Book and a Movie-The Testaments

You could believe in Gilead or you could believe in God, but not both.

It’s been a long wait, but with The Testaments master of suspense Margaret Atwood finally lays to rest the FAQ’s raised by her 1985 phenomenon The Handmaid’s Tale about the shocking dystopian patriarchy of Gilead. The character of Offred (breeding-slave to clergy elite) is now a mere footnote, yet her silent battle continues across generations and international boundaries with the implication that you can’t keep a good woman down without repercussions. That woman is Aunt Lydia, a former judge at the top of the power pyramid allotted the powerless sex, as she draws three teens into her protective orbit: two reluctant brides whose charming innocence filters the prevailing evil, and a covert-convert from the free zone of Canada.

The Testaments elaborates on the futuristic, ultra-conservative America that Atwood painted a generation ago—with its many strictures on clothing, comportment, work, and travel—to reveal the full history and structure of a society where women are chattel and pubescent girls are schooled in needlepoint rather than literacy, where they are forced into arranged marriages, where connubial success is measured in Marthas (maids), and where men commit pedophilia and uxoricide with relative immunity—save for the unlucky few who are sentenced to particicution, the blood-sport of the downtrodden.

At first chilling and too-far-fetched, the plot taps so deeply and deftly into human frailties that by the end, it seems almost possible, especially as the geographic boundaries of this authoritarian world are realized. For those who think it can’t happen here, watch this brief CBS interview with Canada’s best-selling author as she explains the story’s inception and how she employed only known atrocities throughout history in order to retain plausibility. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rDoROcHbpI

Book and a Movie—Alas Babylon

Nations are like people; when they grow old and rich and fat, they get conservative.

Yes, this book review blog has a new title because a little film clip enhances every story. Here’s a pairing you might not expect though, as the movie hasn’t been made.

Ever realize fifteen minutes into a great story that you’ve seen or heard or read it before? A set looks familiar or a line rings true, yet chunks of the plot are lost because you weren’t sharp enough or ripe enough the first time around? It happened to me twice this week: with the Alan Glynn sci-fi thriller Limitless (starring Bradley Cooper), which I now recognize as brilliant, and with Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic classic Alas Babylon, which is darn good. I’d read it in high school but my strongest memory was of a housekeeper dancing in her socks to polish the floors, which just shows how immature I was at fourteen when it was assigned reading—I presume because it was written the year my class was born, in 1959.

As a prototype of the genre this patriotic survival story isn’t as brutal or sweet as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; and it’s nowhere near as imaginative as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; but does illustrate the optimistic resourcefulness of its time and feature characters whose mettle emerges amid the unthinkable. The smart band together. The fools die alone. The outlaws turn assassin. And through it all, love and community grow amid grief. Frank is also to be lauded for taking on the racism and sexism of his times, though with cringe-worthy results.

All things considered, I was surprised this book wasn’t made into a blockbuster. There was a 1960 version for produced for the television show Playhouse 90, but nothing else. Apparently English teachers agree because Youtube is overrun with student-produced faux trailers. Here’s one that captures the story’s essence nicely. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTsW3FIAtp4 .

As a fan of survival shows and lit, I’d be curious to know your favorites. Please leave a comment if you have one.

 

Book Notes—The Book of Ebenezer LePage

It’s funny how when you remember, you can’t choose what to remember.

I knew nothing about Guernsey a week ago, and now I’m itching to go. If I had to guess, I’d have said it was in Great Britain and been only kinda-sorta right. Although a British Dependency, Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands off Normandy, France, a charming and historic rock that is a little larger than Bermuda. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNQFbVIzs9s Guernsey from Above.

Whether you speak English or French (the official language until 1948), you can get along there. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a bilingual old-timer in a talkative mood, someone like the Ebenezer Lepage, whose strength is surpassed only by his opinions. Clever, cantankerous, and caring, this fictional octogenarian is a one-man tour-de-force of culture and history, including the German occupation, as he narrates a three-volume memoir of progress and the lack thereof throughout the Twentieth Century.

That’s 394 pages of personal vignettes told in a halting patois that, although plodding at times, is  punctuated with tragedy and comedy. I recommend the 21 ½ hour Audible recording narrated by Roy Dotrice as being as authentic-sounding and sincere as author G.B. Edwards might have wished.  

Old Ebenezer has a lot to say about money (he buries his), the young these days (born old), marriage (a lonely affair), God (He has no will), and the sea—never far from his thoughts or table. Despite his many relations and friends, he leads a solitary existence and, this frustrated love story reaches an amusing denouement as the geezer searches for a worthy heir to his birthright.

