Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Martin Luther King Day, I finally was able to go to a showing of Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012) at our local theater. I had wanted to see it ever since it had been released, but somehow just was unable to find the time, especially around the holidays.
   It was worth the wait. I had read several reviews of the film, but none of them spoiled the magnificence and richness of the experience for me. It was beautifully filmed, using almost entirely Richmond and Petersburg locations, which added a lot of interest for me personally, as I live in the area. It was interesting to watch and realize that a particular scene was filmed at the Virginia Governor's Mansion or in the Capitol Building. For example, Thomas Sully's romanticized Victorian portrait of Pocahontas stood out in one scene, cluing me in to the room in the Capitol being used. Spielberg made great use of local people and buildings and took special care for the most part that the surroundings were accurate for Civil War period Washington.
   Although minor historical inaccuracies do exist throughout the film--Mary Todd Lincoln never sat in the House to see the vote taken on the 13th Amendment; Lincoln did not die in the position the film showed at all but was laid diagonally across the too short bed; Connecticut did not have a split vote on the Amendment; and the House would not have been as full as it looked in the movie, as those representatives of Congress from the Southern states were absent due to the war, etc.--I readily agree that probably few of these things were likely noticed by most people nor did they detract from my enjoyment of the film. It's not a documentary, but entertainment based on history.
   Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones were excellently cast in their roles and entirely believable in their portrayals. Powerful performances by each really fired the picture--I agree with one comment I saw that it was almost as if Day-Lewis were channeling Lincoln--and supporting actors like James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, and Gloria Reuben added much depth to the storytelling. Spielberg does a wonderful job of filming Tony Kushner's literate script, and they both made good use of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, as source material. Each character was carefully and thoughtfully made human, shown with their flaws and emotions, their strengths and their weaknesses, their passions, and set against the terrible times of the Civil War. I was totally drawn into Lincoln's efforts at getting the amendment passed before the war's end, and his reasons for this were certainly made clear in the film. The production greatly added to my understanding of all the political maneuverings and manipulations, deals, and back room bargaining that went on to make things happen. I'm glad that I took the opportunity to see the film, it was totally worthwhile and satisfying to me as a movie goer and history buff. I would encourage anyone to make the effort to see this film for its outstanding performances and strong story about a very crucial episode in our nation's history.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

DEATH OF KINGS by Bernard Cornwell, 2011.
The year is 899 AD, King Alfred the Great of Wessex is dying, and the kingdom is in turmoil. His lifelong desire to see a unified country is in danger of falling apart, unless his son and successor, Edward, can provide the leadership, cunning and know-how to pull the various tribes together and defeat their common enemies. But Edward, attacked from all sides by Saxon claimants to the throne, as well as Danish invaders, needs help with this daunting task. It falls to the novel's hero, Lord Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Vikings and who is liked and trusted by King Alfred, to participate in the power struggle upon Alfred's death. He had sworn oaths to Alfred but not to Edward to create a united "Anglcynn," so he must decide whether to assist Edward, or to follow his own path to reclaim his family's lands lost years earlier in Northumbria. It is a decision that will change Uhtred's life--and the history of England.
   Cornwell knows how to tell a story, keep it moving at a fast clip, and provide plenty of excitement and adventure. He creates well defined characters and situations, his descriptions are colorful, and his battle scenes are vivid. Uhtred, the main protagonist, he is a powerful warrior, with deeply conflicting loyalties and inner struggles that make him very human. Cornwell has created a multifaceted figure adept at the art of war and other manly exploits, yet who can also express a depth of feeling for several of the other characters, notably the spy Ludda, his sometime mistress Aethelflaed, and for his monarch, King Alfred. I found Uhtred a strong, likeable hero, decisive, determined, and loyal to his beliefs and vows.
   This novel is part of a series called "The Saxon Tales," but I have not read any of the previous books and found this fine to read on its own. I have to admit, though, that perhaps I would not have been so confused by characters' names or needed to continually use the place-name glossary if I had read the earlier stories. Nevertheless, I found this a rousing, stirring tale, complete with a strong and charismatic hero, and with plenty of history, adventure, brutality, and violence to keep me entertained throughout.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay, 2012.
A 14 year old boy is murdered in a park in a small New England town. The shocking crime rocks the normally peaceful suburban town of Newton, Massachusetts, and the members of the Barber family find themselves involved in it up to their necks.
   Andy Barber's son, Jacob, a classmate of the dead boy, is accused of the crime. Andy, the respected and popular assistant district attorney, is stunned by the accusation, as is his wife, Laurie. As more evidence and facts of the case are revealed, the Barbers' marriage and family begin to crack and crumble. Andy gathers his strength to protect his boy, believing him to be innocent of the deed. Laurie, Jake's mother, comes to realize that perhaps they don't know their son as well as they thought, and recognizes that he could be guilty. And then the secrets--one of which Andy has kept hidden from his own family for many years--keep coming out and tear the family into fragments.
