The Woman in Black

woman in black book

I love a good ghost story in the Fall, and have just discovered Susan Hill, who wrote this gem back in 1983.

Though it’s unspecified, the story seems to take place in the early 1900’s, based on clues like cars and pony and traps coexisting, and the telephone being a relatively new technology. The story begins with Arthur Kipps in middle age, enjoying the holidays in England with his family at his home, Monk’s Piece. It’s a scene of domestic happiness, but for Arthur it’s a hard-won joy, for he’s still haunted by an event that took place in his youth. When his stepchildren begin telling ghost stories and demand that he tell one of his own, he storms out of the house, upset and disturbed.

He decides to tell his own ghost story, not out loud, but to write it down in hopes of exorcising his past trauma. He tells of when he was twenty-six and a clerk in a law office. His boss, Mr. Bentley, sends him on a business trip to the northern town of Crythin Gifford, to settle the estate of an old woman named Mrs. Drablow, who had died and had lived in an estate called Eel Marsh House, located in an isolated spot in the marshes.

As he enters town and interacts with the natives, it becomes clear the townsfolk are uneasy and unwilling to talk about Mrs. Drablow and Eel Marsh House, almost to the point of rudeness. Arthur chalks it up to country superstitions; but when he attends the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, he sees a mysterious woman in black skirting the edge of the cemetery. Once at the estate, he explores the ruins of a monastery and graveyard nearby, and again sees the woman in black, and experiences an intense sensation of malevolence and evil emanating from her. She quickly disappears, and it occurs to him that, even though he’s normally a rational, well-educated individual, he’s seen a ghost.

Thus begins Arthur’s harrowing experience at Eel Marsh House, replete with strange sounds behind a locked door, a ghostly drowning in the marsh, and periods of terror and psychological torment. The unbearable tension and fear of nighttime is alternated with the daytime conviction on Arthur’s part that it wasn’t quite as bad as he thought and could face whatever else the house threw at him; only to suffer another night of horrifying dread and fear. Through letters he finds in Mrs. Drablow’s papers and the reluctant information he gleans from Mr. Daily, a businessman from town, he pieces together a tragedy from the past that begins to explain the ghostly hauntings. However, the damage is done, and Arthur is forever changed, not only by the traumatic events at Eel Marsh House, but what comes after. Arthur Kipps ends up losing much more than his innocence after his stay here.

Hill paints a creepy, atmospheric tale of grief and revenge, and ratchets up the suspense with every creak and ghostly howl of wind. All the trappings of a classic ghost story are here: the isolated house, the bleak, cold landscape of winter, the uncooperative and surly townsfolk who distrust the unbelieving city boy, and all manner of things that go bump in the night. But I loved it anyway. My only complaint is that, at 170 pages, it’s too short; I feel this could have been a great spooky novel-length tale. I wanted to know more, about everything. As it is, it’s a wonderful nugget of Halloween-inspired scariness. I’ll be watching the 2011 movie with Daniel Radcliffe soon, and will report on how well it measures up to the book.

Arrival

arrival

Arrival (2016, directed by Denis Villenueve) is the thinking person’s Independence Day.

Don’t get me wrong: while I wasn’t much of an ID fan, I did love the Aliens franchise, where the baddie ET’s were blown to bits in thrilling action sequences, and Sigourney Weaver’s bad-ass performance made me pump my fist in the air with a heartfelt “You go, girl!”

Amy Adams’ character, Louise Banks, is a heroine of a different nature. The quiet, unassuming linguistics professor is chosen to help communicate with the aliens who’ve parked their egg-shaped ships in twelve different locations across the globe. Louise is swept away to Montana, the location of the American alien ship, to work with the military, as well as with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Forest Whittaker is the no-nonsense Colonel Weber, who’s running the show. The directive from his superiors: find out what they want.

