Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey

DragonsingerDragonsinger is the sequel to Dragonsong and the second book of the Harper Hall Trilogy.  In the main Pern timeline, it occurs roughly at the same time as the later sections of Dragonquest (the second novel of the Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy).  It continues Menolly’s story from the ending of Dragonsong as she arrives at the Harper Hall to begin her new life as a musician.  It is highly recommended that one read Dragonsong before reading Dragonsinger.  To understand the development of the story, I recommend reading my review of the first book, which may be found HERE.

The first book apparently resolves the most serious of Menolly’s problems, but one should keep in mind that she is still entering an unknown world – the world of the Harper Hall – and she is not at all prepared for it. Although she has received detailed training in all of the basic skills of being a musician on Pern, she lacks good voice training and tutoring under a master composer.  In addition, she has not been socialized into the culture of musicians and she carries a burden of extremely low self-expectation.  It is not uncommon for the abused to bring low self-esteem into any performance situation and Menolly is just at the beginning of her journey to self-confidence.

Certainly, her entrance on the Harper Hall stage is dramatic. She arrives on dragonback, accompanied by Masterharper Robinton, who immediately declares that she is the missing composer they have been searching for – and that she has provided fire-lizard eggs for himself and his Journeyman Sebell.  The bronze dragonrider, T’Gellen, sensing Menolly’s discomfort, tells her that there is nothing to fear from Harpers and that within a sevenday the Harper Hall will be home.  These are things that she will think about in the days to come.

The novel tells the rather simple story of Menolly’s adjustment to her new life, both the difficulties and the triumphs.

Among the difficulties she must face is the jealousy and disdain of the handful of girls she must live with in the cottage assigned to her. While Menolly is a full Apprentice to the Craft, the girls are strictly amateurs, their tuition paid by their wealthy families as a part of a larger liberal education.  They will never be professionals.  There is only one girl among them, Audiva, who has the temerity to befriend Menolly.

Another difficulty is overcoming the prejudice of the instructors. Master Morshal, the instructor in musical theory, does not like Menolly’s songs and considers it presumptuous for a female to make the attempt at becoming a Harper.  Although equally as skeptical, Master Domick, the Composition instructor, is open-minded concerning her talent.

The headwoman Silvina helps her to settle in and becomes a mother figure for the girl, while one of the youngest apprentices, Piemer, helps her to adjust to the practices of the hall. Her voice instructor, Master Shonager, is a strict disciplinarian, but he cares about the development of her voice and he works hard to make her a great singer.  But her strongest champions are Master Robinton and Journeymen Sebell and Talmor.  The Masterharper supports her through his constant encouragement and sharing his ideals of what the Hall should be and should do on Pern.  Sebell and Talmor provide a mature friendship support that makes her feel at home.

There are several amazing scenes in the novel.

The first two scenes occur one right after, beginning with her first practice with Domick, Sebell, and Talmor of Domick’s new composition. Even though he has played with her once before on a more simple composition, he is amazed by her ability to sight read music.  Even the two journeymen are quite impressed with her musicianship.  What gives the scene real emotional power, however, is that Domick has labored largely unappreciated as a composer and Menolly sees at once how beautiful his composition is and tells him that playing it was like riding on the back of a dragon.  He is so touched that he completely softens toward her.

That scene ends with the blaring of tocsin because Thread is immanent. When the midday meal is served, it rings again because Thread is directly overhead.  Menolly’s fire-lizards become extremely agitated, so in order to calm them the entire dining hall, all of the apprentices and journeymen, are encouraged to sing.  The fire-lizards sing along and when the first song is finished, Journeyman Brudegan encourages Menolly to lead the entire chorus in the singing of “The Ballad of Moreta’s Ride.”  Conducting such accomplished voices becomes almost a mystical experience for Menolly who becomes so lost in the music that it takes a while for her to come back to reality once it is over.

