May 26, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chilling series on Hulu

I must admit that I have never read any Margaret Atwood but The Handmaid’s Tale which debuted as a novel in 1985 has been on my “to do” list for years. Now comes a tv series adaptation of the iconic book presented as a Hulu original.

Elizabeth Moss (Peggy on Mad Men) is extraordinary as June/Offred, a baby-making handmaid in a religiously fanatic society of a frightening fictional future.  We see flashbacks of her previous unfettered life as a wife and mother along with scenes of her current servitude in the household of The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his barren but beautiful wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Her only reason for existence is to bear children for this upper crust couple.

Fellow handmaids include her revolutionary friend Emily played by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Moira, her friend from her married days, portrayed by Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black) who seemingly escapes from this dystopian world, biblically called Gilead, but whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Having watched five of the ten episodes, I can say this is a finely-made mini-series with vivid costumes, artful cinematography, intelligent dialogue and masterful acting. New episodes premiere on the Hulu streaming platform on Wednesdays. You could say I have the series “book-marked.”

Nutshell and The Vegetarian: Literary classics?

Do you remember having to read assigned books as a student where you didn’t enjoy the experience but you felt like you’d read something important when finished? Ulysses? War and Peace? The Stranger? Two recent books definitely deserve the description of “Literary” with a capital L.
Hang Kang, a female South Korean writer has penned a slim novel called The Vegetarian. Told in three parts, the lead character, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to become vegetarian after having recurring and unsettling dreams about animals. Her husband and family take the news poorly, to say the least.
Her brother-in-law, a modern video artist becomes obsessed with having her be the model for his latest creation. Divorce, suicide and a mental institution are the way-stations on Yeong-hye’s descent. A Korean reviewer deemed this short work as “very extreme and bizarre.” Still, the writing is beautiful and the sub-text intriguing.
Much easier to read, but no less disturbing is Nutshell by Ian McEwan whose literary output includes Atonement, named Time magazine’s best novel of 2002. McEwan has taken the tale of Hamlet and told it from the point of view of a fetus in the present day. The unborn child overhears his mother and uncle plot the murder of his father. One layer of the brief novel is what the embryo experiences, but McEwan has the child tap into a universal consciousness that allows the author to ruminate on current culture and thought. The prose is spare and gorgeously crafted.
After these two “meaty” books, I mightily need some sorbet in the form of a light detective novel or a rom-com paperback.

Robert Harris: The Fear Index, Conclave

I first heard about former BBC reporter, Robert Harris because of his trilogy on ancient Roman history (Imperium, Conspirata, Dictator). World War II is another area of interest for Harris having written both non-fiction and fiction works set in that era.

The book that first snagged my interest was Conclave, a novel about the selection of a Catholic pope in Rome. He manages to make a thriller out of this religious ritual as he depicts the factions and candidates vying for power in the Vatican.

Next on my nightstand was Harris’ The Fear Index, so different in subject matter that I had to keep looking at the cover to make sure that it was the same author. A scientist who has invented an algorithm for a hedge fund sees his luxurious life in Geneva, Switzerland unravel. The reader enters the world of cutting edge computers and of high finance.

My husband just finished Pompei and says Harris’ fine writing, historical research and edge-of-your-seat pacing is also evident in this novel set in 79 AD. This writer could seemingly take any topic and make it exciting. Robert Harris may be one author whose entire catalogue will be on my “to read” list.

13 Reasons Why on Netflix

My hairdresser first mentioned this series on Netflix and I always check out what he recommends. Based on the popular 2007 novel, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and adapted by Brian Yorkey for the 13 episode Netflix series, I initially didn’t connect with the first few minutes of episode one. There were some stilted line readings by side characters and the high school setting seemed like an after-school special.

Then I fell in love with young male actor Dylan Minette (originally from Evansville, Indiana) who plays Clay Jensen, a square kid who knew Hannah Baker, a recent high school suicide. I was immediately sucked into the story through his eyes and ears as he listens to 13 tapes made by Hannah before she committed suicide. Each cassette is dedicated to someone who made her life miserable. I was hooked.

Katherine Langford, an Australian actress who auditioned for the part of Hannah over Skype, heartbreakingly depicts a beautiful, talented and troubled teen. Kate Walsh, Steven Weber and Brian d’Arcy James are a few of the actors who fill adult roles in the series, but it is the young thespians who steal the show; Christian Navarro playing the cryptic Tony Padilla; Alisha Boe as the promiscuous and rebellious Jessica Davis; Brandon Flynn and Justin Prentice playing jock-bullies Justin Foley and Bryce Walker, respectively.

This is not a show for the weak-kneed. Vivid re-enactments of rape and suicide had me yelling, “No, no, no…” Despite this warning, this limited series allows you into the current world of youth, social media and bullying. I have seen articles pro and con about allowing kids to watch these episodes. Certainly the issues of rape and suicide would have to be carefully discussed. I give this emotionally-charged series a guarded recommendation for those brave enough to go to dark and troubling places.

News of the World: Instant literary classic

Every so often, I encounter a book that has all of the hallmarks of an enduring work of literature, with vivid characterizations, a plot with forward motion and elegant, depictive word choices. Such is the case with Paulette Jiles’ book, News of the World, a National Book Award Finalist.

As a poet and memoirist, as well as novelist, she writes beautiful prose. Her dialogue contains no quotation marks, so speech and narration seamlessly flow together.

We are introduced to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a military veteran who lost his printing business and very way of life during the Civil War. He now makes his living traveling from town to town in the northern Texas region reading the news of the world to people hungry for entertainment and knowledge. Armed with newspapers from New York, London, San Francisco and other points large and small, Kidd makes a meager but steady living.

