Monday, February 19, 2018

We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg

Reviewed by Jeanne

2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the release of “Casablanca,” the iconic film starring Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines, and Paul Henreid. Isenberg’s book, published to coincide with the milestone anniversary, is subtitled The Life, the Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie. While that may sound like hyperbole, there is certainly an argument to be made that the film deserves the title and all the accolades.

For one thing, it’s a pop culture touchstone.  Even those who have never seen Casablanca recognize quotations from the film:  “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the worlds, she walks into mine.”  “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Arguably the most famous one of all, “Play it again, Sam” is a bogus quote.  Ilsa says, “Play it once, Sam, for old time’s sake.  Play it, Sam.  Play As Time Goes By.”  Rick’s later line is “You played it for her, you can play it for me. . .  Play it!”

Then there’s the incredible cast. Interestingly enough, the cast did reflect the movie setting in that  there were only three American-born actors in the main cast; everyone else was an immigrant or refugee, giving a sense of authenticity to the piece.  Many of the actors had intimate knowledge of the situation, having fled Europe to escape the Nazis.  Conrad Veidt who played the villainous Major Strasser had been a major film star in Germany before he and his Jewish wife left for England. Veidt said he knew Strasser’s type well:  a man who had betrayed his friends and his country to become a somebody. He plays the character just that way.

Isenberg spends the first section of the book documenting the movie’s genesis.  Perhaps oddly, the idea germinated when a young man and his bride honeymooned in Europe; it began its literary life as a play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s.  Isenberg concentrates on the personalities involved, and all the fingerprints that ended up on the script.  Each person who tweaked the script had a different idea of how the movie should work, keeping in mind all the time the rigid movie code of the day.  A number of lines were altered or cut as being too suggestive. It’s also why Ilse has a line which implies that her husband is dead because otherwise she and Rick might be seen as adulterers. 

The book did begin to drag a little for me when the author started discussing other projects that referenced Casablanca, but didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the book.  However, I very much liked reading how the movie itself was received in other parts of the world: in some cases, the references to the Third Reich and Nazis were cut, shortening the movie considerably, as one might imagine.

Isenberg did credit other sources for some of his material, especially Round Up the Usual Suspects:  The Making of Casablanca by Aljean Harmetz.  First published in 1992, Harmetz was able to personally interview more of those connected with making the film.  I’m adding that book to my reading list.

In short, this is a book best read with a copy of the movie close at hand so you can check out the various scenes and characters. Some scenes may play a bit differently when the background is known, but it doesn't really detract from the film for me.  Sam can play it as many times as he likes.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Reviewed by Kristin

I may be way behind the curve on this one, but I just read a bestselling book which came out in 2003:  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Perhaps my time displacement is not so out of line, because this novel is all about time.  Henry DeTamble is a special collections librarian in Chicago who moves about in time.  Ever since Henry was a little boy, he has sudden disruptions in his life when he involuntarily leaps to another time, most often back in his own timeline, often encountering his younger self.

The first time Clare Abshire meets Henry (“first” being a relative term) is when Henry is 36 and Clare is 6.  Henry has stumbled into a large meadow in Michigan in the fall of 1977, but fortunately it’s a nice day, because Henry is not able to bring anything with him as he travels—not even clothing.  A naked adult man popping out of nowhere?  That might be a bit troublesome.

Clare soon learns to expect that Henry may show up in her meadow, so she leaves her father’s cast-off clothing for his convenience.  Their friendship develops, although it can be quite confusing when one party or the other is much more aware of events that have taken place, or will take place, or….well, you can see the difficulties that might arise.  Clare moves through her life sequentially, as most of us do, but Henry just takes life as it comes, whenever it comes.

As you might have guessed from the title of the book, Henry and Clare do marry when she is of an appropriate age—22 to Henry’s 30.

The timelines may be a complete jumble, but Niffenegger does an excellent job making them clear by beginning each chapter (and sometimes each chapter section) with the current date, time, and Henry and Clare’s current ages.  The flow of the narrative is smooth and beautiful, as Henry and Clare find each other at the many stages of their lives.

A movie based on the book came to the big screen in 2009.  Again, I found myself behind the curve, but enjoyed watching the DVD soon after finishing the book.  Surprisingly, the adaption was lovely.  While the movie could not possibly contain everything from the book, it nicely captured most significant parts of the story.

