Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Stoning of Soraya M (2008) A film by Cyrus Nowrasteh, starring Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan MarnĂ², and Jim Caviezel

Since I have lived in Turkey, I was attracted by the movie’s Middle Eastern setting (it was filmed somewhere in Iran) and by the fact that it was a runner-up for the “audience choice award” at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. I also remembered Shohreh Aghdashloo (the actress playing Zahra, Soraya’s aunt in the film) from Catherine Hardwicke’s film, The Nativity Story, in which she played the role of Elizabeth, Mary’s older cousin.

It was only after I started watching the movie that I realized what I had gotten myself into. The acting was good, but the events that I was viewing were so wearying – men playing out their desire for homage and revenge, and the women just trying to keep going, to manage in impossible situations. I felt drained and wanted to stop watching. But the relationships among the villagers were solid and felt human. The way that the women effortlessly let their veils fall inside their houses, yet had them always ready to use as covering, made me marvel at how adaptable people are in retaining personality, regardless of custom.

The film has been held up as an indictment of the Sharia law that is actively practiced in some Islamic countries today. It is based on a book written in 1994 by a French journalist of Iranian descent, who learned of Soraya’s story when passing through an Iranian village in 1986. Zahra’s niece’s husband, wanting to divorce her and take a young child bride, connived with the local mullah to bring charges of infidelity against Soraya. He took this measure because Soraya refused divorce on the grounds that she and her daughters would be left penniless.

The movie is working on several assumptions at once: first showing us how Islamic law makes it easier to manipulate women. Yet the type of bondage that Soraya finds herself in also plays out in our Western cultures- when your children’s father may turn violent, becoming your adversary. There is more help and outreach in the West, but not everyone is able to access it.

In this true story, Soraya is innocent. The husband and the imam are transgressors of the law. In other stonings, the woman may not be innocent, but this brutal execution method is still horrifying, and Nowrasteh wants to educate us on this point. Recently the Taliban in Afghanistan stoned both a woman and her lover to death. The man was allowed to be upright and have his eyes covered, while the woman had to be in a hole and could only gaze at her executioners.

Because of the acting and the characters catching my interest, I was committed to finish the movie, even as it worked towards its fatal conclusion. What the filmmaker Nowrasteh wanted to do was show a real stoning. Other movies traditionally show stoning as happening quickly – we see the first cuts on the cheek, then a torrent of stones cascading over a prostrate body. Nowrasteh learned that the speediness of the event was not accurate – that stonings can take some time. Some critics have decried the film for the relentless portrayal of Soraya’s execution, drawn out in excruciating detail with innumerable pauses. However, this is evidently how it happens.

What I found interesting was how some men and women reported uncontrollable weeping after watching this movie. I experienced the same, and wondered at this. It was a movie, after all. But the physicality of the experience is what works on you, and makes the film unique. As the director said, when pressed, “This movie is not for everyone.” However, the film is not exploitative; it just takes you step by step through the event. And this is still part of our human history - of how, as the character of Zahra relates, “The evil one was here.”

Click here for the DVD listing in our catalog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

But you don't have to take my word for it

For many of us, just the first few beats of the Reading Rainbow out is enough to bring back fond memories of the long-running PBS children's' show that fostered a love of learning and reading.

For Reading Rainbow's entire run from 1983 to 2009, it boasted the same host, the imminently likable LeVar Burton. The world may know Burton as the actor who played the slave Kunta Kinte in the blockbuster TV miniseries Roots and Trekkers (or Trekkies) may know him as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, but Reading Rainbow fans know him as the guy who always always said, "But you don't have to take my word for it," before segueing to book reviews from kids like ourselves.

(Want to revisit some of those Reading Rainbow book picks? We've got a fair number in our collection.)

The show may have gone off the air three years ago, but Burton's stayed busy with other TV-related projects. He also made an especially memorable cameo on the quirky NBC show "Community" last year, playing himself — much to the distress of a hilariously shell-shocked Troy Barnes, a character who has long adored Burton from afar.

