Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

Ordeal by Innocence

By Agatha Christie

Ordeal_By_InnocenceWe finally bit the bullet and got Amazon Prime in order to watch “Good Omens,” and since then I’ve also been diving into all the Agatha Christie I’d been pining after. I’d previously reviewed the novel Crooked House, and the movie lacks a fair amount of the charm of the novel, replacing the more familial relationships with additional drama. However, the casting is truly amazing: Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, and Christina Hendricks, all playing extreme personalities rubbing against each other in the titular crooked house. So, while I preferred the novel overall, the movie is well worth a watch.

After Crooked House, Amazon recommended “Ordeal by Innocence,” a three-part miniseries based on another stand-alone Agatha Christie novel I wasn’t familiar with. Well, I absolutely loved it! An authoritative matriarch has adopted five children from a variety of troubled backgrounds and raised them with dictatorial love. At the time of the book and miniseries’ start, she has been murdered 18 months ago, and the youngest son, with a history of delinquency, found guilty from overwhelming evidence. The son had insisted on his innocence until he died in prison, providing an alibi that couldn’t be confirmed.

The first character we meet is the man who could have proven the alibi, but has been incapacitated for the past 18 months, and is only coming forward now. This of course opens a whole can of worms, as the family had finally settled into some semblance of acceptance of the mother’s death and the son’s culpability, and now suspicion is everywhere again.

The miniseries takes some of the subtext from the book and makes it straight up text, leading to some deliciously shocking reveals along the way. Controversially, the series actually changes the ending, going with a different perpetrator and motive than the book. The revised ending maintains the spirit of the book, and gives a clear nod to a pivotal relationship in the original.

The book is much quieter, taking a more philosophical approach toward what it means to be innocent of a crime if no one can prove it (thus the title). Wikipedia cited that it was not one of Christie’s more popular novels, with reviewers wary of the psychological delving into motives and character. I wouldn’t normally have minded this, but 1950s psychology is rough. The women are portrayed especially uncharitably, which I would guess inspired the changed ending.

As Rebecca pointed out, the two books complement each other fairly well: both large, wealthy families consisting of conflicting strong personalities; in one, the troubled backgrounds of the family members lead naturally to conflict; in the other, the family seems to turn to conflict themselves just for the entertainment. For each, I preferred the version that included the most warmth in characters, and for one that was the novel and for the other the updated series.

As an aside, we also tried to watch “The ABC Murders” with John Malkovich as an aging and depressed Hercule Poirot, and it was such a depressing grind that we couldn’t get past the first episode.

A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.

Sorcerer to the Crown

By Zen Cho

This has been a trying couple of weeks – I’ve been obsessively reading twitter and facebook until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I read fiction until I can’t stand being away from social media. Zen Cho, however, has been a real comfort during these times, though.

jade-yeoThe novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo features a Malaysian woman trying to make a living as a journalist in Victorian-era England. It is short and funny and touching, all told through her journal entries. It just felt very much like a story by a woman for other women.* The male characters, both good and bad, are only given context in relation to Jade, and the story focuses primarily on her growth as a young adult trying to establish her sense of self. So, this was extremely comforting in these worrisome times.

sorcerer-to-the-crownSorcerer to the Crown, the full-length novel, starts slowly and in very high-fantasy fashion, set in a magical version of Regency-era England. It reminded me almost immediately of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but luckily it picks up the pace much more quickly. Zacharias Wythe, as a very young boy, proves his extraordinary magical ability in front of a large panel of sorcerers, who promptly all lose their shit. This is not because Zacharias shows such promise so early, but rather because he is a freed African slave. The lead sorcerer adopts him and trains him to be his successor as Sorcerer Royal, the position he holds at the time the book.

A large contingent of white sorcerers actively work against him, even against their own self-interest, solely in order to oust him from his position by spreading outrageous rumors and innuendos. As the story revolves around an extremely thoughtful and conscientious black man trying to navigate the world of magic through difficult times, while surrounded by white men who are actively rooting for his failure, it became much less of an escapist fantasy.

Zacharias then runs across a young woman who shows strong magical abilities, and decides to train her, in the face of all traditional lore saying that magic is beyond women’s understanding. Reading about this black man conquering his enemies and silencing his naysayers, while working with a woman to do the same with hers, just about broke my heart. We didn’t get the ending we deserved, but at least this fictional world did.

the_dressmaker*If I can be excused a diversion for an additional recommendation – a few months ago I saw “The Dressmaker,” and I absolutely loved it! It is an Australian film that didn’t get a lot of showings, even though it stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth. The preview looked amazing to me – a haute couture dressmaker has to move back to her very rural Australian town in order to take care of her elderly mother – but the reviews were mixed. The negative reviews all tended to revolve around uneven storytelling and shifting mood, and I started to formulate a theory that this movie might be telling a story in a more traditionally female way, one that focuses on relationships and character growth, rather than a single-trajectory action sequence. Seeing the movie absolutely confirmed that for me, and it felt amazing to see a movie that was so clearly by women about women and for women.


