Eleven years ago, I wrote about a book I had just read that I couldn’t get out of my mind: Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc).
“If this book was a novel, readers would probably dismiss it as too chaotic and not believable. But it is in fact a true story, the never ending cycle of living on the edge, the ghetto (largely the Bronx), where the girls get pregnant and the guys sell drugs and go to jail (some of the girls do too.) Somehow, Le Blanc, the author, has gotten inside several families, and the result is you live with them, with all their turmoil, rage, love, and loyalties. I doubt I have ever read a ‘coming of age’ story as intense and memorable as this one. And I’m sure I will remember it for a very long time.”
Now, there’s another one to call to your attention. This one, An American Summer also is non-fiction and is equally as memorable. Ellen and I went to see and hear the author, Alex Kotlowitz at Politics and Prose’s new Wharf store in southwest DC, and while that hour added to our enjoyment and understanding of the book and its author, the book by itself is one we’ll also remember for a very long time.
Kotlowitz calls it a series of dispatches, but it’s in fact a picture of life on the south and west sides of Chicago, 14 stories, some self contained but all about the same subject: what it is like for children, adolescents, young and older men, and mothers and grandmothers, some who are victims of gun violence. Some are perpetrators of violence.
The author set out to write about the summer of 2013 in this troubled area of Chicago (though he says he could have written a similar book about any one of ten other cities in American that actually have a higher crime rate than Chicago). Like LeBlanc (above) he was able to embed himself in the communities and families and became deeply invested in the lives of his subjects, ones who upended what (he) thought (he) knew.
There’s a bit of Studs Terkel (a mentor and a friend) in his approach as Kotlowitz is able to convey and portray a world that is behind the statistics (1990 to 2010 when 14,033 people were killed here and more than 60,000 wounded). Although his stories all begin in the summer of 2013, many then go back a number of years and then forward for the four more years it took him to present his portrait(s) drawn from these 14 stories. His ability to interview, to listen, to interact, and to write about the violence in these lives and in this part of the city is simply as good as it gets for a writer and for the reader. He helps us begin to understand things most of us don’t know and can’t even imagine.
What is taking place in Chicago, and in other American cities, is complicated. It’s complex. And it’s heart wrenching. It’s about Thomas, Anita, Crystal, Nugget, Eddie, Lisa, Maria, Marcello, and their families and friends. It’s about trauma from one generation to the next. It’s about something called “Complex Loss.” It’s about loneliness and fear. It’s also about resilience and the price of resilience. And it’s about forgiveness as a way to cope and a way to preserve oneself.
Kotlowitz doesn’t give public policy prescriptions nor claim
to have answers to what can be done.
But he does humanize people from all sides who live with
this daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and decades long violence, and he gives the
reader an unvarnished picture of life in these communities.
While he gives no answers, he does go behind the statistics,
behind the headlines, and deeply into a world that is out of control.
I suspect you have not read anything quite so revealing as An American Summer.
Put it on your summer reading list. It is nothing like the
summer or life most of us will experience this or any other year.
How many times have you yelled, “You’re Blind, Ump”?
There is now proof that at least 20% of the calls by the umpires behind the plate over the last 11 years are wrong. That’s one in every five calls.
Recent data of over four million pitches between 2008 and 2018, with the use of sophisticated, triangulated tracking cameras, say this is so.
Further, there is a two strike bias, where umpires make more mistakes on these counts, calling a pitch a strike when in fact it is a ball. As umpires were twice as likely to call a true ball a strike on a two strike count, batters called out in these situations had reason to be angry with the ump (see photo of Mookie Betts above).
Specifically, 55 games ended with incorrect calls.
In 2018, there were 34,294 incorrect calls, an average of 14 per game, or 1.6 per inning.
And it is the older, more experienced umpires who made the most mistakes as the less experienced and younger ones were more likely to get the calls correct. Long time umpire Joe West had 21 errors per game, and Angel Hernandez had 19, for example, while John Libka, 32 and with only 1.5 years of experience, had got many more calls correct (as did Mark Wegner, 47).
Also, umpires selected for the World Series were not the best performing umps.
You can see these details, and many others, along with charts and names in this article by Boston University’s Mark T. Williams, who, assisted by a group of graduate students at BU’s Questrom School of Business, dove deeply into the data, analytics, and statistics to come up with these results.