Chatter around Burton has picked up in recent weeks due to news he's bringing Reading Rainbow back to the masses, only this time reconfigured for the digital age. As part of the effort, last month Burton successfully nabbed the @readingrainbow Twitter handle. On Burton's website RR Kidz, he reports that the show will be reincarnated as a book-related mobile app, ensuring that Reading Rainbow continues its mission of teaching kids that, just as the song says, they can go anywhere and be anything.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand / by Helen Simonson

Major Ernest Pettigrew (ret.) would prefer not to participate too much in the modern world and its new methods of daily life. A staunch traditionalist, honor-bound by his sense of duty and stoic chivalry, he's not too fond of new inventions which have made things move faster and people on the whole, as he sees it, less agreeable. Cell phones he particularly abhors; the Internet, forget about it. There's also the institution of marriage which seems to be falling apart. His own son, Roger, himself apart of that wheeling-dealing world as a real estate broker, has a relationship with an American woman who sees marriage as an outdated concept, perceiving cohabitation as the new norm. Now that his brother Bertie has died, the Major sees little hope for a confirmation of the old life and its familiar ways which at least strived towards a more honorable code of conduct. By way of his daily routine, Major Pettigrew forms a friendship with the widowed owner of his local tea shop, Mrs. Ali, a woman of Pakistani descent who shares his love of literature and seems to have an especially discerning air about her which the Major finds charming. The woman certainly shows more class than any of the women in the Major's own circle, namely his newly widowed sister-in-law who now wants to sell off portions of the family estate and the women involved in his local civic club who shamelessly parade around their ignorant ideas and notions about other cultures. It's not long before the Major and Mrs. Ali, while not would either would call a couple, are seen together in public. Now it's the Major's family and extended set of peers who take notice of his 'new' ways, even if the Major himself sees nothing new about it, only two people, two Britons--Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge and has never been outside of England--who still find comfort in the 'old' ways of doing things.

It isn't hard to see why this book was absolutely devoured by readers upon its publication. It's the type of story that restores faith in humanity and inspires hope for the future, neither too delicate in approach nor too overblown on sentiment. Major Pettigrew shares many of the same characteristics as classic figures like Dickens' Mr. Pickwick, Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe, even Mr. Darcy or George Knightley. He's a noble-born, honest man who's kind and considerate with few vices other than occasional stubbornness toward change, not altogether a bad thing anyway when it comes to who he has to deal with. He's obligated by his principles to speak the truth no matter what, to uphold propriety and ensure that justice is had for all. And while you couldn't say he's an altogether affectionate man, he's certainly knows when to offer tenderness and when to withhold judgement. Simonson unfolds the book in a brilliantly patient manner, leading the reader into what initially may be misconstrued as a cozy mystery type of story and then building things into a wonderfully satisfying work of both substance and characterization. (FIC SIMONSON)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Woman In White / by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was never quite as widely respected as his contemporaries in Victorian England. Despite the fact that his numerous novels and story collections sold exceptionally well and his fan base always held him in high regard, his work never carried the same intellectual distinction as, say, a George Eliot or Charles Dickens. He may have been ahead of his time. Suspense, as a genre, wasn't really en vogue in the 19th century and despite the fact that the Gothic and Romanticist movements paved the way for more intrigue and mystery in fiction, literature remained a relatively more even-paced medium with stories involving more sensational themes relegated to second tier status. The fact that Collins' books outsold many of those same authors wasn't altogether missed by the reading public though critics seemed to diminish the effect that public affection for his work garnered. Nevertheless, in real life, Collins got on well with his peers, Dickens in particular co-authored and edited several serial literary publications with him, and it never seemed to bother him in the slightest that his writing achieved more mainstream success than critical acclaim. Among his two most famous works are The Moonstone (1868), about a mysterious diamond brought from India to England, and The Woman in White (1860), a story of intrigue surrounding a mysterious lady of the night. Of the two, The Woman in White was undeniably Collins favorite.

On his travels one night, young drawing master Walter Hartright meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white, disheveled and apparently in deep distress, whom he helps find the road to London only to discover later that she's escaped from an asylum, not for the first time evidently. Thinking little of it, Hartright sets out for a job he's undertaken at Limmeridge House, an estate in the northern part of the country where he's been commissioned to teach two young wards of a Mr. Frederick Fairlie, an elderly, ailing man who seldom leaves his room. Laura Fairlie, Mr. Fairlie's niece, and Marian Holcombe, Laura's half-sister, are nothing like their reclusive uncle and Mr. Hartright takes great pleasure in their company, discovering them to be fond of art and amiable. And in what initially seems to be an alarming coincidence, Mr. Hartright finds that Laura bears an astonishing resemblance to the woman in white, so much so that he engages the topic in conversation only to find that the woman he met that night on the road is known by his pupil.

