Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Upstairs, Downstairs" [DVD/TV-mini]

Before the digital age back when entertainment was bland and inoffensive, television had a far greater appeal not just as an instrument to waste time, but as a medium to promote artistry. Programming had just barely progressed into syndication and networks could still rely on an audience's attention span to cover specific time slots, even maintain interest enough to tune-in the following week. It was the golden age for dramatic sitcoms, soap operas and miniseries.
"Upstairs, Downstairs" was a program that not only flourished in this era but withstood the test of time as one of the most remarkable TV series ever broadcast. Produced in partnership with the BBC and seen on networks worldwide, the show portrayed an Edwardian era household in which a prominent politician's family resided "above" ground while their servants inhabited the "below" ground quarters. Airing in 1971, it was carried for six full seasons until 1975, fictionally representing the three decades between 1900-1930.

A ridiculously talented cast of actors including Nicola Pagett, Pauline Collins, Anthony Andrews, Leslie-Anne Down, Gordon Jackson and John Alderton comprised the lead roles as the series' immense popularity held an unprecedented global appeal. A poignant drama to be sure, it was the show's qualitative insight into history that made it so intriguing, an amalgamation of characters and dialogue meshed alongside actual twentieth century events (WWI, Titanic, 1920's, etc.). Relevant social issues were also present. Working class scruples pitted against liberal capitalism, tradition versus progress, "place" instead of potential were all themes envived in the context, never failing to resonate with devoted viewers enchanted by a seemingly simpler but all-the-more intimate period.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fragile Things / by Neil Gaiman

Hardened rationalists desperately needing to broaden their imaginations should look no further. Where else could ever be found such a mind-blowing—and mind-bending—array of manifold literary vignettes? A mystery carnival vanishing into the night sky, a Friday night party where two friends are introduced to some “out-of-this-world” girls, Beowulf transplanted into the modern-day, a mimicked acceptance speech following a VooDoo ceremony, a clan of quirky pedestrian zombies and a side of Sherlock Holmes you’ve never seen. Such is the world of Neil Gaiman and his eclectic blend of tales, poems and filler sketches in this, his third collection of short stories.

As inventive as any Sci-Fi/Fantasy author—now or otherwise—and yet incomparably fanciful with his brilliant wit and darkly humorous angle, this volume lets the reader in on a generous sample (though certainly not the whole) of Gaiman’s world of enchantment and storytelling. Less distinct, perhaps than more long-revered stalwarts like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, Gaiman may not connect with all readers the same way. His writing isn't as spelled-out and storylines--though never failing to convey continuity--often derive from multiple perspectives. Veterans of the genre along with a good many novices won't be able to miss a good thing when they see it though.

Looking Back / by Belva Plain

There's a reason why friends come and go. A fact of life learned the hard way for three college roommates when graduation begets adulthood. Cecile, Norma and Amanda are practically family after four years together; literally so for the beautiful Amanda who's engaged to Norma's brother Larry. A marriage of sacrifice more than compatibility (definitely not love with Larry a total loser), it's a step toward the financial independence Amanda's always longed for. The price is high though as, predictably, things sour quickly between the couple, ultimately propelling Amanda into a dangerous affair with the worst possible person--her own father-in-law/Norma and Larry's dad.

Things aren't quite as desperate for the other two...at the moment. Cecile's marriage to lawyer Peter couldn't be better. Really and truly their only disputes revolve around plans for their dream house and what to name their anticipated firstborn. And despite looks to match her name, Norma's liking life as well. Always the brainy one, her teaching job at a prestigious prep school has opened windows of opportunity she never could have imagined, even the soul mate she dared not dream of. But with Amanda's perilous circumstances escalating, how will all three friends handle the drama if (when) the affair is exposed?

Belva Plain's name has been thrown around with much the same weight as Debbi Macomber and Anna Quindlen in recent years. And for good reason. This is a "fun" book with characters fleshed out just enough to draw sympathy before some bitter misdeeds expose each's truest, darkest convictions. It's not quite dark enough to be sad though. Melodrama withstanding, the mood stays relatively "light", positioning characters and circumstances more to dissuade un-sympathy than promote partiality among the three friends. Easy and entertaining, it's a good book for lazy readers.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Sleeping in subway tunnels around Bucharest are the casualties of a fallen era. Disposed of, disheveled and drug-dependent, they're among the 30,000+ homeless children of post-communist Romania. 'Children' is no exaggeration, either, with kids aged 3 or 4 routinely cohabitating with 'elder' youths; mutually sharing scrounged-for food fragments, cardboard boxes, clothing and paint-thinner. The state being woefully ill-equipped to face things, the problem has essentially become part of the scenery, a permanent fixture on the post-socialist landscape.

For a period of three months, German director Edet Belzberg and a low-budget film crew monitored a handful of subway children, carefully divulging the origin and reason for each's displacement and examining the bitter reality of the mostly ineffectual attempts at intervention. In typical intrusive fashion the camera preserves the excruciating innocence of each child who, amidst the backdrop of a broader world, remains painfully unaware of their surroundings. 'Susceptibility' doesn't begin to describe their plight. Life's not so much day-to-day as it is moment-by-moment with their turbulent existence only perpetuated by hunger, disease, ignorance and brutality. Every instance, every confrontation, every awkward image of normal life drifting past is brilliantly captured by Belzberg, leaving the audience without a doubt that each kid is still just a kid, inhabiting a perversely distorted world of confusion, desperation and neglect.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Consolation of Philosophy / Boethius

An emissary of the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric in the mid-6th century, Boethius rose to prominence within the Roman court until treachery by political rivals landed him in prison. Though wrongfully convicted and ultimately sentenced to death, his time in prison inspired the text for Consolation of Philosophy and other treatises on the nature of an unjust world.