The next great scene is the only one that directly intersects the main story told in Dragonquest, that being the experimental trip that F’nor takes to the Red Star to see if they can go there to destroy Thread at the source.  It is the first instance in any of the Pern novels that the fire-lizards not only possess a kind of joint consciousness, but that they also possess a joint memory (as a species) of events which have transpired in the far-distant past.

Menolly’s fire-lizards become highly agitated as they sense that there is great danger. They are actually reacting to the two fire-lizards on the heights above Fort Weyr–Meron’s fire-lizard is agitated because her master is projecting a vision of the Red Star to her and F’nor’s Grall is simultaneously experiencing that vision.  They are both in a panic.  After Meron leaves, F’nor projects a specific picture to Grall, goes between in utter panic.  At that point, F’nor makes his fateful decision to make the journey on his dragon, Canth to the Red Star.  Before they leave, he has Canth broadcast what they are doing.  Although Menolly cannot communicate with dragons, the intensity of having nine fire-lizards helps her to pick up these signals, then, when Brekke cries out, “Don’t leave me alone!” Menolly herself cries it out and wakes up all of the masters in the Hall.

The last scene that I loved occurs at the end of the novel, so I won’t give it away. All of the great things I said about Dragonsong equally apply to Dragonsinger.  It is written simply and beautifully.  It evokes emotion without beggin it, in fact, without seemingly trying at all.  Menolly and the other characters are all beautifully written.  It is great not only as a Young Adult novel, but also as a novel that anyone can enjoy.  And as far as I know, most readers enjoy it fully!

The Art of Getting By

Art of Getting By3In The Art of Getting By (2011), George (Freddie Highmore), a high school senior living in New York City, falls into a fatalistic funk.  Although he is a gifted artist, he realizes that he’s going to die some day and asks himself: What is the point of trying?  Seeing no point, he gives up working on his school assignments, skips class and tests and just skates by as a loner.  Facing this failure, he is placed on academic probation.

Skipping out to the school roof, he encounters Sally (Emma Roberts), also a senior, smoking a cigarette, but when a teacher discovers them, George pretends that he was the one smoking so that Sally doesn’t get blamed.

Although he remains aloof, Sally finally pierces his loneliness and pals around with him. In an effort to get his affection, she flirts with the adult artist who has inspired him and dances with her ex at a party, which only prompts George to get drunk and fall asleep in an alley.

Although the film mostly concentrates on their effort to figure out their relationship, it ultimately addresses the question of why we try… why we go on… and it does so very well.

There are excellent performances by young British actor Highmore as George and by Roberts as Sally. They really make what might have been a run-of-the-mill coming of age story into something quite engaging that piques interest, develops a certain amount of honest tension and delivers a very satisfactory conclusion.  As coming-of-age movies go, this one isn’t bad at all.

There are likeable kids, a good plot, it is well directed, with great music and great shots of New York City. All in all, it’s a very good film.  I highly recommend it.

An Education

An Education - MulliganAn Education is both a very scary and ultimately very satisfying movie. Any film that balances tension in such an evocative way deserves attention and this one more than most.  Fortunately, it got it in the form of three Academy Award nominations in 2010, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress.

It takes place in 1961 in London, where sixteen year old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) labors in a private school. Her middle-class parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) have scrimped and saved for years so that she can get a proper education and go to Oxford, but Jenny is bored with her life and questions whether the effort is worth it.  She has reached the conclusion that once you graduate college, something inside you dies and she wants to experience life before that happens.

While waiting in the rain for a bus, a car pulls up to the curb. A dashing older man, David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), offers to give her cello a ride and she eventually climbs in with it.  This is the beginning of an elaborate seduction.  He offers to take her to a concert and then charmingly talks her parents into allowing her.  Jack and Marjorie are extremely impressed with this rich man and are complicit in his seduction.  But David is lying about his “Aunt Helen” being a chaperone.  He introduces her to his friend and business associate Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike).  After the concert, they go to a jazz club and Jenny begins to see another side of life.  She finds it exciting and different and she wants more.  David cons Jenny’s parents into letting her go to Oxford with him for a weekend under the pretense of meeting his old teacher, C. S. Lewis, and they readily agree.  He buys a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe fakes Lewis’ signature and the quartet set out to party.