The mentally disadvantaged lady is called Anne Catherick and had lived for a time as a child at Limmeridge. She'd been devoted to Laura's mother, a lady who'd also dressed in all white, and had been taken away from the family under somewhat mysterious circumstances after the matron's death. Walter meanwhile has fallen in love with Laura despite the fact that she's already betrothed to a bullish member of the nobility named Sir Percival Glyde, whose engagement to Laura is more a matter of course owing to an agreement between Laura and her uncle. Upon meeting Glyde, Hartright becomes convinced through a series of conversations and correspondences that he was responsible for shutting up Anne Catherick, "the woman in white," inside the asylum, unjustly as it were, to keep her from revealing secrets concerning Glyde's own dubious past and ill-conceived plans for marrying Laura and inheriting Limmeridge House.

With as many plot twists as mysteries involved in the story, Collins weaves one of the more spellbinding novels of the 19th century. It's not all that easy to follow in places and characters like Marian Holcombe and the conniving Count Fosco (appearing later on in the narrative), both of whom can seem marginalized at first, can't be discounted as they end up holding key elements to the plot's development. Keeping track of the various settings--Limmeridge House, Glyde's own estate, Hartright's travels in Honduras, Italy, London and the English countryside--can get confusing as well. But the overall intrigue of the opening sequences, the dramatic conflict escalating with each chapter, the serious undertones of tragedy and impending doom as well as the climactic conclusion are rewarding enough to supersede any of the book's many plotboilers and accommodate its complex structure. (FIC COLLINS)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter

John Butler is taken from his family at age four in an Indian raid against English settlers during the French and Indian War. This was when the French and British were fighting over the rights to colonize in North America, and the Indians got involved helping the French. John’s family lived in what is today Ohio. Much of the Indian land had been lost to the whites by that time, so that there was no love lost between the colonists and the Indians. Two years after the British won the war, there was an exchange of prisoners, in 1765. Because so much time had passed, many of the younger captives had been raised as Indians, and they did not always want to return to their first families. In Richter’s novel, John Butler is one of these, having to leave the Indians when he is 15 years old.

The book was published in 1957, at a time when the United States was emerging as a dominant world culture and was engaged in building commercial empires. Some of the people living in developing countries feared the impact of the United States culture on their own traditions.

Richter had sympathy with native peoples, here and abroad, and distrusted the development and expansion of modern cities and suburbs. Having spent his early childhood in a rural Pennsylvania setting, he mourned the passing of what he saw as the pastoral Indian way of life, the “light” in the forest.

The story is simply told, from the young man’s point of view. True Son (John Butler’s Indian name) not only hates the white men for what they have done to his people, but feels imprisoned and suffocated in their culture. All the white adults in the story know nothing about the Indian culture, simply classifying them as primitive and murderous. There is no wiser person present to offer some mediating point of view, which is to be regretted. A minister does try to explain to True Son the horrors that Indians had committed against some colonists, but True Son cannot believe it, since in his village no one ever boasted of killing women or children.

Richter has been criticized for idealizing the Indian culture as reverent and spiritual in all its ways, and showing the colonists’ lifestyle as greedy and materialistic, lived out of harmony with nature and its laws. Yet at the end, when True Son tries to go back to the Indians, Richter shows us, that as the minister insisted, there is cruelty on both sides. We can see greed and imperious pride in some of the warriors in True Son’s tribe.

However, for the most part, “The Light in the Forest” paints an unforgettable portrait of the beauty in the Indian’s lifestyle. This lifestyle is doomed to perish by those intent on conquering the wilderness to serve their own way of life. The story raises the question of what true progress consists of – a question that we are still pondering, a half century later.

(check our catalog listing for this book)

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lost Dogs / by Jim Gorant

You probably remember the headlines.

In the summer of 2007, attention on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick abruptly shifted in the media from the sports section, for his star-making football feats, to the front page: A federal grand jury had indicted him on multiple charges relating to competitive dogfighting. Law enforcement officials had raided a property of his in Smithfield, Va., and found 66 kenneled dogs, 51 of them pit bulls, and evidence that Vick and his associates had been running a dogfighting operation in which they bred, trained and fought these dogs and brutally discarded of the ones they didn't live up to scratch.

Ultimately, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. In the months that followed, he entered a drug treatment program, filed for bankruptcy and served his time. By summer of 2009, the NFL reinstated Vick and he signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he still plays as a quarterback today.

While that may have closed a chapter in Vick's story, for many people, the question remained: What happened to those dogs? Luckily, we have author Jim Gorant's movingly written account The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's dogs and their tale of rescue and redemption (636.0832 GORANT) to tell us.

