Blogging for a Good Book
My introduction to the film My Dinner with André came from a rather unlikely source – a Mad magazine parody called My Dinner with André the Giant. In the years since its release, My Dinner with André has inspired numerous tributes and parodies, including a Far Side comic and an episode of the the first season of Frasier called “My Coffee with Niles.” My Dinner with André is a unique film that I revisit every few years; usually when I’m looking for something insightful, but primarily because the extended conversation at the heart of the film is quite entertaining.
The film stars actor/playwright Wallace Shawn and director/actor André Gregory playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The movie opens with Shawn preparing to meet Gregory at an expensive New York City restaurant. Gregory was an early supporter of Shawn’s work; however, the one-time colleagues have not spoken to each other for years. Shawn is filled with trepidation at the prospect of meeting with Gregory. Over the years, he heard that Gregory had left his successful career as a director and traveled the world in search of spiritual enlightenment. Shawn’s concern is heightened when he hears that a mutual friend ran into Gregory in an obscure part of town, sobbing because he had just seen Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata and was moved when Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) says, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
Despite his concerns, Shawn agrees to have dinner with Gregory, and duration of the film consists of their wide-ranging and deeply philosophical conversation. Gregory begins by describing his artistic and spiritual pursuits after leaving the theatre. He goes to Poland to work with his friend, director Jerzy Grotowski; he travels to Findhorn in Scotland and the Sahara; and finally he stays at photographer Richard Avedon’s estate in Montauk, where he participates in a rebirth ritual in which he’s nearly buried alive.
Shawn is fascinated by Gregory’s stories, but he wonders if such pursuits are practical, especially if you have a wife and family as Gregory does. During the second part of the film, Shawn playfully challenges Gregory’s philosophical outlook and in the process begins to his see the world around him in a new light.
My Dinner with André is an eloquent and understated film that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Gregory is an engaging raconteur whose stories are intriguing and often quite amusing. His interaction with Shawn is so relaxed and natural that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Director Louis Malle keeps the film moving at a brisk, efficient pace. The restaurant is elegant, but the décor doesn’t overshadow the actors. Interestingly, although the film is set in New York City, the restaurant scenes were actually filmed at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.
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Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.
Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.
At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.
As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.
Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.
Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.
Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.
Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
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In many of director David Fincher’s films, there’s an aura of unease; the sense that what you’re seeing onscreen can’t be trusted and the real story is far more sinister than you’ve been led to believe. In The Game (1997), an investment banker is led down a nightmarish rabbit hole after signing up for a virtual reality game. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on Stieg Larsson’s novel, a disgraced journalist uncovers dark family secrets while investigating a mysterious disappearance. A similar sense of unease hangs over his latest film Gone Girl, a dark and haunting adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s equally dark and haunting bestselling novel.
Andrew has already reviewed Flynn’s book, so I will keep the plot description to a minimum. The film opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) heading to work at the bar he runs with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). It’s Nick and his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) fifth anniversary, but he’s not exactly celebrating. Once successful journalists in New York, Nick and Amy lost their jobs and moved to his hometown in Missouri to help take care of his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. The move was difficult on a marriage that seemed, to outward appearances, perfect in every way.
Shortly after opening the bar, Nick gets a call from one of his neighbors, concerned that there may have been a disturbance at Nick’s house. Nick arrives home to find the cat outside and Amy missing. Worried, Nick calls the police, who discover ominous signs of a struggle. The subsequent investigation into Amy’s disappearance yields clues that the Dunne marriage had its secrets.
Gone Girl is a twisty and lurid tale that transfers well to film thanks to Flynn’s keen screenplay, a stellar cast, and Fincher’s savvy direction. Flynn preserves the structure of her novel, and the story is told from Nick and Amy’s points of view. The well-edited sequences are aided by great visual cues, like Amy using different colors of ink in her diary to reflect changes in the marriage.
The casting is spot-on. Ben Affleck delivers one of his best performances as a man whose attempts to be seen as the good guy often fall short of expectations. Rosamund Pike brings a cool detachment to Amy that serves her character well. The outstanding supporting performances include Tyler Perry as defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and Missi Pyle as Ellen Abbott, the outspoken host of a television crime show.
