Tidy Tidbits: Mostly Video


My Mother and Other Strangers (PBS)

If you missed this little gem from last summer, it’s worth seeking out.  Set in the village of Moybeg in Northern Ireland in 1943, it’s the story of a poor town invaded (not literally) by the presence of an American air base.  At the time, Francis Coyne is a rather quiet, but very observant, boy of nine or ten.  In voice-over, the adult Francis reflects on the events of the time and adds in what he only realized later.

His father is a farmer who also runs the local pub.  His mother is both school teacher and shopkeeper.  She deals in ration books and foodstuffs.  Life in the village is simultaneously unsettled or enlivened by the presence of the airmen; which it is  depends upon whether you are a kid who finds it exciting or an old-timer who hates having his life disrupted.  Francis’ mother, Rose, is attracted to Capt. Dreyfuss from the base and he to her.  He seems to offer the romance and poetry lacking in her marriage to Michael.

We’ve seen the first season, and given the way it ended, I feel sure there must be more to come.  Very nicely done!

Alias Grace (Netflix)

I read Margaret Atwood’s historical novel of the same name when it was published and remembered being impressed by it.  Atwood was involved in this TV adaptation and I’m finding it also well done and compelling.  Grace, in prison for committing several murders, has been taken up as a cause by Dr. Jordan, a young doctor of the mind.  She sits with daily interviews with him away from her cell and recounts her life before prison and the events leading up to the murders.  He is a patient, yet persistent, questioner, but also dreams about her.  She is seemingly demure, but with a very active, sharp mind, and attractive to boot.  The pardon committee has taken up her case, and Dr. Jordan is being pressured to finish his evaluation quickly, something he is loath to do.

Broadchurch, Season 3 (Amazon)

Broadchurch remains one of the best crime series I’ve ever seen.    Olivia Coleman and David Tennant as sparring detective partners, Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy, are excellent, but so are the supporting cast who play other members of the community, many we’ve come to know in previous seasons.   I like Broadchurch’s s more deliberate pacing (compared to some American shows), and I’m finding the handling of the rape victim and how she fares realistic and compelling.


Murder on the Orient ExpressLike most of my generation, I’ve seen the original 1934 film version of this Agatha Christie mystery as well as the more recent television series starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.  This movie, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is good, but not great.  As one of my sisters noted, it’s slow to start out and then picks up a bit.  Branagh has some of the exaggerated mannerisms and fussiness of other Poirots, but there is less humor or fizz in this version.  It  has a stellar cast (Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz et al),  and I had completely forgotten the ending so that was a surprise.


I currently have two books going.  One is Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, and the other is Unfinished Woman, a memoir by Lillian Hellman.  Both are older works; Holmes’ book came out in 1985 and Hellman’s in 1969.  Holmes recounts several journeys he made tracing the paths taken by historic figures whose biographies he will later write.  Unfinished Woman is my pick for the January book group discussion here.  I first read it several years after it was published, and it’s a different experience reading it so many years later.  I am now older than Hellman was when she wrote it!  My opinion of her ramblings keeps varying as I make progress.  More to come on both titles.

Note:  All photos ©JWFarrington (some rights reserved).

North Carolina Interlude


Lest anyone think I haven’t read any books lately, here’s one I wanted to like more than I did.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

This might be the first novel by Allende I’ve read or possibly the second.  It brings together an unlikely trio to deal with an out-of-the-ordinary surprise.  Fussy, academic Richard Bowmaster rents his basement apartment to Lucia Maraz, a professor from Chile who also teaches at NYU.  He is intrigued by her and attracted to her, but has done nothing about it.  She is lonely and would like to further her acquaintance with him beyond their professional relationship.  None of this is likely to happen until, undocumented nanny, Evelyn Ortega, shows up on his Brooklyn doorstep on a bitterly cold winter night after a snowstorm.

Evelyn’s car, her employer’s, was hit by Richard in an accident and she seeks his help.  But the help goes beyond just the damage to the car as there is a body in the trunk.  How this ill prepared threesome handles this fact and journeys upstate to deal with the dead person makes up the crux of the novel.  We learn how Richard and Lucia’s relationship develops and we get the back story of each of these individuals before they came together and, in the process, learn about recent history in Chile and Argentina.

