In the Beginning by Chaim Potok

in-the-beginningInformation

Goodreads: In the Beginning
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1975

Official Summary

David Lurie learns that all beginnings are hard. He must fight for his place against the bullies in his Depression-shadowed Bronx neighborhood and his own frail health. As a young man, he must start anew and define his own path of personal belief that diverges sharply with his devout father and everything he has been taught…

Review

“All beginnings are hard.”

In the Beginning differs from some of Potok’s other novels in that the narration switches seamlessly between past and present, smearing together time. This is a literary style I do not always like, as I think it is often unnecessary and therefore can come across as pretentious, but Potok makes it work. It fits the story, as David attempts to explain the origins of his people and his beliefs, how his past is so strongly connected to his present and his future.  In the Beginning, then, though different in style from many Potok books, exudes the same heart and understanding of human nature that make Potok a true master.

David starts the novel as a sickly child, weak and often afraid, particularly of that which he does not understand.  His voice, to me, sometimes comes across as odd: too adult and yet so naïve at once.  He’ll frequently tell others (close to him) about his emotions, that he’s afraid or that “It was a really bad feeling.”  David, however, is supposed to be a bit of an oddball character, a child with a big brain he does not necessarily know how to use.  Adults credit him with understanding more than he lets on.  So, while young David is a bit strange, he grows throughout the novel, slowly coming into his own—and slowly losing his openness when he learns what it can cost him.

The book will draw to mind, a little, My Name Is Asher Lev, as David also struggles with wanting to learn and do and understand things his community thinks best not to be understood.  The theme here is more educational and intellectual attainment, rather than art, and it’s perhaps less at the forefront.  The protagonist’s struggles are comparable, however.  Strangely, though I love Potok’s works, I have never done biographical research on him.  Yet In the Beginning strikes me as clearly autobiographical, and I think I begin to understand some of what Potok must have lost—and gained—while pursuing his own writing career and his own search for truth.

Potok’s works, in general, are quite readable to those readers without much knowledge of Judaism, though I think In the Beginning gives somewhat fewer context clues for terms than Potok’s other novels.  It’s nothing a quick Google search will not be able to readily resolve for a reader, however.  This story also relies a bit on the reader’s knowledge of history, but only in very broad terms.  David lives through the Great Depression, though the term is never used and child Davis is only vaguely aware that many families have money problems; readers have to fill in the gaps.  A bit of the same ambiguity is applied to the description of WWII, though the novel gets gradually more explicit (which, admittedly, is historically accurate; David’s family is shocked by what the newspapers reveal at the war’s end).

Potok’s work is always deeply personal while also offering profound insight into humanity at large.  Others of Potok’s novels are closer to my heart, but In the Beginning is certainly a masterpiece in its own right and well worth the read.  I’m sorry I took this long to get around to it.

4 stars Briana

Movie Review: Moana

moanaSet in ancient Polynesia, Disney’s Moana tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who goes on a sea voyage to save her people.  Smart, funny, and full of emotion, this may be one of the greatest Disney films released, not just in recent years, but ever.  The old Disney standbys are there from the animal companion to the wise grandmother to the tension between an adventurous girl and her strict father.  But somehow it all feels new.

Early details about the movie made much of the fact that this Disney princess does not have a love interest.  However, focusing on what the film does not include seems potentially counterproductive to me.  The storyline works the way it is.  Moana is on a mission to save her people.  She doesn’t need a romance and adding one would have felt extraneous.  Where would Moana pick up a man, anyway?  Would the creators have needed to add a subplot where she washes ashore on an island and finds one, in between her doing her saving the world stuff?   That would have surely felt forced.

The film is confident enough that it largely does not need to reference other Disney princess films (though it does land at least one jab at the tropes) to establish itself as doing something different.  And this is the way it should be.  I don’t want to be comparing every minute of the story to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and wondering if Moana did it better or is feminist enough or if it’s somehow significant that a heroine is seen saving the world without a romantic interest.  At least not while I’m watching it–dissection can come later.  Moana‘s strength lies in the fact that it just assumes its heroine’s agency as a matter of course, and does not need to defend it or or use itself as a means of defending Disney’s record of princesses and agency in general.  Yes, the film says, women are smart and strong and funny and they can save the world.  Why would you assume anything else?

The film gets questions about Moana’s abilities out of the way by just assuming she has them, so we can focus on everything else.  The film is filled with an endearing cast of characters, has gorgeous visuals, has perfect comedic timing, and depicts some breathtaking action scenes.  And, of course, there’s the music!  You’ll leave the theatre wanting to learn all the songs, which are integrated seamlessly into the film, but also work well on their own.  Even when I considered that I might want to critique something in the film, such as the villain’s song (which seems stylistically out of keeping with the rest of the music), I just couldn’t.  I love the film too much.  It pulls on your heartstrings in all the right places.