Enter Johanna Leonberger, a six-year-old German girl who is captured by a Kiowa raiding party after they brutally kill her parents and sister.

Kidd is tasked with returning the now ten-year-old girl to her German relatives near San Antonio. After four years with the Kiowas, she speaks no English and has become native in her dress, behavior and in her very thinking.

Though the story of an older man on a quest with a young girl or boy has been a frequent novel convention, Jiles finds an unforgettable character in Kidd, plus an intriguing geographic setting and time in this outstanding, small, but potent work of fiction. The book format is indeed smaller than most hardcover editions and artfully tells the tale of their journey in just 209 pages. News of the World should deservedly find its way into high school and college literature classes.

The Old Man by thriller penman Thomas Perry

Author Thomas Perry has knocked another thriller out of the park with The Old Man. Dan Chase, seems to be a retired man quietly living out his life in Vermont with two big black dogs. Little do the neighbors know that he is being hunted by military intelligence operatives from two countries. Having been accused by the Army of failing to transfer twenty million dollars to insurgents in Libya thirty-some years ago, forces are at play to discover his secret identity, retrieve the funds and eliminate him. This “old man” has kept his mental and physical abilities razor sharp as he eludes his pursuers and keeps those around him from harm.
Perry writes with muscular clarity and an urgency that pulls the reader from chapter to chapter.
Despite having worked as a park maintenance man, a commercial fisherman, a university administrator and teacher plus been a writer and producer for prime time network television shows, Perry has had time to write 23 novels. Winner of the coveted Edgar award for The Butcher’s Boy and voted one of NPR’s 100 Killer Thrillers-Best Thrillers Ever for Metzer’s Dog, he also created the Jane Whitefield crime series. Mr. Perry, please keep writing!

Dark Matter: Mind-bending book

Block out some time if you start Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a science fiction tour de force that is set in Chicago. Book maven, Jenny Riddle suggested this mind-bending novel and it immediately grabbed me from the first chapter to the last. The prose is straightforward with major sections of dialogue so this is a quick read.  Chicagoans will recognize some of the settings: Logan Square, the Lake Michigan shoreline and the industrial South Side.

Although this is inventive science fiction, it is also a meditation on the choices we make in life, the trade-offs, the career pursuits and the importance of family. Throw in a dollop of wonky science talk and you have a thriller that seems current yet eternal in some of its themes.

Previous books by author Crouch have been made into the 2015 tv series Wayward Pines and the current tv show, Good Behavior on TNT starring Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame.

The cover design with the multiple images of the words Dark Matter will annoy your eyes initially, but get half-way through the novel and the graphics will seem perfect for this inventive book.

Ray and Joan, book by Lisa Napoli

The book cover features the title Ray & Joan by Lisa Napoli, but the smaller print expresses the content of this non-fiction work impeccably, “The man who made the McDonald’s fortune and the woman who gave it all away.”
We read of the initial relationship of Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers who had a successful fast food venture in California, to the humble beginnings of Kroc’s Des Plaines version of the concept, all the way to the explosion of “golden arches” fast food franchises all over the world.

I was surprised that music played a role in the bond between Ray and his third wife, the former Mrs. Rawland Smith. The McDonald’s boss had been a working musician in the Chicago area before finding his real passion – sales. He was in the Minnesota Twin Cities on company business and saw an elegant blonde playing the piano at a fine St rezeptfreie potenzmittel viagra. Paul restaurant. Their romance was bumpy, to say the least, with her husband and an intervening marriage for Ray getting in the way of their ultimate romantic partnership.

After the death of Ray, the book loses a little of the drama, but it is fascinating to watch Joan Kroc grow into becoming a sometimes secret and passionate philanthropist. Napoli features a long list of beneficiaries of the Kroc largesse including Notre Dame, NPR and the Salvation Army.
Would that all multimillionaires were as generous as this former cocktail pianist.

The Trespasser by author Tana French

The Trespasser by Tana French has been on several top ten 2016 literary lists, so I thought I should check out this novel. The genre is crime fiction with Dublin police detectives as the main characters, but this is not your easy-breezy detective paperback. The writing is dense with both vernacular cop talk and vivid descriptions.  I have to admit that I had to look up Irish slang words every few pages.

The main character is Antoinette Conway, a Murder squad detective who only has one work ally, her partner, Stephen Moran. We are introduced to her thoughts both calculating and paranoid as she digs into the murder of pretty blonde, Aislinn Murray.

If you can make the effort to finish this book, you will be rewarded with a tour-de-force ending. I actually turned the last page and thought, “now that was a satisfying read.” I hope you feel the same way.  Stephen King, no less, called the book “incandescent.”

A Man Called Ove Book

Every so often a book strikes a universal chord and becomes a world-wide hit. Such is the case with Fredrik Backman’s charming novel, A Man Called Ove. The prose is anything but dense with child-like chapter headings but the themes running throughout the book run the gamut from marriage, suicide and aging with characters whom are disabled, gay, obese, depressed, pregnant and senile. One alternates between chuckling and feeling a lump in one’s throat.

Come to think of it, everyone must know a cranky older man who has a secret heart of gold which is perhaps why this short Swedish novel has been so popular.

The Swedish movie version was released this fall starring Rolf Lasgard who has been seen in the TV show Sebastian Bergman. The movie reviews have been generally positive and the film is still available in movie theaters this December 2016. Reading the book first may be my recommendation. Skal!