I liked the premise of this novel and the way that Richard, and especially Lucia, rise to the challenge of helping Evelyn, but much of the action takes place as straight narrative with almost no dialogue.  It is a static novel which tells more than shows.  Interesting, but not as engaging as I expected.  (~JW Farrington)



The Chief Penguin and I spent an activity-filled week in North Carolina over Thanksgiving visiting my sisters and their families.  We sampled the delights of Greensboro (shops, parks and a favorite restaurant), ventured to Asheboro for lunch and wildlife, explored downtown Raleigh and the Ravenscroft School campus with my niece, and then decamped for Thanksgiving Day in Chapel Hill and several brisk chilly walks, a new restaurant, and a long bookstore browse.  Here are some of the specifics:


Scuppernong Books

This cozy bookstore cum café in downtown Greensboro has a nicely chosen selection of both new and used books.  Scuppernong is a type of muscadine grape native to the area, a word that might be hard to spell, but is certainly memorable!  I was especially pleased with their children’s section and had an informative chat with the woman who buys their children’s books.

Bog Garden

On this visit, I was impressed with the work of the Greensboro Parks & Recreation Department.  My sister and I walked in the Bog Garden, close to their home which we’ve visited many times, and also checked out the Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden and the David Caldwell Historic Park.  The bog garden has a raised boardwalk and is wilder and less manicured than one might expect of a garden.  In partnership with several Audubon members, the park is engaged in removing invasive plants and putting in native plants in their place.

Print Works Bistro

Adjacent to the Proximity Hotel, this restaurant is always good, be it for breakfast or dinner.  The dining room is large with high ceilings, but is sectioned off with floor-to-ceiling billowing fabric drapes and upholstery-covered chairs which provide overall softening.  I would call the menu sophisticated comfort food, and it ranges from items such as local trout and mussels to a shrimp risotto, meatloaf or chicken schnitzel.  Breakfast fare includes the standard eggs and bacon, but also duck confit hash and a bacon and Brussels sprouts quiche.


After a good lunch of salads and sandwiches at The Table , we continued down the road to the North Carolina Zoo.  Some folks are not enamored of zoos in general, but this one is exceptional.  It’s located in the center of the state and has many hundreds of acres with lots of room for the animals in each habitat to roam.  You get around to key points by tram and within the North American and African Habitats there are meandering paved paths that take you to the various animal sites. 

Signage is good and, being in a woodsy environment as you wander, makes it a most pleasant experience.  I especially liked seeing all the tropical birds in The Aviary and having an almost nose-to-nose encounter with a chimp.



Lunch at this Indian/Asian restaurant in downtown Raleigh was perfect for our group of seven.  We liked the beef and noodle salad, tofu salad, and the vegetarian daily special.  Portions were a generous size and fortified us for several hours of shopping and walking.


McIntyre’s Books

Friends who know me well know that I seldom pass up an opportunity to visit a bookstore, particularly an independent one.  I’ve patronized McIntyre’s at Fearrington Village for many years and it’s always a pleasure to spend an hour here.  With the holidays soon upon us, the shelves and tables were overflowing with stock and notes of staff recommendations. It was very easy to find gifts for family as well as a paperback for myself!

Venable Rotisserie Bistro

A new restaurant in Carrboro recommended by my sister and brother-in-law who’d dined there once before, Venable was a great place for the day after Thanksgiving.  Casual with wood flooring and bare wood tables, family groups and couples were scattered around the dining room.  Two of us tucked into the chipotle glazed salmon on a bed of spinach with sinfully rich whipped potatoes while the men enjoyed fried chicken (really a breaded chicken paillard with arugula) and North Carolina trout topped with bok choy.  Very good “elevated comfort food” as the restaurant calls it!

Photos by JWFarrington.

Tidy Tidbits: Viewing & Reading


This month, the Sarasota cultural scene re-awakens with orchestra, opera, theater and choral performances.  Not as many as in the new year, but what I’d call a mini-season.  Earlier this week, we had the treat of a session on the costumes for the musical, Evita, being presented by our favorite Asolo Repertory Theater.  This costume brunch featured a Skye conversation with the show’s costume designer along with commentary from the head of the costume design shop and a key member of his team.  Not only are Eva’s gowns and dresses lovely, they are  flawlessly constructed so that quick costume changes can be carried off on stage by other members of the cast!  Very ingenious use of clips and magnets and the like!  Now, I doubly can’t wait to see it all.

