Friday, November 24, 2017

TV Series Review - The Man in the High Castle Season 1

The Man in the High Castle Season 1
Based on the book by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Alexa Davalos, Conor Leslie, Macall Gordon, Daniel Roebuck, Rupert Evans, DJ Qualls, Michael Gaston, Christine Chatelain, Callum Seagram Airlie, Carmen Mikkelsen, Darren Dolynski, Brennan Brown, Joel de la Fuente, Lee Shorten, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Arnold Chun, Carsten Norgaard, Hiro Kanagawa, Mayumi Yoshida, Daisuke Tsuji, Amy Okuda, Luke Kleintank, Rufus Sewell, Chelah Horsdal, Quinn Lord, Gracyn Shinyei, Genea Charpentier, Ray Proscia, Wolf Muser, Rick Worthy, and Camille Sullivan
Release Date: November 20th, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★
To Watch

Juliana Crain's sister has gotten herself into trouble and it will change the whole course of Juliana's life. She sees Trudy shot by the Kenpeitai in the street. Reeling from this shock she stumbles home and notices that she's holding a film reel that Trudy handed her. She can't believe what the film shows. A world where the Allied forces won WWII. A world where San Francisco isn't occupied by the Japanese and the Reich doesn't control the East Coast. When her boyfriend Frank comes home he urges Juliana to go to the police. Tell the Kenpeitai everything to clear her name of treason. Instead Juliana decides to deliver the film to the neutral zone in Trudy's place. She leaves for Canon City Colorado and doesn't look back. In her absence Frank is implicated in Trudy's crimes. The fact that his grandfather was Jewish means that he and his family have no standing. Before the misunderstanding is cleared up Frank will lose those closest to him all while covering for the woman he loves, a woman who is currently at sea. She has no idea who her contact is or who she is supposed to give the film to. There's a young man from New York, Joe, who she's not sure if she can trust. Yet his help saves her life and she learns that he too is part of the resistance. He too knows of the films and that they are to be delivered to "The Man in the High Castle."

Only Joe isn't really a member of the resistance. He has infiltrated the resistance on the orders of his leader, Obergruppenführer John Smith. Joe is a Nazis. Only his mission in Canon City didn't go to plan because of the arrival of Juliana Crain. Therefore he needs to prove his loyalty to the Reich. Seeing as Juliana Crain went home to San Francisco, it makes sense that Joe will follow her there, uncover all her contacts and discover the new film that has appeared. Only Julia has changed drastically since her experiences. She doesn't want to make all the deaths of those she loved be in vain and she has taken a job as a hostess for the Trade Minister of the Pacific States, Nobusuke Tagomi. Little does she know that this man whom the resistance views as the enemy might have very similar goals to her. He's been working with a high ranking Nazi to undermine the Reich to give Japan parity to Germany. Because another World War is looming. One where there can be only one victor. The films showing a different world might just hold the key to the truth of what is really going on, but will it all be in vain? Is war inevitable?

The difference between a good adaptation and a bad adaptation is that at the end you can't believe it was ten hours long. As you gobbled the episodes up they just flew by. Whereas a bad adaptation, it feels like work to watch each excruciating episode and ten hours can feel like a lifetime. Yes, I'm looking at you The Handmaid's Tale! The Man in the High Castle was the exact opposite in almost every way to that atrocious Atwood adaptation. Constantly compelling, faithful when needed, expansive when called on, always building on the writing of Philip K. Dick while making sure to create a show that was bingeworthy. But that's what happens when your show is created by someone who had astronomical success with The X-Files, AKA Frank Spotnitz, versus someone who's more known for kitschy Canadian shows, though I will say here to Bruce Miller, LOVE Men in Trees! Also The X-Files had a sustained look and feel, and that really can't be said for any of Bruce Miller's many shows. The noir feel that imbues ever scene of The Man in the High Castle is just perfect. While there is spycraft I'd liken it more to the Cold War than WWII which makes sense being set in 1962. But it's just such a fully visualized representation of this alternate world that it's staggering how complete it is from the advertising to the clothing. I just want more and more and more of it!

What I found interesting in translating this book to the screen is that the Japanese are depicted far more bleakly perhaps even verging on evil. The book is so concerned with the Nazi threat, as was Philip K. Dick himself, that comparatively the Japanese are depicted benignly. His personal bias came through in his writing. Therefore I don't know if this was some way to level the playing field and show that both surviving Axis powers were equally evil or to just create more strife in the lives of our protagonists who predominately live under Japanese rule. Because a clearer statement of the evil of the Japanese couldn't be made than having the Kenpeitai accidentally kill Frank's sister and her two children. Nothing that horrific happens in the book, that's for sure. But it serves a purpose in that it makes Frank invested in the resistance. Juliana's sister's death and Frank's sister's death unite them in their desire to overthrow the world they have come to accept. But what's more by showing the Japanese as evil and then going further into their characters, learning more about Tagomi, seeing how the head of the Kenpeitai bristles under what he has to do, all this gives us a deeper, layered, nuanced show, where the villains aren't necessarily so because of their acts but because they have been forced into these roles over time.

Though what this adaptation did superbly was expand Philip K. Dick's world so that we weren't just seeing the American and Japanese side of things but it also ensconsced us firmly within the Reich and in particular the Reich in America. Yes, this is literally going to be all about the importance of Rufus Sewell. I should say Rufus Sewell as Obergruppenführer John Smith, but seriously, wherever Rufus goes I follow. Season two of Victoria just wasn't the same without him in every single episode. Oh Lord M, you're breaking my heart. THIS is the genius of casting Rufus! Most people have some sort of connection to him as an actor, I mean he's seriously amazing. By casting him as a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi you know he's the bad guy and you aren't rooting for him, because seriously, you NEVER root for Nazis, instead you are drawn into the mindset of the Reich. You get a glimpse into how calculating and cruel their world is where old friends can become enemies that you are to interrogate over a family dinner and your own child's life hangs in the balance because of a hereditary illness. You see the Nazis in all their evil and you understand that evil. To understand your enemy is the first step in destroying them.

One major change that makes total sense in the shift of mediums is that instead of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy being a book within the book it's a series of films that look like newsreels that where shown in cinemas during and right after WWII. In the book it made sense for this alternate outcome of WWII to be disseminated as a book, but for a TV show it makes sense for it to be a film. Like to like in the different media. Because think how boring it would be watching people read long sections out of the book on screen? It's been proven that people have only about a 15-20 minute attention span when being read to, so firstly, everyone would have tuned out, and secondly? Snoozeville. Whereas think how much information can be gleaned in a short film and watching the characters reactions to that film? What's more it's far more visceral for the viewers to see images, many of which the are familiar with. The films, for the most part, show the world that we are familiar with. What's more in the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is being read by everyone everywhere in the Japanese territories, whereas having films that have to be secreted around the country, films that even Hitler wants to watch? This just adds to the noir spycraft of the series.

