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 Across_the_Universe_3lgAcross the Universe

Conceived, produced and directed by the eclectic Julie Taymor, this film is a romantic musical that incorporates parts of 34 songs composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and the three of them plus Ringo Starr (“Flying”).  Most of the songs are sung on-screen by the characters, though there are some instrumentals.  This places the film in the category of old-style musicals where people seem to burst into song as a part of the story.  To everyone’s credit, it actually seems to work very well indeed.


1-adjustment-bureau-copyThe Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, is a far-fetched, but very engaging film.  David Norris (Matt Damon) is a Brooklyn politician who meets a fascinating woman, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) on the night that he has just lost the Senate election.  When she runs away, he is motivated to give a galvanizing concession speech that will reenergize his career.


AdventurelandAdventureland

Adventureland is a funny and moving teen romance written and directed by Greg Mattola about a group of teens working at a summer carnival.  The main character, James Brennan, is a student who has just graduated from a small college and is saving up his money to go to the Columbia School of Journalism so he can begin a career in travel writing.  Played with both humor and angst by Jesse Eisenberg, James is trying to find romance, but his own geekiness stands in his way.


All is Lost RedfordAll is Lost

A man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian sea toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?


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Amadeus

A terrible way to triumph over God.  These are the words of 18th Century Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) referring to his murder of the brilliant, meteoric Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ((Tom Hulce). He tells the story to Father Vogler (Richard Frank) who has come to hear his confession at the insane asylum to which Salieri has been confined following a suicide attempt.


 american-hustle-posters-sonyAmerican Hustle

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation, this 2013 film was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer and directed by Russell of The Fighter and  Silver Linings Playbook fame.  Bringing along Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, he has created a brilliant sting comedy that takes place at the height of disco mania, 1978.


Art of Getting By3The Art of Getting By

In 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.


Austenland PictureAustenland

The heroine of the movie, Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is a disheartened Jane Austen fan. Obsessed with the writer, she looks at her own life and sees failed relationships, a dead-end job and no future, so she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to England to resort called Austenland

 

Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

 

The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards

This Dear America novel of a farm family in Dalhart, Texas in 1935, written by fifteen year old Katlan Janke is presented in the form of a child’s diary.

Janke - Survival in the Storm Book CoverGrace Edwards receives her diary on Saturday, February 16, 1935 as a gift from her friend Helen for her twelfth birthday. She makes her first entry the following day sitting alone in the hayloft. We learn that her father is a farmer, that they have their own spread just outside of Dalhart, Texas, and that besides her mother, she also has a little sister, Ruth, who is seven years old.  Her parents gave her the book Anne of Green Gables for her birthday and Ruth gave her a hand-made bookmark.

The wind howls relentlessly because this family lives at the southern edge of No Man’s Land, what later was called The Dust Bowl. Compared to other families, the Edwards are actually doing reasonably well. They aren’t wealthy, like the McCalls, whose daughter Sadie is always lording it over the other kids in the one room schoolhouse, nor dirt poor like the Walkers, whose daughter is Helen, but they scratch along without government aid.  Somehow, they usually manage get enough out of their garden to can vegetables for the winter and her father usually gets just enough wheat out of the dust-blown fields to make do.  They own two cows, so the kids actually get fresh milk most of the time.

But they don’t have money for the picture show and the girls and their Mama have to sew new dresses from seed bags. When Daddy goes to buy seed, typically the family goes along so they can make sure they get matching bags for the new clothing.  They attend Sunday school and church on most Sundays when the wind isn’t blowing too hard and they put on competitive plays when school shuts down before summer.

This is an especially bad year as there are many dust storms that blow through, gigantic black clouds that roll over the land dropping fine, dry topsoil that has been picked up from the drought-stricken prairie farms. Many times these storms go on for hours, turning the land midnight black and accumulating in the lungs of people and their animals. Dust pneumonia is a common illness.  Cattle die from inhalation.

Grace’s world is torn apart when the Walkers reach the end of the line and head out for California. Losing her best friend is a big blow to Grace and she struggles to comprehend and deal with the loss, but there are bigger problems ahead. Black Sunday occurs on April 14, 1935.  A dust storm rising 10,000 feet high and two hundred miles wide descends across No Man’s Land. As the family prepares the house by wetting and hanging up sheets across windows and doors to catch the dust, Ruth is sent out to get the rest of the whites off the line.  Grace looks for her and sees that she is missing, so she sets out looking for her.  Ruth has chased a blowing dish towel.  Separated from their family as the storm approaches, the two girls take shelter in the abandoned Walker house.  Holding cloth over their faces, they hunker down and try to keep breathing as the storm howls around them.