Suddenly Last Summer

By Tennessee Williams

So, I watched “Suddenly Last Summer” the other night – I’d been meaning to watch it for a while because what a cast! Katherine Hepburn! Liz Taylor! Montgomery Clift! Also, what a plot – psychosis, lobotomies, and cannibals! I had no idea how all of this could fit into one two-hour movie, and I’m still not entirely sure, actually.

My first impression (spoiling the big reveal, but you’ve had over half a century to check this one out) was that this was one of the most homophobic movies I’ve ever seen, but then I was confused because the original play was written by Tennessee Williams, who was openly gay himself, and though he clearly had a wide variety of issues, I never thought his sexuality to be one of them. (It turns out I may have been wrong about this, actually.)

There was another, subtler theme of gods and sacrifices running through the play, though, and I wondered if that was more prominent in the original version, and a homophobic Hollywood played up the homosexual angle instead. All of this to say that I checked out the one-act play to see for myself.

So, I remain a bit confused. It is not wildly different from the movie. The first part is pretty much a monologue by the mother (Katherine Hepburn’s character), and it showcases Williams’ trademark Southern mother – overbearing, out of touch, and clinging to old-fashioned social mannerisms. There are some hints that Williams is also criticizing some artifice in the gay lifestyles of the time, though I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet (the end). The lobotomy aspect was rolled out a bit more subtly than in the movie (which wouldn’t have been difficult, since the movie opens on a lobotomy procedure), and is more conflicted about the process than the movie projected (the adulation of the lobotomizing doctor in the movie made me a little uncomfortable, as well).

The second part is mostly a long monologue by the cousin (played by Elizabeth Taylor), and this is where the most problematic parts of the movie come in, with her exposing her cousin’s homosexual and promiscuous lifestyle and how it ultimately lead to his downfall. In the end, I guess I would say that the movie switches the priority of themes from the book; the theme of a sacrifice-demanding god is somewhat more prominent than homosexuality in the written play. Though because the play is really just two monologues strung together by a bare minimum of structure, I would say that this is more of philosophical and/or psychological study than anything else, really. I’m still somewhat baffled by it all, but after doing some brief online research, it looks like I’m in good company; this play is still quite the cinematic controversy. (Also, the contemporary review of the file is a hilarious panning!)


Marvel Comic Books

My comic book binge continues!

The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past

Book CoverMy partner and I are big fans of superhero movies, and really enjoyed the most recent X-Men reboot. When the previews for this summer’s sequel came out, though, I couldn’t make head or tails of the storyline, and Tom recommended that I read the comic books that it is based on. The storyline was originally published over two issues of The Uncanny X-Men in 1981 and released as a trade paperback in 2011.

I have repeatedly mentioned that artwork is very important to me, and I found the 80s aesthetic a little trying, but the dystopian future and desperate intervention from the past plotline was quite engaging. (Also, the dystopian future is set in 2013, and I wonder if they originally aimed for a release date last year.) Ultimately, though, I don’t know that reading the book helped with my initial issue, since I believe the movie is taking a lot of freedoms from the source material. The primary one being that now Wolverine is the pivotal character instead of Kitty Pryde. The comic book fan in me is attempting to argue that this change is just due to Wolverine being very popular, but the feminist in me isn’t totally buying it (not least because both sides of me suspect that Wolverine is starting to be played out).

The All-New X-Men: Yesterday’s X-Men

Book CoverReleased just this year, the “Yesterday’s X-Men” trade paperback is pretty much the mirror image of “Days of Future Past.” My X-Men reading heyday was many years ago, so a lot has happened since I stopped checking in monthly. Comic books are similar to soap operas in a lot of ways: a set roster of characters rotates through years of marriages, breakups, feuds, and deaths. This book actually builds on all of that, and references the past craziness in very nice and often humorous ways, without overwhelming the reader with past references.

The basic premise is that so much craziness has happened and the X-Men have gotten so fractured that Beast decides that he needs to bring the teenage X-Men from the 60s forward in time so that the current X-Men can face their past selves and recognize where they have gone wrong. This does not work ideally, of course, and the play between the two sets of X-Men is very interesting and entertaining. (And the illustration is some of the best I’ve seen recently in the big superhero comics—everyone is of course in peak physical condition but no one is ridiculously stacked in either musculature or T&A.)

Hawkeye: Little Hits

Book CoverRebecca previously reviewed Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon, and I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it. It is so different from any other superhero comic I’ve read: Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) is just trying to get by in life when he isn’t with the Avengers, and is only somewhat successful at it. I was initially taken aback by the bleak and almost noir-ish world, but I think it is quickly becoming a favorite. Life is not easy for Clint Barton, partly due to circumstance and partly due to personal poor decision-making, but he perseveres, and I enjoy reading about it. (Oh, and not to harp too much on disappointing girl-power comics, but Hawkeye’s female protégé is so casually tough and independent that there’s no need to make a big deal out of it in the writing.)

“Little Hits” is the second volume, released just last year, and does some very interesting things with the comic book medium, including an issue entirely from the point of view of Clint’s dog, using a series of pictograms to communicate thoughts. The back of the book also includes several pages from the artist’s sketchbook, along with a description of his very minimalist approach toward color and it was fascinating, as well.