*****Fever

Abandoned house

photo: Lane Pearman, creative commons license

Written by Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers – Opening with the lines, “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why,” this noted South African author takes a good long while to get to the actual killing of Willem Storm, but he uses the time well.

The world has been devastated by the Fever—a new infectious disease that spreads rapidly and catastrophically. A few people have a genetic quirk that saves them, but 95 percent of the world’s population has died. Willem and his son Nico, hiding out in a remote South African cave, survive. The big challenge is “now what?”

Willem has a vision for what should come next. He and his son fill a tractor-trailer with useful items they find as they traverse the countryside. They aren’t the only survivors, of course, and food becomes increasingly hard to find. With a pre-Fever population of approximately 56 million, South Africa alone would have a residual population of 2.8 million.

How people react in such a desperate situation reveals their fundamental values. Willem Storm envisions a new egalitarian society built on democratic principles. He finds a suitable location, and he and Nico drive the countryside, leaving posters asking people of good will to come. Gradually, they do, and they name their new community Amanzi, “water.”

Teenage Nico is torn between his father’s idealism and the aggressive values of a new arrival in the community, Domingo. He has a past he won’t talk about, works with military precision, and an affinity for weapons. He consistently argues for more security precautions, because the threats are real—packs of wild dogs, marauding motorcycle gangs, and murderous thieves. “People are animals,” Domingo says.

Amanzi’s creation is an amazing adventure story. The book may be 530 pages long, but it is very hard (truly, almost impossible) to put down—at least for someone like me who is interesting in how things work, or don’t. Nico narrates most of it, though a great many other residents recount their experiences both before Amanzi and in the community, gradually building up a “360-degree” perspective on Willem, Domingo, Nico, and Amanzi. Only in the last 20 pages are the most horrifying crimes of the novel revealed, and these are the least satisfying pages of all.

If you are intrigued by the situations and challenges presented in post-apocalyptic thrillers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand, this novel is sure to get you thinking.

****The Underground Railroad

Cotton

photo: Kimberly Vardeman, creative commons license

By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.

Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.

The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.

In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.

As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.

Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”

A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a definitive alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

*****A Necessary Evil

Hindu God Baruda

photo: Keshav Mukund Kandhadai, creative commons license

By Abir Mukherjee – Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee—whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not—find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.

An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received anonymous death threats back home. Right on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps in front of the car and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.

Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of its Maharajah, not the British government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and—strictly unofficially, of course—see what they can find out.

In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal—which figure in the plot of the novel—were prevalent. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.

Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.

As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticizes their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only cultural difficulty he seems unable to accommodate is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.

Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform the Captain—and the reader—about social, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. Mukherjee has created an engaging pair of police protagonists and an array of well-conceived secondary characters too.

As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and the two policemen may be put on the next train north to Calcutta at any moment.

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

****The Piano Teacher

piano

photo: Ovi Gherman, creative commons license

By Janice Y. K. Lee – Set in Hong Kong in two time periods—1952 and leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1941—this lovely debut  novel is part romance, part mystery, and part sociological study of the behavior of an expat community in good times and very very bad ones.

The 1952 story begins with newly arrived Claire Pendleton, wife of a water engineer who’s mostly away and mostly ignores her. Claire’s a bit bored and lets it be known she’s offering piano lessons. She’s hired by a prominent Chinese family, Melody and Victor Chen to teach their ten-year-old daughter Locket. With the Chens, she comes to know temptation.

On the street and at practically every social event she attends, she runs into a long-time Hong Kong resident, the emotionally elusive Englishman Will Truesdale. He has an odd limp and an confident manner, and he pursues Claire with determination. Over time, she learns his history and the preoccupations that haunt him.

In 1941, Truesdale was the Hong Kong newcomer. Almost immediately he meets and falls for Eurasian beauty Trudy Liang, a fixture in the social scene and cousin of Melody Chen. Will and Trudy’s love affair changes them both. Then the Japanese overwhelm the colony, bringing their detention camps, their bombs, their random, brutal murders, and deep, starvation-level privation. Choices were made, and those long-ago choices shape Claire’s world too.

Having shown the glitter of Hong Kong, Lee now exposes the grime. She reveals the aspects of character that allow individuals to survive changed circumstances, or not. The ones who come out the other side, like Claire, who needed to believe there was more to life, learn who they truly are.

The plot is strong and the prose elegant. Lee carries you along so easily that before you know it, you are plunged into difficulty all around. Her vivid description of the city of Hong Kong and the life there is like a prolonged, unforgettable visit to an exotic hothouse world.

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

This modern outlaw Western directed by David Mackenzie (trailer) is receiving high praise from critics. Like the faceless cattle barons and railroad tycoons memorialized in 1950s celluloid, today it’s the bankers who are handy villains bent on destroying the little guy. That’s true even if the modern cowboy rides a drilling rig.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively) team up to rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank, an institution that has drained the value from their late mother’s ranch and now (since corporations are officially people, I can anthropormorphize) sits rubbing its hands, waiting to foreclose. That would be a double catastrophe, because oil has been found on the land, and Toby is desperate to hang onto it so he can pass this valuable parcel to his kids. But he lacks the cash to save it. Thus, the robber scheme is hatched.

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

On the hunt for the robbers are two Texas Rangers—Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is just weeks from retirement, and figures out the broad outlines of the plot. He just can’t quite put the pieces together. He rides his American/Indian/Mexican partner mercilessly, and you understand Parker’s stoicism in the face of these insults is part of the joke. He gets his own barbs in too. Early on, he asks Hamilton: “Are you going to do anything about these robberies, or just sit there and let Alzheimer’s take its course?”

Watching Hamilton and Parker is fun; watching the brothers is fun. They are real characters and they have real relationships here. For me, a big part of the fun is not knowing exactly what to expect, because the movie falls both within and outside the usual formulas. As Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Stephen Rea says, it’s “at once a tale of desperation in hard times and a keenly observed character study—or studies.” I’d give it 7 stars out of 10.

I had a little flutter when the lawmen referred to Lubbock (home of my grandparents) and Young County (my great-grandparents). The filming, however, was in New Mexico. Not the same at all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%, audiences 90%.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the WilderpeopleThis New Zealand comic gem (trailer) is about 13-year-old misfit Ricky Baker, whose last-resort foster placement is way, way out in the bush. Frankly, he’d rather be in urban Wellington or Christchurch, hanging with his homies, busting out to his walkman, tagging prime real estate, and living the gangsta life (in his head). But it isn’t to be. He’s too far and too needy to make it back. Not for want of trying.

When Ricky (played superbly by Julian Dennison) disappears into the bush with his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill, almost unrecognizable under a beard), the child protective system moves into high gear to “rescue” him. This dramatic and high-profile effort to save the boy, one can only imagine, comes after a dozen years of ignoring his needs and the quality and suitability of his placements atop no real understanding of what children need.

Directed with great energy by Taika Waititi, who also wrote the script, it has perhaps one chase scene that goes on too long, but as it occurs, the viewer is still basking in the enjoyment of Hec and Ricky’s hilarious encounter with a real bush man. Colander, anyone?

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times acknowledges Waititi’s effervescent touch reminiscent of Wes Anderson, and says, “Charming and funny, it is a drama masquerading as a comedy about an unloved boy whom nobody wants until someone says, Yes, I’ll love him.” And you will, too.

The credits include mention of drone pilots, and, though there are numerous helicopters in the plot, drones enable an amount of aerial photography heretofore prohibitively expensive. In the film’s travelogue dimensions, also awesome.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 100%!; audiences 92%.