Book No 19 (2014) : The Help

the help bookThis was a book group choice and so I read it even though I had seen the film. As a rider to my own thoughts, I will say first that this book has received almost unanimous positive praise; for example, 1646 ‘5 star’ ratings on Amazon as compared to only 14 ‘1 star’, 59 ‘5 star’ compared to only 1 ‘1 star’ on Waterstones. So, it is undoubtedly an extremely popular book.

‘The Help’ is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the Deep South, where black women work as domestic help in white households. Segregation is the norm, although rumblings of change are afoot with the emergence of activists such as Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The novel follows Aibileen and Minny, two coloured ‘helps’ who are persuaded by Skeeter Phelan, an ambitious and unconventional young, white woman, to share their stories of life in domestic service for publication in a book. Written in the patois of the servants, the narrative explores their relationships with the whites whose homes they run. They expose wrong-doing and ingrained prejudice, but also loyalty and friendship. The book is at times amusing and illuminating, touching on a deeply shameful aspect of modern society. It provoked a great deal of animated discussion at our regular book group gathering!

Whilst I enjoyed the book, I did have some reservations. These largely centred upon the fact that the characters seemed stereo-typed, none of the men in the book get a good press and many of the plot elements were too far-fetched. I have not read any other fiction set in this era and am loath to criticise too viciously, I was just left with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Whilst trying to organise my thoughts around this issue, I found the following link extremely useful : An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. In conclusion, whilst ‘The Help’ is an entertaining read, it is not necessarily a reliable social commentary.

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Film No 25 (2014) : The Bucket List

the bucket listEdward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) meet on an oncology ward, where they are both faced with terminal illness. Their lives have been different; Edward has made a lot of money and lived a playboy lifestyle, but is now alone after several failed marriages and estrangement from his daughter. Carter, on the other hand, has had a settled job as a car mechanic and been married ‘long enough for the both of us’. The two men strike up an unlikely friendship and between them draw up a ‘Bucket List’ – a list of things to do before they die. The film shows how they fulfil some of their remaining dreams and make some peace with themselves and the world.

I was having a conversation with a real-life movie buff today and tried to explain that I really have no idea what constitutes a ‘good’ film. For me, it’s usually a case of whether I became engrossed in the story, was not offended by the content, enjoyed the scenes and came away with something to think about. Using those very simplistic criteria, I really enjoyed ‘The Bucket List’. It’s witty and tender, with some genuinely thought-provoking moments.

One of the parts of the film which made me reflect is a short scene in the middle of the film, where Cole and Carter are surveying the view over the Pyramids. Edward explains to Carter that: ‘“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death.  pyramidsWhen their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions.  Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not.  ‘Have you found joy in your life?’  ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’” I mentally made a list of the things in life that bring me joy (those of you who know me will probably be surprised to know that chocolate didn’t make it into the rankings!) It also occurred to me to think about the ways in which my own life could bring more joy to others, a process which involved a fair amount of honest self-appraisal.

This 97-minute movie made me contemplate some very profound issues and, more importantly, I may make some changes as a result. I can’t guarantee the film will have the same effect on everyone, it might just be a bit too melodramatic for some, but it worked for me.bucket list

Film No 24 (2014) : Taken

takenI struggled to see this film as entertainment. As I am a parent, it hit where it hurts most – the fear of something happening to my children. In particular, my teenage daughter being abducted and sold into sex slavery. It was almost unbearable to watch.

Maybe I am a little too old for heartthrobs but I have a soft spot for Liam Neeson. In ‘Taken’, he plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent living in California. His daughter, Kim, travels to Paris with a friend. The girls are kidnapped by an Albanian gang. Using all his detective skills, Mills sets out to find them. It’s a film: you can probably guess the ending.

The film is gritty (not a word I use often) and violent. The scenes with drugged-up young girls trapped behind dingy curtains is frightening, especially as I imagine there must be more than a grain of truth in these portrayals. Shooting, fights and torture also feature prominently, together with some impressive car chases. I have to be honest; I spent a fair amount of the film peeping through my fingers.

Despite the uneasiness it caused, this is a ‘must-see’ film. A stark reminder of the dangers of society – and why you should always tell your parents the truth about where you are going.

Book No 18 (2014) : Girl in a Blue Dress

blue dressSince starting this blog I have not gushed with wild enthusiasm about any book, but I absolutely loved this one! Couldn’t put it down, read the whole 438 pages in less than 2 days.

The girl in question is Dorothea and the blue dress is one she dons (having first lowered the neckline!) in order to impress a young playwright, to whom her father is benefactor. The dress works its magic and the couple begin a secret correspondence. Dorothea, known as ‘Dodo’, and her lover are desperate to marry, but her family disapprove of the flamboyant writer. Nevertheless, they agree to a long engagement on condition that the young man proves he is capable of supporting their daughter.