Although MLB has had a system of rating their umpires, no one has done the kind of analysis that the new technology of triangulated cameras has made possible.
What will it mean for the future?
Williams believes that it doesn’t mean robots should replace umpires, but he believes there are some solutions that could make the situation significantly better. (See the end of the linked article above.)
In the meantime, it may be an overstatement to say the umpires ARE blind (in fact, they do seem to be getting the calls a bit better, tho they are still missing enough to change outcomes of games).
But if they’re still missing an average of 14 calls a game, then there is something seriously wrong. To what seems an unacceptable degree pitchers are benefiting, batters are losing out, and the outcomes of some of the games are questionable.
If your team has ever been the victim of bad ball/strike umpiring, you were not crazy to say “We waz robbed.”
Check out these five films we’ve seen recently, four reviewed by Ellen and one by Richard. All are worthy of your consideration.
Reviewed by Ellen Miller:
All is True: Ellen ***** Richard *****
All is True, a historical drama that concerns the latter years of Shakespeare’s life, was made for me. Historical films are one of my favorite genres and this one is enhanced by the acting of Kenneth Branagh (as Shakespeare), Judi Dench (as his wife, Anne Hathaway), and Ian McKellen (now 80 years old). With Branagh as the director, producer, and writer, this film “had me from hello.”
The film is set in 1613, immediately following a fire which destroyed the Globe Theater. It opens with Shakespeare returning to his home in Stratford from which he had been long – and frequently – absent. The adjustment of his daughters and his wife to his return is difficult, and he is unsettled. The story of the last three or four years of his life unfolds, and while what is portrayed in the film is not all true, much of it is based on facts of his latter years. But these distortions matter little here as this film depends not on the story itself, but on the acting, the staging, and the filming, all of which are amazing accomplishments.
The combination of the story, the acting, and the cinematography makes the movie mesmerizing. Each scene is filmed as though it was a still life painting, lit only by candles. The acting is taut – Dench, for example, delivers her lines with such expression and passion that her actual words are unimportant. You know exactly what she means. There is so much contained in this film (I keep wanting to call it a play): family dynamics; convention-resisting daughters; titled men and literary figures paying homage to Shakespeare; the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife; and Shakespeare’s planting a memorial garden to honor his son. (Funnily, the deceased son was named Hamnet – who, in this production, is a ghost who haunts his father.)
An interesting note is that Branagh is a Shakespeare obsessive, and he created this film as a bookend for Shakespeare in Love (which we saw and indeed did love). In a way, the play is an elegy, yet it also provides a detailed portrait of a man of creative genius and his many personal flaws.
And one final note: the film was actually released in 2018 so it could be considered for the Oscars. Somehow, it did not receive a single nomination. And that is true.
Go see this. It’s brilliant. It is scheduled to be released May 10th.
Ash Is Purest White: Ellen **** Richard ****
I am not sure how this film came to our attention, but we are certainly glad it did. It is Chinese-made and tells the story of a China we do not know. Perhaps it’s a side of any country not available to outsiders. Even though Richard and I have traveled extensively in China for the last 30 years on our own and with our Beijing and Guangzhou-based friends, we were seeing a side of China we had never seen before. This story was so unusual and so fascinating that about half way through I turned to Richard, at the same time he turned to me, and said, “this is absolutely fascinating.” And he agreed.
This is the story of China’s contemporary gang culture and illegal underground activity. This is a story of rival gangs, of illegal guns, and of maiming, murder, and mayhem. It is also a story of romance and sacrifice.
The film takes place over a period from 2001 to 2018 during which we see the main character fall from being a leading member of the criminal underworld in Datong, near Mongolia, to a broken, sick, and disrespected man. We see his girlfriend endure prison to protect him and survive that hardship to care for him, even though he no longer cares for her. The story is told in three parts that are well linked together.
Ash Is Purest White is filled with scenes (and some places) familiar to us: small cafes filled with working men and women; men smoking and playing mahjong as a respite from their working in coal mines; a boat trip on the Yangtze before Three Gorges Dam is built, high rise modern office buildings, and drab uniformly built worker housing.
The writer-director is a well-known Chinese filmmaker – Jia Zhangke — and here he depicts a view of contemporary China that is not widely known. The pace is slow and steady, allowing you to digest all that is happening as you stare fixedly at Bin (Fan Liao)) and Qiao (Tao Zhao), the fraught gangster couple. This is a big and important story about contemporary China. The acting is extraordinary, and the film raises disturbing questions about contemporary China
highly recommend it.