Although Jenny shares a bed with David, she tells him that she will not give up her virginity until she is seventeen and he contents himself with a peek at her breasts. Over the weekend, they are driving through the country and see a house for sale.  David and Danny park and walk toward the entrance, but when Jenny makes to go with them Danny sternly tells her she has to stay with Helen.  As they wait, Helen tells her to be ready to leave in a hurry and after a while, David and Danny sprint from the house carrying an old map that they have stolen.  They quickly drive away and back at the hotel, Jenny takes off, telling them she can find her own way home.  David follows her and smooth-talks her into staying.

By this point, he is lavishing money on her, buying her clothes and taking her to expensive restaurants. It is a glimpse of the rich life for which she’s acquiring a definite taste.  For her seventeenth birthday, David takes her Paris.  He tells her parents that Aunt Helen will again chaperone, but this time it is just the two of them.  She is enthralled and gives up her virginity on the trip.  Back in London, the four of them go the dog races and then party in the club afterward, but when David sees Jenny and Danny flirting as they dance, he panics.  In the parking lot afterward, he asks Jenny to marry him.

I won’t give away the rest of the story.

The direction by Lone Scherfig is outstanding. One might think this is a fairly long film at one hour and fifty minutes, but it really flies by.  When I looked at the Special Features on the DVD and saw the deleted scenes, I realized that it could have been longer and not suffered at all, but the cuts were very judicious.  There is also an alternate ending that viewers might find interesting.  The script by Nick Hornby is based on a memoir of the same name by British journalist Lynn Barber and it is terrific, as befit its nomination.

The acting is uniformly good, but Mulligan, an amateur when she came into the production, is wonderful and makes the film believable beginning to end. Getting a nomination on your first ever acting job is simply spectacular.  Although her character really makes the film work, all of the supporting performances are great, especially the always brilliant Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour.  American Sarsgaard holds up well against his British counterparts in the movie and Emma Thompson even makes an appearance as the Headmistress of the girls school.  Everyone is terrific.

The art direction is also wonderful, as 1961 London is perfectly created, not a blemish in sight and everything chosen perfectly.

It’s not an easy to movie to like, but Jenny muddles her way through the mess and comes out on the other side no worse for wear. She certainly gets the worldly education she sought and is an adult by the time she begins Oxford with “boys.”  This is a film with many adult situations, so I do not recommend it for children under thirteen, but there is no nudity or sexually graphic situations, so it isn’t strictly adults only.  In fact, I would recommend this movie to teenagers as there is a lot to learn from Jenny’s experience.  Ultimately, it is an extremely good movie that deserves its due.  I highly recommend it.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

AnimalDreamsVery occasionally I have the good fortune of reading a novel that both touches me deeply and at the same forces me to do some deep thinking, written in a style that is simple and direct, with such good writing that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Animal Dreams (1990) is a very mature work of art that has the knack of seeming youthful and innovative, yet old and wise at the same time.

The novel tells the story of Codi Noline, a thirty-something woman who moves from Tucson to her hometown of Grace, AZ when Carlo, her live-in boyfriend, moves on and her little sister, Hallie, sets off for Nicaragua to help poor farmers try to raise their crops under constant threat from the Contras. The town of Grace was founded by nine beautiful sisters who moved there from Spain, bringing peacocks with them.  Situated in a desert valley, the abundant orchards provide the only real economic basis of survival since the local mine shut down.  Descendants of the original peacocks roam the orchards, as descendants of the original sisters are the primary inhabitants of the valley.  Except for the Nolines.