No spoilers, but a quote that hints at the beautiful love story contained within:

            “It’s dark, now, and I am very tired.  I love you, always.  Time is nothing.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Nevermore: Unquiet Grave, When We Were Orphans, Orient Express, Crossbones Yard, Discourtesy of Death

Reported by Ambrea

Set at the turn of the century in Greenbrier, West Virginia, The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb is a masterful retelling of an infamous legend—and a murder than shook a small town to its core.  Shortly after the death of her daughter, Zona, Mary Jane Heaster visits the county prosecutor and claims the ghost of her daughter has appeared, saying she was murdered.  When an autopsy proves this to be true, Greenbrier is thrown into turmoil and headlines are awash with stories of the Greenbrier Ghost.  Switching between the perspectives of Mary Jane and James P.D. Gardner, the first black attorney to practice law in West Virginia, The Unquiet Grave, according to our Nevermore reader, is an incredibly fascinating novel.  Not only does McCrumb’s book draw on the history of the region, it tells a compelling story that’s sure to leave readers clamoring for more.  Our reader highly recommended it to Nevermore, saying she finished it within a few days because it was simply that good.

Next, Nevermore checked out When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Christopher Banks was born in Shanghai, but, when he is orphaned at the tender age of nine, he’s sent to live in England.  More than twenty years later, Christopher has become a renowned detective and he returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents’ suspicious disappearance.  But, as the cover points out, “within the layers of his narrative is slowly revealed what he can’t, or won’t, see:  that his not unaffected by his childhood tragedies; that his powers of perception...can be blinding as well as enlightening; and that the simplest desires—a child’s for his parents, a man’s for understanding—may give rise to the most complicated truths.”  Our reader said When We Were Orphans was very good; in fact, she named Ishiguro as her new favorite author, saying he always published incredible works.  Insightful and imaginative, this novel is a fascinating look at loss, discovery, memory and desire.  Our reader highly recommended it.

Nevermore also took a look at The Discourtesy of Death by William Brodrick, a suspenseful mystery set in Britain that dives back into the world of Father Anselm, a lawyer turned monk.  When Father Anselm receives a letter accusing Peter Henderson of murder, he knows he must uncover the truth if he hopes to expose a killer—and stop a series of dangerous events that will inevitably lead to even more spilled blood.  Our reader said The Discourtesy of Death was a fine mystery; however, she noted it was filled with philosophical musing and it had a penchant to develop slowly.  She offered it to her fellow mystery readers, but she didn’t give it a high recommendation, saying she “honestly found the [history of the] author more interesting than the book.”

Next, Nevermore shared a new book by Kate Rhodes titled Crossbones Yard.  In this series debut, readers are introduced to Alice Quentin, a London psychologist with more family baggage than she would like to admit.  When Alice stumbles across a murder (quite literally), she finds herself drawn into a murder case that will put her—and everyone one she’s ever cared about—into danger.  Our reader said she’d never checked out any of Rhodes' novels, but “I will look for more from her.”  Crossbones Yard turned out to be a great mystery story, our reader continued, and the end was “pretty amazing.”  Rhodes' novel was passed on and quickly snatched up by the next person.

Last, Nevemore rounded out our meeting with a look at a classic mystery:  Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.  The tenth novel in the Hercule Poirot series, Murder on the Orient Express recounts Detective Poirot’s trip on the luxurious Orient Express as he returns to Belgium—and the unexpectedly grisly murder that pits Poirot against one of the most ingenious killers he’s ever faced.  Our reader picked up Christie’s novel, because she wanted to read it before she watched the new movie.  She said it’s the perfect winter story.  “You can feel the cold and the snow,” she said, noting that the novel is incredibly descriptive and wonderfully detailed.  Thus far, she has loved reading Murder on the Orient Express.  She’s currently taking notes on characters and trying to decipher clues, saying, “I’m going to figure it out eventually.”

