Liz Smith: Viewing and Reading Suggestions for These Cold Winter Nights: "Red Tails" … Agent 6 … Child 44

And more from our Liz: Elaine Stritch’s run in with “Dracula” … can Alexei Navalyn save Russia?

“Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”

This is the great movie maker George Lucas, who is sick and tired of “Star Wars” fans criticizing him and popcorn movies in general. He is quoted in The New York Times magazine saying he will retire from big-budget movies in favor of smaller, experimental projects.

You can read all about the latest movie hit from Lucas: the thrilling “Red Tails,” a heroic depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. It’s an aviation epic in the old style.

I personally met some of the last of the Tuskegee veterans when I was at a party not too many years ago with the great Lena Horne, who was their idol. These daring black airmen were held up to reverential acclaim by another pilot, the late “Tex” McCrary.

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JUDGING FROM the bestselling books of fiction listed this week, more Americans than ever are reading thrillers: books about detectives and sleuths of all stripes, an abundance of serial killers, and horrid murderers. These current hit novels abound with adventures, problems to be solved and all the basics of pass-the-time “literature.” And, as I am the guiltiest of all these readers, I do want to recommend a writer who has “upped” the genre.

Tom Rob Smith has written a new book called Agent 6, which, amazingly, is partially set in New York City. But its basic timeline and genre is of ordinary people in the Soviet Russian nightmare of our recent years — just before and after the death of Stalin and post-Chernobyl. In them, the KGB is still torturing and controlling and most of the Russian people survive in crowded, horrible living situations, spying and lying about their neighbors to survive.

Those of us who visited Russia when it was under Communist Soviet rule know this was an era ripe with absolutism, the fear of everyday citizens, absurd propaganda and desperate despotism. The writer, Mr. Smith already wrote about all this in Child 44. He seems to know the time well.

Agent 6 — the new book — is a kind of P.S. follow up. Its anti-hero is a Kafkaesque type, a functionary practicing Soviet police methods. All this has been compared to Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I find it much more realistic and mesmerizing in its plot. It’s not the U.S. and the British counterintelligence versus the U.S.S.R., but Russia against itself.

Amazon has made the titles Best Book of the Month picks, and I have seen excellent reviews from Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, the Dallas Morning News and Publisher’s Weekly.

I don’t want to leak anything else about Mr. Smith’s talent, so suggest you read Child 44 first and follow it, quickly, with Agent 6. (If you know any history, you will recognize the character in this part of the story as being based on the great American singer, Paul Robeson.)

After reading these two authentic novels, you can go back, if you insist, to what I call the ultimate non-rewarding types of thrillers about vampires. Although, I’ll be damned if I know what these so-called creatures have done that’s new since Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. I haven’t figured out why the supernatural is more popular than recent outrageous history.

I have never forgotten my longtime friend Elaine Stritch’s verdict on Dracula, because before I met her, she was all over the U.S. with Bela Lugosi in person, starring as the ingenue in the play after the original black and white movie hit.

In those days, actors learned their roles by studying half pages of paper called “sides.” I asked Elaine, “What was it like?”

Elaine quipped. “Liz, I had six sides of screams!”

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I GUESS you’ve had it with me nattering on about political situations, but I do suggest you read Time magazine’s new article (Jan. 30th issue) by Simon Shuster asking “Can This Man Save Russia?” Alexei Navalyn might be in jail as you read this, but he is the blogmeister who has set Russia aflame against Vladimir Putin.

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Lucas seems to have a thing for WWII-style aviation units, flight formations, hangar scenes, etc. Many of the Star Wars hangar and combat scenes were directly inspired by the look and “feel” of photos and footage from WWII. This is something I thought he did well.

    As for Star Wars fans criticizing him – well, there is such a thing as taking a good thing and running it into the ground, and I think many of the criticisms are valid. He not only rode the Star Wars horse much farther than it ever should have gone, he insisted on dragging it a few more miles after it died.

    Glad to see that he is finally doing something different, and a great subject, too.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Blargh…died and then rotted. The only decent scene in the hideous prequel trilogy is when a young Obi-Wan chops Anakin to bits in the lava cave, amputating both legs and arms, if I’m not mistaken, then standing over him and lecturing him with grim dispassion as the encroaching molten whatever begins to make a crispy critter out of him. Or maybe he left an arm, so that the soon to be Darth Vader could wave it around pathetically. Wah-wah-wah.

      I do adore the bit in which Count Dukku (sp?)…why can’t they have names like George, or Franz, or Bubba (I am a speculative fiction reader, btw, and an RPG player)…and Yoda have their ridiculous light saber duel in the cave. The CEG is terrible, and Yoda has always reminded me of a small, green…well…I apologize…booger…caroming off the walls. Both of my sons found my bemused commentary more amusing than the prequels, including my fervent desire for someone, anyone, to bloodily slaughter Jar-Jar Binks.

      But then, my favorite spec fiction movies are “Alien”, “Aliens”, “Blade Runner”, “5th Element”, “A Boy and His Dog”, “Heavy Metal”, “The Thing”, and more recently, “Daybreakers”. I don’t like glittery vampires either…I thought that “30 Days of Night” and “Near Dark” were excellent.

      For excellent reading, give Neal Stephenson a try. I just finished “Reamde”, phenomenal…and have read “Snow Crash” and “The Diamond Age”, and am about to start “Anathem”.

      • avatar Lila says:

        Ha! Rotted indeed. I was picturing a leg or two breaking off of the horse as it was dragged along for a few more bucks.

