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.

 

Strangerland

strangerland

Strangerland (2015, directed by Kim Farrant) is an Australian film starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving.

The story takes place in a small desert town where the Parker family has relocated, after some sort of trouble involving their 15-year old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). Sensual, and, we gather, promiscuous, Lily begins to hang out with the older boys at the skate park. Little brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) is supposed to keep an eye on her, but he resents the task, and tends to wander the town by himself at night. Pharmacist dad Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) seems angry but stoic, and is often at work. Mom Catherine (Nicole Kidman) contemplates her daughter’s wild ways with a sort of fondness, and we understand that she had been the same way in her own youth. Her marriage to Matthew is rocky at this point, as they sleep in separate beds.

One night Tommy sets out to wander, and his sister follows. They never make it home that night, and it’s the fallout from their disappearance that takes up much of the film.

At first, Matthew believes Lily has simply taken off, as she had done in the past, but Catherine isn’t so sure. They go to the local police, headed by Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As a dust storm sweeps through the town, Catherine becomes more frantic. Search parties are sent out, and Rae questions several youths, but no answers come. Catherine discovers Lily’s explicit and disturbing journal, and it comes to light that she had a sexual relationship with Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), a slow-witted Aboriginal young man who helped around the Parker house. Rae happens to be involved with Burtie’s sister, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), which puts him in a sticky situation.

strangerland mathew and katherine
Fiennes and Kidman

As the days go by with no sign of the children, tempers flare, blame is meted out, and Catherine begins to unravel. The rest of the film is a strange muddle as we witness her breakdown, are shown sweeping shots of the dry, scrubby landscape, the image of a blurred woman walking in the desert (Lily? or Catherine herself? They’re both lost), Lily’s voice voice reciting some of her strange poetry.

Kidman naturally excels at bringing Catherine’s complicated character to life; a woman who mourns not only the loss of her children, but perhaps her former self, as well, a self she relived through her daughter. Fiennes is believable as a man who is angry and feels uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality; he has cause, as it’s brought pain and humiliation to his family. But on a deeper level, one of the themes of the movie examines the discomfort we feel with women who find their identity and freedom through their sexuality. Weaving, in Rae, brings a note of stability and reason through all the hysterics, though it’s clear he’s weathered his own storms. It’s nice to see Weaving as a real human being rather than an Elf or computer program.

Strangerland is a grim, disturbing film that doesn’t necessarily bring any closure to the story. Rather, it’s an examination of a marriage on the edge of ruin, of a family falling apart.

 

 

 

The Reader

the reader

The Reader (2008, directed by Stephen Daldry) is a film about secrets, guilt, and shame.

In 1958 West Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a much older woman who helps him when he falls sick in the street. When he recovers, he goes back to her flat to thank her, and they fall into a passionate affair. She has him read books to her before they make love, and they spend the summer this way. Hanna is a ticket collector for a tram, but when she’s told she’s gotten a promotion to the office, she suddenly decides to disappear without a word to anyone, least of all Michael, who is devastated.

 

Eight years later, he’s a law student accompanying his seminar teacher and peers to a trial, which is trying several women who had been former prison guards for the SS. One of the women is Hanna. He watches helplessly as she is accused of letting Jewish prisoners die in a burning church. He comes to realize a secret about Hanna, one that would affect her sentencing. His decision whether or not to come forward with that secret lies at the heart of the film: what is his moral obligation to this woman, a woman he believed he had loved and who then broke his heart; a woman who undoubtedly had, by “following orders”, sent countless Jews to Auschwitz.

reader michael and hanna
Kross and Winslet as Michael and Hanna.

Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael, who looks back on the past and wonders if he’d done the right thing. His relationship with Hanna, and what happened afterward, had affected his ability to form close relationships in his life, and he’s a bit estranged from his daughter, Julia. His second key decision of the film, as an adult, leads to a scene with a survivor (Lena Olin) that is painfully awkward and icky, illustrating the struggle of collective German guilt over the Holocaust.

The cast was excellent, the film thought-provoking, but ultimately it left a kind of bad taste in my mouth. I can’t seem to put my finger on it; but it seems like two films together: the first half filled with a young man’s sexual awakening amid torrid sex scenes; the second half a somber morality tale wrapped up with the weight of horrendous war crimes. The two don’t mesh well. And the film seems to ask us what we should make of Hanna. Is she a sympathetic character? Was she a “victim of circumstances”? Do we even have the right to ask that question?

The Reader manages to pull in the viewer with great performances, sex, and the lure of secrets, but its weighty issues perhaps deserve a better forum than this.

Blade Runner 2049

bladerunner2

I was 11 years old in 1982 when Blade Runner came out, far too young to see it or to appreciate its cool aesthetic and philosophical musings. When I did finally catch up to it–mostly because this then-young Star Wars fan was looking for some more Harrison Ford–I got Rick Deckard instead of Han Solo (or even Indiana Jones), and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I realized how brilliant the film was, and I duly filed it away into the “Most awesome movies ever” file of my brain.