Fincher’s direction ties everything together. Gone Girl is long, but the pacing is never sluggish. He starts with the central mystery and uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to provide the background and context. Music also plays an important role in setting the mood of Gone Girl. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is effectively chilling and helps build tension throughout the film.
Taut and well-paced, Gone Girl is the perfect match of director, actors, and source material.
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Every year, parents of students at suburban Australia’s Pirriwee Public School look forward to Trivia Night. The combination costume party and trivia competition is a major fundraiser and the highlight of the school’s active social scene. The competition’s theme pays homage to Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn; however, Trivia Night will be anything but routine this year. A late caterer, unusually potent cocktails, a rain storm, and simmering tensions among parents result in a riot and an accidental death that might really be a murder. What events could plunge an ordinary parents’ night into chaos? Liane Moriarty explores this question in her latest novel, Big Little Lies.
Everything begins rather innocently when Madeline Martha Mackenzie meets Jane Chapman, a young single mother and newcomer to Pirriwee. Both women have children starting kindergarten: Madeline’s daughter Chloe and Jane’s son Ziggy. They spend the afternoon together, and Madeline introduces Jane to Tom, the proprietor of a café called Blue Blues, and Celeste White, mother of twin sons named Max and Josh. The women bond over coffee then spend the morning at their children’s kindergarten orientation.
At first, the orientation is routine; the parents socialize while the children meet their teachers and classmates. Towards the end of the orientation, an event occurs that divides the parents and teachers, and puts Ziggy and Jane in the middle of a controversy. Amabella, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful woman named Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her during the orientation. Ziggy denies Amabella’s accusation, and Jane and her new friends believe him, although Renata and her supporters start a petition to get Ziggy suspended from the school.
Although Jane supports her son, a secret about his father causes her to question what she knows about her son and the incident. She is not the only one with an emotionally fraught personal life.
Madeline enjoys a comfortable life with her second husband, Ed; their children, Chloe and Fred; and her teenage daughter, Abigail. However, her former husband, Nathan, has moved to Pirriwee with his new wife, Bonnie, and their daughter, Skye, who is in the same class as Chloe. Not only does Madeline have to face Nathan and his new family at school functions, but Abigail has formed a close bond with Bonnie that threatens Abigail’s relationship with Madeline.
To the casual observer, Celeste’s life with her husband, Perry, and the twins is perfect in every way; however, a dark truth lies at the heart of this seemingly charmed family.
As the school year goes on, Madeline, Jane, and Celeste balance their complicated family lives with school projects, gossip, and rivalries. The parents of Pirriwee Public School are taking sides and forming alliances, setting the stage for a fundraiser that ends in disaster.
Big Little Lies starts out as a light and frothy read about mothers navigating the tricky social dynamics at their children’s school, but it turns into a provocative exploration of the effects of bullying and domestic violence. Moriarty makes it known early in the novel that a death will occur at Trivia Night, and the clues she plants along the way heighten the effect of the events at the fundraiser.
The story primarily centers on Jane, Madeline, and Celeste and their families; however, an entertaining – but frequently unreliable – Greek chorus of fellow parents and investigators provide additional depth and context to the story.
With a large cast of characters and a nuanced narrative, Big Little Lies is a fast-paced novel that’s a quirky mix of Desperate Housewives and David Lynch’s seminal show Twin Peaks.
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His journey begins with a trip to his local library to return two books: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd. He tells the librarian that he’s also looking for some books, and she directs him to Room 107, located in the library’s basement. When he reaches Room 107, he encounters a cantankerous old man sitting behind a desk. He impulsively tells the older man that he’s looking for books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, and he’s presented with three books: The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.
The boy plans to check out the books and leave the library as quickly as possible; however, he’s told that the books can only be read in the library. He’s travels down another corridor, where he meets a man wearing what appears to be sheepskin. The sheep man takes the boy to the Reading Room and the boy gets another surprise: the Reading Room is a jail cell. The old man locks him in the cell and tells him that he must spend the next month memorizing the content of the books. At the end of the month, the man will question him about the books. If the man decides that the boy has mastered the content, he will set him free.
Later that evening, the boy receives another mysterious visitor: a mute girl who brings him a gourmet dinner. Communicating through hand gestures, the girl tells him that her vocal chords were destroyed. After she leaves, he finishes the dinner and starts reading The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector.