I don't consider myself a particularly sentimental person but this book had me tearing up with alarming frequency. It is a story that is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. Gorant doesn't pull any punches as he recounts the savage treatment these dogs faced at Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, where the animals that refused to fight or fought badly were "beaten, shot, hanged, electrocuted or drowned," according news accounts.

Even after they were rescued, the dogs faced discouraging odds: Until that point, the general policy in these cases was to always euthanize confiscated fighting dogs. Animal advocates decided to evaluate each of Vick's dogs individually, but estimated they'd only be able to keep 10 percent of them, fearing the rest would be too far gone to be safely kept around people.

These dogs proved them wrong.

Defying public and private expectations, the pit bulls showed that they were far from vicious beasts. In most cases, they were simply scared and traumatized. In the end, officials saved 47 of the 51 pit bulls, sending some to animal sanctuaries and some to animal rescue groups for fostering.

Gorant gives us an insider's look at the political and bureaucratic maneuvering that went on behind the scenes to deal with Vick's case, its fallout and the dogs' fates. He does an excellent job of introducing us to the major players in this saga — from the investigators to the animal advocacy representatives and the foster parents who all played a role in the lives of these victimized dogs.

But most importantly, we meet many of the dogs themselves and learn how they have fared since their rescue. It has not been an easy journey and Gorant relates their progress with sensitivity and restraint, letting the dogs and their fears, foibles and slow successes take center stage. In the first third of the book, in which he covers the the public discovery of Bad Newz Kennels, Gorant even writes from the perspective of one of the dogs, an affection I wasn't crazy about but am willing to overlook because the rest is so well done. He portrays these pit bulls' resilience of spirit so simply and poignantly you might as well grab a box of tissues, too, when you grab this book.

Given how attached we become to these critters, I would also have liked to have seen more photos than the scant few that were included in the book. Luckily, the Washington Post has done several audio slideshow presentations on the Vicks case and many of the photos are of pit bulls featured in The Lost Dogs.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Generosity: An Enhancement / by Richard Powers

Russell Stone is a new teacher of Creative Non-fiction at a small Chicago-area college. It's a dismal prospect for the once highly regarded author, a step down after a promising career went south. But his class holds something special for himself, and indeed for everyone else, in the form of a uniquely exuberant Algerian refugee named Thassadit Arnzwar. Thassadit isn't just a happy-go-lucky type of person; she's not merely a high-energy optimist, expressively spiritual or just another average perky personality. She is the only genuinely blissful human being Russell Stone has ever met. That goes for everyone else as well, the other class members inspired by the young woman's (really just a girl in her mid-20's) almost superhuman charisma and benevolence. Her joy and contentment (unshakeable to its core) warrants all the more recognition considering the horror-show past she's endured. Thassadit's experiences include a harrowing childhood spent in a war-zone, the violent deaths of several family members, multi-cultural displacement (she's lived in 5 different countries on 3 separate continents) and a currently near-destitute housing situation.

The girl is such an anomaly that Russell starts seeking out answers on the nature of her happiness and the subject of happiness in general, starting with general psychological research and expanding his investigation into the human genome project which has simultaneously begun to map the various traits which apparently endow an individual biologically with natural happiness. He concludes temporarily that Thassadit must have some form of hyperthymia, an extremely rare personality condition characterized by an infectious, elevated mood, boundless positive energy and unparalelled optimism. Wanting to confirm his hunch, Stone engages psychologist Candace Weld who, upon meeting Thassadit, can only conclude the same to the point that she sponsors the girl for clinical research. Something of a public novelty now, Thassadit, nicknamed Miss Generosity by her classmates, swiftly comes to the attention of the scientific community, specifically renowned geneticist Thomas Kurtin, a scientist mapping the genes for human happiness who soon begins to publicly exhibit Thassadit as his prototype.

It would have been better if this book based its story on an actual case study, or at least structured its premise around more likely events. Powers, a commendable writer, likely researched his topic carefully and based his content on solid scientific principles, but the plot suffers from too many manufactured sequences. No doubt people like Thassadit exist--Hyperthymia is a valid condition. But the nuance associated by her instant emergence into society, in an academic setting no less, and subsequent rise through the ranks from anonymity to celebrity defies plausibility and makes the book play out like a fairy tale. The concept is an intriguing one, but maybe not quite enough for a novel. There's a little too much emphasis on psychology and not quite enough on characterization. A conspicuously omniscient narrative tells the audience a lot about each character but doesn't particularly engender them with any distinctive intimacy. Russell's very cognitive but isn't rendered substantially enough to promote sympathy and Thassadit, whom he falls for, simply doesn't seem real. Powers won the National Book Award for his previous novel, The Echo Maker, a book with a similarly cutting-edge medical science theme and one which evidently resonated a more credible scenario. He's a good writer, no question, casually loquacious without pretension, his prose reading very much like the work of a talented, experienced author who knows what he's talking about. Those wanting a story about genetic engineering or curious as to why some people just seemed programmed for more happiness will discover a story that's not just based on a hypothesis, but a factual account that's been proven in some capacity. (FIC POWERS)