The girls’ father, Doc Homer, has told the two girls their whole lives that they emigrated from back east. Their mother died shortly after Hallie’s birth.  Doc has always considered himself to be more intelligent than the locals and he brought both girls up to think themselves better, which led to a number of problems in school.  In fact, Codi trained to be a doctor, but dropped out during her residency and has been working at a 7/11 and drifting through her life since.  She might have stayed in Tucson if Carlo and Hallie hadn’t left her and she hadn’t gotten word that Doc Homer was showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Taking a job teaching biology at Grace High, she moves into a spare room at the home of her old friend Emilina Domingo and eventually runs into her high school boyfriend, Loyd Peregrina, a Native American with mixed Pueblo, Apache and Navajo blood. Loyd was the father of a child that Codi miscarried as a teenager, but she still feels very strongly about him and they resume their old relationship.

Through Emilina, she finds herself among the members of local women’s club, the Stitch and Bitch Club, and becomes involved in their fight to save Grace from the pollution caused by the former mine.

Codi’s character is deep and very well nuanced. Although she’s disappointed in herself and has a love/hate relationship with her father, she cares deeply about Hallie.  Through he depression, she is also looking for herself and wondering if there can be a Codi with a positive outlook on life.  Her renewed relationship with Loyd helps provide the spark, along with bonding with the local women and feeling like an important part of the community.  Part of the story is her search for self and it is also part of the resolution.

Animal Dreams is Kingsolver’s second novel. I first found her when I picked up her first book, The Bean Trees, in an airport bookstore.  I fell in love with her writing almost on the first page I read, but where The Bean Trees is a simple book in all respects, Animals Dreams carries a maturity that moves it to an entirely higher level in the realm of modern American literature.  It balances the quest for personal knowledge with the question of how much one individual can affect environmental or political change.

I think it’s one of the best books written in the last fifty years and I strongly recommend it to all readers of modern American literature.

Leap Year

LeapYearTitleGenre films are really hit and miss. If you’re quite lucky, you’ll get a hit, but producers find out all the time that it’s really easy to think you’ve got a winner and then just miss.  This is especially true with romantic comedies, which are perhaps the most difficult genre to score a hit.  Usually, either the comedy fails, the situation isn’t quite creative enough, or–most frequently–the leads just don’t have chemistry, which comes back to the casting.

Unfortunately, Leap Year is a near miss and that’s real shame because it is full of promise, even with a hokey idea, and the female lead is Amy Adams, which is as close to a sure bet as you can get.

Anna Brady (Adams) is a Type A apartment stager. She’s a ball of energy, completely full of herself, and engaged to cardiologist Jeremy Sloane (Adam Scott).  For as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to get into a certain apartment complex, so they apply with the notion that they are engaged.  After five years of waiting, Anna truly wants to be engaged, but Jeremy doesn’t seem to take the hint.

Her Irish father, Jack Brady (John Lithgow) has told her of an Irish tradition whereby if a woman proposes to her mate on February 29th (of a Leap Year, obviously), he must accept. As it happens, Jeremy is going to Dublin for a cardiology conference, so she decides to take advantage of the tradition to get a Yes.  However, a terrible storm detours the plane to Cardiff, Wales, and all flights to Dublin have been cancelled.  Somehow, she hires a boat to take her to Dublin, but the storm forces them to stop at Cork, where they let her off on the Dingle Peninsula.  Wandering into a pub, she tries to get a taxi to Dublin, but the only one available will be driven by Declan O’Callaghan (Matthew Goode), the pub owner. His inn is threatened with foreclosure unless he can raise the money, so he agrees to drive her for 500 Euros.

Thus begins a series of catastrophes that sees them walking most of the way. While staying overnight at a bed and breakfast, they must pretend to be married and sleep in the same room. During the dinner, each of the old Irish couples kiss and they force Anna and Declan to follow suit.  It is a kiss that surprises both of them with its tenderness and intimacy.  While avoiding a hailstorm, they barge into a wedding and become part of the party.  Anna gets drunk and tries to kiss Declan, but ends up soiling his shoes.  The next time we see them, they are sleeping on a bench at a bus stop.