   Landay's keeps the suspense high and the pages turning, with a fast paced narrative that includes some great courtroom scenes and realistic dialogue. His characters are well drawn and believable, he gives an interesting picture of the lives of people involved in a tangled web of accusation, denial, and criminal behavior, and as the secrets are revealed they provide some good surprises.The author's depiction of a town totally stunned by the violent crime and of one family in a heartbreaking crisis is gripping, compelling, and held my interest completely. A great fast read.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

MY WORD IS MY BOND by Roger Moore, 2008.
Good readable memoir by the oldest actor (born 1927) ever to play James Bond 007. Moore discusses his childhood in England, especially during wartime, his schooling, how he entered the world of show business, etc., all with a light touch and with some quite humorous anecdotes. He writes very honestly about his interactions with various actors he worked with on stage, screen, and TV--Kenneth More, David Niven, Tony Curtis, Joan Collins, Lois Chiles, Susannah York, Gregory Peck, Lee J. Cobb, Grace Jones, Shelley Winters, Lee Marvin, etc.--as well as people from other aspects of show business. He peppers his ruminations of his life with funny stories and observations and asides, supplying plenty of entertainment without being malicious or gossipy. He provides an excellent amount of material concerning his experiences on and off the set during his involvement with the Bond films, including his longstanding relationships with producer "Cubby" Broccoli and director John Glen. He interweaves his narrative with information about his four marriages and his children, other business related projects, and his rewarding work as an ambassador for UNICEF (recruited by actress Audrey Hepburn). Although a few times Moore seemed a bit full of himself, overall I found this a genuinely interesting, entertaining, and honestly written memoir.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

THE COVE by Ron Rash, 2012.
The Sheltons have lived in the rugged and forbidding cove near Mars Hill in Madison County, NC ever since they came from Tennessee. Even they think it's a dark, gloomy place, and locals believe it to be haunted and dangerous. Many believe the Shelton family is cursed, and that young and lonely Laurel Shelton is a witch. Laurel, however, knows she is waiting for her chance at happiness.
  Hank, Laurel's brother, served his time in France during the Great War, was injured and sent home with honors. His hope is to get the family farm in order and then to marry a local girl. He has already gotten permission from Carolyn Weatherbee's father to marry her. Industrious and protective, he has learned to do most everything on the farm himself, even though he lost a hand during his military service.
  Into their lives come Walter and his flute, found in the woods by Laurel after he's stung by yellow jackets. An attractive and mute young man who wants to get to New York, he plays music more beautiful than even birdsong, wins over the Sheltons (especially Laurel) and becomes a part of their everyday lives. Walter, though, harbors a somewhat dangerous secret. Even though they have their suspicions and questions, Laurel and Hank both like and trust him, and after they convince him to stay awhile, he assists Hank in doing the farm work, and eventually returns Laurel's feelings of love, much to Hank's satisfaction. Their neighbor, old Slidell Hampton, supports and helps them, all the while feeling something is not quite right. Fueled by her concern and her love for Walter, Laurel, helped by the local schoolteacher, Miss Calicut, does some digging into the mystery and comes to her own conclusions.
   Meanwhile, the Mars Hill community, in a fit of patriotism, becomes stirred up by all things German (including books and the local languages professor at the college). News of an escape of a German detainee from the Hot Springs prison camp and a wanted poster goad local army recruiter Chauncey Feith into taking action. Patriotic fervor runs high in the area, even though the war itself is winding down in Europe. As the story progresses and events unfold and secrets revealed, the Sheltons and Walter become the targets of violence, and a heartrending tragedy occurs.
  Rash has penned a thoroughly engaging story about characters struggling to find happiness and some sense of peace in the midst of a terrible time. He uses plenty of period details concerning life in Appalachian North Carolina throughout the story to keep the reader moving ahead, his narrative has a good pace, and he takes his time in drawing out Walter's secret. He excels in creating three dimensional characters the reader can care about and he carefully weaves their stories together in order to paint an interesting and vivid picture of their lives and the results of their actions. Enjoyable and entertaining, excellent storytelling by a gifted writer.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin, 2012.
This debut novel is a lush period saga set in the Pacific Northwest at the end of the nineteenth century and it continues forward into the early decades of the twentieth, and depicts how several individuals brought together by circumstances are forged into a sort of family.