The Strange Library has many elements familiar to readers of Murakami’s work: quirky characters, surreal settings, and sense of melancholy or impending loss. Murakami’s characters in this novel are nameless except for the ones mentioned in The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. This approach is very effective; the boy is an ordinary boy whose seemingly routine trip to the local city library takes an unusual and ominous turn.
The lavish color illustrations highlight the surreal nature of the narrative, and the repetitive images, including birds, eyes, and insects, reinforce the unusual nature of the boy’s journey and the people he encounters along the way.
Haunting and poignant, The Strange Library is a quick read compared to many of Murakami’s works, but the engaging prose and fantastic illustrations may inspire readers to make return trips to Room 107.
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There’s a little bit of the voyeur in all of us. Admit it, when you walk by someone’s house, especially at night, you glance up to the window in case someone walks in front of it. You glance over at the car next to you to see if the driver’s picking his nose. You listen, even if accidentally, to those one-sided cell phone conversations. And, if you’re like Rachel Watson, you look for the beautiful couple living in the house beside the tracks every day, and wish for their golden lives.
Rachel herself is a mess. The ride home from London is occupied by a cold, canned (blecch!) gin and tonic, the night in her rented bedroom passed with a bottle or two of wine, and the commute back with a hangover. In the aftermath of a bitter divorce, broke, drinking to the point of blackout, it’s no wonder Rachel projects her desire for a better life onto the couple she names Jess and Jason. Until one day when she sees Jess kissing a stranger in the garden. And Jess, that is to say Megan Hipwell, goes missing, so Rachel feels compelled to interject herself into the investigation.
That’s not the only place Rachel makes herself an intruder. Truth is, Rachel’s old house, where her ex and his new wife and their baby live, is only a couple of doors down from the Hipwells (Scott is the husband). Rachel spends far too much time–some of it drunk–hanging around the neighborhood, and second wife Anna Watson is first creeped out, then downright angry. Could Rachel’s hanging around, even getting close to Scott, have anything to do with Megan’s disappearance?
The story is split among three first person narrators: Rachel, who has the lion’s share, Anna, and Megan herself. Megan’s story is basically a flashback, gradually revealing to the reader what was happening in her life in the year before her disappearance. Rachel and Anna split the narrative for the present day, and their mutually hostile attitudes color the reader’s take on the story. Is Rachel the dangerous alcoholic Anna believes her to be? Is Anna the manipulative mistress who destroyed Rachel’s marriage and put her on the downward spiral?
That conflict–to which Megan’s life and disappearance provide a backdrop–is the principle mover to the story, and someone looking for a fast-moving mystery is bound to be disappointed. Nor are the revelations as shocking as those in Gone Girl, which the publisher compares it to. That doesn’t mean that it slacks off, only that the pacing is more a slow build-up to one explosion rather than a string of firecrackers.
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It doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?
Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car. And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.
Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.
Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher. And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.
Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.
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In this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!
OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?
Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.
Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?
Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.
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(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)
There’s nothing so tempting to readers as the opportunity to rewrite the books they enjoy. (Even though sometimes it leads to chaos.) And how meta is it for fictional authors to give happy endings to “flawed classics?” At their best, authors exploring fictional characters from different points of view–villains reconsidered, offstage characters allowed their own voices, principal characters followed beyond the ends of the original story–increase the reader’s understanding and pleasure in the original book.
If that’s what you’re after, don’t pick up Alias Hook. If you’re interested in a story that recasts the hero in an awful light and turns the two-dimensional villain into a grievously abused victim with a tiny chance at redemption, Alias Hook is a terrific place to go.
Gifted with magic and music, leader of boys who don’t want to grow up, recruiter of girls who take all responsibility until they ask too much, what character better represents eternal boyhood than Peter Pan? At least that’s the Pan that Hook cannot escape, despite trying for 300 years. This Pan is competitive, but only on his own rules, (which include keeping Hook alive while allowing the Lost Boys to kill his crew), controlling the environment to his own advantage, and of course ruling the Indians and mermaids that live in Neverland at his pleasure.
Granted, Hook is not that nice a guy–the spoiled rich son of a merchant, he became a privateer in the 1680’s and was imprisoned as a pirate by the French enemy. Released into the poverty and bitterness, his hatred took him on a path that led him to Neverland. He still dresses as the Restoration dandy he was, but underneath all that lace and rich cloth, he longs for redemption and an end to his captivity. With the arrival of Stella Parrish–a WOMAN! in NEVERLAND!–he may just achieve that.