The couple are married and Dodo quickly bears the first of their ten children. Her husband rises to the heights of fame, feted by London society and far beyond. But he is a passionate man, drawn to women and notions of romantic love. He forms an attachment to a young actress cast opposite him in a play. Having sent his wife away to Leamington Spa in order to recover her health, upon Dodo’s return, he expels her from their marital home and makes a public statement about their separation. Humiliated and wronged, separated from her husband and children, Dorothea withdraws from society for a long ten years. She is only drawn from her seclusion upon the death of her husband, and is reconciled with her estranged children.

The premise of the book is that it is based upon the life of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine. The author admits she has taken dickensliberties with the truth, so I have no idea how much of the narrative is true, but it didn’t really matter! The plot is progressed largely through dialogue, as Dodo switches the scene between the present and her past. There is a great deal of warmth in the novel and all the characters really came alive for me. I wholeheartedly recommend it. After this rave review, I expect you will have Great Expectations!

Book No 17 (2014) : The Spinning Heart

spinning heart I make no secret of the fact that I have fabulous friends. For my birthday, four of my closest book buddies bought me an amazingly thoughtful present – a gift subscription for a local bookshop. Every month, the kind lady at the shop is going to send me a brand new book, chosen by her, taking into account my likes and dislikes etc. So there was a lot of emotional energy invested in my first book, which arrived at the start of April. It was ‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan.

As the recession has hit Ireland, the lives of rural inhabitants have been severely affected. The novel tells some of their stories, through 21 separate chapters. Their language is direct; each writer speaks in the first person, straight to the reader. To start with their voices seem dissociated, but as the novella progresses (its only 160 pages long); you begin to understand the connections between the people. Structurally it’s a cleverly composed work. There is no doubt that this is a great book, especially as it’s a debut novel. It has received widespread critical acclaim and rave reviews.

So whilst I am able to acknowledge Ryan’s skill, I did not like the book. Given how much I wanted to like it, I did try really, really hard. It got better towards the middle and the ending, because there are some plot events which I wanted to see irelandconcluded. My main issue was that I couldn’t ‘hear’ the narrators’ voices. The work is largely written in authentic, Irish language: I know very few Irish people with strong accents have never visited the Emerald Isle and have next to no knowledge of its history or customs. Because of this, many of the subtleties and nuances of the vocabulary and narration were completely lost on me, as I struggled to get to grips with the bulk of the work. ‘Bayjasus’ doesn’t pack the same punch if you can’t hear someone shouting it!

I can’t really recommend this book, largely on the basis that I didn’t enjoy it. However, I hesitate to be too harsh as, judging by the reviews and plaudits heaped upon it, I’m in the woeful minority.

Must be a feckin’ eejit.

Film No 23 (2014) : The Terminal

The TerminalOne of the factors I didn’t consider fully when I decided to watch 50 films and read 50 books, is the cost. In an effort to save a few quid, I have unashamedly plundered the DVD collections of several friends. ‘The Terminal’ was one of those movies I gleaned from a raid!

When Viktor Navorski’s (Tom Hanks) homeland is subject to a military coup just as his plane lands at JFK airport, his entry papers for America are no longer valid. As he could be arrested for stepping outside the Terminal building, he decides to wait. Despite the airport manager creating opportunities for him to ‘leave’, Victor waits. For over 3 months. During that time he is befriended by the staff and tries to foster a romance with Amelia, an airline worker. We also find out the purpose of his visit to America, a promise to his father.

Tom Hanks character acting is second to none. Viktor is a believable character, but there is a vague fairy-tale feel about the film, despite its contemporary setting. There is something quite innocent about Viktor, he is a moral man, driven by honest principles. However, I did think the film was over-long, it dragged a bit in places. There is only so much riveting action you can set in an airport building.

A good film, but probably not enough interest to sustain a young audience. As my own teenager observed, ‘its alright’. My sentiments exactly.

Film No 22 (2014) : We’re the Millers

the millersThis was the holiday film. You know the one. Where you rent a cottage and it chucks down with rain, so the kids are stuck indoors watching DVDs. By the end of the week, they can quote huge chunks of the dialogue, take the role of all the main characters and throw the catch phrases in to any conversation.

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts and Will Poulter, although ‘We’re the Millers’ has definite teen-appeal, it is a funny film. Dave the Drug dealer gets robbed, so is unable to pay his takings to the Brad the Boss. As payback, Brad sends him to Mexico to bring back what he euphemistically calls a ‘smidge’ of dope. Dave has no choice but to make the trip, but figures he will be less likely to arouse suspicion if travelling as part of a family taking an RV vacation. So he rounds up Kenny, (a young neighbour), Casey, (a homeless teenager) and Rose, (a stripper), to pose as his family. Collectively, they are the Millers. Together they make the trip across the border, encountering drugs barons, tarantulas and weird families en route.kenny

This film won’t change your life, but I defy anyone not to laugh! If you need to keep a few teenagers amused for a couple of hours, this will definitely do the trick. You will probably find yourself giggling, in spite of yourself. I did!