It doesn’t take a doctorate to figure out what happens. It is, after all, a romantic comedy.

The most serious problem in the film is that there is no heat between Adams and Goode. As an Amy Adams fan, I am left to blame Matthew Goode.  I think the issue really is casting.  He comes off a bit cold, for all his Irish humor, but nothing ever sizzles between the pair and frankly, I didn’t ever believe them as a couple.  That Amy Adams would settle for either Jeremy or Declan is a huge stretch of the imagination, which has already been severely strained by the improbable series of events that make up the movie.

Although Anna and Declan wear coats throughout the trip, we never really see them cold, yet they are walking through Ireland in February. I didn’t believe that.  One can only imagine the freezing wind, yet all they face is a little rain that doesn’t ever seem to chill.  All of the Irish characters are very well done and quite believable.  The scenery is fantastic.  Throughout the movie we are treated to one beautiful view of green hills and countryside after another.  The cliffs at Dingle are spectacular and the camera captures them beautifully.

However, with an unbelievable script and a lack of chemistry between the stars, the movie just never really takes off and a fine performance by Amy Adams is wasted. If it weren’t for Amy, I’d skip this one, but she is as lovable as ever and that makes it worth seeing.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the PrairieThis review contains spoilers.

First published in 1935, this is the third in a series of autobiographical novels known as the Little House series. I haven’t read the first two, but since this particular book is the most famous of the whole series, I decided to read it separately, as if it was a standalone novel.

Laura Ingalls was a small child when her parents, Charles and Caroline, left what she calls the Big Woods of Wisconsin in 1868 with herself, her older sister Mary and Baby Carrie. The first part of the novel covers their trek west through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri to Kansas in search of good land to homestead.  Their covered wagon carries a few necessities and they have their faithful bull mastiff, Jack, to help protect them.

After crossing the Verdigris River, they found a site nearby about 40 miles from the town of Independence, Kansas, and made it their home. Charles Ingalls was a man with many talents, not the least of which was woodworking, so he began to fell the trees in the bottomland and built them a log cabin and a stable for their horses.  They made it through the summer with his hunting and making do with the supplies they bought and lived there until 1871.

Even though it is written in third person past voice, Dark-haired Laura is clearly the identity of the story. Her older sister Mary, a blond girl, seems less active and more centered in the home.  When Ma needs to get something done, it is Mary who takes up Baby Carrie and cares for her.  And during long, hot days, when Laura is out exploring, Mary prefers to be out of the sun in the cabin, doing needlework or helping their mother.  Besides all of his skills in woodworking and hunting, Pa also plays the fiddle and both Pa and Ma sing at night. 

This may have been what drew my own sisters so deeply into the book.  Growing up in northwest Missouri, not far from the setting of this book, their home was also near a river bottom, in our case, the Missouri River.  There were four sisters in my family, but like the Ingalls, my father played violin and both of our parents were singers.  Like the Ingalls, they worked a farm for most of their lives.  The Little House series has been a staple in our family, passed down among the generations of girls when they are all young and it means a great deal to the women in my family to be a part of that heritage.  In fact, this book represents the strength and independence of American women and the pioneer spirit that built the west this country over the bones of Native Americans.

Indians play a big role in the book. In the beginning, when the Indians are away for their summer hunting, they represent the bogeyman, the menace that is never seen, but is somehow very close.  Almost from the beginning, Laura wants to see a papoose and she asks about it over and over, but when the Indians return from their hunting and camp below the bluffs near the river, their first Indian visitor, when Pa is away, scares her silly.  Quiet, tall, stately, he imposes himself on the household, eating the food Ma prepares for him and taking Pa’s tobacco.