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek / by Anne Dillard

As a graduate student, Annie Dillard wrote her thesis on Thoreau's Walden, admiring, like many, the poet's observations on the natural world around him and his keen awareness of the relationship between aesthetic beauty and personal consciousness. So inspired was she by the transcendentalist's experiences that, after college, she moved to rural Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Like Thoreau, Dillard came to the woods to keep a "journal of the mind." Indeed, Walden is the model. Dillard steps out of the stream of life, out of the proximity to noise and artifice, to go to the woods with no other intention than to absorb it into her senses and engage the subtly innate dynamism of the natural world. With time, her own mind, her inner-conscious becomes part of the story, and in effect, part of the phenomenon around her. Apparently it's no easy task. "This Looking business risky," she relates. "Seeing," according to Dillard, is "both verbalization (active) and letting go (passive) . . . I look at the water: minnows and shiners. If I am thinking minnows, a carp will fill my brain till I scream. I look at the water's surface: skaters, bubbles, and leaves sliding down. Suddenly my own face, reflected, startles me witless. Those snails have been tracking my face! Finally, with a shuddering wrench of the will, I see clouds, cirrus clouds. I'm dizzy. I fall in." (p. 33).

There are details, funny descriptions, wit and insight. But above all its the author's ephemeral transmutation, an engagement with nature, all of its wonders and tragedies, whether through premonition, observation or reflection, which so successfully engenders the book and Dillard herself to the reader. It certainly carries its own personality, a 'transcendental' experience without question, but it's never too meditative, never overly contemplative or densely constructed. It's merely a study in and of itself about two distinct characteristics: nature and solitude. Or, as Dillard says, "I had thought to live by the side of the creek in order to shape my life to its free flow." (p. 26). Pilgrim At Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. (508.9755792 DILLARD)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) / a film by Alexander MacKendrick; w/ script by Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odette; starring Burt Lancaster & Tony Curtis

"Uh - by the way, I got nothing against women thinking with their hips. That's their nature. Just like it's a man's nature to go out and hustle and get the things he wants."

J.J. Hunsecker may be the most powerful man in New York City. A gossip columnist based on Broadway in the mid-1950's, his words disseminate to the masses in a daily binge of critical essay, scathing reviews and subtle innuendo, carrying not only the up-to-the-minute analysis on plays and featured acts, but quite often some very, very private information on the city's most stalwart figures. He's known (and feared) for his ability to make or break people with little more than an offhand gesture of recommendation or an indirect defamation of character, naming no names of course but hinting with enough casual aplomb to get the message across. It's not as if people aren't wise to the dubious scruples of Hunsecker. The magnate and the celebrity that he is, J.J.'s got lots of enemies, ranging from those who think little of his petty tactics to those who believe he's a "national disgrace." But there are as many allies in his line of work, people like press agent Sidney Falco, a scheming underworld figure who feeds J.J. private bits of information (called "items") about those individuals fortunate or unfortunate enough to conspicuously engender themselves into the public sphere of Manhattan's "cafe society," or worse, make enemies with the man himself through some personal indiscretion. Sidney's willing to do (pretty much) anything to please his boss, as demonstrated by the callous way he treats people in general and the even more sinister, often exploitative way he uses them for his own purposes. He's done some pretty nasty things, turned some brutally vicious tricks to curry J.J.'s favor in order to someday rise to his same ivory-tower level of "success." But things are at a crossroads currently as Sidney's been tasked with the job of breaking up a romance between a jazz musician and Hunsecker's sister, the newsman's only family and an individual who's affection he simply can't abide losing to someone else. It's now make or break time for Sidney who needs to work fast, against the clock and in shrewd fashion, to do his master's bidding if he is to succeed in another shady ploy of manipulation and scheming.