After some mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movies, I was a bit wary about sequels to long-beloved films–not Can it be done, but should it be done? After watching the trailer and knowing that Ford probably wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t think it was worthy, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited.

And was rewarded with a rich, fully-realized film, not just as a sequel, but as a cinematic experience that stands on its own. Although it helps to have seen the first film, the story isn’t a simple re-hashing of the original plot, but builds on it, creating a core mystery concerning the original characters; but really the film belongs to Ryan Gosling, and his character, K/Joe.

K is a Blade Runner (someone who seeks out and destroys rogue Replicants, androids that can barely be distinguished from humans), but unlike Rick Deckard before him, he’s also a Replicant himself. He’s a new-model Replicant–programmed to obey–hunting old-model Replicants, who had the annoying habit of seeking their freedom from slavery.

The film opens with K finding an old model named Sapper (Dave Bautista), who disdains K for killing his own kind. Before K is forced to kill him, Sapper tells him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Afterward, K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree, which turns out to contain the remains of a female Replicant who, impossibly but undeniably, had given birth to a child thirty years ago.

This fact has the potential to change everything. K’s superior, “Madam” (Robin Wright), calls it “a bomb going off.” If Replicants have the ability to procreate, then it calls into question mankind’s right to use them for their own purposes. It’s her job to maintain order; she orders K to find the offspring and destroy it.

Thus begins K’s journey, not only of the investigation, but of self-discovery. For along the way, evidence begins to suggest to him that perhaps he is the child. He grapples not only with this stunning possibility; but danger in the form of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the mastermind behind creating the new Replicants. He learns of the child’s existence and wants it as well, not to kill it but to study it and make it possible for all Replicants to procreate. Not for any sense of freedom for his creation, but simply to create more at a faster rate, to enslave more and thus send more offworld, to conquer the stars. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), his Replicant muscle, to follow K and find the child at whatever cost.

Some have complained that 2049 is overlong and confusing. Perhaps to the average movie-goer, this may be true; but a fan of the original film understands the importance of the tone, ambiance (that synthy soundtrack!), and the underlying themes that make Blade Runner so special. Themes as basic as, What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of memory? But also, What is real? What is love? K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a female artificial intelligence in the form of a hologram, brings these questions into focus.

joe and joi
Joi and K/Joe

Inevitably, Harrison Ford has to make an appearance as Deckard, as a link to the original, but also to tie up some plot points. He does admirably well here, but the movie is totally K/Joe’s. Gosling (who I’d been aware of, but admittedly had never seen any of his other films) is amazing bringing to life K’s arc from obedient, resigned Replicant to questioning, emotional seeker of identity and meaning.

The open-ended conclusion to the film leaves some questions, but overall, this is the kind of movie experience I pretty much live for.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power

the power

*(Some spoilers.)

At my most frustrated, I’ve often found myself muttering to myself, “If women were in charge of the world, it’d be a much better place.” It just seems to me that, if given the chance, if women exclusively ruled and made the big decisions, there’d be less misery, less violence, and less, you know, testosterone-related bad stuff. It’d be better.

Wouldn’t it?

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017, 341 pages), addresses just such a question, and I have to admit, I found her take on the subject bleak, to say the least.

In the novel, young women find themselves developing the power to channel electricity through their hands and fingers, as a result of a long-dormant organ called a “skein” along their collarbones. The young women can awaken the power in older women, and soon it’s spreading around the world and enabling women to defend themselves against the violence perpetrated against them by men.

This is good, of course. It’s about time women are able to fight back. But it’s not so simple as that. The Power changes everything. In countries where female oppression is at its worst–Saudi Arabia and India, for example–violence erupts, and women forcibly take control, striking back in long-suppressed rage and vengeance. In other countries like the U.S., the change is more complicated and subtle. Attitudes shift over the years as their power grows. Women’s perception of men change–they’re weaker, and so therefore less intelligent. They can’t be trusted. They’re only good for one thing: sex. At first, it’s gratifying to see the women’s confidence grow, empowering even, but all too soon it goes awry.

At the center of this milieu are Roxy, Allie, Margot, and Tunde. Roxy is a young British woman, the daughter of a crime boss; she uses the power to take vengeance on those who killed her mother, and to move up in the family business. She eventually will become a “soldier” for Allie. Allie is a young American woman who uses the power to escape her abusive foster parents; she eventually settles in a convent, where she bides her time and consolidates her influence, becoming “Mother Eve”, listening to the voice that whispers in her head, the voice of God–“She” has plans for Allie, plans that will change the world. Margot is the mayor of a major city with political ambitions, divorced with two daughters, the older of whom, Jocelyn, has woken the power within her. Jocelyn’s power is somehow damaged; sometimes she has it, sometimes she doesn’t, and feels “abnormal” because of it. Margo wants to do everything in her power to help Jocelyn, to help both her girls, live and succeed in this new world.

Tunde is a young Nigerian man, a journalist who is determined to make a name for himself documenting this revolutionary change around the world; he fails to consider how this change will impact his own life and future, how his very manhood will put his life in danger.