One final aspect of this book which I appreciate as a handwriting analyst is Ebenezer’s appreciation for letters. I have for two years been keeping a log of books whose characters take note of others’ script, and he is such a one. Though not educated, he cherishes such handwritten notes and can identify pretty near any of his kith and kin by a glance at their penmanship. How charming is that?!

 

Book Notes – Meet Me at the Museum

What lasts? What is it that determines what lasts?

That is the ontological question buried within this epistolary fiction by septuagenarian debut novelist Anne Youngson, a book I chose specifically because of her age. You gotta love underdogs like Frank McCourt, Harriet Doerr, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who all began their publishing careers after the age of sixty—a benchmark I’m fast approaching.

When academic curiosity leads to a correspondence between an English housewife and Danish archaeologist, both seniors, quotidian cares are aired and friendship ripens into love. Their mutual interest in The Tollund Man, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CQE4c8UJkM, Denmark’s remarkable bog mummy, is the catalyst that brings them together, but the ephemeral nature of life in modern times is what draws them closer. If friendship, marriage, parenthood, work, and dreams are ours for but a wink of time, how do we make that time count?

The audio version of this book, narrated by Helen Lloyd and Lars Knudsen, was at times mildly frustrating for the British and Danish accents that sent Googling with ill-conceived spellings place names and even the mummy himself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book. I’m disappointed when I leave a fiction without having learned something new about the world. Now I know that if I’m ever in Denmark, the Silkeborg Museum must be on my itinerary.

For a more introspective look at The Tolland Man, read Seamus Heaney’s poem referenced in the novel. https://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/heaney/the_tollund_man.php

Book Notes – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

We are all a lot more capable of overcoming obstacles and fears than we think we are.

I’m writing this is the midst of a windshield tour of Oregon with my husband, and the author’s recording of this book makes for a pretty perfect soundtrack. Beyond the obvious connection, it’s literary enough to satisfy my passion for memoirs while historical enough to interest us both, not to mention testosterone-laden for him. After all, you can’t much more macho than a cowboy adventure.

Here is a travelogue for the nostalgic reader, the dreamer brave or crazy enough to embrace the unattainable by following half-a-continent of wagon ruts, both defended and lost to development, in a journey of mythic proportion. Journalist Rinker Buck, a self-confessed dandy and control freak, and his mule-skinning free-wheeling brother Nick, a couple of baby boomers from New Jersey, are two such intrepid men.   

Here is the story of three Americas. First is the Pioneer America of heroes and misbegotten failures, litterbugs Buck calls them, who followed their predecessor’s trash across the continent. Second is the wide-eyed America of the Wagon Train TV series at a time when the Buck boys toured the mid-Atlantic in the family’s home-made prairie schooner. Finally is modern America, a country of pampered people who profess peace-loving values but who fight about everything. The beauty of it all is the brothers’ synthesis of all three Americas as their mules walk 2000 miles in the other guys’ horseshoes. Learning anew the hard lessons of the pioneers, they rediscover their filial connection while putting to rest old patriarchal resentments and taking stock of their late mid-life lives. It’s a beautiful journey recounted with warmth and self-deprecatory humor. For as Buck says, crazy-ass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force.

Watch the book trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbRkB5bnG8c

Book Notes—Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems

Perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart.  (The Black Cat)

Just in time for the Halloween onslaught, Spotify Free has released Caedmon Audio’s Basil Rathbone & Vincent Price Read Edgar Allan Poe Stories and Poems, five hours of the Master-of-Macabre’s greatest hits performed by two Shakespeareans titans. Poe’s work, noted for its exacting logic, comes to life with Rathbone’s narration as it summons his eminent Sherlock Holmes. And Price’s gently horrific quirkiness, last showcased in Edward Scissorhands, is ideal for Poe’s perverse imagination. Beware though; archaic speech coupled with many rushed and whispered passages make this recording a better accompaniment than a main course. I recommend following along in print as the voices wash you. There are countless free PDFs of each title available for download.

Scholars take note, however; some of the longer stories, including the hugely popular The Fall of the House of Usher (23 minutes) and The Pit and the Pendulum (over 30 minutes), have been heavily abridged, lending them a modern terseness that I find refreshing. Poe does have a tendency to go on at length when he might well trust the reader. But other stories are read in their entirety: The Black Cat, for example, is 36 minutes well-spent. Her is a tale any felinophobe will appreciate for its spot-on descriptions of the animal’s seeming malevolence in overstepping its welcome.