Yet one thing that hasn't been explained yet, though it might in season two, is where the films come from and why The Man in the High Castle wants them. Obviously they are interesting, even Hitler is obsessed with them, but there's a bigger secret here. In the book The Man in the High Castle is the one disseminating the information, yet in this adaptation he's collecting it. Why!?! One theory I have is that perhaps he's collecting the films to eventually write the book in order to achieve the outcome in the book, which is informing the masses through the publication of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. But then where are the films coming from? Are they slipping through rips in time and space like Tagomi in that cliffhanger seeing him in OUR 1962 San Francisco? Are they actually showing the truth and that everyone is under some kind of mass hypnosis? I have other theories but I don't want to start spoiling everything. Whatever the reason for this reversal it has kept me guessing and to take a book that I've read and loved and make it new and fresh? Well that's truly amazing in my mind. I literally can not wait to start season two (right now!) but I'm also worried that once I binge it what will happen to me while I wait for season three? Seriously, what will happen!?! 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Review - Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 900 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The Allied Troops failed. The Axis powers won and divided up the spoils. Nazi Germany claimed the eastern United States while Imperial Japan created the Pacific States of America from the western coast and the Rocky Mountain States became a neutral buffer zone. It has been fifteen years since the end of the war. Fifteen years living under new laws, adapting to new cultures. Fifteen years of trying to forget the freedom Americans once had. But everyone has handled the situation in a way unique to themselves. Robert Childan has flourished under Japanese domination. His shop, American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. deals with objects from America's past that the Japanese just love for their historicity. He has learned his trade well and understands the respect and protocol his clients demand. From Nobusuke Tagomi, a high ranking Japanese trade official dealing with a visiting Swedish industrialist, to the Kasouras, a young couple in love with Americana, Childan will go beyond what is necessary to please his customers. But soon his confidence in his life and his store will change forever when an item he has is accused of being a forgery.

Of course it is a forgery, there is no way that there are enough Colt .44s from the "wild west" to supply the demand for them, but Childan doesn't know he's just collateral damage from two disgruntled employees who work for his supplier, the Wyndam-Matson Corporation, trying to go out on their own making jewelry instead of forgeries. One of these two men is Frank Frink, a man desperately hoping no one ever finds out he's Jewish and daydreaming that his wife, Juliana, will return to him. But Juliana is in the Rocky Mountain States where she's gotten involved with a man, Joe, who's obsessed with a book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, The Man in the High Castle. Abendsen never forgot his freedom and his book is about an Allied victory in WWII. A past and present that could have been. As powers are at play trying to once again change history and divide alliances with the Germans wanting sole control of the world, one woman will learn the truth and perhaps it will set everyone free.

Back when I was more of a film buff than book geek I was very much aware of the controversy surrounding Blade Runner and which release of the film was the true vision of Ridley Scott, similar to the issues surrounding Terry Gilliam's Brazil which lead to me buying a cheap VHS transfer for the directors cut at a Doctor Who convention. This desire for truth lead me to seek out and read the source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. My introduction to his terse almost choppy writing style is forgotten in the fogs of time, or in this case a really long train trip to New York, but I still remember my film TA's awe that I bothered to go to the source. This has always kind of shocked me, an adaptation doesn't exist in a bubble and the original source material, be it book or play, is always worth reading. When The Library of America came out with a "four volumes of the 1960s" omnibus deluxe edition containing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I jumped at the chance to upgrade my tatty paperback movie tie-in. It wasn't until Rufus Sewell signed onto the adaptation of The Man in the High Castle that I noticed that it was one of the four books in this volume I'd bought.

From that moment I knew I needed to read this book and yet, as so often happens, time was against me but once again my blog's theme months came to the rescue. I would read The Man in the High Castle this November no matter what! As it turned out this book is tailor made for me. I have a love of historical fiction but I also have a love of Steampunk. And think about this, what is Steampunk but a more typical alt history in that it leans towards the fantastical? This book combines all this into a wonderful mashup that occasionally has some over-the-top science fiction elements. But being the type of author Philip K. Dick was I think we can forgive him Nazis colonizing Mars, all the ensuing space race jargon, and those super rockets that get you from Germany to San Francisco in a matter of minutes not hours because he uses them so sparingly. In fact his using these fantastical elements so sparingly makes them have a greater impact than if it was all about aliens. Because the truth is this book isn't heavy on the plot, it isn't about great world changing events, it's about a select few people and how they deal with the world around them and learning their truth. And a search for the truth is how I first found Philip K. Dick in a wonderful sense of synchronicity. The Man in the High Castle is a character study and I loved that.

The lead characters are Robert Childan, Nobusuke Tagomi, Frank Frink, and Juliana Frink, and none of them are fully sympathetic, which makes them human and therefore far more interesting. Childan is grasping and obsessed with his status, think of an Arnold Rimmer not in outer space but dealing antiques in an alternate San Francisco. Tagomi is I think the most fascinating, someone who the readers would see as an enemy, but is drawn so complexly, who is so multifaceted, that he instantly becomes the hero of the book. He's constantly being pushed outside his comfort zone, forced to face situations he could never have envisioned, and yet he rises admirably to all challenges. Childan and Tagomi represent the more Japanese side of the Axis powers, and what I connected to was this glimpse into a culture that is so dependant on status and behavior. This book gets you into another mindset, makes you question how you see the world around you. I couldn't help noticing parallels to Michael Crichton's Rising Sun and how that book also gave us this tantalizing acress. For me Frank was almost a non-character, because he was really just there to connect Juliana to the rest of the narrative. And while Philip K. Dick obviously suffers a bit from the objectification of women who are in thrall to men that was not only prevalent but expected at the time, the turn around at the very end put this trope in it's place.

One thing that runs through this character driven book as a unifying force is the voice of the oracle through the I Ching. While the characters constant reliance on this device of cleromancy might in clumsy hands have conceivably bogged down the narration, Philip K. Dick handles it in such a deft and skilled way that it becomes a character of it's own. He either really knows his stuff or is really good at making it look that way. This device is also where the biggest most thought-provoking elements of The Man in the High Castle arise. The idea that the oracle has access to alternate dimensions that can be achieved through higher thought and belief, that truth can be divined? Shivers up my spine. The scene where Tagomi is trying to come to grips with all that he has suffered and done over the course of the book as he sits on that park bench looking deep into a broach designed by Frank and reaches awareness because the Wu of the piece moved him and for an instant he comes into our world, not the alternate world he has always lived in, it's like the book transcended. In that moment The Man in the High Castle was no longer a character study, but a religious experience connecting all of the universes. This book became MORE than a book. It became an experience to never forget.     

An experience that relies heavily on Philip K. Dick being meta before meta was really a thing. The book that drives Juliana and much discussion about what-ifs and could-have-beens in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. A book that shows the Axis powers losing and the world becoming very much like the one we live in. Just think on that. From our POV we're reading a book about an alternate outcome to WWII while the characters in that book are reading a book about an alternate outcome to WWII that is similar to how our world actually is. So much fun is derived not in seeing the horror the world could have been in had the Allies lost, but in seeing how Abendsen wrote this other world. The subtle changes that still led to the same result. So much of this book is chaos theory in action. The world is a house of cards, change one thing, change so many things. Because the Allied Forces lost not because of anything that happened during the war but because of the assassination of FDR prior to the war. Change one thing change everything. And yet, somehow, the oracle sees the truth at the heart of it all. Perhaps the changes within Abendsen's book to our truth are inaccuracies on his part. As to why he would have inaccuracies in a book he'd written? Well, you'll just have to read this one to find out.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The official companion to the second season of the PBS/Masterpiece drama Victoria by award-winning creator and screenwriter Daisy Goodwin.

More than 16 million viewers watched the first season of the Masterpiece presentation of Victoria, created and written by Daisy Goodwin―the highest-rated PBS drama in twenty years, second only to Downton Abbey. But what happened after the Queen married her handsome prince? Did they live happily ever after, or did their marriage, like so many royal marriages past and present, fizzle into a loveless round of duty?