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Reviewed by Kristin

Lois is not one to take risks.  She followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a software programmer specializing in motor control—a skill which stood out on her LinkedIn profile.  The biggest adventure in her life (thus far) has been moving from Michigan to San Francisco to take a job at General Dexterity, a firm specializing in the programming of robotic arms.  Lois works long hours, goes home, sleeps, and then back to work, work, always work.
Many of Lois’ co-workers subsist on Slurry, a nutritive gel that leaves much to be desired.  Slurry saves time: no shopping, no cooking, no cleaning, and all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.  Boring, sure.  But, efficient!  Lois joins the Slurry crowd in the General Dexterity cafeteria, but one evening she discovers something tantalizing on a paper menu stuck to her front door.

Clement Street Soup and Sourdough is delivery only, probably operating illegally from an apartment, but their Spicy Soup, Spicy Sandwich, and the Double Spicy combo all sound delicious.   Lois calls the number.  Twelve minutes later the food is delivered and Lois is hooked.  The food is not just delicious; it fulfills Lois, relaxing her stomach and delighting her mind.  The Spicy scours her body and mind clean, and the Soughdough calms her, giving her life.

Brothers Beoreg and Chaiman feed Lois for weeks.  But one night, Chaiman delivers bad news along with her Spicy and Sourdough: the brothers’ visas have expired and they are leaving the United States to return to Edinburgh.  They are not Scottish, exactly; they claim the culture of the Mazg, which has communities sprinkled all over Europe.  The brothers are soon on their way, but first they leave Lois with their most precious possession: the sourdough starter.

Lois has no idea how to bake bread, or even how to feed herself most days.  But Beoreg and Chaiman trust her, so she sets out to learn to bake the magic of the Mazg sourdough.  And it is indeed magic.  Lois experiments—feeding the living batch of micro-organisms more flour, mixing and kneading, and finally creating her own first loaf.  The sourdough seems to have its own personality, burbling and moving, almost singing, and has a very distinctive look as the finished bread comes out of the oven.

Soon Lois is obsessed, devoting more and more waking hours to the sourdough while still maintaining her job at General Dexterity.  Can she continue to balance both?  Can they be combined?  Could Lois’ sourdough actually be something larger than herself, something that could change the world?

Robin Sloan created a fantastic world with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, his debut novel, reviewed here.   Returning with Sourdough, Sloan once again stretches the limits of imagination with characters that delightfully achieve what seems impossible.

Friday, February 9, 2018

If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss

Reviewed by Kristin

Sadie Blue’s in a pickle.  Even her long-dead-daddy says so, with his spirit voice coming to her when she really needs him.  Roy Tupkin is a mean spirited man, and now that Sadie has married him and is carrying his baby, he’s not talking sweet like when he came a courting.  No, Roy is more likely to come at Sadie with his fists, now that she’s his.

Gladys Hicks is Sadie’s granny, but she can’t do anything now that her grandgirl has gone off with Roy.  Gladys raised Sadie since her momma Carly ran off, but she’s got trouble of her own with her house falling down around her.  Sometimes Gladys wonders what will wear out first, her body or her house.

Eli Perkins is the preacher, hoping to raise up his flock with the Lord’s words.  His greatest trial is his spinster sister Prudence, who keeps house for him but also keeps hold of grudges from decades past.  Eli’s also trying to find an experienced teacher for the community of Baines Creek, one who won’t be run off at the first sign of trouble.

Kate Shaw is the new teacher, tall and strong, and much older than most of the young girls they send over from Asheville.  She’s not too sure how she will fit into this insular community, but she quickly finds people who need her, and people who will accept her as she is.

If the Creek Don’t Rise is told by a series of narrators, those mentioned above along with a few others.  Each has their own distinct voice and not everyone sees the same events in the same light.  Although the story is set in 1970, the rough living and lack of resources make it seem that the Depression era simply lasted several decades longer in that little corner of the world.  Outhouses, hole-riddled roofs, and mountain trails impassable by most vehicles seem the norm in Baines Creek.

Sadie is heartbreakingly vulnerable and although she has others looking out for her, she has very few moments where she feels empowered to stand up for herself.  A few characters are so twisted and cruel that they are totally unlikeable, yet Weiss shows little peeks into their pasts that explain in some small way the influences which caused them to be so mean.  Although the novel takes place over perhaps a few months, the pain caused by generations of poverty and violence is obvious.

Despite all the pain and sadness, the narrative flows easily through the well-developed characters.  Weiss uses lovely imagery to paint her story across the pages, evoking the experience of living in a poor Appalachian town with very few opportunities.  I’ll look forward to more from this debut author.