Film No 21(2014) : Philomena

philomenaUnmarried Philomena is forced into a religious institution when her pregnancy is discovered. Made to work in the laundry, she is only allowed to spend an hour a day with the son she named Anthony. When the child is three years old, he is forcibly taken from her. She has no idea where he has gone; the last she sees of him is his face in the back window of a departing car. Philomena Lee never hears from him again. All she has is a single photograph of her boy.

Years later an out-of-work BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, agrees to take up her story, help her find her son. His intention is to publish the story as a ‘human-interest’ feature. The ensuing search for Antony takes Philomena and Martin to the USA, to the White House, and back to Ireland.

It’s a heart-breaking film, but not a sad one. The dialogue between Martin (Steve Coogan) and Philomena (Judi Dench) is funny. She comes from a small Irish town and he has seen the sights of the world. She is unworldly but wise; he is experienced but pig-headed. Together they give and take. Their relationship develops into a poignant one, as Martin begins to care not just about his newspaper feature, but about the real journey.

The most devastating thing about this film is that the story is true. It is a deeply affecting portrayal of an injustice which was committed against many Philomenas. I hope the film helps to raise the profile of their dilemma, so they can sleep more peacefully at night, knowing what happened to their children. You can find out more about the ongoing work and sign a petition to make it easier for mothers and children to find one another, via the Philomena Project.

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(Philomena Lee and her daughter, Jane Libberton)

Film No 20 (2014) : We Need to Talk about Kevin

kevin shriverWith so many books to choose from, there are hardly any which I read more than once these days. ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (who, incidentally, is a woman) is one of the rare ones. Having read it the first time, I was totally fascinated and read it again soon afterwards. The film version was released in 2011 and stars Ezra Miller as Kevin.

Kevin has committed a High School atrocity, killing students and teachers, but not himself. The book is narrated by his mother, Eva, played in the film by Tilda Swinton. She is brilliantly cast, as one of the questions about Kevin is whether he was born evil, or made that way; the Nature/Nuture debate. Tilda Swinton is not a cosy actress; she is androgynous and her interpretation of Eva is uncomfortable to watch, just as it was unsettling to read.

The film is beautifully shot, with stylish settings, minimal clutter. It has a starkness which reflects the bleak story. Kevin has it all; decent family, enough money, caring parents. What leads him to turn on his own. Is he mad? Or bad? However, the story which unfolds in the novel is told through Eva’s inner dialogue and this doesn’t translate well to the screen. There were many scenes in the film where I would simply not have understood the implications of the action, had I not read the book. As a film in its own right, ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ is artful cinema, but it doesn’t tell the story. In this instance, I’m afraid the written word wins, hands down. Bullseye.

Book No 16 (2014) : Thérèse Raquin

raquinI must have read hundreds of books in my lifetime (maybe more? I feel a bit of maths coming on!) but for some reason, scenes from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ come back to me quite regularly. I have no idea why, other than perhaps it’s because I studied the original in French and scrutinised the text in great detail. I also seem to recall there was a TV adaptation in the 1980’s?

In the rooms above a haberdashery in a dank back-street of Paris, a pair of lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, embarks upon a clandestine affair. Thérèse’s calm, almost static exterior belies her inner life as a passionate woman. Having spent her life with the pallid, sickly cousin to whom she is later married, Laurent brings about her sexual awakening. Desire drives away all reason and the pair plot to kill Thérèse’s husband, Camille, so that they can be together. On a day out at the river, Laurent drowns Camille. After a respectable period of mourning, Thérèse and Laurent are married, but their union is blighted by the ghost of Thérèse’s husband.

This is a dark, dark book. Published in 1867, it was criticised for being pornographic. Interestingly, the ensuing debate allowed Zola to answer his critics by means of a preface to the second edition of the book – which was great for sales! The setting is dark and the emotions are base. Despite being over 150 years old, this novel is a fascinating examination of the essence of humanity. It is worth knowing that Zola used the text to examine theories about Naturalism, the ideas that people are essentially ‘human beasts’, driven by the same instincts as animals. He wanted to study temperament, not character. Don’t let the notion of theories put you off – the book really has stood the test of time.

Whilst writing this review, I discovered that a new film adaptation of the novel was released in February 2014 as ‘In Secret’, an American production starring Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse and Jessica Lange as Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother. I’ll look out for a copy.

By the way, you will be relieved to know that I am certain that the reason the book is so vivid is not that I am involved in an adulterous relationship with a man from the Railway Board, nor am I planning to dunk my husband in the Cherwell so that I can take off with my paramour. It’s just a gripping read. Honestly!

zola quote