This all-new companion book by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan transports us to the private world of Victoria and Albert. Though first cousins, they could not have been more different: Victoria was impulsive, emotional, and capricious, Albert cautious, self-controlled, and logical. But together they forged a bond with each other and with their people that would change the world. Drawing on letters and diaries and fresh insights into royal history, this gorgeous book charts the constant ebb and flow of power within the couple’s surprisingly ardent and modern marriage.

Sumptuously illustrated and full of rich insider detail, Victoria and Albert takes us behind the scenes of the magnificent TV drama, including fascinating, in-depth information on the actors, the props, and the costumes – and bringing an extraordinary royal marriage even more fully to life."

YAS! I need my Victoria/Daisy Goodwin fix until the Christmas special!

Killer Fashion by Jennifer Wright
Published by: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 56 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A beautifully illustrated book about deadly fashion—real historical stories of strangulation by scarves, neckbreaking high heels, and riot-causing top hats—from the author of the popular histories Get Well Soon and It Ended Badly.

Isadora Duncan was Red
Put on a scarf; popped off her head
Fashion is silly, thought Stein
It may tear your head from your spine

A darkly comic book about some surprisingly lethal garments. Featuring stories like the untimely demise of dancer Isadora Duncan caused by her signature red scarf and the bloody riot that greeted the appearance of the first top hat, among many others, these bite-size accounts will frighten and delight. Killer Fashion includes over twenty of these short tales along with beautiful full-page illustrations. Both morbid and humorous, this book will appeal to fans of Edward Gorey and dark historical trivia."

Edward Gorey meets high fashion? SOLD!

Secrets of Cavendon by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From #1 New York Times bestselling author Barbara Taylor Bradford, comes a striking, breathtaking saga featuring the aristocratic Inghams and the Swann family, who have loyally served them for generations.

It’s the summer of 1949, and things have run smoothly at Cavendon Hall for years, with very few quarrels, dramas, or upsets between the two families. But since the end of World War II, changes have arrived at Cavendon. A new generation is at the helm, and also at the forefront of new scandal and intrigue. With romance, betrayal, heartbreak, and possible murder threatening to tear them apart, the Inghams and Swanns will have to find a way to come together and protect each other in the face of threats they never could have predicted.

Told with Bradford’s inimitable deftness of prose and a beloved cast of characters, Secrets of Cavendon is a captivating novel that will draw readers in and grip them until the very last page."

Seriously, after the horrendous previous volume I'm actually shocked she wrote another one... 

Murder in the Manuscript Room by Con Lehane
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The second in Con Lehane's 42nd Street Library mystery series, Murder in the Manuscript Room is a smart, compelling mystery in which the characters themselves are at least as interesting as the striking sleuthing.

When a murder desecrates the somber, book-lined halls of New York City’s iconic 42nd Street Library, Raymond Ambler, the library’s curator of crime fiction, has a personal interest in solving the crime. His quest to solve the murder is complicated by personal entanglements involving his friend―or perhaps more-than-friend―Adele Morgan. Not only does Adele’s relationship with the young woman staffer who was murdered get in the way of Ambler’s investigation, more disturbing for him is Adele’s growing interest in a darkly handsome Islamic scholar.

Soon the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department takes over the case from NYPD homicide detective Mike Cosgrove, Ambler’s friend and sometimes partner-in-crime solving. Ambler suspects that the murder of the young woman, who’d been working at the library under an assumed name and the curious intervention of NYPD’s intelligence division are connected. The trail of intrigue leads to a seemingly unrelated murder in an upstate prison and a long ago murder of a trade union reformer.

No one else sees the connections Ambler is sure are there―not an unusual state of affairs for Ambler. But with the city’s law enforcement establishment determined to stop his investigation, the inquisitive and intrepid librarian faces challenges that may put his very life at risk."

Murders and libraries always iconic books to me. 

The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From award-winning actor, Neil Patrick Harris, comes the magical first book in a new series with plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

When street magician Carter runs away, he never expects to find friends and magic in a sleepy New England town. But like any good trick, things change instantly as greedy B.B. Bosso and his crew of crooked carnies arrive to steal anything and everything they can get their sticky fingers on.

After a fateful encounter with the local purveyor of illusion, Dante Vernon, Carter teams up with five other like-minded illusionists. Together, using both teamwork and magic, they'll set out to save the town of Mineral Wells from Bosso's villainous clutches. These six Magic Misfits will soon discover adventure, friendship, and their own self-worth in this delightful new series.

(Psst. Hey, you! Yes, you! Congratulations on reading this far. As a reward, I'll let you in on a little secret... This book isn't just a book. It's a treasure trove of secrets and ciphers and codes and even tricks. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll discover more than just a story--you'll learn how to make your own magic!)"

Um, it's Neil Patrick Harris, there isn't even a question about buying this book, gimme! 

The Complete Sookie Stackhouse Stories by Charlaine Harris
Published by: Ace
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"For the first time together in one volume, the complete short story collection starring Sookie Stackhouse—with a new introduction from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the series, Charlaine Harris.

For the first time together in one volume, here is the complete short story collection starring Louisiana’s favorite telepathic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse—from #1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris. New fans can fill in the gaps in their Sookie lore while old friends can revisit some of their favorite moments and characters. From investigating the murder of a local fairy to learning that her cousin was a vampire, from remodeling her best friend’s house to attending a wedding with her shapeshifting boss, Sam, Sookie navigates the perils and pitfalls of the paranormal world.

Belly up to the bar at Bon Temps’s favorite watering hole and hear stories that will make you wish Sookie never left, including...

“Fairy Dust”
“One Word Answer”
“Dracula Night”
“Lucky”
“Gift Wrap”
“Two Blondes”
“If I Had a Hammer”
“Small-Town Wedding”
“Playing Possum”
“In the Blue Hereafter”

This definitive collection is the perfect binge read for people who like their stories with bite!"

Is it really "complete" though? Does it have all the Sookie-verse stories without Sookie!?! Doesn't look like it...

Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra by Anne Rice
Published by: Anchor
Publication Date: November 21st, 2017
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the iconic and bestselling author of The Mummy and The Vampire Chronicles, a mesmerizing, glamorous new tale of ancient feuds and modern passions.

Ramses the Great, former pharaoh of Egypt, is reawakened by the elixir of life in Edwardian England. Now immortal with his bride-to-be, he is swept up in a fierce and deadly battle of wills and psyches against the once-great Queen Cleopatra. Ramses has reawakened Cleopatra with the same perilous elixir whose unworldly force brings the dead back to life. But as these ancient rulers defy one another in their quest to understand the powers of the strange elixir, they are haunted by a mysterious presence even older and more powerful than they, a figure drawn forth from the mists of history who possesses spectacular magical potions and tonics eight millennia old. This is a figure who ruled over an ancient kingdom stretching from the once-fertile earth of the Sahara to the far corners of the world, a queen with a supreme knowledge of the deepest origins of the elixir of life. She may be the only one who can make known to Ramses and Cleopatra the key to their immortality—and the secrets of the miraculous, unknowable, endless expanse of the universe."

Anyone else find it out that this blurb seems to be hinting that Anne Rice wrote The Mummy, when it was just The Mummy of Ramses the Damned NOT the iconic movie franchise. It's Egypt so I'll still read it... I just now have blurb issues...

Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review - High-Rise

High-Rise
Based on the book by J.G. Ballard
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Louis Suc, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Guillory, Enzo Cilenti, James Purefoy, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Louis Suc, Toby Williams, Peter Ferdinando, Reece Shearsmith, Augustus Prew, Tony Way, Bill Paterson, Leila Mimmack, Neil Maskell, Julia Deakin, Dylan Edwards, and Fenella Woolgar
Release Date: September 13th, 2015
Rating: ★
To Buy

Following the death of his sister, Doctor Robert Laing moves into a 25th floor studio apartment in a luxurious modern 40 story high-rise. Every modern convenience is taken care of. You'd never actually have to leave the building, and soon that becomes the case, more out of need than necessity. Being in the middle of the building Laing is more open to befriend those both above and below him. He starts seeing an attractive single mother from the floor above, and befriends a family, the Wilders, from a lower floor. But Laing will ascend to the heights when he's invited to the penthouse, where the building's architect Anthony Royal lives. Laing comes to a party which he didn't know was fancy dress, humiliated and thrown out of the party with one of his own medical students looking on he becomes trapped in the elevator in a power outage that is to become commonplace, not a rarity. Due to a series of fortuitous circumstances Laing is able to get revenge on his uppity student, but that student's subsequent suicide seems to be the catalyst for the complete disintegration of law and order within the high-rise. The power outages have been followed by the water being shut off and garbage chutes overflowing. The infrastructure of the building is failing and Royal might just be keeping the authorities away as the building devolves into outright warfare. This isn't "growing pains" this is a microcosm of civilization tearing the class system to shreds. But there is one person who has a plan. Richard Wilder plans to take off the head of the beast. Anthony Royal will die at his hands, what happens next doesn't matter.  

Here is a sentence I never thought I'd write: There are some things that even Tom Hiddleston's bare ass can't fix. I know! This is a shocking revelation to me as well. But High-Rise is one of those high concept adaptations that has literally been in development since the book was written in the 1970s and never really found the right team to shepherd it to the big screen. And yes, I am including the team that actually made this movie, because seriously, it's two hours of my life I want back. A fairly straightforward book was made into a bizarre orgiastic incoherent mess that critics just gobbled up and audiences hated. It's more like a hedonistic verging on incomprehensible overly long music video than a film. There's no structure, just writhing bodies. And such bodies! I mean, the talent on board here is astonishing: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, James Purefoy! I could go on and on because this is like a dream cast with the cream of the crop taken from British television and cinema but if High-Rise proves one point, you can get the best actors in the world and if the vision isn't there, if the writing doesn't shine, if the plot is nonexistent, they can in no way save the film. As I shockingly said before, not even Hiddlesbum could save this mess. Though perhaps we can throw a little blame at Elisabeth Moss? She's destroying dystopian adaptations left and right these days... 

What confused me most about this adaptation is why oh why did they decide to make it period? Yes, this is 100% enshrined in 70s glory. This was the biggest mistake they could have made. The reason the book actually works is that there is a universality to it, so while it was written in the 70s you can totally see it happening now. This specificity of period makes it dated and implausible. Yes, I say implausible. Because if this uprising had occurred, if this past had happened, then the future we live in would be different. There's a reason dystopian literature is either in an alternate timeline or in the near future. This makes it believable. The world we live in could take a turn into a giant dumpster fire and then we're there. We have reached dystopia. Having this horror happen in the past and then forgotten while Margaret Thatcher talks on the radio? Um, no. What's more is the era went on to inform the sets and the costumes. This leads to the audience having a disconnect. I kept thinking, oh look, there's something I vaguely remember from my childhood, or the Wilder's apartment has a vague Star Wars feel to it, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen must have been called in to decorate. There was no immediacy to the story and the horrors within. I couldn't connect because this 70s framework was a distancing device. But the biggest flaw? Don't model your high-rise lobby off a set from the original Battlestar Galactica.  

The embracing of the 70s aesthetic goes deeper into destroying this film than you might think. As I've mentioned there's a disconnect by having the story take place in the past versus the present or near future, but more than that by having it set in the 70s the film isn't a commentary on the universality of human behavior but a commentary on human behavior during this specific time. Despite what may or may not have happened in the 70s it's come to mean certain things in popular culture. It's viewed as a time of excess, drugs, drinks, and swingers! Where cops didn't have to answer for killing the occasional criminal and justice was sometimes gotten in the most nefarious of ways. Therefore we already have these preconceptions of the 70s and to have this acted out on screen it just seems a product of the time, the 70s was the catalyst, not man's base nature. It's like the director and the writer, who happens to be the directors wife, just didn't get it. The book is a statement of human nature and the devolution of man, and the movie is just "wow, things were crazy in the 70s weren't they?" And in that last scene with Margaret Thatcher coming on the radio? Are they trying to make the film into a political statement of what Thatcher did to England? Because that's a cheap shot. Trying to tag your own message on when you couldn't even properly convey the author's message.

With this bizarre music video style the whole film contains there is one scene, and one scene only that I think captured the essence of the book while creating a new spin on it, letting the filmmakers leave their stamp on the classic book, all while still feeling like an homage to the Annie Lennox "Walking on Broken Glass" video. Doctor Laing is invited to a party in the penthouse. Anthony Royal and his wife are throwing a fancy dress party and the theme is the French court of Marie Antoinette, which of course they didn't bother to tell their guest from the lowly 25th floor. Why is this so perfect? Well the book, not the movie, is about the stratification of the classes within the high-rise and how those lower down are trying to topple those at the top. What happened in France as a result of the excesses of Marie Antoinette and her court was The French Revolution, off with their heads and all that. What is happening within the microcosm of the high-rise is what happened on a larger scale in France. The filmmakers are grounding what is happening in the high-rise with historical precedence, which I think is the only time in two hours of rubbish where I almost liked the film. For that brief instance they got it. Also with the cover of ABBA's "SOS" by Portishead we get a wonderful double meaning, triple if you really want to bother with the whole 70s of the thing. What we get with the song is a menacing warning to those decadent partiers that their time has come, but also a warning that what happens in the high-rise stays in the high-rise. There will be no one coming to save ANY of them. Now if only they burned the whole thing to the ground, film and all I might be satisfied.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review - J.G. Ballard's High-Rise

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard
Published by: Liveright
Publication Date: 1975
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Two miles downriver from the City of London right on the Thames there's a new complex surrounding a small lake. On one side of the lake is a new medical school and television studio. On the other side there will be five identical high-rises reaching forty stories into the sky. The architecture by Anthony Royal may be brutal, creating a concrete landscape, but for Doctor Robert Laing moving from Chelsea into his 25th floor studio apartment in the first completed building, three floors above his sister Alice, he feels like he's traveled forward in time. He's now living in the future. The high-rise has a glut of conveniences, with a 10th floor concourse having a supermarket, bank, hair salon, as well as a swimming pool, and the 35th floor having fine dining, not to mention there's a school for the kids living in the high-rise. It's a small vertical city that has everything Laing needs. In fact with all the bored housewives and rumors of a brothel higher up the building is a sexual playground for the recently divorced Laing and his upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville might just well be his first conquest. But when he arrives at Charlotte's he finds the unwelcome presence of Richard Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who lives down on the 2nd floor with his wife and two kids. While Laing and Wilder both work just across the compound soon they both feel reluctant to leave, a feeling which seems to be spreading. Soon there are breakdowns, garbage chutes not working, lights going off, elevators behaving erratically. Skirmishes arise between neighbors, whole floors band together to attack other floors further up the high-rise. Time becomes irrelevant as the violence escalates. Bodies start to pile up, canine, feline, human... Will anyone escape the lure of the high-rise and the desire to kill? As the first power outage hits the second building one wonders if the insanity will spread.