        LOVED Alien. Saw it by myself when I became stranded at the twin theater with friends who wanted to see an R-rated film all about T&A. So I went to the horror film on the other side. The only scene that got me worried was the dinner scene. The guy was looking ill and I was thinking, “Please don’t vomit, please don’t vomit, OH! Thank God! It was just something ripping out of his chest!” Oh, and I worried disproportionately about Jonesy the Cat.

        Blade Runner – most memorable moment was when the pigeon flew off. It was a movie that made you think.

        Also loved the others you mentioned – will have to check out Stephenson.

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          When Roy Batty says, “Time to die”, bows his tired head, and releases the pigeon…or dove (I only know that it is white), I always cry…and I am not given to tears when viewing films. It was, at least for me, a transcendent moment.

          I also worried inordinately about Jonesy, and saw “Alien” solo the first time…it is my very favorite film. Second is “Pulp Fiction”.

          Neal Stephenson is a deep well. I am about to start “Anathem” right now (o, insomnia).

  2. avatar Lucien says:


    Thank you for continuing to provide thoughtful and exciting suggestions for reading material. Based upon your recommendation, I gave “Raised by the Church” to several people for Christmas gifts and they loved it, as did I. I am looking forward to reading both “Child 44” and “Agent 6”. Keep up the good work and all your efforts in support of reading and literacy!

  3. avatar Lila says:

    Interesting that Time is doing another piece on Navalny. They ran an article on him last month as well, and an interview just last week. I haven’t seen the new issue but will be looking for it.

    The danger of “people power” comes when a government is removed in a disorganized way. Too often, the powers that rise to fill that void are self-interested and vicious, and corruption (again) is the result. Or, the people simply get something worse than before. Look at Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood, which was implicated in the Sadat assassination and banned for decades, now holds the largest share of Parliament and is already signaling that they intend to introduce Islamic law. Was what Egypt had under Mubarak so horrific that it should have been replaced with this? Really? Or look at Kyrgyzstan, whose Tulip Revolution ultimately replaced one self-centered dictator with another.

    Presidential elections are this year. Hopefully the Russians are savvy enough to just vote the bums out.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      The horrible truth about Egypt is that there is an existing grass-roots movement there to end female oppression (by way of refusing to subject young girls to infibulation, or FGM, take up the veil…and to allow them choice in their husbands, and birth control) that was eased into place by Egyptian women and men educated here and in the UK who quietly introduced these ideas to the elder women in rural areas…and successfully engaged them in progressive thinking. All of that will end if the Muslim Brotherhood enforces extremist Islamic sharia law. Sharia law is very complicated, and one individual’s, community’s or sect’s ideas of its rules will NOT match another’s. In many European, and most United States communities, a woman would be asked when she begins her menses if she desires to take up the veil…if she does not, it is her choice (different families have a whole spectrum of reactions to this…but more and more accept their daughters’ choices). If she does, she is expected to abide by her decision…not too much different that Baptism, or taking First Communion.

      I think that the French Revolution, and the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which set up the Republic of China, opened the way for Sun Yatsen and led to the insinuation of Chinese “communism” and what China is…and all that it isn’t…today are the two best examples of what happens when “The People” rise up with no real plan, just one of immediate anarchic revolution, and violently depose the current government. I’m not certain that France has fared so well, in the long run. I know China has not.

      Speaking of such things, our own elections are this year, and I hear the distant, early warnings.

      “Daylight again/ Following me to bed /I think about a hundred years ago /How my fathers bled.
      I think I see a valley /Covered with bones in blue/ All the brave soldiers that cannot get older /Been asking after you.
      Hear the past a calling/ From Armageddon’s side/ When everyone’s talking and no one is listening/ How can we decide?
      Do we find the cost of freedom/ Buried in the ground?/ Mother Earth will swallow you/ Lay your body down.

      —Crosby, Stills. Nash & Young
      Copied from MetroLyrics-dot-com

      • avatar Lila says:


        Yes – I worry about that phenomenon with ALL of the “Arab Spring” movements. Even Iraq is worse off in a lot of ways, than it was under secular Saddam. Especially for women.

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          Lila: I would expect that someone like you would be aware that causing the death of Saddam Hussein and his sons, and therefore the necessity of having to share breathable air with such monsters was an expeditious move that gained George W. Bush and his administration an enormous degree of good faith and admiration in the world wide socio-political arena. They were such obvious perpetrators of atrocities, and so easy to hate that everyone *assumed* Iraq was A) an awful place to have “bred, allowed the rise of, supported and condoned” such tyrants, and B) would be ever so much better off without them.

          What few seem to realize is, just as you indicated, Saddam Hussein’s government was a *secular (non-religious…in other words, no sharia or dogmatic law of any sort) government*. Women could attend school, even institutions of higher learning, drive, be unescorted and were in no way expected to don any garments signifying repression. Saddam and his sons targeted certain groups and individuals, and were loathsome…but it wasn’t due to religious extremism.

          Of course, now the worst form sharia law is taking in affect in Iraq, as extremist Muslim factions battle each other in a bid for control that the last administration who started this conflict…in a country that never attacked us, or harbored the Taliban or al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden, and was merely a much easier target in terms of topography, geography, sociology and cultural practices…should have, and probably anticipated, and just as likely cared not a thing about. Much more expeditious and splashy, they thought…and virtually abandoned our troops already in Afghanistan (decades before Obama thought about running for President). The George W. Bush Administration should have seen the potential for ruin…but short-sightedness was the name of that game.

  4. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    Maybe Geroge Lucas wouldn’t get so much heat if he would stop his incessant tinkering with the Star Wars movies. Like Francis Ford Coppola and his Godfather movies, neither man seems to feel that his films are ever finished. They keep recutting, redubbing and re-releasing until people are simply sick and tired of them. Why bother buying a Lucas film on DVD when next year he’ll probably change some of the dialog or redo the special effects?