Movie – Andre Rieu’s Home for the Holidays is a two-hour DVD of beautiful Christmas melodies. Andre conducts his world famous Johann Strauss Orchestra and Choir along with six powerful soloists, and an Austrian children’s choir in a spectacular setting in and around Andre’s fabled castle in Maastrict, The Netherlands. He presents 26 classics, including Silent Night, Ave Maria and O Come All Ye Faithful, as well as unforgettable renditions of all-time favorites like Jingle Bells and Go Tell It on the Mountain. Home for the Holidays is perfect in every way: dazzling, intimate, warm, and visually beautiful. Snow is used throughout this production to create a certain winter ambience. The white of the snow is in contrast to the pastels of the lovely gowns worn by the women in the orchestra and the women soloists. The concert was performed in Andre Riue’s home and garden for a small audience. It is the best Christmas DVD I have ever seen! Andre is simply the most commercially successful classical musician in history, having sold 30 million CDs worldwide. He conducts the orchestra with great energy, verve, and visual effect playing his 1667 Stradivarius violin. Rieu and his orchestra (between 80 and 150 musicians) have performed throughout Europe, North and South America, and Japan. Their recordings have gone gold and platinum in many countries, including 8-times Platinum in the Netherlands, plus two World Music Awards. I found that every detail was exquisite, and I plan to play this in my home every Christmas.
Book – Don Tillman, socially awkward professor of genetics, wants a life partner despite “evidence” that he is “unsuitable” for women. He enlists the aid of his only two friends, Gene and Claudia, and embarks on the Wife Project. A madcap, often hilarious, quest to find true love ensues. Don’s scrupulous honesty and literal interpretation of events creates laugh-out-loud scenes and exposes the sometimes hypocrisy of social conventions and norms. When he meets spontaneous and troubled Rosie, Don’s ordered world is turned upside down. He attempts to approach the new situations he encounters with his usual controlled focused intensity, but is surprised by the outcomes and his own reactions. I didn’t want this entertaining adventure to end. Happily, a sequel is in the works and the screen adaptation of the book has been optioned by Sony Pictures. If you enjoyed Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you may want to meet Don Tillman.
Book – Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre, and if his “gritty and realistic” characters seem slightly less so to modern eyes, at least they’re still great fun to read about. Hammett himself worked as a Pinkerton detective before the First World War, so he comes by his colorful characters honestly. And it’s not hard to see a little bit of Hammett in the hard-drinking, hard-partying Nick Charles of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man.
When Nick and Nora Charles head to New York City for the holidays, they’re expecting to spend their time at glamorous parties and social events. But much like in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the detective is never allowed to rest. Nick’s past insists on catching up with him when a young woman he has paternal feelings towards asks him to investigate her father’s disappearance. So much for holiday fun: Nick spends the rest of the novel trying both to avoid doing any real work and to avoid disappointing his young friend. Of course things get nasty, but when Nick tries to protect his wife, Nora only complains that he never wants her to have any excitement. Nick and Nora’s relationship is such a delight that after the rousing success of the film version starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, the studio went on to make five more.
Music – How Mercy Looks From Here is the new bestselling Christian album from Amy Grant. It’s her first full length album with all new songs in 10 years. It’s a stellar collection of songs and includes duets with Vince Gill (her husband), James Taylor, Sheryl Crow and Carole King. The songs are soft and introspective, reflecting on faith and family. She also draws on her experiences of the last decade, including her parents’ aging and declining health. Amy Grant is known as “The Queen of Christian Pop,” and she is the best-selling contemporary Christian music singer ever, having sold 30 million albums worldwide. She has won six Grammy awards, and has six Platinum and four Gold albums, plus a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The song “Don’t Try So Hard” is a tender ballad about resting in God’s grace, that features James Taylor, and the song “Better Not to Know” is a prayer-song about finding courage in God’s faithful mercy. Carole King joins Amy on the song “Our Time is Now,” which features Amy’s children and her father. This is Grant’s masterpiece; she sings about real life with messages about the glories and mysteries of faith, mercy, grace and life lessons for young and old. I was moved by the album and quickly noticed how polished the arrangements were played by the Nashville Session Players, a string orchestra. Do you know that Amy’s album Lead Me On is still considered the number one all-time Christian music record?
TV series – There’s nothing the BBC does better than a good period drama, and their adaptation of the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester is, in my opinion, one of their best. Produced in the early years of the 2000’s, it stars Welsh actor Ioan Griffudd as Hornblower and co-stars Jamie Bamber (more recently of Battlestar Galactica fame) as his friend and fellow officer Archie Kennedy – a part much expanded from the books, but to great effect.
In eight episodes, the series follows Hornblower from his first posting as a midshipman (at nearly twice the age most young officers started in that position), just at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, through his tenure as a lieutenant under an abusive captain, and up to his promotion to Captain at last. Of the series, the two episodes based on the book Lieutenant Hornblower, Mutiny and Retribution, are by far my favorite, adding Paul McGann to the regular cast as Lieutenant Bush, and featuring an excellent performance by David Warner as the dangerously unstable Captain Sawyer.