Louise and Ian are suited up and brought to the ship to meet the aliens, who look like a cross between squid and branch-like walking fingers. Their language sounds like whale song, and Louise knows that a written or visual language would be more appropriate to communicate with them. In a breakthrough, they witness the aliens secrete an inky substance from one of their tentacles which forms a lovely circular symbol that acts as writing. Building on this, they spend a few months accruing a vocabulary that lets them talk with the creatures on a basic level.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t patient enough to let this important work continue; global tensions are rising, people are getting nervous, and China and Russia are getting antagonistic toward their alien visitors, threatening to attack them. Weber urges Louise to ask them the vital question: what is your purpose on earth?

This is where the film takes a twisty, philosophical turn, even as the tension rises. There’s a wondrous, heartbreaking secret at the core of this movie, one which I won’t reveal here, of course. It’s all a bit mind-blowing and has to do with a personal experience of Louise’s that encompasses both joy and grief, and ties in with the aliens’ perception of time, which is circular (like their visual language) rather than our linear experience of it.

I know, I know–huh? But believe me, it works, and the final act unfolds in a beautiful sequence that is moving and impressive. This is a film about the nature of time and how we communicate; it’s also about choosing love in the face of grief, joy over fear. This is my kind of science fiction, encompassing the human heart as well as spanning the literal universe.

 

 

Bright Star

 

fanny reading Johns letter

 

Bright Star (2009, directed by Jane Campion) recounts the romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), his landlady’s daughter, in 1818.

I’m not a big poetry fan, but I do love biopics of writers and poets; I also like to indulge in a good love story now and then. True to the Romantic spirit of the times, this one soared to spiritual heights, a love that seized them both to an almost painful degree. Perhaps it was so painful because it was platonic; Keats was a poor poet with no income who could not hope to marry Fanny. They both observed the propriety and mores of the time, not indulging in physical passion, but subverting it into something almost holy.

At first, the two don’t seem a likely pair. Fanny is a typical girl of the time, who enjoys fashion (she’s quite serious about designing and making her own outfits, embellishing them with over-the top flounces and ruffles) and flirtatious banter; Keats is the stereotypical Romantic poet, a bit rumpled and daydreamy. Fanny knows nothing at all of poetry, but something about him transfixes her, and she wants to understand it. He offers to teach her about poetry, and they spend more and more time together, which isn’t too difficult since they share the same building, each living in one half of it. As they fall in love and and become consumed with one another, Fanny’s preoccupation with fashion falls away (her outfits become simple and pretty), and Keats spends less time with his writing partner, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). though his poetry begins to blaze with his love. Brown is at first jealous, and it causes some discord between the two men. Brown is a bit of a cad, impregnating one of Fanny’s servants, but there’s a genuine regard, perhaps even love for Keats, beneath the irreverence and sarcasm.

fanny and John

 

It’s clear to all that Fanny and John are deeply in love, but everyone also knows he’s not fit to marry. Naturally this doesn’t affect the lovers one bit, but I was surprised that Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) does very little to discourage the relationship. She simply watches in mute sadness as Fanny whiles away the hours mooning for her love and obsessively reading his love letters when he leaves for the summer; Mrs. Brawne even notices but ignores a puncture wound on her daughter’s wrist. She’s remarkably calm about the whole thing, but perhaps she’s worried that forbidding the relationship would only send her daughter over the edge.

Inevitably, John becomes ill and is sent to Italy by his friends. On the night before he leaves, there’s a touching scene where they hold each other; Fanny states that she “would do anything for him,” hinting that she’d make love with him, but his gallantry is complete, as he refers to his “conscience”. Perhaps he can only see her as a Muse, rather than as a physical woman, but their love remains pure and sweet. Not long after, Brown returns and tells them that Keats has died (at age 25). Fanny walks the heath in mourning, reciting his verse over and over.

Campion’s film is spare, understated, yet bursting with the paroxysms of violent love. Snippets of Keats’ immortal lines are interspersed throughout but you never feel bludgeoned by inscrutable poetry; over the credits Ben Wishaw recites the Ode to a Nightingale, and you really don’t mind so much.