While Laura is scared of Indians, Pa has a much more balanced view. He understands that this has been their land for generations and knows that he is an interloper.  He tells Laura that the Indian was welcome to his tobacco and that if they should ever come again to let them have something as a way of keeping peace.  Their homesteading neighbors are less sanguine and the phrase, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears several times.  If it weren’t for Pa’s more respectful attitude, this book might find itself banned from libraries instead of being included in the Top 100 Children’s Books.  However, even Pa with his liberal attitude believes that the land should belong to “those who will use it,” in other words, the white settlers.  Throughout the book, there are rumors that Washington will make a treaty that will result in the homesteaders being ejected from their land, but Pa doesn’t believe it.  He thinks that the federal government will keep pushing Indians west.

The Ingalls family faces a myriad of problems during the book, including a prairie fire, a prowling panther, the ever-present fear of Indians, the prospect of a Christmas with no gifts, and a cattle drive. It doesn’t ever feel like it’s building toward something, but it is and that building is so subtle that Laura isn’t even aware of it until near the end.  The outward appearance of building–making the log cabin, obtaining a cow, building a stable, digging a well, plowing the ground–all show a growth in the Ingalls control over their land, but the real building occurs in the concern of the Indians over the control of that land.  That is what brings things to a head and creates the conclusion of the book.

Wilder has written Little House on the Prairie in a very simple style and that is part of its great charm and why you will find it in the Children’s section of the library, rather than the adult, but make no mistake, it is very well written and equally serves adult readers as well.  She has captured her memories of the prairie through nature.  Meadowlarks and dickie birds are always singing as the high prairie grass waves in the wind.  Deer run free and relax placidly in the river bottom, geese and ducks fly back and forth, north and south, as the seasons pass.  Rabbits are everywhere and even snakes make their appearance from time to time.  The meat that they eat comes from the world around them and the only work that is necessary is the work that concerns their own day to day lives.  Unlike today’s workers, the Ingalls’ labor provided directly for their own survival, not for the benefit of others.

Her genius is surely evident in spare construction of the book, moving swiftly from one thing to another until suddenly the book is over and you wonder, how did that go so fast? It went so fast because it is spare, nearly perfect writing throughout, with engaging characters, a compelling drama, and a fascinating story.

Little House on the Prairie will always have a meaningful place in American literature and rightly so! Recommended for all ages.

Reality Bites


This 1994 movie, written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, touches on a number of issues for young people, including attachment to brands, rejection of previous generations, employment difficulties, and romantic angst. Highly successful at the time, much of the movie can be said to be just as valid for today’s young adults as it was when released.

Four college graduates are living together in Houston. Class valedictorian Lelaina Pierce (Wynona Ryder) aspires to become a documentary filmmaker and she uses her friends as willing actors throughout the movie. She has a deep, simmering attachment to musician Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) who can’t seem to hold a job, pay the rent, or do his laundry, but plays in a band at night.  Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) works at GAP, where she aspires to become a manager, but in the meantime she works her way through a series of meaningless one night stands.  The fourth person in the trio is Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), a closet gay.

Laney works at a Houston TV station as a production assistant for an obnoxious morning show host who hates her, but she is videotaping her friends all the time, hoping to make her own documentary on Gen X. While driving with Vickie in the used BMW that her parents gave her, along with a gas card, for graduation, she flips her cigarette out the window and it lands in the car of Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), a young executive for an MTV-like television station called “In Your Face” and he swerves, hitting the BMW.  They begin dating, causing Troy to become jealous.  A former fling of Vickie’s confesses that he has AIDS, so she goes in to get tested.

When she gets upset at how her boss is treating her, she writes obscene prompt cards for him and gets fired. Out on the street looking for a job, she discovers just how difficult it is and goes from TV stations to newspapers to radio stations and can’t get hired for anything.  She goes through a severe depression.  She calls psychics on a 900 number and runs up a phenomenal phone bill, then uses her gas card to survive by hustling for cash at gas stations,   However, Michael proposes her show to his executives and it looks like she’s going to make some real money.  Unfortunately, they completely hack up her film and she storms out of the screening.