One thing which makes really good stories even better is authentic context, truth backing up the fiction in other words. Walter Winchell was just that to this story. In the mid-twentieth century, Winchell was New York City's most popular gossip columnist and himself a major celebrity, dishing out information on the major movers and shakers in a daily news feed which the public simply devoured in a manner that would make many of today's more salacious talking heads envious. His power coupled with his rather odd, some say unnatural love for his daughter formed the basis for this far and away superior film. Made at a time when big studio pictures were dying off and private production companies were sprouting, Sweet Smell of Success is obviously an independent film (it could never have been made otherwise), budgeted and sponsored by both Lancaster's and Curtis' own individually-funded labels which succeeded in luring a noteworthy director in McKendrick and a master cinematographer, James Wong Howe, away from the bigger projects. To say the movie is more liberalized in its approach and less censured in its portrayal of blatant moral corruption would be an understatement. It's grotesque in a way few works of art can portray. And while nothing so malodorous as the on-screen products of today, it still hits home in away few major movies have since been able to do. Judging from the cover and a casual interpretation, it may seem like another cloak-and-dagger/shady-villains piece. But film noir it's really not though to say it carries similar tones and themes would be truthful; shadowy lighting, urban street scenes at night and men in hats and overcoats are very visible. It's more of a character study, a moral a fable even, equivalent to Faust or something Shakespearean--Curtis' Sydney Falco was actually based upon the Mephistophelian-like character of Mosca from Ben Johnson's Renaissance-era play, Volpone.

In addition to marking turning point in the way films were made as well as a liberalizing of production code standards, the film carved out new roles for leading men Curtis and Lancaster, actors heretofore typecast as heroic, honorable protagonists each popular with housewives and teenage girls. Each are the portrait of pure villainy in 'Sweet Smell', utter swine in their abilities to sink progressively further into a morass of greed and contempt. Without conscience in the way they deal with people, especially the ones with integrity, they're willing to push every limit, scheme every angle to get what they want. It's not just their surface acts but their strikingly profane mannerisms and public demeanor, not a vulgar protrusion but an icily cool presence, which turns their cherubic countenances, Curtis especially, into truly revolting figures of near-demonic depravity. There's little wonder, then, that the film did so poorly upon its opening--at a theater in New York City, no less, to an audience for which Winchell and his underlings brainwashed from the get-go. It's gotten its due credit, however, in succeeding years. Winchell, who would devolve more and more into McCarthy-esque tactics of calling out his critics, ultimately faded in popularity within New York gossip circles, eventually losing a pseudo battle of the media personalities to Ed Sullivan. (DVD SWEET)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tudor Fiction

Portrait of an Unknown Woman / by Vanora Bennett
Involving a turbulent period in England’s past, this interwoven story of intrigue and suspicion chronicles renowned German artist Hans Holbein as he paints two seemingly identical portraits of Sir Thomas More’s family. There’s more than meets the eye however as a strange disparity pertaining to the two portraits is revealed in time, particularly in the matter of Meg Giggs, More’s adopted daughter. Bennett is also the author of The Queen’s Lover. (FIC BENNETT)

The Crown / by Nancy Bilyeau
When her favorite cousin has been sentenced to death by King Henry VIII, Joanna Stafford, a nun, leaves her priory only get her father arrested in the process. In order to save both, Joanna must now investigate a peculiar matter of a legendary crown back at her nunnery, a relic which may hold the key to more than just the fate of those she loves. (FIC BILYEAU)

In The Time of the Poisoned Queen / Ann Dukthas
England in 1558 is a treacherous place. A deathly ill Queen Mary still rules the throne but fears that she and her allies are slowly being poisoned by treasonous political foes, enemies certain to gain from Mary’s death. The political predicament is only amplified by religious strife, the ongoing Catholic vs. Protestant conflict, which threatens both the monarchy and the kingdom as a whole. (FIC DUKTHAS)

The Confession of Katherine Howard / by Suzannah Dunn
Aided by the political manipulations of members of her family, youthful Katherine Howard, cousin to Anne Boleyn, becomes the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. But her past indiscretions hold a treacherous fate for both the new queen and her best friend. Dunn is also the author of The Queen of Subtleties and The Sixth Wife. (FIC DUNN)

The Favored Queen: A Novel of Henry VIII’s Third Wife / by Carolly Erickson
It is said that King Henry VIII considered third wife Jane Seymour his favorite. She died in childbirth giving birth to his only son and upon his own death, Henry was buried next to her. This book presents the life of Jane in its entirety, from her birth to a noble family to her marriage to the King. Erickson is also the author of The Last Wife of Henry VIII, a novel about his marriage to Catherine Parr. (FIC ERICKSON)