One of Keats’ lines states that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and this movie is certainly a thing of beauty and a joy to watch.

 

 

 

Death Comes to Pemberley (BBC)

death comes to pemberleyy

I’m a lover of Jane Austen, and have read and re-read her novels for years. I’m not, however, much of a fan of the deluge of Austen spin-offs and continuations that have bombarded the world in recent years. It’s not that I’m a snobby purist who can’t stand the thought of Austen’s precious characters being taken advantage of in our era’s Austen-mania (I’m all for updates and remakes of the original stories, and find the different perspectives interesting); rather, I’m just a tad overwhelmed by all the choices one can make in both book and film spin-offs, and with so many versions and visions and genres to choose from, it tends to water down the original characters and ideas that we found so special in the first place.

Having said that, I rather loved this BBC production of Death Comes to Pemberley, based on the book by P.D. James. I haven’t read the book, and one family member stated that she hated it, so I stayed away. But I came across the 3-episode series on Netflix and gave it a whirl. I’m so glad I did.

It’s several years after the happy coupling of Elizabeth Bennett (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys). They live with their young son and Darcy’s sister Georgianna (Eleanor Tomlinson) at his estate, Pemberley, along with an army of servants, and are planning a ball. Elizabeth’s narcissistic sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) and her rake of a husband, George Wickham (Matthew William Goode), are on their way to crashing the ball, from which they’ve been banned due to Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgianna when she was only 15. They are accompanied by Wickham’s friend, fellow soldier Denny, who abruptly leaves the carriage and storms off into the woods, after an apparent argument with Wickham. Wickham follows. Two shots ring out. Cut to the carriage careening into Pemberley’s drive with a screaming Lydia; Darcy leads a search party and finds Wickham dragging a dead Denny through the woods, moaning that it’s his fault, he’s killed his friend.

Darcy calls in a magistrate (Trevor Eve) to investigate, and Wickham is subsequently charged with Denny’s murder. The whole thing is rather scandalous, and inflames old resentments; Wickham, however, claims he is innocent. As Darcy busies himself with damage control and assists the magistrate (there’s bad blood between their families) with the investigation, Lizzie worries that her husband is now regretting marrying her because of the whole Wickham thing; they’re also fighting about Georgianna’s two suitors: Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), and a young barrister, Henry Alveston (James Norton). Lizzie has questions about the Colonel’s activities on the night of the murder, and thinks that Georgianna should marry Henry, the man she loves. Darcy won’t hear any criticism of his cousin, and thinks the Colonel is the more respectable choice.

Will Wickham be saved from the gallows? Will Lizzie and Darcy make up their quarrel and see eye to eye? Also, is there a ghost roaming the woods of Pemberley? Where was Colonel Fitzwilliam on the night of the murder? And what does a sickly servant’s son and his sister, an unwed mother, have to do with it all? These questions make for an engrossing tale, as well as the appearance of some well-loved (or loathed) characters from the original book: Lizzie’s hypochondriac mother and her long-suffering father, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; her beloved sister, Jane Bingley; an imperious visit by Lady Catherine.

If I had any criticism at all, it’s the choice of casting Anna Maxwell Martin for Elizabeth. She’s a fine actress, but she’s not Lizzie. I’m sorry, but when I look at her, I don’t see Austen’s dazzling heroine, I see more of a Charlotte Lucas. She lacks the vivacity of Lizzie. Surely six years of marriage and motherhood haven’t dampened her spirit and destroyed her bloom so drastically? At any rate, it’s only slightly distracting to the story; I loved every minute of this fresh take on a genre that’s been rehashed ad nauseum.