Reality Bites aspires to be more than just a teen comedy and in some respects it succeeds. There’s something about idealists sucking down brand name products that’s both funny and sad in that they simply don’t get what they’re doing.  The movie has some really fine moments of both friendship and romance tucked into the basic survival of these four.  When Sammy comes out and confesses to his mother, it is both funny and poignant.  Troy’s posing hides a deeper fear about himself and Laney’s denial of her obvious love for him creates a lot of real teen angst.

The problems in the film are not with Stiller’s direction, but rather his decision to have himself written into the movie. I didn’t believe for one second that this smart, hip, funny girl Laney would go for him and that makes all of the scenes he’s in feel forced, unnatural.  He also forces the humor in his scenes and it brings the whole movie down.  I thought that besides his own role, he did a very good job directing.  All people when they go through this age feel that they know everything about the world and usually end up learning a lot in the process and Childress and Stiller have captured this extremely well.

Outside of Stiller’s performance, all of the acting is very good. Ryder gives us a compelling character, well-developed, and very well acted.  Hawke is appropriately moody and defiant.  Garafolo and Zahn are both terrific, giving us completely believable characters.

The photography feels dark and moody to me, giving the teen angst more feeling. It was well edited, but could have been shorter.  The soundtrack of vibrant young music from the mid 1990’s is very good, very well selected, and appropriately used in the movie.

Altogether, it’s not a bad film, even if it does carry the bravado of thinking it is much more perceptive than it is in reality.

Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner

the-sinners-and-the-sea-rebecca-kannerThe Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner is a gritty novel that weaves realism, fantasy, and religious mythology into an exciting and thought-provoking story.

Based on the story of Noah, using the source material of the Torah and Old Testament of the Bible, Kanner tells her story in First Person Present, a style that has become increasingly popular over the last twenty years. It brings an immediacy to the tale that would be lacking in any other form.

Noah’s story is told here from the perspective of the nameless woman who becomes his wife. Born with a birthmark on her forehead, she is condemned as a Demon Child and only her father’s status as a prosperous farmer keeps her from being stoned to death. At nineteen, she is well-past marriage age and has given up hope.

The world depicted is primitive and barbarous, mankind in one of its earliest, most feral incarnations. The land is in the midst of a long drought and the people of her village have decided to kill her as a sacrifice to the gods. Just in time, her father procures a husband, Noah, a man hundreds of years old who is a disciple of the God of Adam.

Needing sons, he takes her as a wife and brings her to the most wicked city in the land, Sorum, where mercenaries kill each other every day and all of the women are whores. This is the evil world that God has decided to destroy. Their sons are Shem, Japheth, and Ham. When God commands Noah to build an ark to take only his wife, three sons and their wives, along with two of all of the animals on earth, Noah gets to work on the project.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction and not an attempt to recreate the Biblical story. Most of the characters belong to Kanner and not the Bible and she has even made changes in the Biblical characters to suit her purpose.

In this vicious world, there are only three people who seem to actually be pure and good. One of them is Noah’s wife, one is her third son, Ham, and the other is Herai, the simple-minded daughter of a whore.

Noah himself is a dried up old man who has a slavish devotion to his God and his calling to convert the sinners of the world to the God of Adam. There is no joy or love in this man. Shem, their oldest son, a man with no control over his sexual urges, constantly sneaks away to sleep with the whores and eventually gets one of them pregnant. Japheth is a cold-blooded killer who is angry all of the time.

Although God is not a character in the book, his personality is apparent through his actions: He is bitter, angry, and indiscriminate in his killing.

The paradox of the novel is that while God is determined to destroy most of humanity and the animals of the world for their wickedness, He apparently doesn’t care that the world is repopulated from sinners, such as Shem and Japheth, which will ultimately result in another world of sinners. There is no net gain from his killing.

