s), and Bosworth has joined the Actor’s Studio, played across Helen Hayes in The Glass Menagerie, and befriended Gore Vidal. (So a little gossipy). I found the title a bit off-putting at first, but I get it now.

King.ITTyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
Apologies to those with coulrophobia, but the teaser trailer for Andrés Muschietti’s rehaul of Stephen King’s It was released yesterday and I almost needed new shorts after watching it. Not only is It my hands-down favorite King story, I loved Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 miniseries. So in celebration of the remake (hitting theaters in September), I’ve been rereading the 1986 novel and rewatching the miniseries.

There isn’t one book in the world that has consistently scared me more than It. I first picked the story up when I was in sixth grade, and only understood that clowns were terrifying. As I’ve gotten older, more nuances come crawling out of the shadows; it’s like reading it for the first time every time. Some people complain about how long It is and how King sometimes meanders through his narrative, but for me, that adds so much flavor to the story.

For those unfamiliar with the book, six tween misfits band together to defeat It, a shapeshifting monster that can take the form of whatever It thinks will scare you the most (kind of like a boggart, Harry Potter fans!). They only manage to wound It as kids, and when It awakens 27 years after the events of their childhood, the Losers Club, now all over the country, travel back to Derry, ME, to finish It off once and for all. The Losers Club are some of my favorite characters in literature. As kids, you can identify with parts of all six of them, though they’re not as interesting as adults. While the story’s ending is admittedly kind of cheesy, there are strong messages, such as the redemptive and healing powers of friendship. Adults will look back on the Losers Club with a sense of nostalgia, back to the days of building forts and shooting slingshots—hopefully while not being chased by a murder-clown.

Let’s be honest about the TV miniseries though: Tim Curry is the only good thing about it. Produced on a limited budget at the beginning of the 1990s, the series had to be toned down. It is a testament to Curry’s performance that Pennywise is often cited as the reason why people are afraid of clowns. He made It scary through sheer force of will. And this is what makes me excited for the remake: Curry was awesome, but the rest was awful. Now, we have Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise (who looks horrifying in the trailer) and an R rating, which means King’s Constant Readers (should) finally get the It movie we deserve. Can you tell I’m excited?

Noyes.Beautiful.WomenLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
The month of March often finds me reading the finalists for the Story Prize event, which I like—in part—because there are only three each year, which is doable even for a slowish reader like me. This year’s finalists covered an interesting range of ground, which made for a good reading triad. Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove) is Anna Noyes’s debut. The stories of girls and women in this collection all have in common a sense of menace, mostly—but not always—sexual, countered by an almost pathological innocence on the part of her characters, even the tough ones. This yin and yang made for some strong stories, with lovely language throughout, and a few hit the sense of internal struggle pitch perfectly.

They Were Like Family to Me: Stories (Scribner), Helen Maryles Shankman’s second work of fiction, is a bit harder to evaluate objectively—linked short stories mainly set in the Polish town of Wlodowa during the Nazi occupation in the first half of World War II. As you’d expect, there’s examination of cruelty, guilt, culpability, the banality of evil, and some of it is, obviously, painful. As it should be—I found myself having an internal dialog: “Don’t we get a story with a glimmer of humanity or an upbeat ending?” “Lisa, this book is about the Holocaust.” (And there are a few positive moments, but…it’s a book about the Holocaust.) So it’s hard to pull back and just meditate on the writing, yet overall, it is well written and probably most successful when Shankman moves away from the magical realism elements of Jewish folktales. Between a few of the stories, I reached for something a bit lighter (like, you know, the Washington Post).

The Story Prize winner this year was Rick Bass’s For a Little While (Little, Brown), a really muscular collection, covering some 30 years of his career as well as new work. It was interesting to watch Bass’s style grow and breathe as the book progressed. I felt at first that his style leaned toward the atmospheric, nothing-really-happens framework. Atmospheric definitely, in a big way, but the arc of each story is there, you just have to be quiet and watch for it. Bass gets more adept at building the bones of the story as he keeps working—I found the pieces became increasingly more satisfying as I read more of them. To pick out a standout mid-book, “The Hermit’s Story” is just crazy out-there and not to be missed. I read this one slowly (even for me), and I’m glad I did.


Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench

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