Book – Cutting for Stone is a beautiful haunting epic story that will probably appeal to fans of The Kite Runner. Set in Ethiopia, the story is about conjoined twin boys Marion and Shiva Praise Stone who are born as a result of a secret love affair between a British surgeon and his surgical nurse and assistant, an Indian nun, both working at Missing Hospital near Addis Ababa. Tragically, the mother dies in childbirth and the devastated father disappears leaving the hospital and his newborn sons behind. Hema and Ghosh, doctors from the same hospital, raise the boys as their own. Though successfully separated at birth, the boys still have a very strong emotional bond to each other and their different personalities make them a complete soul.
The overthrow of the Ethiopian government disrupts their childhood and other events and personal choices result in the brothers drifting apart. Marion goes to the United States and becomes a resident at a hospital in the Bronx. He finds out that his biological father is a famous surgeon in the area. Shiva completes medical school in Addis Ababa and continues practicing medicine at Missing Hospital. An event of life and death reunites the brothers with their father. The author, Abraham Verghese, was born in Ethiopia and started his medical training there. He continues his medical career in the United States and has written other works based on his experiences.
Book – The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion alternates between the present day story of Sookie Poole, a sweet, conservative wife of a dentist and mother of four who lives in Point Clear, Alabama and the 1940’s adventures of Fritzi Jurdabralinski, a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilot) from Pulaski, Wisconsin. Sookie receives a letter that brings unwelcome news and she discovers that the past holds secrets she never imagined. While she dodges her bossy, larger-than-life mother and fields questions from her friends and neighbors, she sets out to sort out the truth. Fritzi is a lively, determined young woman who dares to fly stunt planes, run the family service station with her sisters and train for military service. When the two stories weave together, Sookie learns that she’s braver and happier than she realized. I enjoyed learning about the WASPs and the musings of Sookie and her friends were sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Fannie Flagg has written several novels including Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, Standing in the Rainbow and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.
Book – Chick Lit meets The West Wing and if you enjoy the TV series Scandal you will probably like this book. This fun, fast read is written by Kristin Gore, daughter of former Vice-President Al Gore. The main character, Samantha Joyce, Sammy, is a 26 year old domestic policy advisor to the Junior Senator from Ohio, Robert Gary. Sammy is an idealist who shares the Senator’s passion for health care reform. She is dedicated, big-hearted and loves working on Capitol Hill, never complaining about her 70 hour work week, despite being a hypochondriac and ever hopeful for romance. During a fact finding mission working on Gary’s latest health care related bill, she meets Aaron, a speechwriter for Senator Bramen a powerful politician with questionable ethics. Dizzy with love and overworked Sammy mistakenly sends a racy message to over 200 of Capitol Hill’s political elite giving Samantha her first taste of D.C. scandal. Love is in the air, but can her romance with Aaron survive when their bosses become political rivals? Kristin Gore is a keen observer of politics and definitely shares her insider knowledge of D.C. social life and how things really work in Washington and on the campaign trail. A light enjoyable read and I actually learned a few things. Good news, if you like this book-there is a sequel, Sammy’s House and rumor has it that there is a movie in the making.
Movie – If you are in the mood for something different, or want to do a bit of armchair traveling via stunning visuals from distant locations, Samsara may interest you. It is a movie that is experienced rather than simply watched because of the impact of the graphic imagery of landscapes and human culture that are presented without a defined context. Filmed over four years, the images were photographed entirely in 70mm and transferred to 4K digital projection format. I’ve read recommendations for seeing this film on as large a screen as possible because of the splendid visuals, and I completely agree. Amazing real-time and time-lapse images that are as diverse as natural landscapes, spiritual sites, and industrial settings are accompanied only by ambient sound and music, and no dialog accompanies the film. This enriching film alternates between soothing meditative scenes of aesthetic grace and thought-provoking, slightly disturbing, scenes evoking social commentary. Samsara follows in the footsteps of two award-winning predecessors Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi (which was accompanied by the music of Philip Glass).
TV – It’s New York City in 2012, and Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) has just been released from rehab where he finally managed to kick his cocaine addiction. His father, however, thinks he needs some additional looking after. Enter Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), former surgeon, current sober companion. Her plan is simple: she’ll live with him, escort him to NA meetings, and try to keep him on the straight and narrow. But Holmes is convinced that he needs an assistant.
It’s been a while since I loved a new TV show as much as I love Elementary. It really isn’t fair to compare this to the other currently-running modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation, BBC’s Sherlock; the two shows are doing completely different things. While Sherlock is adapting Doyle’s stories directly, Elementary is using the framework of a familiar set of characters to talk about the importance of friendship and loyalty, and it does so beautifully.