****They All Fall Down

caramelized sugar

photo: Serene Vannoy, creative commons license

By Tammy Cohen – Hannah is a new patient in a women’s low-security psychiatric facility called The Meadows outside London, the result of an incident Cohen takes some time to reveal.

In the several weeks before this new psychological thriller opens, two of the facility’s dozen or so patients have committed suicide. In fact, the first line is, “Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelized sugar.” Hannah doesn’t believe Charlie killed herself. She believes both of the so-called suicides were murder. But who will believe her?

Most of the short chapters are told in either Hannah’s first-person point of view or that of her mother Corinne, in third-person. Corinne isn’t sure what to make of Hannah’s accusations. She wants to believe her daughter, but Hannah’s done some strange things lately that weaken her credibility.

At the same time, Corinne is desperate to believe her daughter is safe at The Meadows. And the director, Dr. Oliver Roberts, and the art therapist, the supportive Laura, as well as most of the other staff seem capable and conscientious, don’t they? Are these people who they say they are? Their contention that their patients are high-risk, with histories of suicide attempts, never quite reassures her.

Author Cohen has assembled an interesting group of patients: Odelle, thin as a stick with serious eating disorders; Stella, whose otherworldly appearance results from too many cosmetic surgeries, including removal of a rib to achieve a smaller waistline; and Judith, who says she’s just being “honest” when she makes her intentionally cruel remarks. As events unfold and confidences are shared, these patients form a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

The characters are mostly well developed; however, it was jarring when the patients’ ages would be mentioned. They were in their mid-thirties or so (Hannah is 32), but they came across like teenagers. Perhaps this is because they are highly dependent, vulnerable personalities.

Throw into the mix a lurking filmmaker and his cameraman working on a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. The filmmakers were a nice touch (with the director Justin “doused in self-absorption like cheap cologne”), since an underlying theme of the book is perception. What does the “neutral” eye of the camera perceive? What do each of the characters perceive about each other, and do they trust each others’ perceptions—they certainly share doubts about Hannah’s—and does she even trust her own?

In general, the writing style is effective and the pace is good and varied. Cohen uses cliffhangers to keep you reading “one more chapter”—mysterious items and messages turn up in the hospital, a red baby hat on Corinne’s doorstep. Eventually these are all explained, but the repeated technique begins to feel artificial. On the whole, an intriguing psychological thriller.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Paterson

Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)

When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

***The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

market, Myanmar

photo: Eustaqulo Santimano, creative commons license

By Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty – I guess this “international best seller” was just not to my taste. While the premise was intriguing, as was the exotic Burmese setting, the author never went deep enough to engage me.

One day Julia Win’s father leaves his wife and grown children and disappears out of his life as a prominent Manhattan attorney. The authorities lose his trail in Bangkok. A new lawyer herself, after a few years, Julia determines to find him and is drawn to a remote village in Burma named Kalaw, based on the only clue she has, an unmailed love-letter addressed to a villager named Mi Mi.

With more than a little trepidation, Julia travels there to find out who Mi Mi is and whether she can tell her where her father has gone.

Before even settling in, she’s approached by an “old man” who seems to know who she is and who her father is. “You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country.” It seems she’s followed the correct path, all right, but the man, whose name is U Ba, won’t reveal more about her father’s whereabouts until she listens to his story, which makes up most of the rest of the book.

That set-up strongly reminds me of the beginning of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Just as Martel’s narrator meets an elderly man who says his story will “make you believe in God,” U Ba at the outset asks Julia, “Do you believe in love?” It’s clear that Sendker’s tale is intended to make sure that she—and the reader—do.

If you’re looking for a sweet read, one that skates across the surface of relationships and emotions, perhaps something for the beach this summer, you can order it through the affiliate link below.

Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo: Japanexperterna.se, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.

****The Idol of Mombasa

Mombasa, Africa, Masks

photo: Angelo Juan Ramos, creative commons license

By Annamaria AlfieriSet in 1912 in the British Protectorate of East Africa (now Kenya), The Idol of Mombasa is Alfieri’s second novel featuring Justin and Vera Tolliver. In this book, the newlyweds embark on a none-too-welcome stay in the steamy, smelly coastal city of Mombasa, where Justin is the new Assistant District Superintendent of Police.