Usually I like a good rant. In fact back in high school when I first started writing reviews, though usually about art, I found that it was easier to write a negative review than a positive one. Because sometimes it's really hard to put your finger on what works but it's so much easier to know what doesn't work. Despite years and years of writing, let's not discuss how many years please, I do still find it easier to write a negative review, though I hope I've gotten better at communicating what makes something work for me, because I truly want to read only good books, but that is just a utopia that I fear will never exist unless I were to spend a year just re-reading my favorite books. All this brings me to High-Rise... this is a book that deserves the biggest longest rant I can give and yet, for the longest time, I just couldn't be bothered. It has been over a year and a half since I read this book and it has languished on my shelf for books I need to review. It's sitting there waiting. Waiting to be sold. Because that's right, the second this review is done off it goes to Half Price Books in the hopes that I can get something back for my time and energy. Such wasted energy. Even writing this now I'm like, why bother? I seriously don't know where this lassitude with regard to all things High-Rise comes from. I read this for my book club and most everyone really liked it. But I'm here just going, no. All the no for this book. Perhaps my differing opinion has led to me dragging my hells? Who knows. Yes, High-Rise has an interesting and plausible concept that is somehow timeless yet it just fails utterly in the execution. There are no characters likable or fascinating enough to be invested in. At no point did I relate to the situation or the people and therefore I just checked out.

A big turnoff is the treatment of animals. You know the website Does the Dog Die? where those who can't handle animal deaths go to vet (ha ha) a movie? Well, here it wouldn't just be one dead dog, it would be Laing roasting one on a spit for dinner. Yes, seeing as this flash forward happens on the first page I should have known what was to come. Yet somehow I thought that was just setting the apocalyptic tone and wasn't going to be something so graphically carried throughout the book. I was wrong. Reading so much of what happens in the high-rise actually made me physically sick. And it wasn't JUST the animals, women and homosexuals were treated just as badly. And I'd like to make it clear, I'm not saying the women and homosexuals are animals and should be treated that way, J.G. Ballard is. The women have two purposes, one is that the more women a man has in his harem, the more power he has. They are just a status symbol. The other purpose they serve is sexual release. Women are constantly being raped here. This book should just have a trigger warning placed on the cover. And while I see what Ballard is doing with showing what happens with the breakdown of a society, he seems to take glee in it. Violence just for the sake of violence making it impossible for the reader to become desensitized. While I should applaud Ballard for creating such a visceral book wherein violence never loses it's potency, I just can't because it made me sick. It's like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex undergoes the Ludovico Technique, violence of this level just creates nausea in me.

And yet Ballard could have subverted this male dominated narrative and created a more balanced story. At the denouement of the book we learn that there's been a band of women roving the high-rise lead by a children's book writer. They have not only been protecting the children but meting out punishment on the men. Where is this in the rest of the book!?! Where is this story? Yes, it basically redacts what was happening in his narrative, but it's so quickly mentioned and pushed aside that you can't be 100% sure that this is what Ballard meant or what really happened. There's this "Blood Garden" (the title of the only chapter this is dealt with) and the women bring their victims there? Oh, and this is also when cannibalism makes its way into the story. I also forgot to mention the incest. Seriously, why would anyone read this book? But this little hint of female empowerment turns everything on it's head. Up until this point it's been a bit of a testosterone fueled slog to read the book, and I can't help thinking, what if this second plot line about the second sex been introduced earlier? What if the female narrative was parallel. Yes, you get a bit of a nice surprise to learn what else has been going on when the men were too busy with their conquests, both in turf and women, but it's too little too late. Yes, you could say that this opinion, in fact all my opinions of the book are based on me being a female, but that doesn't account for the fact that this book is badly paced, badly plotted, and could have been so much more.

Because the crux of the problem, the book's failing, isn't violence or women, no matter how much I have issues with that, it's in a sameness to the three main characters. So much of the book is a metaphor for the struggle between classes and this is born out in our leads, Richard Wilder, 2nd floor and working class, Doctor Robert Laing, 25th floor and upper middle class, and finally, Anthony Royal, penthouse and upper class. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, each man lower down is trying to jockey for a position higher up in the building. In fact Richard Wilder's obsession to get to the 40th floor leads to his death in the blood garden. But what annoyed me was the sameness of all three men. They basically all behave the same and that's just stupid. Yes, you could say that this shows that despite class, rank, status, whatever, everything boils down to men and their mommy issues, but that literally makes this book too darn simplistic. This universality is a point that is made so quickly that it's constant repetition makes the book boring. In the end there is literally no way to tell these men apart. Sure, let's say that is what Ballard was going for, going back to my previous statement, this does not a compelling book make. Stereotypes, tropes, avatars for the everyman can not be at the center of a good story. They are a character without character. They give you nothing and therefore the book is nothing. A book needs a payoff, or at the very least a hook. Violent male archetypes/stereotypes aren't enough. Again, you could say all this was Ballard's point. He meant to make a statement with High-Rise. Well, you know what makes a better statement? A book you want to read and analyze and discuss, not torture porn.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Artemis by Andy Weir
Published by: Crown
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The bestselling author of The Martian returns with an irresistible new near-future thriller—a heist story set on the moon.

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first."

Anyone who has read The Martian I'm sure has been eagerly awaiting this book. 

Ice by Anna Kavan
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A dazzling and haunting vision of the end of the world, Ice is a masterpiece of literary science fiction now in a new 50th anniversary edition with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem.

In a frozen, apocalyptic landscape, destruction abounds: great walls of ice overrun the world and secretive governments vie for control. Against this surreal, yet eerily familiar broken world, an unnamed narrator embarks on a hallucinatory quest for a strange and elusive “glass-girl” with silver hair. He crosses icy seas and frozen plains, searching ruined towns and ransacked rooms, all to free her from the grips of a tyrant known only as the warden and save her before the ice closes all around. A novel unlike any other, Ice is at once a dystopian adventure shattering the conventions of science fiction, a prescient warning of climate change and totalitarianism, a feminist exploration of violence and trauma, a Kafkaesque literary dreamscape, and a brilliant allegory for its author’s struggles with addiction—all crystallized in prose glittering as the piling snow.

Acclaimed upon its publication as one of the best science fiction books of the year, Kavan’s 1967 novel has built a reputation as an extraordinary and innovative work of literature, garnering acclaim from China Miéville, Patti Smith, J. G. Ballard, Anaïs Nin, and Doris Lessing, among others. With echoes of dystopian classics like Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, Ice is a necessary and unforgettable addition to the canon of science fiction classics."

Seeing as I've read so many of these other authors I think I HAVE to read this dystopian classic.

Ours is the Winter by Laurie Ellingham
Published by: HQ Digital
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Kindle, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Journeying across the Arctic, their pasts are about to catch up with them.

Erica, Molly and Noah are embarking on the challenge of a lifetime, driving Siberian huskies across the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. Cut off from the world and their loved ones and thrown together under gruelling conditions, it isn’t long before the cracks start to show.

Erica has it all. A loving husband, a successful career and the most adorable baby daughter. But Erica has been living a double life, and as she nears her fortieth birthday her lies threaten to come crashing down.