Hotel Mumbai: Ellen***** Richard****
Here’s a big box office film that really worked. It’s a not a great film, but it is one Hell of a good movie. Batten yourself down and imagine a film of unrelenting tension and drama and prepare to either close your eyes or to cover them at any second. This movie tells a fictionalized account (barely, I think) of the horrifying incident of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on the city of Mumbai, India by Pakistani Jihadists. Ten members of an Islamic terrorist organization organization based in Pakistan carried out 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai, including the world famous, elite Taj Mahal Hotel. The movie graphically presents the indiscriminate murder by the terrorists of innocent people at a train station, various prominent hotels, a Jewish community center, a hospital, and a café. A leader who was present only in their headsets encouraged them in their mayhem and guided the terrorists in their carnage.
And horrifying it is. It is based on a Surviving Mumbai, a documentary, and while this movie was a fictionalized account, it rings true. (I am tempted, but I don’t think I can bear to watch the documentary account.) Watching this film is a sobering experience. Its horror is only lightened slightly by members of the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel who risked their own lives to save those who were held hostage there.
This is not a movie about the acting (good, but not
amazing), or the production (stunning at times), but its success is due to the
screenplay and direction of the action. It was so well paced to create tension
and uncertainty of the outcome that I’m quite sure that I didn’t take a breath
from start to finish. I was exhausted by the end of it.
You’ve been forewarned. But see it if you can.
Maiden: Ellen ***** Richard*****
This documentary is an example of why we enjoy being members of the Sunday morning DC Cinema Club. Had we only read a description of the film, it’s unlikely we would have seen it, and therefore we would have missed a film of considerable importance and enjoyment.
The story is about the first all women’s boat to participate
in the Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race. The year is 1989, and the race is
a beyond dangerous and grueling around-the-world challenge of 32,000 miles. It
takes six to nine months to complete.
It is the story of the grit and determination of one woman – Tracy Edwards (awarded the Yachtsman of the Year, the first woman ever to receive the award) — and her determined and skilled crew. She and her crew faced incredible odds, first even imagining they could participate in the race, to finding financial support. They faced ridicule from the press and other yachtsman; and no one thought they would even complete the first of the five legs of the grueling race.
The one thing that wasn’t difficult was finding competent women with sailing experience. Edwards was doing this initially for herself to prove that she could, but in fact, she and the crew eventually realized, they were also doing it for all women — to prove their competitiveness, toughness, and stamina in this all male sport. Woven into the narrative were recent interviews of many members of the crew who offered reminiscences and reactions from their achievement. This added tremendously to the quality of the film.
The impact of the documentary comes in large part because of the incredible footage that was made at the time. The boat had a fixed camera on it, and one of the crew members took responsibility for additional photography. In addition, the documentary includes aerial photography, along with video and interviews from on-site TV coverage.
For those watching, the tension wasn’t just about whether the team won or lost the race, but also about the skills and fortitude of the sailing crew and the breakthrough for women. Our enjoyment of the film was further enhanced by having one of the crew, Dawn Riley, present Sunday. She talked about the race, the crew, answered our questions about the film and indicated that their involvement has had an impact (positive) on the participation of women in yacht racing.
The film will be released June 28, 2019. Put it on your list and go see it. For sure, we will take our granddaughter and grandson to see this inspiring documentary.
Reviewed by Richard Miller
Crazy Rich Asians Richard ****
I most likely would not have seen this film if I had not been invited to a pre- festival screening of it by a new friend who is the Director of the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival (Coming up May 31-June 2, 2019).
I’m glad he invited me and that I went.
delightful. Fun. Entertaining. And the story is a universal one, with perhaps a
twist of an ending. It’s a romantic comedy that pleases.