We also went to see and hear the Sarasota Opera’s production of La Traviata.  The local maestro is a big fan of Verdi’s works, having presented all of them over the past 28 years, and this was a lovely evening.  The sets were gorgeous and the singing most enjoyable.  We thought that this Violetta was very good and the Alfredo, exceptionally so.  I like this opera because it has fewer characters than some and  one main plot line.  And we saw a performance by the San Francisco Opera a few years ago which meant I was familiar with it.


Female Spies  

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.  Novels about young women during the two World Wars are plentiful these days and practically a genre in themselves.  This new novel, like so many others, has parallel story lines, but takes up the topic of female spies during WWI.  It’s 1947 and Charlie St. Clair, English, is unmarried and pregnant and under the influence of her mother who has her own plans for this unplanned pregnancy.  Charlie, with ideas of her own, is on a quest to find her cousin Rose who has not been heard from in three years.  A cryptic note takes her to London where she meets Eve, a ravaged and emotionally damaged former spy.

Charlie ends up traveling with Eve and Finn, Eve’s aide-de camp and general factotum, in her search for Rose.  The Alice Network of the title refers to a group of real female spies who worked for Britain under the direction of a young Scotsman.  The novel unfolds in alternating chapters between Charlie in 1947 and Eve in 1915.

It becomes a somewhat harrowing tale of danger and torture as Eve shares her experiences during both world wars, and you, the reader, come to understand why she drinks to oblivion and what she has suffered.  While Charlie yearns to find her cousin, Eve is out for revenge, and over time, the two quests become intertwined in ways neither could have imagined.

Eve is a brilliantly drawn character with her stammer and her insignificant appearance.  I enjoyed this novel, but, in some ways, found it more of a vehicle for relating the history of the Alice Network.  The characters Alice,  Violette, and Uncle Edward are based on real spies while the other three, Charlie, Eve, and Finn are the author’s creation.  To me, the pairing of Charlie and Finn was not a convincing one for the long haul.  (~JW Farrington)

November Reflections


If you live in a true temperate climate, like I did growing up, you might say that the months have personalities.  Personalities influenced by the weather and the holidays.  In November, in upstate New York, it got dark early and then earlier and earlier.  And it was cold.  Often the first significant snowfall put in an appearance.  It was a month that was more somber than joyful albeit punctuated by the warm sounds of gratitude and full bellies around a Thanksgiving table.

In the last years before her death, my mother dominated my siblings’ and my thoughts and concerns.  There was infrequent mention of my father who had died so many years before.  I would quietly think about him each November 6 the Election Day anniversary of his leaving us.  This year, with my mother gone two years past, I almost missed this anniversary.

My father was a very warm and nurturing individual.  He played board games and Wiffle ball with us kids and invested significant amounts of time paying attention to and being available to us.  I think he was ahead of other men of his generation.

I still recall with fondness the morning he met me for coffee in the W.T. Grant department store downtown.  I was probably home from college or in my last years of high school.  I felt so grown up to be doing this.  Mind you, this was long before Starbucks and a café on every corner.  Dad met me, we sat on stools at the simple lunch counter, chatted, and then we separately left.  He to return to work, and I to do whatever.  I felt that in his eyes that day, I was an adult.

Sadly, my father died far too young at only 48.  On that fateful Election Day eve, we drove hours through the dark, cold, snow-flurry night to say our last goodbyes.  He was the only one who voted (absentee).  He never got to know and enjoy his grandson and granddaughters nor his great grandchildren.  But he left a legacy of caring and warmth that lives on in us as we remember and cherish all that he gave us in that short time.  And, it being November and Veterans Day, he was also a World War II and Korean War Navy vet.

November can be a gloomy month up north, but it redeems itself with thankfulness on a day to draw close to family and friends.


A very good friend served us these tuna and bulgur stuffed peppers recently, and they were delicious!  So much so that I immediately made a copy of the recipe for myself.  It’s from Melissa Clark at the New York Times.  These peppers are prettier than hers!