 

Murder on the Orient Express

orient express

I’ve never been much of a murder mystery fan, and so had never read perhaps the most famous one of all, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (published 1934, 287 pages). But two things occurred that led me to the book: the recent movie version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh (which I have not seen yet); and the fact that the main character in the story I’m writing reads it, which means that I had better read it as well.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is heading home after a case in Syria on the Orient Express. He meets his friend Monsieur Bouc, the director of the train line; and characteristically notices and studies the various passengers with whom he finds himself. One of the passengers, a Mr. Ratchett from America, approaches him and asks him to take on his case–he’s a businessman with many enemies, and feels that his life has been threatened. Poirot refuses the case, on the grounds that he doesn’t like his face; he feels somehow that Ratchett is evil.

That night, the train gets stuck in a snow drift somewhere in Yugoslavia, and Ratchett is found dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times. It becomes the task of Poirot to solve the case, without any outside help; he must use his brains to find the killer. He is aided by Monsieur Bouc and another friend, Dr. Constantine, though they hardly seem to help at all; they act more as foils to Poirot, guided only by emotion and assumptions rather than deductive reasoning. He sets to interviewing all the passengers, who include a rather diverse cross section of people, to try to piece together the events of the night and come to a rational conclusion.

Not being particularly familiar with the conventions of murder mysteries, I was surprised by the simple format of the book: Part 1, The Facts; Part 2, The Evidence; Part 3, Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks. But the case is hardly simple. In fact, the conflicting evidence and puzzling facts that don’t quite fit together make it seem an impossible case to solve. However, Poirot seems to have quite an extraordinary brain, making dazzling leaps of connection that at first I found rather unbelievable. I suppose if I’d been a fan of the Hercule Poirot series, I would have been more familiar with his character and talents, and would more easily have accepted his brilliant deductions.

As it was, I found the mystery entertaining, and the answer to the proverbial question of Who dunnit? surprising and rather clever. I don’t see myself reading any more Agatha Christie, or murder mysteries in general, but at least now I can more easily understand my character’s experience of reading the book. And I will certainly check out Branagh’s film version when I can, and don’t feel it will be spoiled at all by knowing the ending. The fun will be seeing all these interesting characters come alive on screen through some pretty fantastic actors (Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfieffer, among others), though I think they’ve been slightly altered or changed. That’s okay. There’s still nothing like a good mystery to hold you captive for awhile, and this one definitely fits the bill.

The Home for Unwanted Girls

unwanted girls

The Home for Unwanted Girls (published 2018, 384 pages) is a family drama, inspired by true events, that takes place in Quebec, Canada, between the years 1948 to 1974.

Maggie Hughes, the 15 year old daughter of an English father and a French mother, plans to follow her father into the family business, a seed and gardening store. Maggie adores her father, who, despite being prejudiced against the French population, had married a French woman. Her mother was once beautiful, but now is bitter and resentful, verbally abusing Maggie and her three sisters, but always making sure they’re well fed and the house is clean. Maggie can endure her mother’s behavior, as long as she has her father’s love and approval. But when she falls for the French farm boy next door, Gabriel Phenix, everything changes. When she finds herself pregnant, her family forces her to give up the baby girl to an orphanage called St. Sulpice.

The girl, Elodie, lives in the orphanage until she’s seven, and is tolerably happy there. Then, through a despicable new law passed that forced orphanages to turn into mental hospitals (it was all about money), Elodie and the other orphans are officially considered mentally ill, and are forced to care for the actual mental patients that are transferred there. Elodie herself is transferred to St. Nazarius Mental Hospital, where a new level of suffering is waiting in the form of Sister Ignatia, a cruel, sadistic woman who terrorizes all the “children of sin” in the hospital. Elodie must endure years of verbal and physical abuse, as well as psychological torment. She has a strong spirit, however, and tells herself and anyone who will listen (who turns out to be precious few) that she’s not crazy and doesn’t belong there.