The premise for 'Consolation' is an allegory whereby Boethius confronts Lady Philosophy [theoretically] on the fleeting nature of “Fortune” and the spurious prospect of permanent virtue (“one true good”). For his part Boethius postulates, among other queries on free will and determinism, why evil men often prosper through unscrupulous means while the righteous fall to ruin for their integrity. Lady Philosophy contends that “the good" (prosperity) and “happiness” are internal manifestations and that virtue—though subject to Fortune’s duality—remains constant apart of man's fallible nature.

While the life of its author was short-lived, the work itself has flourished as an important contribution to western philosophy, still credited as a precursor to modern rationalist thought. Dante, Chaucer, Milton and Aquinas have all regarded it as a foremost influence, employing similar syllogistic approaches in their own work just as more contemporary authors--Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kafka, etc.--have mirrored Boethius allegorical style. With its concise translation and relatively easy text, this book would do well for anyone seeking a first-step-to-philosophy type read.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tsar by Ted Bell

Alex Hawke, a modern-day James Bond who also happens to be a British Lord, is perfectly content in his quiet, secluded, slow-paced hideaway in Bermuda. A former first-class counter-terrorist , he is slowly recovering from the physical and psychological wounds he suffered at the hands of sadistic terrorists and has withdrawn from the world. But he is soon drawn back into his crucial role of global protector by the ruthless plans of a resurgent and threatening Russia, determined to “reintegrate” former territories and to blackmail the world with its huge oil supplies. Insidious technical inventions, global greed and diabolical genius make this book a nail-biting read!Shockingly current with an unsettling picture of our near future!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Girl with No Shadow / Joanne Harris

It has been nine years since Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk first arrived in Lansquenet, France, to spellbind the local populace with her exotic chocolates and mystical ways. This summer author Joanne Harris finally published the sequel!

The Girl with No Shadow finds Vianne and Anouk in the Montmartre district of Paris in the present day. Their little family has grown with the addition of Rosette who, despite her 4 years, speaks only in sign language and seems to have strongly inherited the family gift for magic. Vianne has grown weary of the Changing Wind that continually blows her and her girls from place to place, so she has resolved to suppress her magical skills and live like "ordinary" folk in order to hide from the Wind and Kindly Ones who come to call in their debts. Anouk chafes under her mother's "ordinariness" and resents not being able to use her natural gifts.

However, when a not-so-kindly (and also magical) stranger arrives and begins to insinuate herself into their lives, Vianne and Anouk must decide whether to stand up for who they truly are or try to be like everyone else and blow away with the wind.
This book is best read in sequence, so if you haven't read Chocolat, pick that one up first. If you like character-driven women's fiction with a glimmer of magical realism, this one's for you. Read-alikes include Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen), Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic, The Third Angel), and Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate).

Monday, October 6, 2008

We all float down here . . .


Derry, Maine is like many towns. Families live there, jobs are adequate. Generations come and go with the years. Yet things are far from normal as hidden beneath the surface--indeed, under the very town itself--lurks a venomous evil. A creature of unearthly power and dimension, it's been a scourge of mankind for centuries, periodically sustaining its strength from the men, women and children of Derry.

Needless to say, 10-year-old Bill Denbrough knows of the terror plaguing his town. He'll never forget his brother's yellow slicker and galoshes worn the day Georgie went out to play in the rain. "Don't worry about me . . .". But Georgie was never seen again. Only in the following weeks and years will Bill piece together the fragments of what happened that day. He's not alone though. Bound by a common peril, he and his loyal friends--"the losers club"--are united in their quest; traversing space and time to unearth the ageless evil haunting their lives.

Simply put, this book is addictive. Effortlessly it entices the reader; alluringly exploring the complexity of a child's world paralleled against its (often familiar) adult antithesis. All is revealed amid the impermeability of trial-forged friendships, the trademark impressions of youth and the ugly, but redeeming reality of humanity. Maybe King's most ambitious work, this enthralling epic's not just a horror classic, it stands among the noted works of contemporary literature in recent decades.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Forsyte Saga (The Forsyte Chronicles – 1st Trilogy) by John Galsworthy

My colleague Daniel’s review of the first book in this trilogy about the Forsyte family inspired me to read it and continue with the full trilogy, the books entitled “In Chancery” and “To Let”. Galsworthy, the author, takes you into his story gradually. The opening scene in the first book, “The Man of Property”, is of a Forsyte family gathering. As you meet the members, the family tree (provided in the front of the book) comes in handy, but the range of people across generations is a bit overwhelming at first. One has to remember that when Galsworthy wrote, people had a little more time to spare when they read a novel! But the book is so well-written and the characterization so subtle, that you are soon under its spell. No matter that some of the characters are proud and arrogant (Soames) and others inscrutable (Irene) - among the cast there is always someone whose plight touches your heart, and whose actions perfectly portray their random thoughts and intentions. The author sees the human desire to own something as cause for great folly, and beauty as its antidote, to be reveled in for its own sake, without trying to hold or possess it.