The book is very well written, especially for a fifteen year old writer. Janke grew up in Dalhart and had local oral sources for original stories, as well as the Dalhart museum for research, including all of the local newspapers of the time.  Her re-creation of 1935 is completely believable, not just in the small details of household life, but in her understanding of the weather, the small local society, clothing, farm animals and so forth.  Neither Grace, nor any of her family or friends rings false.

There are indeed, many moments of the book that are quite moving and Janke must be accorded a great deal of success in her efforts. I loved the book from beginning to end.  If I might find any area of complaint, it’s that the great physical pain that these people suffered does not seem quite visceral enough.  It is a small complain indeed in a largely successful novel for young adults.

I highly recommend this book, not just for young adults, but for families and general readership. It well-written, moving, and a terrific depiction of The Dust Bowl.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage is an easy book to pigeon-hole as a “coming of age” novel, but to do so would be a mistake and a disservice to this excellent little science fiction novel that steps beyond the genre.

The book is written first person past through the eyes of the central character, Mia Havero, looking back at herself from the ages of twelve through fourteen. She is the daughter of the elected leader of a group of scientists and engineers who live on a spaceship at the end of the twenty-second century.rite-of-passage

Through internal strife, Earth has essentially destroyed itself. The ships were created to ferry passengers from Earth to new worlds that they might colonize to continue the existence of humanity. But the ships’ leaders have made a conscious decision to separate themselves – and their knowledge and expertise – from the farmers who are actually carving out the new worlds. These elitists decided that the knowledge they possess would be useless on worlds barely hanging on for survival, that the knowledge would be lost if they joined in that fight for survival, so they stay on their ships and merely trade bits of knowledge to the farmers (“Mudeaters” they are called) for supplies.

Mia herself, after being separated from her parents for years, recently left the common dormitories to live with her father. She is a precarious character at the beginning, having suffered from her separation, nervous to a fault around others, and easily frightened. At the beginning of the novel, her father is moving them to a different part of the ship and she is losing her tenuous hold on security.

But she begins her new existence by being teamed with a boy named Jimmy Dermently, precocious and just a few months older. They are assigned a tutor who is very old and who has been an opponent of Mia’s father. He teaches them to think outside the box and they both jump at the chance. Their major line of study becomes ethics and that leads to the central crisis of the novel.

How nice it is to have an entire novel based around a major ethical crisis.

During the next two years Mia and Jimmy educate themselves and prepare for the Trial that they must endure when they turn fourteen years old. The Trial is a survival ordeal that all juveniles on the ship must undergo to reach adulthood. They are dropped individually onto a planet’s surface, supplied with a horse, a gun, a knife and a tent and they must survive for thirty days until they are picked up. Many do not survive the “savagery” of the Mudeaters.

As Mia gains confidence through her survival training, she also studies the great philosophies of Earth’s past, picking each one apart, finding things that she can relate to and ideas that she must outright reject. She is forced to think and to make a major decision that will separate her from her family permanently. It is this part of the novel that it seems many critics completely ignore. But Panshin had some big ideas when he wrote this book and I think it is important that I share at least some of Mia’s thoughts:

“I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life [my emphasis]. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action.”

To readers more accustomed to slam-bang action (which is, I think, a major pitfall in the writing of science fiction), this book may appear slow and way too thoughtful for them. What is mature deliberation is mistaken for plodding and a reader can miss all of the salient points that the novel is meticulously honing.

When a novel wins the coveted Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, it usually means there is something very, very good about the book. I have now had the opportunity to read many reviews of this novel and most of them are frankly superficial and miss the point of the novel. But this is a fine little book, filled with the inner life of a fully realized character struggling to attain confidence and finding it at the point of a knife called ethics.

(As a side note, I read the Timscape paperback by Pocket Books, March 1982, with a terrific cover painting by acclaimed illustrator Rowena Morrill. It captures the absolute essence of Miva Havero, especially in the eyes and the wary set of her face. Great cover art can really help a book to come alive!)

As I said at the beginning of this review, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole this book. It is a much larger and more challenging novel. I strongly recommend Rite of Passage, not just to science fiction readers, but to the general reading audience.