In the intervening years, Maggie must come to terms with what happened to her, and tries to live a normal life. She marries a man her father approves of,  a kind man named Roland, a man she has affection for but not the passion she had with Gabriel. Roland wants and expects her to have children, but she suffers several miscarriages; these, in turn, cause her to think more and more about the child she gave up years ago. A chance meeting with Gabriel causes her life to change again, and she becomes determined to find her daughter, in a world that doesn’t want her found.

Admittedly, I hadn’t known much about Canada, its history and politics, but I learned a little bit about life in Quebec in the 1950’s under Duplessis, a man called “the Dictator”, someone who makes Trump seem like a kindly old uncle. I learned about the importance of agriculture in this province, the animosity between the English and the French, and the willingness of almost everyone to protect the Church and its members. There’s hypocrisy here, and unimaginable cruelty, but also love and hope.

I found this story to be emotionally gripping, a page-turner, although it was difficult to read through Elodie’s chapters of abuse and torment. I rarely am moved to tears while reading a book (movies are another thing), but I cried at several scenes in this novel. It made the need to get to the end and to see mother and daughter reunited all the more imperative.

 

 

 

 

 

Neverwhere

neverwhere

Neverwhere is a 1996 urban fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, written as a companion to the BBC television series he wrote with Lenny Henry. The book expands and restores elements of the show that were changed or taken out during the course of the show.

Though I haven’t seen the TV show, I enjoyed the book. After reading a few heavy, theme-laden books (The Power, Who Fears Death), it was kind of a relief to read something a bit lighter, something equivalent to a beach read, for me.

Richard Mayhew is a young man who lives in London, has a decent job in business, and is engaged to a beautiful woman named Jessica. The problem is, his job is a bit of a bore, Jessica is a controlling witch, and Richard doesn’t have the back bone to stand up for himself to change anything.

One night, on the way to a dinner with Jessica’s boss, they stumble upon a bleeding girl in a doorway. Jessica is content to ignore her and get to the dinner, but Richard decides to help her. Jessica leaves in a huff while he takes the girl to his apartment. The girl (perhaps late teenager, though it’s hard for Richard to tell), when she wakes, tells him her name is Door, and needs his help. They’re visited by a strange and menacing pair, named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and it’s clear they mean no good, but Door manages to hide from them. Door herself is no less strange, with opal-colored eyes and the ability to speak to rats. She sends Richard on an errand, to find an even stranger person, a Marquis de Carabas, who owes her family a favor. Richard brings de Carabas back to his apartment, and he and Door leave, thanking him for his help.

However, Richard is unable to go back to his normal life after this. It seems no one is able to see him anymore. When he manages to get someone’s attention, they don’t seem to know him, and then they immediately forget him, as if he’s invisible. He can’t go back to his job, and Jessica, who’s broken their engagement for missing the dinner with her boss, doesn’t recognize him. Strangers even move into his apartment while he’s still there. Ever since his encounter with the strangers, his staid, predictable life is lost to him.

Determined to get his life back, he retraces his steps, and finds himself in “London Below”, a shadow world beneath the streets of London Above. A world of tunnels and twisting alleyways, of stairways and dark bridges and phantom train stations, filled with colorful characters who can speak to rats (animals who are naturally important members of the world below), Velvet Sisters who can suck the warmth and life right out of you, assassins and Earls, Hunters and Beasts, Sewer Folk and Angels.

Richard eventually finds Door, and he becomes embroiled in helping her find the answers to who killed her family and why. Along the way, he hopes to find a way back to his life in London Above, but not before his courage and strength are tested in a way that changes him forever.

This was a fun read, full of fantasy adventure and some quirky British humor. I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman before this, but I’d seen the movie Stardust some years ago (based on his book) and enjoyed it, and now I’m thinking I’d like to explore more of his work. Any suggestions?

 

 

The Revenant

revenant

*(Some spoilers.)

The Revenant (2015, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), is a semi-biographical film based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in 1823, trying to make a living trapping and selling animal furs. He and his Pawnee son are guides for a group of soldiers when their camp is attacked by Indians. They escape down the river in their boat, but soon abandon it to hide the pelts and get back to their fort on foot.