Molly was on her way to stardom. But when her brother died, so did her dreams of becoming an Olympic champion. Consumed by rage and grief, she has shut out everyone around her, but now she’s about to learn that comfort can come from the most unexpected places.

Noah has a darkness inside him and is hounded by nightmares from his past. Tortured, trapped and struggling to save his fractured relationship, he knows this journey is not going to help, but try telling his girlfriend that.

As their lives and lies become ever more entwined, it becomes clear that in the frozen wilds there is nowhere to hide."

Yeah, I'm a little arctic obsessed of late...

Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer
Published by: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Victorian London is a place of fluid social roles, vibrant arts culture, fin-de-siècle wonders . . . and dangerous underground diabolic cults. Fencer Evadne Gray cares for none of the former and knows nothing of the latter when she’s sent to London to chaperone her younger sister, aspiring art critic Dorina.

At loose ends after Dorina becomes enamored with their uncle’s friend, Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton, a local aristocrat and aesthete, Evadne enrolls in a fencing school. There, she meets George Cantrell, an experienced fencing master like she’s always dreamed of studying under. But soon, George shows her something more than fancy footwork—he reveals to Evadne a secret, hidden world of devilish demons and their obedient servants. George has dedicated himself to eradicating demons and diabolists alike, and now he needs Evadne’s help. But as she learns more, Evadne begins to believe that Lady Henry might actually be a diabolist . . . and even worse, she suspects Dorina might have become one too.

Combining swordplay, the supernatural, and Victorian high society, Creatures of Will and Temper reveals a familiar but strange London in a riff on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that readers won't soon forget."

But will it be a successful riff? 

The Wild Book by Juan Villoro
Published by: Restless Books
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From one of Mexico’s foremost authors comes a wondrous adventure story of a boy who goes to live with his kooky, book-obsessed uncle in a library where books have a supernatural power all their own.

“We walked toward the part of the library where the air smelled as if it had been interred for years….. Finally, we got to the hallway where the wooden floor was the creakiest, and we sensed a strange whiff of excitement and fear. It smelled like a creature from a bygone time. It smelled like a dragon.”

Thirteen-year-old Juan’s favorite things in the world are koalas, eating roast chicken, and the summer-time. This summer, though, is off to a terrible start. First, Juan’s parents separate and his dad goes to Paris. Then, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, Juan is sent away to his strange Uncle Tito’s house for the entire break! Uncle Tito is really odd: he has zigzag eyebrows; drinks ten cups of smoky tea a day; and lives inside a huge, mysterious library.

One day, while Juan is exploring the library, he notices something inexplicable and rushes to tell Uncle Tito. “The books moved!” His uncle drinks all his tea in one gulp and, sputtering, lets his nephew in on a secret: Juan is a Princeps Reader––which means books respond magically to him––and he’s the only person capable of finding the elusive, never-before-read Wild Book.

Juan teams up with his new friend Catalina and his little sister, and together they delve through books that scuttle from one shelf to the next, topple over unexpectedly, or even disappear altogether to find The Wild Book and discover its secret. But will they find it before the wicked, story-stealing Pirate Book does?"

Come on, it's books and adventure? You know you want to read it too! Also, is that a cat on the book cover!?!

Skavenger's Hunt by Mike Rich
Published by: Inkshares
Publication Date: November 14th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 300 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"After young Henry Babbitt tragically loses his father, he can’t help but remember the promises of the great adventures they would now never take. Then, on a snowy Christmas Eve, his grandfather reveals that he’s tracked down a series of mysterious century-old clues left by Hunter S. Skavenger, the eccentric magnate who launched the first and greatest scavenger hunt.

Hours later, on Christmas Day, Henry finds himself magically transported back to 1885, where he teams up with a ragtag band of youngsters in a quest to solve Skavenger’s elaborate puzzle. From New York to the Mississippi riverboats to the streets of old Paris, Henry and his new friends face off not only against brilliant competing teams, but also Skavenger’s own dark and elusive nemesis: Hiram Doubt."

Who doesn't like a bit of a puzzle? 

Friday, November 10, 2017

TV Series Review - The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, O-T Fagbenle, Jordana Blake, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, Amanda Brugel, Max Minghella, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Tattiawna Jones, Nina Kiri, Jenessa Grant, Bahia Watson, Ever Carradine, Stephen Kunken, Zabryna Guevara, and Christian Barillas
Release Date: April 26th, 2017 - June 14th, 2017
Rating: ★
To Watch

Offred was once called June. She was married to Luke. They had a daughter called Hannah. When the Sons of Jacob felled the US government and established Gilead June and her family attempted to escape. She and Hannah were caught and she believes Luke was killed. Hannah is the proof that she is fertile in these times of sterility and therefore she was trained to become a handmaid. She was sent to a Commander's house, assumed his name, and once a month "participates" in the ceremony that will hopefully bring forth a child to his family. The ceremony is nothing more than sanctioned systematic rape. Yet Commander Waterford wants Offred to be happy, as does his wife Serena Joy. They think that this is not just an acceptable life but a good life for Offred. Yet Offred doesn't understand the game Commander Waterford is playing, and it is literally a game. He calls her into his study when his wife isn't around to play Scrabble. Such luxury to play with lettered tiles, to form words, to read when women are no longer allowed to. Yet who knows what Serena Joy would do if this aberrant behavior in her husband were discovered. The two of them literally helped write the rules of Gilead, yet Serena herself is willing to bend them a little if she could get a child, having Offred couple with her husband's driver, Nick. Yet she would never violate them outright no matter how stifled she feels now that she's nothing more than a Commander's wife dressed in blue. But if anyone is stifled, if anyone should be revolting, it's Offred. She makes contact through a fellow handmaid with the Mayday resistence group, but then her contact Ofglen is gone one day. But through her new daring Offred learns that Luke is alive, as is her best friend Moira. She now has even more reasons to fight. She is June and they will not destroy her.

I genuinely went into watching The Handmaid's Tale with high expectations. I mean it won ALL the Emmys so it had to be good right? Wrong! I think voting for The Handmaid's Tale was like a protest vote, it says the right things but in truth Westworld should have won. But I would have also taken The Crown or Strangers Things as acceptable substitutes. And the thing is, I'm not sure if I'm alone or not in this dislike. The people I know who liked the miniseries haven't read the book and those whose opinion I trust haven't watched it because they in turn trust my opinion. On paper the show sounds great, even if you're not a fan of Elizabeth Moss like I am. But the execution was just self-indulgent television that felt like it was done by a student filmmaker. While I can understand certain changes, moving all the big events that are excruciatingly paced throughout hundreds of pages of reminiscences into the first episode makes sense. You HAVE to hook the viewers right away. There can't be an entire episode with Offred deliberating about telling the Marthas about the arrival of oranges in the shops because no one would watch that and yet it's over fifty pages in the book. So I'm being generous here, I get these changes, even if it means you've wasted almost all the good plot points in the first episode, it was necessary. But there's the fact that with all the directors there is no fixed style. It's so varying that there is one episode that literally spends the entire hour with only Offred's eye in focus. What student level BS is this? But what I won't ever forgive is the annoyingly repetitious sound design. Low, ominous noises drawn out for what felt like eons. Or a musical cord or strident sound played over and over for entire blocks of the show. If this show wanted to go for sound design over music look to how David Lynch did the revival of Twin Peaks, that is masterful, this is shit. And yet the sound design is NOTHING compared to the music choices. Each episode had some classic used inappropriately or mashed up in some horrific way, WTF was that "Heart of Glass" remix? At the start of every episode I kept wondering, which classic song is going to be ruined in this hour? The answer is whatever song they used.    