rich Asian man invites his NY Asian girlfriend (who somehow does not know about
his background and comes from a very different economic and social background
herself) to attend his best friend’s wedding back home in Singapore. You can
almost imagine the story. She’s amazed. His mother is dismayed. He’s caught in
the middle. She’s stunned by what she sees, learns, and experiences. I’ll leave
the unwinding and conclusion of the story for you experience on your own if you
film comes from a book of the same name, and we were fortunate to have the one
of the screenwriters, Adele Lim to talk about the film and answer questions
following the screening. The largely Asian audience gave the film and Lim an
only is the story well told, even if familiar, there are good performances, and
the scenery from Singapore made me want to get on an airplane to see the city
for myself. Plus, there’s the food. Dumplings and dumpling making (flashes of
our own Chinese dim sum preparation at Thanksgiving here in DC for the past 40+
For a satisfying outing, see Crazy Rich Americans and then find a good dim sum restaurant in your area to ‘top off’ the afternoon/evening. (Note: Crazy Rich Americans won the Critics’ Choice Award for the Best Comedy, Jan. 13, 2019 and was nominated for a number of other awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – musical or comedy. It has an all Asian cast and was produced in Hollywood.
** ** ** **
The 33rd Annual Washington International Film Fest is coming up (April 25-May 5), and the program looks very good, including many films we haven’t seen or even heard of. Check it out – 80 films from 45 countries over a period of 11 days.
I. Some Predictions from MillersTime Baseball Contestants
Contest 1: MillersTime contestants say it will be the Dodgers vs either the Red Sox or Yankees in the 2019 World Series, and they believe the American League team will win it in six games.
Contest 3: No doubt here. Overwhelming choice is the American League to win the All Star game. Scherzer (or maybe Sale) will be the first pitcher to win 12 games. Harper, Stanton, and Judge all tied for first to hit 25 home runs.
Contest 4: Contestants split evenly between those who think the Yankees will win the AL East and those who don’t, but they seem to think the Nats will definitely not win the NL East. Everyone seems to think one of my ‘grand’ children will see at least one of the following: a grand slam, a triple play, a no hitter, Teddy winning the President’s race, will go home with a foul ball, will have his/her pix taken with an MLB mascot, or will be on the TV screen at an MLB stadium. (Has happened yet, but I’m working on this one.)
Other Contest Predictions: Too complicated to post here. But thanks to all who participated.
II. Baseball Notes and Two Questions:
***Check out this article that looks at a different, but easy way to judge who are the best hitters in baseball: Secondary Average by Victor Mather, NY Times, April 5, 2019. (Hat Tip to Joe H for alerting me)
***There’s a new book out by one of today’s top baseball writers, Tyler Kepner of the NY Times. A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. Reviews have been outstanding, and I’ll let you know what I think as soon as I finish it. (It’s due to arrive at my house April 7.)
***Every time I attend a baseball game, I’m looking for something I never saw before. A few days ago this: Tie game between the Phillies and the Nats in DC. Bottom of the 9th. First man up for the Nats gets a single. Then the the Phillies’ pitcher walks the next two batters. Bases loaded. And he does it again. A third walk. Walking in the winning run for the Nats. What do we call that? A Three Walk Walk-Off? A Triple Walk Walk-Off? A Walk-Off Walk? Bad pitching? Terrible managing? Let me know what you would call it. And I suppose you all know the actual definition of ‘Walk-Off’ win. It’s not the winning team walking off. It’s about the losing team having to ‘walk off’ the field after they’ve ‘blown’ the game.
***Not sure if it’s my getting older (which is certainly happening), but I’ve already attended four games at Nats’ Park, and I’m sure they’ve cranked up the loud speakers, making it difficult to talk and hear each other between innings. one of the enjoyable aspects of seeing a game with a son, daughter, wife, father, grandfather, grandchild and/or friends. Is this increase in noise level happening elsewhere too? Or am I just getting more like my parents did at a similar stage in their lives?
III. Repeating History
***Finally, heading to Boston with the three females in my life – wife Ellen, and daughters Annie and Elizabeth – to ‘treat’ them to Opening Day, April 9 in Fenway where the World Series flag will be raised, a huge banner will be dropped across the Green Monster, and the WS rings will be given out. I took them in 2005 (see photo above) when the Yankees had to sit in the Visitors’ dugout and watch the ceremonies after the best ever WS win in my lifetime. Now, with this fourth WS victory in this early part of the 21st century — eat your hearts out Yankee fans — my only regret is that my daughters and grand children will never truly understand what I had to go through for most of my baseball life – though I think Elizabeth kind of understands. If you’ve never read this, don’t miss: The E-Mail on the Kitchen Table,posted 12.19.08 on MillersTime but written just after the Sox finally won it all in 2004. A must read.
***You can look forward to an upcoming post, Opening Day Thru Ellen’s Lens, with commentary attached.