Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation.  The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor.  Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.

I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence.  She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link


Author: Kelly Link
Title: Stranger Things Happen
Publication Info: Small Beer Press (2001)
Summary/Review:

Kelly Link’s collection of short stories take place at various locations around the world, most with a young woman as protagonist.  The tales, for the most part, are grounded in reality but contain elements of fantasy, fairy tale, or horror as if each story is haunted by something outside of reality.  Some stories are better than others but I didn’t find any of them particularly satisfying, if that’s even something one can ask of fiction.  Still Link has a vivid imagination and as this was her first story collection it could be worth checking out her more recent fiction.

One thing I do need to do is make a note about where I find out of books I add to be reading list.  While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I am glad I read it, and I really wonder what inspired me to put on my TBR list in the first place.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Amélie (2001)


Title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain
Release Date: 25 April 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company:
Claudie Ossard Productions | UGC | Victoires Productions | Tapioca Films | France 3 Cinéma | MMC Independent | Sofica Sofinergie 5 | Filmstiftung | Canal+ | France 3 Cinéma
Summary/Review:

Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood… fits in a rusty little box

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet specializes in making films set in fantastical worlds.  In Amélie, he makes a fantastic world out of contemporary Paris, a world of wonders created in the mind of its protagonist Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou in the role that made her a worldwide superstar).  Amélie is shy young woman who works as a waitress at a cafe and finds pleasure in the simple joys of everyday life. When she finds a box of a child’s treasures hidden in her apartment she surreptitiously returns it to the now middle-aged man who hid it decades before.

Seeing the joy that the box brings to the man, Amélie dedicates herself to anonymously performing acts of kindness for others.  She also begins to pursue a shy young man, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whom she observes collecting discarded pictures from photo booths. While Amelie is full of sweetness and charm compared to darkness of Jeunet’s earlier films with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, some of the things Amélie does would be really creepy in real life.  Nevertheless, Tatou’s performance is brilliant and is one of the best examples of an introvert as protagonist that I’ve ever seen in a film.

In addition to Tatou there are some great performances by an ensemble cast that includes Rufus as Amélie’s father, Serge Merlin as The Glass Man, a wise older neighbor with brittle bone syndrome, and Jeunet film regular Dominique Pinon as a stalker-ish cafe patron who Amélie sets up with the hypochondriac tobacco counter clerk played by Isabelle Nanty.  André Dussollier narrates the film with a documentary-style gravitas that contrasts wonderfully with the magical realism of the movie.  Amélie is only my third favorite Jeunet film after The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, but dang is if it isn’t a fantastic bronze medalist.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release Date: une 27, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Cinereach | Court 13 | Journeyman Pictures
Summary/Review:

I went into this movie with little knowledge about what it’s about and felt as if I was plunged into a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that begins with the survivors having a big celebration. Eventually, I cottoned on that this story is set in our present day, a reminder that apocalyptic conditions already exist in many places on our earth.  In this case, it is a poor fishing community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast called The Bathtub that is on the wrong side of the levees (and seemingly outside of governmental control) and thus susceptible to storms and hurricanes.  The movie is clearly a parable for the climate crisis, but it is also so much more.

The movie feels like a fantasy, or magical realism, because its point-of-view character is the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wallis’ stunning performance captures a child both fully competent in navigating the world she’s grown up in but also still a child, who needs security.  She doesn’t find much of that in her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) who is dying, and her mother has gone missing some time before.

This movie defies description so I’m not going to summarize it any further. Much like Jaccques Tati’s Playtime, this is a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and probably cannot be duplicated.  It’s a movie with a lot of emotion and imagination, and is a credit to Wallis, Henry, and the rest of the cast.  The direction and the cinematography are inspired, and credit must also be given to the set designers that created believable living spaces filled with floating debris.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Like Water for Chocolate (1992)


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Release Date: April 16, 1992
Director: Alfonso Arau
Production Company: Miramax
Synopsis:

A friend of mine said that watching this movie made her “hungry and horny at the same time.” That’s a good summary of the magical realistic comedy-drama based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.

In the early 20th century, in northeastern Mexico, Tita (Lumi Cavazos) grows up with the knowledge that her family tradition expects her as the youngest daughter to never marry.  Instead, her strict Mama Elena (Regina Torné) expects Tita to care for her in her old age on their family ranch. Tita learns the art of cooking from the elderly family cook, Nacha (Ada Carrasco).

When Tita and a young man named Pedro (Marco Leonardi) form a mutual attraction, Mama Elena rejects his marriage proposal.  Instead he marries Tita’s eldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) since it will allow him to be close to Tita.  Tita’s emotions are magically transferred into the meals she cooks leading to incidents such as everyone at Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feeling the sadness of lost love and later when Pedro gives her roses and everyone feels arousal.

The movie takes place over several decades as Tita and Pedro need to hide their forbidden love and Tita stands up to her mother.  The movie is framed by Tita’s grand-niece in the present day narrating the story around the recipes in Tita’s cookbook.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw it at the local arthouse cinema around the time it came out.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered three details clearly:

  • a naked woman running from a burning outhouse and jumping on a horse with a soldier.
  • a woman trailing a very long blanket behind a horse-drawn carriage.
  • the special ingredient in her cooking is love.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much everything else.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie strikes the right balance of magical, comical, and dramatic.  It explores a lot of issues through a whimsical story such as family, tradition, and gender.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Considering that this movie features a women-lead cast with men as side characters, depicts Mama Elena as a strong woman running a remote ranch on her own, and offers Tita as a more compassionate alternate version of strong womanhood, I’d say that it was ahead of its time in many ways.  It still feels very fresh to me event though the story took place over 100 years ago.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, I think so.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with L:

  1. Laura (1944)
  2. Lifeboat (1944)
  3. The Little Mermaid (1989)
  4. Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999)
  5. Lost in La Mancha (2002)

What is your favorite movie starting with L?  Any guesses for my M movie (Hint: it features a great quest)? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
TitleSt. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Narrators:  Ariel Sitrick, Zach McLarty, Patrick Mackie, Nick Chamian , Jesse Bernstein, J. B. Adkins, Kathe Mazur, Arthur Morey, Kirby Heyborne, Deirdre Lovejoy
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2010
Previously read by same author: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Summary/Review:

This collections of short stories deal with themes of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, loss and grief, and animal nature of humanity.  They are deeply in the magical realism genre as these coming of age stories include fantastical elements. My favorite stories include “Haunting Olivia” about two brothers looking for their lost sister who sailed away on a crab’s exoskeleton, “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers” where a boy with prophetic dreams goes a camp for children with sleep disorders, “The City of Shells,” told from the perspective of an outsider girl who gets trapped in a giant conch shell,  and “From Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration” which is an ordinary boy’s perspective on a pioneer journey when his father is a Minotaur pulling the wagon.

Recommended booksThe Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 23


Another week of audio delight for my earbuds.

The Truth :: Fish Girl

A tale of a girl and her friendship with a puffer fish.

Have You Heard? :: A La Carte: School Choice, Segregation and Gentrification in an Unequal City

Interview with Carla Shedd on how the “school choice” movement is undermining public education while promoting segregation and inequality.