Yet the use of the songs from "Don't You (Forget About Me)" to "You Don't Own Me" underscore a larger problem in the series. The book has a timelessness to it, and the soundtrack, no matter how "appropriate" the title or the lyrics date the show. In making this show NOW they made everything too definite. Yes, whatever time you make a series in dates it to an extent, but just because our political climate is so similar at the moment doesn't mean the series should be set in the moment. It might give it immediacy, but will it give it longevity? I don't think so. By giving such specifics, even down to making sure we know all the characters real names, there's a universality that has been taken away. Though oddly there is one thing that is less emphasized amongst all this specificity that further strips any meaning out of the narrative. This story is set in Cambridge and Boston. It's very clear in the book but it's not very clear in the show because they didn't film it on location, instead they took the benefits that Atwood's country gives in tax breaks and damn the consequences the show was filmed in Canada. The problem is NO town can be a substitute for the Boston area. It has a very specific look and use of red bricks that when gone, well, you notice it. What's more is that by having the story set in and around Harvard, there's symbolism attached to having the bodies of the traitors hung on the University's wall that can never have the same impact by just having some bodies on a wall next to a river. This is a MAJOR statement about how the current regime views education and betrayal and here it's just gone, entirely lost. What's more, Boston is the cradle of America! This is where the revolution started! This is where Paul Revere made his midnight ride! To have that which created us under the yoke of an evil regime? That is a statement that can only be said by seeing Boston on the screen! 

Going back to the specificity that this adaptation has embraced when it's convenient to them Offred herself is just too specific, she's too defined. Yes, Atwood's book gives us a lot of information about Offred's previous life, but at the same time she is generic enough, she can be the everywoman she's supposed to be. You can scarily see yourself in her shoes because she could be you! She's a passive vehicle for the atrocities of Gilead to flow through. Here with Elisabeth Moss's portrayal of Offred we see a woman who is not going to just lay back and take things, she's going to stand up and fight. She's going to hold onto her name, she's going to hold onto her memories, she's going to hold onto hope. She is going to be the rallying point for the rebellion. Offred here is not so much just one of the handmaids, she is front and center, punching and kicking during the punishment, helping in the birth, she's June goddammit and she's going to talk other handmaid's off the ledge and be a force for change. And THAT is a big change from the book. There suicide was an option because hope had run out, here hope never runs out. There is a far more optimistic bent here because Offred is willing to show when she's pissed off or sullen or sulky, she's not the blank vessel for her Commander. She doesn't always follow the rules, and while perhaps we can root her on, I don't think we can relate as much. I totally think there's a time when hope does run out, but for some reason this show was unwilling to embrace this fact. Yes, I know that all this makes sense when switching from one medium to another, but I think more than that this was done in an effort make this more than just an adaptation of the book and more an expansion of the story. This is just the beginning of the series, one that will be full of rebellion, whereas Offred's story in the book is just the beginning of the horrors of Gilead, her rebellion in that context would have meant nothing, would have had no impact, she was just the voice of the oppressed with no actual impact expect for historians.   

Yet as much as I don't like the changes to Offred I have to say they occasionally got it so right that I was, for the moment, happy. In fact I will begrudgingly admit that Elisabeth Moss is the perfect actress for this version of Offred, which is understandable given how much creative control she had in this instance. Therefore I have partially forgiven her for all the times I've hated her in the past, burn in hell Peggy Olson! OK, back to The Handmaid's Tale, in episode two "Birth Day" the handmaids attend the labor of Janine, Ofwarren. Offred goes downstairs to inform the wives of the commanders how things are progressing and one of them asks if she'd like a cookie. Of course this decision is in the hands of her mistress, Serena Joy. Serena asks Offred if she would like a cookie, in the way you'd ask a very small child. There's this big beautiful tower of macaroons and the range of emotions on Elisabeth Moss's face is exquisite. You can see how much she does want that cookie but simultaneously how much it pains her not only to have to ask but to ask it of these women. What's more, she's not even given a choice about asking, because once the suggestion is out there she must do as they say. All this is embodied in this one simple scene, and for once I thought, maybe they get it, maybe they get what Margaret Atwood's story was all about, but then Offred goes to the bathroom and I can see they didn't. Because what happens in the bathroom is that Offred spits out the cookie, but in the biggest act of rebellion she just leave it there, so that those women will know what she's done. Therefore I guess you could say this one scene embodied both what the book was about and likewise the rebellious nature this adaptation is going to take. Yet I have to say it, that at this point it's not the adaptation that is drawing me in no matter the level of acting, it's the expansion. I want to see where this goes. Offred so far has been too omnipresent, she needs to step back out of our faces and let the other characters have the spotlight for once.

Speaking of some other non-Offred characters, let's talk about Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. In the book the Commander is a bit of a silver fox and Serena a washed up televangelist. In other words, 70s to 80s age range given the timeline. Here we have Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, 47 and 35 respectively. In fact Elisabeth Moss is the same age as Yvonne Strahovski. Now there are two ways to take this change, one is good, one is bad. Let's start with the bad. The bad is that this is Hollywood and they couldn't have an unattractive elderly man raping Elisabeth Moss, so instead we have the beautiful though perfectly brooding Joseph Fiennes who is only a mere 12 years older than her. In an aside, am I the only one who wonders if the Fiennes brothers used to spend their time trying to see who could be more menacing? So vanity wins even in the darkest of stories in this interpretation. Perhaps Elisabeth Moss even insisted on a pretty face to act to? This is Hollywood, weird things are the norm. The unlikely "dark" yet infinitely better interpretation is that by making Offred's oppressors young and beautiful we can see the true horror of what they are doing. Because somehow it would be more understandable if the Commander and his wife had no way of having kids because of their age and an old guy barely getting it up isn't as much of a threat? Also here the crisis of infertility is also brought home by this beautiful couple. This really pushes the message on the inability to procreate which kind of gets lost in the horror of oppression and rape. But going beyond this, going back to the whole infertility crisis, one thing that I just don't get is this need of all the women to have children. I understand the biological imperative what with the fact that the world could end without procreation, I just don't understand this sickening need to have a baby. Is it because it's all that the men have left them? But that's something that needs to be thought on more... biological clocks and imperatives and parental desires can not be covered in a paragraph or two, you need a book, like The Handmaid's Tale, not just some series you can stream and be done with in a few hours.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review - Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published by: Everyman's Library
Publication Date: 1985
Format: Hardcover, 350 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Offred once had a husband. She once had a daughter. She once had a different name. But the United States fell. It feel so fast that it's hard to remember what it was like. There was a constitution, there were rights, but they were suspended. Women who could reproduce became a valuable commodity. They were rounded up and distributed to the ruling elite. Offred is a handmaid to her Commander. Hopefully, God willing, she will provide him with an heir. It's best not to think what would happen if she's unable to conceive. She has her daily routine, shopping for the household as a way to be useful and keep herself healthy for reproductive purposes, and lots of time to think on all that she has lost and the little she has. The room with the bed and the desk and the window. The room with the carving from it's previous occupant, the previous Offred: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum." Yet soon Offred's life starts to change. The Commander has a shrewish wife who used to be televangelist and now does nothing by garden and knit and long for the baby Offred will give her. This has distanced the couple and the Commander feels a void, a void he fills by inviting Offred to come into his study. At first they only play Scrabble, a wordy luxury to Offred. Soon she is given magazines and moisturizer. She knows she's playing a deadly game, if she were to be caught, if his wife were to find out... but "his wife" found out once before when she first met her husband Luke... But when the Commander invites Offred to a "special club" she can't help but notice the hypocrisy. Yet there is also hope. Yes, there is an easy way out, a way the other Offred took, but perhaps she can find another way...