Jensen leads us on a trip through Neverland, including the land of the fairies, the Indian village, and the mysterious path leading to the beautiful loreleis who lure unwary sailors to their death. In each, she shows us a rich and mythical place where wisdom and adulthood are held at bay by the mercurial boy. It is plain early on that Hook (and just how did he lose that hand?) must forge his own destiny and find a way to escape Pan’s world; but how? The answer is as simple and as mythical as it is emotionally rewarding.
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Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land is centered around two provocative and complex themes: the meaning of home, and the nature of the family. As he develops those themes through the book, the reader can see the inevitable collision, but can never tell where that intersection will come. We do know that the land about which he writes has its own tragic family history, and we also know that a modern crime was driven by desire for the land.
Fallen Land veers between an omniscient narrator and the first person voice of Louise Freeman Washington, an older black woman who lives on the land left to her by her own parents. Her husband had farmed the land, but she was forced to sell when he died and left her in debt. She knows every fold and hollow, and the loss is as grievous as her husband’s death. As the story opens, Louise is squatting in her old home, existing in much the same way her ancestors had. She has little left, having fought the county to keep the last bit of her family land, which was taken through eminent domain to widen a road.
The road needs widening because of the neighborhood built on the old farm. Paul Krovik, the developer who bought the land for a song, created his dream neighborhood of large houses on big lots. The neighborhood was supposed to be centered on his own home, a monstrosity where he would be the benevolent overlord. But Paul built shoddily, the land lost value in the Great Recession, and he went bankrupt amid a raft of lawsuits. Left alone by his wife and sons, Paul has literally gone to ground, living in a complex and secure bunker unknown to the rest of the world. The bunker has an access door into the house he built, and he haunts the rooms where he believes his dreams may still come true.
But the house is bought for a song by the Noailles, a Boston family relocating to this unnamed Midwestern city for Julia’s university job. Nathaniel is also transferring to a better job with his employer, a multinational corporation with fingers in every imaginable pie. Their eight-year old son Copley, bright and inquisitive but troubled by the move, is enrolled in a charter school run by the multinational under a draconian set of rules, which he accidentally breaks on a regular basis. Paul can’t even pronounce their last name (No-Ales? No-Ills?); that their name is pronounced No Eyes is a pointed commentary on their inability to see what is around them.
Of course, the Noailles don’t know that Paul is living under the house, and when he sees the changes they are making, his anger erupts into madness. Copley is caught in the middle, repeatedly telling Julia and Nathaniel that he has seen the man slowly defacing their home, but they will not believe him. As Nathaniel gradually slides under the influence of his employer’s mission, he also begins to believe that Copley is destroying the house, sabotaging his work reputation, creating a rift between father and mother, and lying to everyone.
As I said, this is a story about home and family. Flanery contrasts Louise’s grounding in the land and memories of her ancestors and husband with Paul’s obsession that his house creates his masculine identity and Nathaniel and Julia’s vision of a house as a sterile shelter from the world. Those perspectives come from the treatment the three of them survived as children, which is gradually revealed through the course of the story. As those revelations compound with the treatment Copley is receiving, the tension finally explodes.
Flanery also explores the larger intersection of home and family in the public sphere. Nathaniel’s employer has the stated goal of making people safe in their homes, watched over by a government-contracted company concerned with their health and well-being. They don’t state that it also would track consumption, movements, relationships, and thoughts, then intervene when it judges those people dangerous. Nathaniel’s passive acceptance of that vision turns him from a specialist in creating rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts to a bureaucrat trying to convert those prisoners into a corporate profit center. To do that, they must identify criminals in elementary schools, imprison them as soon as possible, monitor them after release, and incarcerate them again for the slightest of infractions. Welcome to the future of safe homes and happy families.
