December 1, 2020

“Her Honor Jane Byrne” presented by Lookingglass Theatre and WBEZ Radio

“Her Honor Jane Byrne” is an original play by J. Nicole Brooks, presented by Lookingglass Theatre Company and WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate.

On March 26, 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project on Chicago’s near west side. Did she do this as a publicity stunt or to see firsthand how people lived in this rundown complex that contained 14,000 plus residents?

The dialogue is witty and the story will be of interest even to non-Chicago residents. Listeners hear about the travails of Chicago’s first female mayor. Residents, police personnel, activists, aldermen and a crime capo all make appearances in this fascinating theater piece.

Initially a stage presentation at Lookingglass Theatre in March 2020, the production was shut down by the pandemic. In collaboration with WBEZ, the historical production was presented as a radio play on Thanksgiving Day. A live re-broadcast will occur on Saturday, Nov. 28 from 2 pm to 4 pm (91.5 FM).

You can also access the two-hour drama from the WBEZ web site. Go to wbez.org. Click on the SEARCH button and type in HER HONOR JANE BYRNE. Scroll down to a WBEZ logo with the play title and click the LISTEN button. A player bar will appear at the bottom of your screen page with the play. (I am giving you step by step directions since the site would not give me a direct link to the radio play.)

J. Nicole Brooks

Thank you WBEZ for making this engaging radio play available. I surely hope Lookingglass re-stages this fascinating work by J. Nicole Brooks in the post-pandemic era.

https://www.wbez.org/

“The Wild Blue” by Stephen Ambrose

“The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45” is the whole title of historian Stephen Ambrose’s account of this lesser known facet of World War II. The war was waged with men and women of all ages, but American men age 18 to 21 filled many crucial military roles on land, on sea and in the air.

Some of the bravest recruits were the pilots and crew members of the B-24 Liberators which bombed Axis weapons factories and fuel depots throughout Europe. Notable young pilots were statesman Stewart Udall, filmmaker Robert Altman, actor Jimmy Stewart and the focus of the book, former presidential candidate, George S. McGovern.

Each bomber had a crew of ten: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer and four gunners. They worked as a tight-knit team but all looked to the main pilot to get them to their target and safely back to base. Air servicemen were asked to fly thirty-five missions, with a fearsome number killed in air combat or captured as POWs after having parachuted from their burning planes.

I have to note that Ambrose was accused of plagiarism in copying some of the text from the footnote sources. (One of the sources is McGovern’s autobiography, “Grassroots.”) In response, Ambrose said he did give credit in the end notes and would issue a corrected version with more quotation marks. This might be a book for history-lovers only, but World War II buffs will find much of interest.

As some of you know, I am mightily interested in presidential history, including the also-rans for our top national office. I had the honor of knowing Senator McGovern as a family friend and South Dakota congressman. His bravery and rock-solid leadership in his early twenties give us a deeper understanding of the man who was trounced by Richard Nixon in 1972.

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson

I got to meet one of my non-fiction literary heroes, Erik Larson, in 2016 while playing the piano for a Chicago Library Literary Dinner. Every new book from him is cause for celebration, but he has outdone himself with “The Splendid and the Vile” about Churchill during the German blitz of England during World War II.

Doyle, Elizabeth Berg & Francesca Peppiatt

We get an inside look into Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, his daughter Mary, his son Randolph, his daughter-in-law Pamela, as well as his familiars like his secretary John Coville or confidante Lord Beaverbrook. We also get to see what it might have been like for citizens of London and all of England. German bombs and incendiaries could decimate your home, your air raid shelter and your city’s architectural treasures in the space of a single evening. Larson helps you imagine what that continual anxiety must have been like during 1940 and 1941.

We are also given a glimpse into the thinking of Hitler’s acolytes, Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess, to name a few of the infamous.

Especially noteworthy is the role the U. S. played in bolstering the morale of the British public. Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman, representatives sent by FDR to report back to him, have their own important narratives. Before the U. S. officially entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the lending of military supplies, money and moral support to the British government and people helped prevent them from capitulating under the German air and water onslaught.

Someone blithely asked why we have to keep rehashing World War II. History repeats itself, as any historian will tell us, so it bears noting parallels between one’s current time and previous challenging eras.