All of these characters, in different parts of the world, will connect and intersect, and bring about the climax of the story (the Cataclysm); each section of the book counts down the time left before it: ten years before, nine years, five years, one year, etc. The novel itself is presented as a manuscript that a man named Neil has sent to an apparently influential woman for her opinion. It’s presented as a historical novel with some archaeological evidence interspersed throughout; it’s clear he’s writing thousands of years in the future from our own time. What’s also clear from the conversation they have is that women are still in control; in fact, they don’t quite believe that it’s ever been different. The fact that men once were the dominant gender has been lost to time. The book is a reverse-mirror of our own society. Nothing’s changed, except the roles have been reversed.

There’s so much to chew on and digest in this book; suffice it to say that my outlook has changed slightly because of it. Perhaps women aren’t better equipped to deal with power. Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with gender at all; it’s the power itself that’s the problem. Perhaps whoever has it will inevitably abuse it, simply because they can. Are women more naturally caring and nurturing? Do they hold the higher moral ground? Not in this book. In this book, as the power surges through them, they turn into the worst sort of men we see in our culture now.

The Power is an unforgettable read, not necessarily because of its literary value, but because of the galvanizing ideas contained within it. I devoured it in two days, and I’m still thinking about it. In the #MeToo era and amid our examination of gender identity, this book will provide plenty to debate and discuss, about how we relate to each other as men and women, and about how we treat each other as human beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fahrenheit 451

F 451

I’ll admit it: I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in years. All I could remember was that in some horrible dystopian future I shudder to contemplate, “firemen” exist, not to put fires out, but to burn books.

Understandably, the story needed an update, considering the enormous impact the digital age has had on our culture. Society is encouraged to “Stay vivid on the Nine”, the Nine being a combination of Twitter and the only TV channel in town, broadcast on the sides of skyscrapers, with cascading emojis and viewers texting comments. Our protagonist, the firefighter Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) has become a kind of action-hero reality star, charging into homes and buildings suspected of harboring books and other unapproved artwork, with unquestioning battle-frenzy and egged on by viewers comments: “I love you Montag!” “You’re a hero!”

In this America, life operates under the premise of whatever makes us unhappy must be destroyed. Books make us examine ourselves, question our motives, and shed a light on the darker aspects of ourselves. Eww! The quest for knowledge and meaning is uncomfortable and icky. Better to just pop some eye-drops into the eyes (containing, I assume, some kind of anti-anxiety drug–and the symbolism of blindness is not lost on me here), and watch the Nine. Yay!

Montag basks in this adulation, and is currently being groomed by his superior, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) to replace him. Life is looking pretty good for our hero, until a couple of things happen that cause him to start questioning. First, he meets the enigmatic Clarisse (Sophia Boutella), a snitch for Beatty, and a former “eel” (someone who gathers and hides contraband books). He’s intrigued and attracted. Then he watches as a woman allows herself to be burned along with her books rather than live in a world without them. She utters a word, Omnis, before she dies, though the word is dubbed over when it’s broadcast. He’s horrified, and wants to understand why someone would sacrifice their life for books. What the heck is in them, anyway? And what is Omnis?

montag and clarisse
Montag and Clarisse

He steals a book from the woman’s vast pile (Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground) and adds it to his collection of contraband he’s been keeping in a secret place in his home. He has to hide it from Yuxia, a kind of souped-up Alexa that interacts with (and spies on) the occupants of every home. “What are you doing, Montag?” it intones when he tells it to “go blind”. Creepy.

Captain Beatty tries to stave off his protege’s doubts. He’s been around books long enough to be familiar with some of them (intriguingly, when he’s alone he writes down quotes from books–from memory, so you know he’s read them more than once–onto small slips of paper, then burns them all together). He states that “We are not born equal, but the fire makes us equal.” I found Beatty’s ambiguity, his knowledge of books but his subsequent rejection of them, interesting and hoped to go a little deeper into his psyche. He’s the most realized character in the film, but unfortunately, precious little has been spent on characterization here.

After reading a few passages of Notes From Underground with Clarisse, Montag decides he doesn’t want to burn books anymore, he wants to read them, and to save them. He’s suddenly willing to risk his life on something he barely knows anything about. It didn’t ring true for me; and the whole premise became even more questionable when we find out what Omnis is: all of the world’s literature encapsulated into some DNA and injected into a bird, to be released and to hopefully make its way to Canada, where it can be retrieved and preserved. Huh? If literature is NOT outlawed in other countries, just the US, then what’s the urgency here? Why are “eels” taking it upon themselves to memorize whole books so they won’t be “lost to humanity”, when they presumably exist in some form or another in the rest of the world? I don’t get it. And DNA in birds? Wah?

There’s so much potential in the ideas presented in Fahrenheit 451, but this film did not even scrape the surface. Mostly, the logic simply fell apart, and nothing could hold it up. It’s too bad; I suppose it’s best just to go back to the source, and enjoy Bradbury’s book about censorship, free-thinking, and the dangers of technology dumbing us down.