The Autobiography of Henry VIII, With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel / by Margaret George
The larger-than-life story of enigmatic King Henry VIII is expressed in this intriguing novel of biographical context. Henry, with input and info provided by his court jester William Somers, details his life and times, providing intimate detail into his realm, his politics, his religious convictions and his widely scrutinized personal life. (FIC GEORGE)

The Other Boleyn Girl: A Novel / by Philippa Gregory
Anne Boleyn may be known as one of England’s most famous (and infamous) Queens, but fewer know about the previous liason her older sister, Mary, carried on with King Henry VIII prior to Anne’s marriage to his majesty. This is the first book in Gregory’s “The Tudors” series although the books are not necessarily published in chronological order. (FIC GREGORY)

Wolf Hall / by Hilary Mantel
As the forces of change compel King Henry VIII and the English throne to consider converting to Protestantism, Cardinal Wolsey, the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, finds his power diminished and himself out of favor. In his place, a new man, a scheming politician named Thomas Cromwell, assumes an ever-escalating position of power within the King’s inner circle. (FIC MANTEL)

Prophecy: A Thriller / by S.J. Parris
In the year of 1583, residents of London live in fear as several strange events begin unraveling around them. Following the deaths of several of her own maids from what she fears is black magic, Queen Elizabeth summons astrology practitioners John Dee and Giordano Bruno to investigate the matter further. (FIC PARRIS)

The Lady Elizabeth / by Alison Weir
This partially fictionalized portrait of a young Elizabeth chronicles her tumultuous pre-monarch life in which she was largely removed from the Tudor Court altogether. A wanted woman by many, Elizabeth navigates her way through peril and evil intentions to ultimately assume the most powerful position, some say, in the entire world. Weir is also the author of Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey. (FIC WEIR)

The Deep / by Peter Benchley

While scuba diving on their honeymoon in Bermuda, David Sanders and his new wife Gail stumble across a small vial containing a peculiar, amber colored liquid. When it becomes clear, after a local tries to buy the artifact, that it may hold some value, David and Gail seek out a man named Romer Treece, living in an hard-to-get-to part of the island who fills them in. He tells them point blank that the vial is filled with morphine, that it's likely part of the sunken cargo which went down with a ship called Goliath during WWII and that, very likely, there's plenty more vials just like it near where they found it. Bermuda being what it is, a very, very small and isolated place, news gets around fast about the Sanders' find, particularly to the wrong kind of people. Drug dealers headed by a Haitian man named Henry Cloche want David and Gail to dive for more viles--even small quantities of morphine can mean very large quantities of heroin--and, through a clever set of blackmailing maneuvers which garner the couple's cooperation, soon engage the services of both the Sanders' and Treece. There's more than meets the eye to the operation, however, as the cargo ship still contains combustible explosives which could detonate if not handled properly. There's also the matter of an unexpected find discovered during a subsequent dive. It's a Spanish Galleon, sunken centuries earlier which contains a number of genuine, solid gold artifacts. They know that what they find, they'll be able to sell or keep (for the most part) but Treece and the Sanders don't have much time; Cloche has set a deadline and he means to keep his word over the violent threats he's made if the business isn't completed. The diving party, already on edge because of a potential detonation and sharks, must now work against the clock to uncover the drugs, retrieve what they can of the treasure and decide how they'll manage a disclosure of all they know when and if they safely get out of "the deep".

Obviously best known for writing Jaws, from which the blockbuster movie and its sequels emerged, Peter Benchley was sort of a modern day Melville at a time, mid-1970's, when adventure novels were undergoing a transition. Technothrillers had become mainstream and while not too much into science and technology, Benchley was certainly an author who new a lot about nature and marine biology, incorporating much of it into his work and contributing to a broadening genre. The Deep is not as good as Jaws. The characters aren't quite as stimulating, their relationships more stifled, and there's no hulking menace of a giant shark to give the book the level of suspense required to enhance appeal. It's a solid outing though, practical in its approach and believable enough in tone and scope. David Sanders isn't quite Martin Brody and Treece is nowhere as colorful as Quint but sympathy for the predicament of the good guys and the obvious evil intentions of the villains enlivens the plot and creates more of a thriller novel out of what could have just been an average treasure hunting or scuba diving story. (FIC BENCHLEY)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