Erik Larson has provided not only food for historical thought in “The Splendid and the Vile,” but created a non-fiction work with short informative chapters that impel the reader forward. Who says history has to be dry and dusty?

Two British mystery novels: “Maisie Dobbs” and “The Turn of the Key”

Jacqueline Winspear started a detective series in 2003 starring “Maisie Dobbs,” a female English private investigator and psychologist. We hear of Dobbs’ life from 1910 to 1929: her mother’s death when she is 14, her college years, her work as a nurse during WWI, her apprenticeship with famous French sleuth Maurice Blanche and finally the opening of her own detective agency.

Her first case investigating where a client’s wife goes every week, brings up painful memories of her own war-time romance.

Winspear says her interest in history and World War I, in particular, was due to her grandfather who suffered from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There are now 15 books in the series which include Dobbs’ cases through World War II.

Winspear won several prizes for her debut novel, “Maisie Dobbs,” including the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and made it to the New York Times Notable Book of the Year list.

Ruth Ware, another Brit who has made a name for herself in the mystery genre, is often billed as a psychological crime thriller author.

In “The Turn of the Key,” the reader is introduced to nanny Rowan Caine who is sitting in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of one of the children in her care.

Having received comparisons to Agatha Christie, Ware updates the spooky house setting by having it be a “smart home” with cameras everywhere, voice-controlled windows, door and lights and an out-of-town boss who indiscriminately starts talking to Rowan like a voice from out of the blue.

There is the requisite love interest, a poison garden and a plot twist. Ware wrote the book as a nod to “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, but the main characters are quite different.

Three of Ware’s books have been made into movies, “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” “The Woman in Cabin 10” and “The Lying Game.”

Winspear is the more literary writer, but Ware knows how to spin a suspenseful tale. Both are worthy of the English crime literary club.

“Les Miserables” drama series on PBS

I groaned when I saw yet another version of “Les Miserables” being promoted on Amazon Prime. (Season One of the 2018 PBS television series has been available for free in August for Prime members.)

Curiosity got the better of me and I found myself watching episode one of this mini-series adapted by Andrew Davies. I was instantly sucked into this fresh take on the Victor Hugo novel, in no small part due to actor Dominic West’s tour de force performance as criminal turned do-gooder, Jean Valjean. In color-blind casting, David Oyelowo is outstanding as Javert, the policeman who dogs Valjean for the duration of the story. Derek Jacobi, BBC thespian heavyweight, shines as Bishop Myriel, the cleric whose forgiveness and generosity changes Valjean’s path.

Without singing a blessed word, Lily Collins (daughter of English musician Phil Collins) is stunning and heartbreaking as the beleaguered Fantine. Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar are odiously entertaining as the greedy Thenardiers. David John Bradley, replete with wig, powdered face and fake beauty mark, villanously turns his grandson against his father who was an officer with Napoleon’s army.

Fine acting and superlative production standards make this worth viewing on the PBS Passport streaming service. Unless you can marathon watch it on Amazon Prime in the remaining hours before August closes. Ready, set, binge…

“Greyhound” on Apple+

Tom Hanks seems to play a lot of heroes, but “Greyhound” on Apple+ is special since he not only stars in this war movie, he wrote the screenplay, too. Based on the novel, “The Good Shepherd” by C. S. Forester, Hanks plays naval commander Ernest Krause on his first war-time command of a merchant ship convoy crossing the Atlantic.

A little backstory on my interest in this facet of WWII history. My father would reminisce about being an 18-year-old sailor who played the clarinet and saxophone for the Navy while on shore, but manned a gun when his ship was at sea. He told dramatic stories of being scared of Germans by air and water along with violent Atlantic storms. The movie does a good job of showing the menace of German submarines, in particular, referred to as U-boats. These underwater predators could be compared to the sharks in “Jaws.”

The movie does perhaps suffer from too much maritime dialogue, but Hanks and director Aaron Schneider do capture the fear and triumph felt by Commander Krause and his crew.

Due to the pandemic, “Greyhound” was never released theatrically, but was picked up by the Apple+ streaming service. One critic referred to this 91-minute feature as a “dad movie.” Why not see if you can get your history-minded pop or granddad to watch this with you?