On their journey, Glass is attacked by a mother Grizzly bear and is nearly mauled to death. It’s the most harrowing and horrifying movie scene I’ve ever witnessed, I think; the viewer cannot look away for at least five straight minutes while this behemoth tears chunks out of Glass’s flesh. It almost strains credulity that a person could survive such injuries.

Yet he does, and his companions sew him up as best they can and try to haul him across the unforgiving wilderness in winter. His son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) whispers his love and encouragement into his ear, much as the father did with the son years ago when the family was attacked by soldiers. The boy’s mother was killed and the boy was injured, leading to their nomadic life and their fierce devotion to one another.

It’s soon clear that carrying Glass through the wild, snowy mountains is impossible; assuming Glass is near death, the group’s commander, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to leave him behind with Hawk and two other soldiers, to bury him properly when the time comes.

fitzgerald
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald

The problem is, Glass isn’t dying fast enough for John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy in a typically fantastic performance). This man has proven to be a greedy, self-centered pain in the ass along the entire journey, and it’s no surprise he tries to speed things along by stuffing Glass’s mouth with a kerchief. Hawk intervenes, however, and Fitzgerald kills Glass’s son right before his horrified eyes. The murderous soldier hides the body and convinces his companion, young Bridger (Will Poulton) to abandon Glass.

So begins the incredible journey of survival and revenge for the rest of the film, a film that takes its time in the telling, with beautiful cinematography and a spare, haunting score.

Glass must survive his injuries, the elements, and roving bands of Indians and Frenchman along the way. He finds a kindred spirit in a Sioux man (Arthur Redcloud) heading south after his own family has been slaughtered. He allows Glass to travel with him and builds a healing hut when his wounds threaten to kill him. A scene of the two of them resting on their journey and catching snowflakes on their tongues helps to restore faith in humanity (in a story where there is little reason to do so); amid such violence and hopelessness, they can still find small joys.

If I had any complaint, it would be that the film could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s hardly a complaint. Scenes like the snowflake scene, dream sequences, and long, quiet takes of the landscape lend the movie its beauty and poignancy.

Impressive on every level, The Revenant deserved its cascade of award nominations and wins, including the Oscar nomination for Best Picture, DiCaprio’s win for Best Actor, Inarritu for Best Director, and Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematography. If you have a few hours to spare, it’s worth your while to sink into this enthralling movie experience.

revenant montage

 

The Dark Tower

dark tower movie

Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. There are eight books in all, and I’m about in the middle of the fifth book, Wolves of the Calla.

I’ve been quite eager to see the movie version that came out last August. I was under the impression that it was based on the first book, The Gunslinger.  The film does center on the relationship between the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) and young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), as he pursues the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) in order to protect the Dark Tower (a structure that holds the universe together). That’s the basic premise of both the film and the book.

The problem, as I see it, is that the filmmakers tried to pull various threads from all of the books and weave them into something coherent in a not-quite two hour movie, as well as adding in things that never happened in the books. The result is a jumbled mess that I suspect would barely make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books. Or rather, because I have read some of the books, it seems like a hurried scramble of elements that could have been handled better; maybe the average movie-goer who hasn’t read the series would have no problem with accepting the plot. Maybe.

Either way, the film follows Jake, a 13 year old from New York City, who’s been having nightmares. Specifically, about a Dark Tower in another world that is of immense importance, a Tower which is under attack. Children are being abducted, children who have a special power called the Shine (some level of psychic power), and are used to send destructive beams toward the Tower. The person orchestrating all this is the sorcerer Walter, aka The Man in Black. He wants the Tower destroyed so that the universe will collapse, letting in chaos and darkness. Jake also dreams of the last Gunslinger, a man who opposes Walter and means to end his life.