There But For The / by Ali Smith

At a dinner party hosted by Eric and Genevieve Lee, a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man named Miles Garth gets up from his place at the table, leaves the room and locks himself inside the home's upstairs compartment. Speaking not a word over the next few days, only submitting written notes under the door for food and ignoring all pleas from both the home's owners and the other guests to come out, Garth seems content to simply stay put. When all of Miles' friends and existing family--he doesn't have much--try and talk him out of the room to no avail, a desperate but civil Genevieve begins contacting his acquaintances (found mostly from his cell phone and derived from clues inside his jacket pockets), ultimately finding only four willing individuals who graciously agree to lend assistance. The only problem is that the called-upon parties scarcely know Miles at all, many of them having only crossed paths with him at random and in some cases unable to remember the occasion in which they met. Gradually, however, the eclectic quartet--Anna, a forty-ish woman who met Miles on a school trip nearly three decades ago; Mark, a former colleague; May, an octogenarian; and a ten-year-old boy named Brooke--all recall their time spent with Miles and, through their efforts, steadily begin to shed some light on his peculiar predicament. 

Smith has a gift for writing puns, though actually it could be said that her overall wordplay is impressive for it's nuanced approach and subtle styling. It's not like she's new on the scene; her 2005 novel The Accidental won of the Whitbred and was nominated for the Man Booker. But her talent has had a hard time getting to the forefront, maybe because she's British, Scottish actually, and her stories aren't so comparatively original as to garner prominent notice. Which might be why this book, a novel set along similar lines as Jennifer Egan's Visit From The Goon Squad or even Bed by David Whitehouse, is a bit of a hard sell to traditionalists. For one thing, there's no direct quotes; the entire narrative flows within an oddly removed, stream-of-consciousness pattern, elucidating the characters through interior monologues and exterior exposition. Conversations happen, just not in front of the reader. They're sort of in the mind's eye of the author who monitors things with a omniscient, documentary-style voyeurism, usually irregardless of time or place ("Already Anna has been goosed, for the first time in her life, by a seventeen-year-old swot (who, in twenty years' time, will have become an internationally renowned Professor of Theoretical Physics). At the time of it happening she has no idea that this is what's happening . . ."). This isn't a particularly difficult thing to get used to, in fact it's usually nice to have a narration of the actual narration, a kind of voice-over to the action taking place. But the story's pretty non-linear and there's an odd blend of details and descriptions which may distort the reader's perspective. Even this, however, shouldn't detract from the book, or the writer's overall merit. (FIC SMITH)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier likes to write historical fiction because it helps to connect her life with the past, to see her life “in a deeper perspective”. The Dutch 17th century painter Jan Vermeer is revered for his paintings of domestic life, among them the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”. Chevalier took it upon herself to weave a tale behind the painting of this masterpiece, a story of a domestic intrigue with a twist.

The identity of the young girl in the painting is unknown, so the writer is free to imagine her as a servant, but one who was not born to the serving class – in this case, Griet, the daughter of a glazier who suffered an accident and became blind. With the father unemployed, the daughter has to find work. It is plausible that an artisan’s daughter would be used to household work, and Chevalier makes Vermeer the head of the glazier’s guild - a suitable employer in the eyes of Griet’s family.

Griet is not happy to leave her mother and father and sleep in a strange household, and be bossed about by Vermeer’s wife, as well as the cook and Vermeer’s children, who can be unruly and demanding. But she manages, and has enough spirit from being a well-loved child in our own home to discipline Vermeer’s children and manage her other new relations with tact and with fortitude. We, the readers, are secretly rooting for Griet to handle all obstacles well, but in ways befitting her time and place.

And Chevalier largely succeeds in this. We can see how the butcher’s son pursues his suit for Griet’s hand, encouraged by her parents in light of his father’s secure business. Griet herself has little to say in this choice, as would a girl of that century. But as she cleans her master’s studio, she becomes aware of his life and his habits, and his art. There is a reverence there, in Griet’s perception of him - more than just from his being the head of the household. Chevalier skillfully builds on Griet’s and Vermeer’s awareness of each other, giving Griet an artist’s capability of seeing color and symmetry, gained through her artisan’s heritage. Their relationship grows slowly, through recognition and respect. It makes sense to us that out of Vermeer’s large household, only he and his mother-in-law see Griet as a person in her own right.

But the novel as a whole is understated, with the drama too muted for my taste. I have heard that the movie, directed by Peter Webber, has more emotional impact. Perhaps the choreographing of the countless interactions in the household, skillfully done, manages to convey the charged and evocative atmosphere more forcefully than in Chevalier’s writing. I’ll have to view it. Luckily, we have the movie here at the library also.