In Mombasa, they find themselves in a deliciously rendered stewpot of mixed racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and loyalties. Though the local government is British, Mombasa—and that portion of its population that is Arab—remains under the significant influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British have introduced into the police service their loyal Indian subjects, and Africans of many tribes fill the population.

The Tollivers are a mix too. Justin is the second son of a Yorkshire earl. He had a conventional if aristocratic upbringing, but possesses no fortune. Vera is more of a free spirit. She’s the daughter of a Scottish missionary, born and raised in the Protectorate’s pastoral up-country region.

The conflicts inherent between and among such wildly diverse people are tailor-made for both social and domestic drama.

The novel’s prologue describes a daring nighttime slave and ivory smuggling operation, and the book’s central dilemma relates to the illegal, but quietly tolerated practice of holding and selling slaves. Vera is an absolutist, unable to countenance slavery in any form, whereas Justin may be as morally opposed, but constrained by unwritten policy and his superiors.

When a runaway slave is murdered, followed soon after by the death of a notorious Arab slave-trafficker, Justin and Vera both set out to find the perpetrator—he in his official capacity and she with secret, possibly risky, and sometimes unaccountably naïve actions of her own. Conflict between the couple is thereby assured, as Justin alternately admires and is frustrated by Vera’s passionate, impulsive personality.

Alfieri’s descriptions of exotic Mombasa and its environs a hundred years ago vividly evoke the setting. Her writing is clear and interesting, yet somehow doesn’t exude a strong sense of menace, despite the cast of desperate characters and perilous environment. She keeps multiple plot balls up in the air, through a set of intriguing and well-drawn secondary characters. The net result is that this atmospheric novel transports you back in time and across continents to set you down in the middle of Mombasa, 1912.

A longer version of this review appeared at crimefictionlover.com.

Loving

loving, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga & Joel Edgerton in Loving

The landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ended state bans on interracial marriage is brought to life here, lovingly, (trailer). This fine film is from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose script has been called subtle and “scrupulously intelligent.”

Hard though it may be to believe that miscegenation laws persisted more than a century after the Civil War, at the time the case was decided, 16 Southern states had such laws. Virginia’s law put Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving—and their three children—at serious risk.

Richard and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., knowing Virginia authorities would give them problems, and when they return home and are caught, their attorney advises them to plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They are given a suspended sentence contingent on a promise to leave Virginia and not return (together) for at least 25 years. If they are found together in the state, they’ll go to prison. The judge’s sentence effectively turns them into exiles in their own country.

Life in the District of Columbia is not easy or pleasant for two rural people. It is too crowded, too loud, too fast, and too dangerous for their children. But the Civil Rights movement is happening around them, and a letter Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy ends up in the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes on their case pro bono.

The decisions the Lovings make and why they make them are the meat of the movie. And while they don’t necessarily understand the machinations of the law and the courts or the strategies of their lawyers, their quiet courage is clear. As critic Mal Vincent wrote in the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, “In the end, when you think about the film’s ‘message,’ it is a very simple one. With so much hate in the world, should we suppress any effort to express love?”

With a strong supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred do a standout job in low-key, tender performances that never stray into sentimentality. Late in the day, Richard is asked whether there’s anything he wants to say to the Supreme Court Justices. He gives his lawyer a how can I make this any plainer? glance and says, “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” That’s all the Court—and the Virginia legislature, and the county sheriff, and anyone else—should need to know.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences, 79%

Learning to Drive

Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Learning to DriveDirector Isabel Coixet has put together an altogether pleasant comedy (trailer) set in Manhattan, although much of the action takes place on the inside—inside Wendy Shields (played by Patricia Clarkson) whose husband has left her for younger woman, forcing her to rethink her life. This leads to the startling decision to learn to drive. It takes place on the inside of her Sikh driving instructor, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), whose life is upended by the arrival of an Indian woman he’s never met who’s expecting to become his wife. And, it takes place on the inside of Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), who speaks little English and who has entered a much more foreign territory than a stamp on a passport would suggest.