Jake manages to find a “portal” or door to Roland’s world (there are many such portals between the worlds), and finds Roland. To his dismay, he realizes that Roland only wants vengeance against Walter, who had killed his father and everyone else he has ever loved. He has no interest in saving the Tower; basically, he’s given up that particular quest. Walter soon learns that Jake has the most “pure” shine ever discovered in a child, and wants him for his mechanism that sends destructive beams toward the Tower. He wants to end it once and for all. The film lurches toward that inevitable meeting between Gunslinger and Man in Black, with Jake in the middle, along with the fate of the universe.

Roland and Jake
Roland and Jake

I have to say that casting McConaughey as Walter was brilliant; the man clearly enjoyed playing the flippant, purely evil Man in Black. Not quite the Devil himself, but a very effective agent of evil, one that’s gotten a little bored with eternity and likes to play around with his victims. Though Stephen King has said that his character Roland was based on Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western films, Elba was a refreshing choice for the stoic, spiritually spent Gunslinger; Taylor did fine as the suffering, idealistic kid who brings Roland around to do the right thing.

Still, the great performances couldn’t save this film for me. The biggest problem was the Tower itself: yes, it holds the universe together, but how, and why? What’s in the Tower? These questions were not answered. It remained an inanimate object that failed to engage our emotions. With the fate of the universe at stake, it has to be more than just a sliver of rock in the middle of nowhere.

As a reader of the books, I caught references to things that held great meaning in the novels: the number 19, the roses at the base of the Tower, the wrecked amusement park, the thirteen orbs, and many other little things that held significance. None of which were explored or explained in the film, which I found frustrating. I get it; there’s no time in a film. So why bother putting them in at all? It’s just a tease to a fan of the books, and makes no sense to anyone else. I feel this story would have been much better served as a mini-series, where the nuances and details of this great epic could be explored more satisfactorily. Very disappointing, to say the least.

 

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home

thundering world

Readers of my other blog, My Writing Journey, know that I’ve been a longtime fan of Natalie Goldberg, ever since I discovered her first writing book Writing Down the Bones way back in my twenties, and I tentatively thought that maybe, possibly, you know, I could be a writer. She gave me the courage to put words down on paper, to own my mind and my truth, and to keep writing, no matter what.

I’ve followed Natalie over the years through many writing books and memoirs, and though I don’t always follow her prescription of writing in the notebook everyday, I often go back to it when I’m feeling stuck or lost. It’s a baseline, a foundation that holds me up when I’m feeling like I made the biggest mistake of my life by pursuing this course.

In her books, I not only learned about writing and the writing life, but about Natalie herself. Her Jewish upbringing on Long Island, her discovery of writing at the age of 24, her hippie years, her teaching jobs, her lovers and friends, her sense of humor and quirks, and especially her practice of Zen with her beloved teacher, Katagiri Roshi. Her sheer passion for life. I’ve never met her, but I feel like I know the woman, the pulse of her life, because she’s shared so much of it in her writing.

When I learned that this latest memoir was about her struggle with cancer at age 66, I was shocked, saddened, worried. Well, I thought, she’ll face the prospect of Death and tell it where to go, right? After all, she’s spent years facing the void in her Zen practice. That’s what all those hours of meditating is all about when it comes down to it, right? But the truth is, no matter how long or how often you look into the void from a distance, when it comes knocking on your door and calls you by name, you don’t want to answer.

For a while, Nat ignored her diagnosis of leukemia, put it off, didn’t want to face it. When she finally sought treatment, she went about it with determination. She wanted to live. She entered the unfamiliar world of endless doctors, treatments, medications, medical terminology, and just the daily struggle of functioning when Death’s envoy, cancer, was running through her veins. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she found out her girlfriend, Yu Kwan, had breast cancer. Their struggle to keep the relationship alive while on their separate cancer journeys forms the heart of the book.

This is a short, heartfelt book about facing illness and death, holding on to love, and letting go of control in order to find peace. I’m looking forward to her next memoir, and the next, and the next.