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One advantage of our ebook collection is that we can keep older titles that are still of interest to readers without having to worry about shelf space for new items. Over the holiday break, I spent some time in our ebook mysteries reacquainting myself with some early crime writers who I had not read in a while. One of my favorites is Ngaio Marsh. Marsh is often associated with the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, along with Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Marsh’s novels differ from those of Sayers and Allingham however in that her lead character is not an amateur detective but a Scotland Yard official, Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
The pleasure of these books is definitely rooted in character. Alleyn is a deeply appealing figure, bright, witty, tough when needed, but mostly solving crimes by thought rather than action. Alleyn’s aristocratic upbringing gives him connections that would not always be available to Scotland Yard, and he is often called in on sensitive cases. He is ably seconded in most of the novels by Sgt. Fox, a man with a more middle class background, but equally quick and a superb foil for Alleyn.
Although the stories do build on each other, each one can be read alone, and Death at the Bar is a fine starting point. Here, Alleyn and Fox are called to Devon to investigate the suspicious death of a noted lawyer. With artists, surly left-wing rabble-rousers, colorful pub owners, and more this is a classic British crime novel.
Christmas is a great time not only for ghost stories but also for mysteries. This collection, gathered by The Mysterious Bookshop’s owner, Otto Penzler, is a fine place to start if you are looking for crime fiction short stories set during the holidays.
Penzler has compiled a selection of mysteries from classic authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy (of all people), Damon Runyon, G. K. Chesterton, and Ngaio Marsh, as well as contemporary masters of the crime story, including Peter Lovesey, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Ellis Peters, Donald Westlake, and Catherine Aird. There are well-known tales here like “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” (my favorite Christmas mystery of all time), as well as a host of excellent stories I have never read before, all set in the Christmas season.
Penzler has put the stories in clever groupings — traditional tales, modern narratives, humorous stories, Sherlockian adventures, noirish pulp fictions, and of course ghost-centered mysteries. There will be something here to delight any crime fiction fan, and if you have a mystery reader on your Christmas list, you can do you shopping early this year and order a copy of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries for the 2015 holidays.
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This week started with a book on books, reading, and libraries, and here, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris continues the theme. Fadiman may be best known for her 1997 award-winning nonfiction title The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This collection of essays on Fadiman’s life as a reader takes a lighter tone and is a joy to read.
The 18 essays collected here offer reflections on Fadiman’s family (her father reviewed books for the New Yorker, was a promoter of reading on radio and TV in the 1950s and 60s, and authored The Lifetime Reading Plan), conjoining libraries after marriage (how do you decide on shelving and dealing with duplicate copies?), and the pleasure that can be attained through attentiveness to grammar and spelling.
Above all though, Fadiman celebrates the joy of reading, of re-reading, and of living a life of words. Anyone who has ever spent time noting errors of punctuation in restaurant menus, of playing word games with your family, or coming back to a favorite childhood book will find something to like in this witty and delightful collection.
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Christmastime is always a good opportunity for some re-reading, and this past holiday season I went back to one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ivan Doig. Doig is a masterful chronicler of the lives of those people who settled and built their lives in the Montana territory (and later the state).
English Creek tells the story of one 1930s summer in the life of fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill, son of strong parents with deep Montana roots. Much of the action in this coming of age novel is driven by the split between Jick’s parents and his older brother, Alec, over Alec’s desire to forgo college to be a cowboy. Stubbornness on both sides catches Jick in the middle, and he finds himself unable to reconcile his parents and brother, despite his best efforts.
Doig has a deep affection for both his characters and for the Montana landscape. He makes both come alive for the reader. Doig also clearly understands how the past affects the present, and English Creek is filled with storytellers who remember the history of the families of Montana’s Two Medicine country and how that history has shaped current events.
There is humor here, and sorrow, and as Jick learns more about his parents’ early lives and about his brother’s longing to live his own life he begins to chart his own path to adulthood. Doig takes a look at the earlier history of the Two Medicine country in the second novel in the series, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and brings the story up to date in Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.
Check the WRL catalog for English Creek
Manguel is one of my favorite writers about books and reading, particularly for the connections that he makes using history, his own reading life, and a broad knowledge of books and literature. I find this book of his particularly appealing for the way it brings libraries into the mix.
Here, Manguel’s fifteen essays look at libraries of all kinds, prompted by his own building of a new library for his house in France. From personal libraries to state libraries to libraries of imaginary titles, Manguel brings his lucid prose style and his restless imagination to them all, moving easily from individual titles to cataloging systems to shelving. This is not a history of libraries, but rather a personal journey through the realm of books, with Manguel as a superb guide.