The book itself is gritty and raw, very hard to put down once you get started, and the story is expertly told, full of action, and engaging right to the end, but it is not for readers who think that life is all sunshine and lollipops.

Ignoring for a moment the impossibility of the story itself and allowing the fantasy and mythology to be enough to carry it, this novel is about the brutality of life on Earth. The God who runs this world is brutal and uncaring, arbitrary and unreasonable. The fact that he exists and is capable of such madness is almost unthinkable, yet that is the reality of the world of Sinners and the Sea.

It reminds me of a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”

Abe said, “Man, you must be putting me on.”

God said, “No.” Abe said, “What?”

God said, “You can do what you want, Abe, but

The next time you see me coming, you better run.”

Abe said, “Where you want this killing done?”

God said, “Out on Highway 61.”

Bright Star

bright-star cornish and wishawThis review contains spoilers.

Written and directed by Jane Campion and based on the John Keats biography by Andrew Motion, this 2009 film is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen and it captures one of the most touching romances in history. It takes its title from one of Keats’ most moving poems, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.”

In 1818, the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), at the age of 22, moves into one half of a duplex in Hampstead, a suburb of London, with fellow writer Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). His book of poems, Endymion (containing what is now one of the most famous openings in all literature: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”) is considered a failure and he himself is deep in poverty, living off the good graces of his friends.  The other half of the duplex is occupied by a family by the name of Dilkes, who introduce the writers to their friends, the Brawnes, consisting of a mother (Kerry Fox), a teenage daughter, Fanny (Abbie Cornish), an adolescent boy, Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and a little girl of about ten, Toots (Edit Martin).

Fanny Brawne is a beautiful, stylish young woman who sews all of her own clothes. Her interest is piqued by Mr. Keats, a quite good looking man, so she and her siblings go to a book store in London to buy a copy of Endymion.  Since it hasn’t sold, there are plenty of copies available.  Although she loves the opening, Fanny finds herself out of her depth as she reads on, so she solicits help in understanding poetry from Mr. Keats.  Charles Brown objects to her because he feels that she is a distraction to the writing, so he teases her about her mind, her limited understanding of the world and he plots to keep them apart.

It is a tactical error, for the more Fanny and John are held apart, the more they crave each other’s company. Since Fanny is an inspiration to John, Brown has a greater difficulty.  When Fanny and the kids accompany John to London to visit his sick brother, Tom, her sympathy increases and when Tom dies, she helps John to deal with his grief.  He spends Christmas with the Brawnes, despite Brown’s objections, and grows very fond of the entire family.  But John holds himself apart from Fanny and when she asks her mother, the answer she receives is, “Mr Keats knows he cannot like you, he has no living and no income.”

In February, Fanny receives a valentine from Brown that upsets her and when John finds out about it, he confronts them, accusing them of being lovers. Brown warns John about Fanny, claiming she is merely flirting with him, but John sees from her actions that she does love him.  The Dilkes move out of the duplex and the Brownes move in, so Fanny and John are thrown together every day and their romance heats up quickly. With the coming of summer, Brown must leave to take his summer rental and John must go with him.  This enforced absence makes the two lovers inconsolable and the letters fly back and forth between them furiously.

I won’t give away the ending, but it is only fair to say that John Keats died at the age of twenty-five.

The cinematography by Greig Fraser is simply amazing. One stunning image is followed by another.  Color jumps out at you and the compositions are at times breathtaking.  The Production and Costume Design by Janet Patterson fully compliments the photography.  Combined with a number of period musical compositions, a complete world of English life is created.

In this beautiful picture we are treated to two wonderful performances from Wishaw and Cornish. They seem to be bonded on a very deep level and the beauty of their love is almost painful.  The liberal use of Keats’ poetry and love letters gives the film an aural as well as a visual beauty, for he was a gifted genius in the use of words.  All of the supporting actors are extremely well cast and pull of their roles with complete believability.

It’s a stunningly lovely picture and anyone at all interested in great romances should see it!