If you're an avid book reader there are books that everyone just assumes you've read. Certain classics that make up the bedrock of the literary world. If you actually admit that the only Dickens you've dabbled in is a perfunctory reading of A Christmas Carol and that you prefer the movie version with Mickey the Mouse they might throw you out of the club. Of course it's not that I don't have these classics by the titans of the literary world, it's that I've just never gotten around to reading them. There are A LOT of books in the world and my "to be read" pile is so staggering it could possibly crush me to death if it was to fall on me, so I hope I'll be forgiven for slowly getting around to these classics. This is one of the reasons for my "theme months." They give me a focus. That month I'll tackle E.M. Forster and get around to reading all his work. Or those months I'll do nothing but indulge in Sherlock Holmes. This way I create content for my blog while getting myself to read the books that are de rigueur. One book that's been languishing was The Handmaid's Tale. Yes, yes, I know, it's been a long time coming, but see above! I can easily see why this book is a Classic with a capital "C." I read this book almost two months ago but it's still with me. I can't help thinking about it all the time. I think waiting to read The Handmaid's Tale until now gave the book more impact. In fact, at the moment reading any dystopian literature makes it seem eerily prescient and also, in some way, a rebellion. These books are a how to not end up in the same situation. You can see the correlations yet see how you can revolt! I can easily see the government oppressing women to this extent because every day there's some new and crazy legislation trying to take away our rights. But we have to fight. We have to keep ourselves informed. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!

What's interesting about The Handmaid's Tale is that our heroine Offred is unlikable. I know you might not agree with my opinion, she's oppressed, trapped, ritually raped, she is a sympathetic character in regard to her situation, but her situation and who she is are two separate things and I just don't like her. In the "present" tense I don't like her because she's very passive, she's willing to embrace the end if she can't take it anymore, she doesn't fight, she doesn't initiate change or outright rebellion. Yes, you could say to me that by surviving and getting her story, the story of all those like her, out into the world is a rebellion, but again, her escape wasn't of her own doing, she just took it. Likewise if the escape had never presented itself she would have just stayed put. But through her we do hear the stories of interesting and likeable characters, Ofglen, Moira, and others. Women who obviously didn't make it out and who, while they might have had more interesting lives, still, at the heart, lived the same life as Offred. But this is all the "present" it's Offred's past that I have issues with, that made me not like her. She was an adulterer who waited in hotel rooms for years waiting for Luke to divorce his wife and marry her. Yes, I know this situation takes two to tango, but I just can't like her because it makes me feel like condoning cheaters. And while yes, Luke and Offred might have been "meant to be" the way they got there just doesn't sit right with me and therefore makes me dislike Offred. Again, you might be saying what she's gone through should wipe the slate clean, but the thing is, who someone is deep down, what they do informs everything, and while I can pity her I can never like her. Like that bully at school who always picks on you, you might learn what made him that way but does it make it any better when he's still attacking you?

Then there's the odd narrative structure. Yes, it's first person and tends to flow backwards and forwards with Offred's memories and associations and her desire to escape her life into the story of one of her friends, but this inner monologue doesn't help you come to terms with the lack of forward momentum. The Handmaid's Tale is structured in such a way that it's one step forward and two steps back. Every time a plot development seems about to break Offred retreats into her reveries that just stops the narrative momentum in its tracks. At times you even forget what the next plot reveal you were waiting for was. She heavy-handedly keeps talking about the ceremony wherein she copulates with her Commander and yet we have to wait 109 pages until we learn what that ceremony is! And that ceremony is mentioned right at the start of the book! I couldn't help thinking over and over again "just get on with it!" I've said to a few people who were interested in what I thought of this book that I think it's a book that would be better the second time you read it. I stand by this statement. Because after you've read it once you know what happens next so the excruciating wait for certain reveals wouldn't annoy you. After awhile, knowing that the narrative was so drawn out I found myself less and less likely to pick up the book to grab a chapter or two before bed. Books take me, on average, about a week to read as I read at speaking pace. The Handmaid's Tale took me almost three weeks to read, which is almost unheard of for me. Because it's not a long book, and it's not a book I abjectly hated, it's just a book that is plotted in such a way that you become lackadaisical about when you pick it up.

Beyond pacing, there are lots of concepts and atrocities that I had problems with, yet these are problems that are what make the book the Classic that it is. These are the ideas and issues you keep dwelling on and that make the book leave a lasting impression. But what I had the biggest problem with stylistically was The Club that Offred's Commander takes her to. The Club is a brothel in a hotel which Offred visited with Luke before they were married and is there to tend to the "needs" of the high ranking officials of Gilead, whether those are personal or diplomatic needs it doesn't matter. Now it's not the hypocrisy that bothers me, because in a country enslaving women to the will of God it makes a sick kind of sense that those in power don't obey the laws, laws that they themselves have written. What bothers me is that for the first time in the book it felt dated. In the introduction written by Valerie Martin she says that the reason this book is a classic is that it becomes more relevant the more time has passed. This struck me as so very true. Yes we can play "what if" games and think about how certain technological advances, like the Internet, would have changed the outcome, but taken as it is there is a timelessness to The Handmaid's Tale in every instance EXCEPT The Club. For the first time you can feel that this book was written in the 80s. Yes, you've known this all along, you've caught glimpses here and there but Offred arrives at that Club and wham, it's the 80s right in your face. And the thing is I can't quite put my finger on why. Is it the hotel design with it's glass elevators that anyone growing up in the 80s stayed at at one time or another? Was it the weird dishabille feathered outfit Offred dons? Was it the makeup she applied? There's not one thing on it's own, but everything in total all of a sudden dates this novel and takes away it's timelessness.

The truth is with The Club monopolizing the final third of the book with Offred's story abruptly ending shortly thereafter if it wasn't for the epilogue of "historical notes" The Handmaid's Tale would have been a tale worth quickly forgetting. The Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies gives the book a broader context. We get some indication of what happened to Offred, but more than that we learn a little about the cast of characters whom we've been spending so much time with. Hypotheses on who her Commander was, why she was called Offred (Of Fred) and so much more. Yet the "symposium" also gives a hint of what's to come in Offred's world, that it will become far harsher before it gets better. The times, the horrific times that Offred lived in are viewed by the academicians as rather lax, when having just spent all this time with Offred we know they are not. So one can draw some pretty horrific conclusions as to how much worse it got. What I also liked about this little end note was that it gave a stronger sense of reality and weight to Offred's story. She is the voice of the oppressed in Gilead. In a world where women weren't even allowed to read it's her story that survives. Her tale. Somehow these few pages made it all seem more real. I might have disliked Offred, I might have had issues in how she told her tale, but in the end the fact that her tale was told is viewed as a triumph because her voice got to be heard. This is oddly why I'm looking forward to the TV series so much. This epilogue opened up the world of Gilead more. Offred's world is so small, so cloistered, and yet there's this big world out there and I want to hear all the stories, I want to see all of this world, and then I want it burned to ash and stability and human equality returned.

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