Anyone who loves books and reading will find something to enjoy here. Reading any of Manguel’s essays is like sitting down with a well-read, but never pedantic or overbearing, friend and talking about literature. I can think of no better book to start off the year with. It is just the thing to prime the pump for an excellent reading year in 2015.
Check the WRL catalog for The Library at Night
What does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.
Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.
On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.
But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.
Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.
Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.
Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.
I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.
Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo
OK, let’s get this out of the way first – the book we have in our collection is actually titled The American, which as you read the book becomes patently ridiculous. This is a movie tie-in for a George Clooney vehicle, which got middling to bad reviews from ‘ordinary’ people, but middling to good reviews from top critics. If the movie follows the pacing of the book, I can see where the thrill movie seeker would come away less than satisfied.
A Very Private Gentleman is slow, but in the way that develops tension even as the gentleman slowly allows readers into his very private world until we get a more complete view of a character who rationalizes and even elevates the evil he does. Even the nature of that work is trickled out until we fully understand that he is a master craftsman of death. Not the death-dealer, but the maker of the custom weapons the death dealers require. That doesn’t make him any less a target, and there are plenty of people who want him dead.
His craft requires subtlety, patience, watchfulness, and mobility. For this, his final job, he has chosen to live in a small Italian village under the identity of a painter of butterflies, so he becomes Signor Farfalla to the inhabitants. While awaiting the commission, he argues theology over bottles of fine wine with the local priest, becomes known at the local bars and restaurants, and a regular customer at the local brothel. Even considering his obsession with security, this is the most idyllic place he’s ever lived.
Indeed, the idyll is seductive. The kindness of people who don’t demand intimacy, the eternal feel of this ancient village, the excellent food, the romps with two beautiful girls, the landscape around his temporary home all call to him that he can maintain this identity and settle into a well-deserved (but still watchful) retirement. But his sixth sense turns up a hint of danger, and the idyll becomes less than ideal.
Signor Farfalla still has that commission to fulfill, which means meeting the client for the specifications, finding the materials, creating and testing the weapon, then making the final delivery. Each of those is a potential vulnerability, and Signor Farfalla practices his professional paranoia to the hilt. When the commission comes face-to-face with the source of his unease, it quickly becomes apparent that his professional life will cause his personal death.
Signor Farfalla addresses the story directly to the reader, even telling us that he’s withholding information that might allow us to identify him. That almost-confiding tone also conveys a sense of hubris when he claims the rightful role he believes history owes him, but involves us in his love of nature, and the good life he’s got. That personal connection makes the climax much more shocking than a genre thriller as the final revelations erupt and Signor Farfalla must make fatal decisions.
Check the WRL catalog for A Very Private Gentleman (aka The American)
It’s a small community, tight-knit in the ways that places get when the residents watch their children grow up together. The parents have high expectations and mostly refuse to recognize that their teens are moving beyond childhood. The teens are experimenting – drugs, hair color, sex, clothing – but there’s still pressure not to go too far outside the bounds. There’s jealousy, and memories of the kid who threw up on the school bus in second grade. There’s the long shadow of past infidelities, spouse abuse, alcoholism, and divorce that hangs over these kids, who can’t name or deal with the emotions that such trauma bring. Megan Abbott couldn’t have chosen to set The Fever in a more normal place.
Until one of the bright, talented, and popular girls has a seizure in class, followed by another at home, these kids haven’t experienced the trauma of serious illness among their peers. What better way to lose that teenage feeling of immortality than seeing a familiar face twisted in rictus and a familiar body sprawled in a tangle of desks? Add to that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and that trauma quickly spreads across the world. Scary, right?
Then it happens to another girl, and another, and another. Now the singular tragedy becomes an epidemic and people start pointing fingers. Is it something in a vaccine? A chemical spill? Abuse by the boys? The Internet proves a goldmine of information and opinions and this normal community begins to break down in fear. Is the mystery ever solved? Yes and no – but I’ll leave the reading to you.
Abbott tells this story of growing hysteria through the eyes of the Nash family. Deenie is in her first year of high school, and it’s her best friend Gabby who suffers the first episode. Older brother Eli is a sports standout and the target of aggressive girls who want to score on the popular boy. And dad Tom is a popular teacher at the school all the affected girls attend. That should make for a cohesive family, but grouped together as they are they make a convenient target for those looking for scapegoats.