The superb cast conveys all the internal yearning, turmoil, disappointment, and joy experienced by these characters without the burden of a heavy-handed script. Writer Sarah Kernochan based the screenplay on a New Yorker essay and built in plenty of funny and sweet moments, too. Especially appreciated is the opportunity to see the colorful and intriguing interior of a Sikh temple.

The cramped confines of a car make for filming challenges worthy of a team of contortionists, but it’s an intimate setting, too (as the excellent 2008 British movie Happy Go Lucky proved), in which quotidian experiences are spiced with the ever-present possibility of catastrophe (bicyclists! trucks! jaywalkers!). “You can’t always trust people to behave properly,” Darwan advises, and this truism resonates with his pupil. Though she would add the caveat that he actually does.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 67%; audiences 68%. Hard to understand why the critics dinged this movie for “predictability” and didn’t notice that exact problem in the awful Grandma which they liked! If you’ve had a hard week or are allergic to people screaming their problems at you for two hours, this is the better choice.

*****Seveneves

Perseids, meteor shower, night

(photo: David Kingham, creative commons license)

By Neal Stephenson – All my book-reviewing predelictions are about to be revealed, when I say this is exactly a kind of book I like best! Even readers who ordinarily don’t gravitate to their book store’s science fiction section because of a severe allergy to tired genre tropes—aliens, ray-guns, and domineering robots—cardboard characters, and future visions that strain believability might like this one. It’s science, all right, but it’s all about human beings and their behavior when really put to the test. Why that is, in Stephenson’s own words.

The novel’s premise is that something (we never know what, and it doesn’t matter) penetrates the moon “like a bullet through an apple” and causes it to explode mostly into seven large and innumerable smaller pieces. Watching the fragments of the moon clank about in space becomes an interesting phenomenon until astronomer and science popularizer Dubois Harris—clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—stops wondering about the cause of the breakup and starts worrying about its effects. Scientists around the globe quickly agree with his conclusions: the moon’s fragments—bolides—will keep banging into each other making smaller and smaller pieces whose numbers will rise exponentially.

Eventually (in about two years), enough shattered fragments will begin entering the Earth’s atmosphere to create a cloud of debris that will spread out and, as Harris explains to U.S. President Julia Flaherty, “we are going to witness an event that I am calling the White Sky.” A day or two later would begin the next phase, “the Hard Rain,” as a rapidly increasing number of fragments enter the Earth’s atmosphere and their fiery trails “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil.” How long will the Hard Rain last? Harris estimates “Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.”

The only hope for human survival is to gear up the International Space Station (“Izzy”) to receive many more residents and, somehow, survive long-term, growing plants for food and oxygen, and mining asteroids and even the remaining chunks of the moon for materials. But there’s no way Izzy can take on several billion or even several hundred thousand souls, and a difficult selection process will be required. International politics must be set aside and every creative mind and resource focused on the survival of a few. With Doomsday approaching, technological development must move light-years faster than previously believed possible—or safe. Yet the meat of the book is the mechanics of the human psyche when subjected to such an extreme scenario. Inevitably, some readers will find the balance between mind and emotion not to their taste, and this may not be their kind of book.

There’s a lot of science and engineering here, but it’s wrapped in such an exciting adventure tale, and presented so clearly and plausibly, that I never lost interest for a moment. The 860 [!] pages fly by, faster than you can say Bolide Fragmentation Rate. In fact, there was so much there that a few loose ends escaped me—like, what happened to the mission to Mars? I don’t believe it had more than a passing reference. What happened to the rings Earth was supposed to acquire after the Hard Rain? These are hardly worth a quibble, though, amid all this amazing content.

As Jason Sheehan said in his review of Seveneves for NPR, “The experience of reading a modern Stephenson novel is like going out drinking with 20 or 30 of the smartest people on earth.”