You can listen at https://open.spotify.com/album/6xDmRcD6sgsGbDvBRpyH5H but be aware some of the audio levels are so unnaturally low as to be little more than a ghostly whisper. The works I found to be inaudible on my laptop, however, were fine on my Spotify phone app. Happy listening!

Book Notes – Their Eyes Were Watching God

You got to go there to know there.

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel of a young woman’s self-discovery paints “there” as not only different locales but different lives. From rural Eatonville, Florida (one of the nation’s first all-black communities) to the Everglades, Janie Crawford is transformed through three tragic marriages.

Raised by a watchful grandma, she morphs from dreamy teen to miserable child-bride in an arranged marriage with a landed geezer who sees her as chattel. She then she elopes with a sweet-talking social-climber, only to feel their love sour as he too grows old and jealous. Finally, as a widowed storekeeper wallowing in boredom, she finds happiness with a younger man, an itinerant laborer and gambler who keeps her teetering on the edge of faith. Yet she overlooks his many faults for the sake of passion. Then Mother Nature finds a bizarre and tragic way to separate them.

Though not a long read, the dialogue is dialect-heavy, which makes for slow-going if one is to digest its nuances. Hurston’s signature word-painting makes for vivid scenes and memorable one-liners, but the story doesn’t hit its stride until our heroine meets her match half-way into the 184 pages, at which point it’s hard to put down. With so many realistic yet stunning twists of fate, it’s easy to see why this story is a modern classic and equally baffling why it was so neglected until over a decade after Hurston was buried in a pauper’s grave. Sadly, racism is the likely cause, as white critics trashed it early-on.

For glimpses of Eatonville and a frank look at Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown Legacy, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_M-PfhgMsg.

Book Notes – A Piece of the World

The older I get, the more I believe that the greatest kindness is acceptance ~ Christina Baker Kline

This weekender of a historical fiction came to me as the unexpected benefit of mall-walking to beat the heat. It was in the branch library freebies-box, in large-print no less (388 pages). Not being much of a contemporary fiction reader, I was unfamiliar with Christina Baker Kline, who wrote the NYT bestseller Orphan Train, but I can see why she’s popular: vivid images, succinctly drawn, with heart. Her prose is sparse, a bit too sparse for my taste, but I love the backstory she paints to one of America’s favorite works of art, Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. Here the nagging questions posed by the haunting scene are all laid to rest—how a girlish, crippled spinster came to be living in semi-isolation; why she drags herself through the grass with resolute pride; and perhaps most importantly, why she allowed herself to be captured on canvas after a lifetime of eschewing attention.

Baker Kline knows coastal Maine where the story is set. The sun-bleached Olson House that tourists still visit today is like a patriarch ensnaring Christina and her brother Alvaro for a lifetime of sacrifice. For as Baker Kline says in the prologue, the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before. For a peek at the exterior of this 14-room colonial farmhouse, check out this brief video featuring Christina’s nephew John, who is also a minor character in the story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVEGpeqYRKc

Exoneration

Thanks to the Mueller investigation, this is Dictionary.com’s most-searched-for term of 2019. According to Congressman Michael Turner (R-Ohio), it’s meaningless, yet I heard it in traffic court only the day before and couldn’t help wondering if group-think had coopted the judge’s tongue. It would not be the first time I was last to the linguistic party of current affairs.

So many of our ten-dollar words come to us in this way, ignored or unknown for years until, suddenly, they crop up like kudzu in summer—in books, in conversation, in the news. Words, like fashions, trend, and trending words are often made-up words for which a great many of us have no use: twerking, shredding, phat. Yet there are real words for real things in this world that we never think about. Aglets recently came to my attention, those little plastic sheathes on shoelaces. Granted, they may not enjoy center stage yet, but who’s to say that aglets not the next chads? Remember those? Hanging chads, swinging chads, dimpled chads?  

That was an election to remember, as will be the next, no doubt. But whether Donald Trump is exonerated of collusion or not, exoneration, like chads, is a word that voters on both sides of the divide will never forget.

Book Notes - The Priest Fainted

. . . how easy it is now that (my mother) is no longer the part of me I have to fight against. We have come to a truce, the truce of two women who have been on a hard road and have come to respect each other’s fight.

Catherine Temma Davidson’s 2014 novel of self-discovery in her mother’s native Greece is as rich as baklava, tracing their respective tales of youthful rebellion and seasoning them with recipes and classical myths retold through an empowering feminist perspective.  A “Roots” story that draws back the curtain on a culture where “women never got a chance to decide for themselves which pieces (of the past) give good flavor and which are too grisly to swallow”, this is a delicacy to be savored, bookmarked, and reread. A perfect weekend reverie at 259 pages.