   The major character in this vividly written story is William Talmadge, who had moved into the valley during the Civil War, lost his family there, and then remained a fairly solitary figure, tending to and extending his orchards of apricot and apple trees, with help only from a roving band of horse herders. A gentle, quiet sort of man, he asked for little and remained a fairly self-sufficient person for many years. Until one day, when his peaceful existence is shattered by two scared young girls who steal his fruit in the town market and then follow him into the shelter of his orchards.
   Jane and Della are sisters, running from a drug and alcohol addict named Michaelson, and have been living some months in the wild. Talmadge cautiously takes them in and tries to protect them from whatever they have left behind.Their existence in the orchard is kept fairly quiet, except from the local midwife/herbalist, Caroline Middey, who kindly aids them over the course of the story in many ways.The girls, feral and distrusting even of Talmadge's kindness, uneasily hang around, and even give birth on his property, but Della's twins both die, while Jane's daughter, Angelene, survives.Then one day, the harmony in the valley is disrupted when Michaelson and his henchmen show up, leading to an unexpected tragedy that sets off a chain of events that changes all their lives.
  Coplin has written a very readable story about how the compassion in one man is awakened and he learns to care, to open himself to others and their problems, to realize what he's missed, and to live a fuller life with all its accompanying challenges and rewards. She does a credible job with her setting, with period description, adding good details about fruit picking and marketing, the coming of the railroad to the area, life in local prisons, provides a good glimpse of changing times in the Pacific Northwest. Her language is lush and flowing, the narrative moves along at a good pace, and she takes her time with developing her characters. At times it did seem somewhat slow and a bit too lengthy. However, Coplin's sensitive and realistic portrayal of the relationships between Talmadge, Della, Jane, and Angelene were well done and sympathetic, and the wise and motherly Caroline is a real standout. Dramatic and rich with emotion and power, Coplin's novel is an intelligent and engrossing character-driven story.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL by Robert Goolrick, 2012.
Brownsburg, Virginia, in 1948 is a quiet and peaceful village nestled in the beautiful Valley of Virginia. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows their place in life. The world is slow paced here, meant to be enjoyed calmly and serenely.
   One day a stranger arrives, carrying with him two suitcases and not much else. One suitcase has personal items and a lot of money in it; the other contains a set of butcher knives. As the townspeople soon discover, the handsome and friendly man is Charlie Beale, and he wants to settle in their peaceful community. He becomes enamoured of some acreage along the river and wants it for himself, as well as employment, which he finds with the local butcher, Will Haislett. The Haisletts, Will and his schoolteacher wife Alma and their six-year-old son Sam, become a huge part of Charlie's life in the village.
   Charlie, a personable and charming character, adjusts to life in the community and learns his way around, helped along by the Haisletts. He enjoys the companionship of Sam, who becomes like a son to him, and Sam finds a kindred spirit in Charlie--they share a love of baseball, dogs, and being outdoors. Along with the dog Charlie purchases and names Jackie Robinson (for the baseball player), they become a familiar sight around town. However, their easy relationship changes from the time Charlie first sees the teenaged Sylvan Glass, wife of the richest resident of Brownsburg--he is certain that the two of them are meant to be together. Blonde and lovely and from a remote area of the county, Sylvan had been bought and paid for by Boatwright Glass, to be his wife and to live the sort of Hollywood/movie star life she's always dreamed about. But once Charlie enters her orbit, events are set into motion that will change the lives of those who dwell in Brownsburg and ultimately lead to a shockingly heartbreaking tragedy.
   Goolrick knows how to tell a story. With his nicely paced narrative, he pulls the reader into a deceptively simpler time that is no more and adroitly makes his characters come to life. His descriptions of Brownsburg and the surrounding landscape are wonderful and add so much to the telling of the story: details of cars, fashions, movies, buildings, the way the farmlands look, the old trees and the river, names of real places in the county, all meld together to create a meaningful atmosphere, a real sense of time and place. His characters are multifaceted and so human, easy to relate to and have feelings for, to be concerned about. I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen to these people, I had to find out how their stories and conflicts would turn out. His principal characters are well done and believable as people: Charlie, with his desire to belong and his obsession with Sylvan; Sylvan's passion to live her life as something out of a movie; Boaty's greed and jealousy and vulgarity; Claudie Wiley (who deserves a book of her own), the solitary black seamstress who could almost magically sew anything and keep herself aloof; and young Sam, who practically hero-worships Charlie, who becomes a part of Charlie's and Sylvan's illicit affair and who ends up experiencing situations that no kid should.
   Emotional and satisfying, at times painful, part Gothic romance and part nostalgia, with unflinching language and beautiful description and involving characters, it's a tale that has it all: Power, money, grand ideas, golden dreams, lust, doomed love, suspense, growing up, acceptance, baseball. Personally, I found this novel a thought-provoking and moving story about life and relationships in a small town, and a very worthwhile read.