Each of the Nashes is captured in their individual voice, with the concerns and qualms of each fully articulated. The tone of the rest of the community – from the girls posting YouTube videos of their symptoms and fears to the outraged parents to the authorities trying to sift through mountains of opinion for some sensible explanation – also feels truthful. Knowing that there’s nothing they aren’t seeing on a daily basis, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this to a mature young adult reader, but it’s also worth suggesting to any adult who wants to look across the chasm of time and see what those young adults are facing.
Check the WRL catalog for The Fever
I’ve blogged before about one of Gabrielle Zevin’s wonderful novels, but am ashamed to say that I didn’t make the link between the two right away. It wasn’t until I was digging in to see if one of WRL’s reviewers had written about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry that I made the connection; I certainly couldn’t tell by tone or topic, since both are very different from the earlier book.
A. J. Fikry is one of those books that book people like. It reaffirms the role that reading plays in creating community and bringing diverse people together to hold close, tear at, or speak in awe of the books that affect them. (Like most book people, I include everything from a few hours of entertainment to a fundamental questioning of one’s role in the universe as affecting the reader.)
The title character lives on an island, literally and metaphorically. Alice Island is a long ferryboat ride from the nearest town, itself a long drive from the nearest city. Fikry runs the only bookstore on the island, marking him as somewhat of an oddity among his neighbors. And he is in a black depression, mourning the sudden death of his much-loved wife. He drifts through the days, turning people away, dully watching his business fail, and frequently drinking himself into a stupor. Following one of those nights, he wakes to find his most valuable possession gone.
Shortly after, a package (OK, it’s a baby abandoned by her distraught mother) is left in the unlocked shop, and Fikry is thrown out of his self-absorption and isolation. Between the chief of police and the Social Services office following up on Maya’s case, and the women convinced that no man can possibly care for a little girl, Island Books’ doorbell and cash register are suddenly ringing again. And A. J. Fikry’s life is saved. Not only that, it takes on a new vigor, and the next thing he knows he’s grabbing at all kinds of opportunities. But life is life, and one tragedy is no inoculation against future sorrows.
The story covers about 20 or so years, with some chapters covering small steps and others making giant leaps into the future. Zevin introduces each chapter with a small annotation of short stories and novels Fikry is writing to his daughter, a literary bequest for the clever girl who is growing to be an accomplished young woman. As she matures, so does his analysis of the reading he wishes for her. The intimacy of those notes, plus Fikry’s rediscovered contact with the quirky islanders make this a tender story completely unlike the searing tale told in The Hole We’re In. Try them both (or at least read the blog entry) and you’ll see what I mean.
Check the WRL catalog for The Storied Life of A.J Fikry
Our guide to this episode of revenge is Max Wolfe, a heroic but disgraced detective constable of the London police. Reassigned after disobeying orders, he joins the Homicide squad and begins working the case of a banker killed in his office, with no clue to identity or motive of the killer. Then a homeless drug addict is killed the same way. A photo on the murdered banker’s desk provides a link between the two – they had gone to one of the most prestigious public schools in England. The photo also gives the investigators the names of five others linked with the victims, and a reason to dig into the past.
The investigation is balked at every turn. The school’s headmaster and staff, the surviving “boys,” even the families of the dead men want to put an end to it. The murderer’s weapon and method are unlike any Wolfe’s legendary boss, Detective Chief Inspector Victor Mallory, has seen, requiring special skills no potential suspect has. With a rabble-rousing blogger claiming responsibility and making oblique threats towards Wolfe and the rest of the department, the pressure to solve the case mounts.
Wolfe is a tenacious investigator, but he doesn’t have unlimited time to investigate. He’s a single dad, caring for a five-year old daughter deeply wounded by the loss of her mother. He’s also responsible for Stan, the spaniel puppy his daughter has bonded with. Parsons takes these potential weak points and turns them into strengths that give Wolfe both purpose and insight, plus inject tenderness, humor, and a little humanity into a tough character.
The Murder Man has enough red herrings to stock the fish market across from Wolfe’s house, plus some interesting behind-the-scenes views of the London police. The blend is well-balanced, making this a fun and tense mystery.
Check the WRL catalog for The Murder Man