And the heroine’s anthem?  Her final recognition of who she is?  It’s stunning and really the centerpiece of the film.  Moana the character ends her character arc by, again, just assuming that she is strong and capable and knowledgeable.  She declares that she has performed amazingly throughout her journey.  She owns her skills.  I have done this, she says.  To hear a female on screen take credit for her work and be celebrated for it, rather than being labelled aggressive or out of place, is truly an inspirational moment.

So go see Moana!  You won’t regret it!

5 starsKrysta 64

Movie Review: Anne of Green Gables (2016)

anne-2016Following the 1985 Anne of Green Gables mini series (starring Megan Follows) was always going to be difficult for this new film version.  Still, Anne’s story continues to delight readers and it seems that, over 30 years later, we might be due for a new interpretation.  Even after reading the summary (which states that the film ends–instead of beginning with– the decision to keep Anne) I thought I would give it a chance.  But this is one of the most painful films I have ever watched.

Presumably casual viewers might not find this film as awful as I did.  But, being a lifelong fan of Anne of Green Gables, I almost gave up seven minutes in. (Spoilers for the film and the book follow for the rest of the review.) The film opens with a dismal train scene.  It’s dark, the passengers are off-putting, and Anne is remembering her past abuse.  I actually appreciate that the film does not gloss over Anne’s sad past, but the dark colors seem wrong for the film.  The makers must have agreed as the film abruptly cuts off to green grass and a sweeping view of the sea.  The grittiness is over, aside from a few more flashbacks to past abuse.  The vibrant tone of the majority of the film makes it seem like a completely different film has been slapped onto the start.

After the train scene, we switch to Matthew Cuthbert, seen chasing a pig while yelling.  I repeat: Matthew Cuthbert is yelling.  He then falls into a mud puddle for laughs.  Even if we ignore that this a cliche joke and not very funny anyway, it’s hard to accept a film that uses shy, awkward, and endearing Matthew Cuthbert for physical humor.  He then yells at Marilla, yells an almost flirtatious greeting to Mrs. Rachel (“I doozy up pretty good, don’t you think?”), and has a normal conversation with Anne.  We also find out later that this Matthew actually went a-courting in the past, but he was too poor for anyone to have him.  The character resembles Matthew Cuthbert so little that the film should probably have given him a different name.

The film improves a little from here, but perhaps the experience is still far from pleasant.  Anne’s actress is unconvincing.  The actor who plays Gilbert has slicked back hair and almost comes across as smarmy.  Worse of all (for book fans), the Anne/Gilbert subplot is almost nonexistent, presumably because only about half the book is adapted.  It’s admittedly difficult to play up the Anne/Gilbert controversy without a way to resolve it at the end, since this Anne does not age into a young woman.  Still the film nods to a possible reconciliation when Gilbert hands Anne a decoration for the school and she smiles.  That’s the last we see of Gilbert and it’s unclear how Anne feels about him or why she seems to have softened towards him since the infamous “Carrots” incident.  Gilbert receives so little attention from the film that his character might as well have been cut.

The film condenses a lot of the action to ensure a short viewing time.  This means that  plot points like the loss of Marilla’s brooch, Anne’s desire to leave school, and Anne’s separation from Diana are resolved almost immediately.  But through such condensation leaves a little extra room, the film does not use the extra time to fit in the iconic scenes like Anne’s fall off the roof, her hair dye experiment, or Anne’s rescue on the lake.  Instead the film adds a different lake scene–Anne walks on a frozen lake and then falls in when the ice cracks (another overused plot point, I might add).  She then screams relentlessly for help, chastising Matthew for not being faster because she’s soooo cold and who cares if the man is doing his best and can’t go faster unless he wants to fall in, too?  So instead of being treated to favorite moments from the book, viewers are subjected to a whiny Anne in a cliche scenario.

Then we have to consider that the premise of the entire film is a bit ridiculous.  Marilla and Matthew are going to keep Anne for a year and then just send her away?  They’re going to make her love their home and her life and then as soon as they can clean their hands of her, just pretend her feelings (and theirs)  don’t matter? (Note that this Marilla has been giving Anne soft looks since the start and clearly loves her, but we’re supposed to buy that she’s willing to let go of Anne at the end.)  It’s a strange plan.  It also fundamentally changes Matthew’s character since he’s supposed to be startling everyone by firmly refusing to let go of Anne.  Here he doesn’t do anything.  Anne can stay, Anne can leave.  Whatever.  Matthew will do what Marilla says.  It doesn’t really make you want to connect with either Matthew or Marilla on an emotional level.

Finally, many of the decisions of the film just do not make any sense.  For instance, the  film repeatedly shows us that Matthew has heart trouble in foreshadowing.  But Matthew doesn’t die in this version.  So he’s just randomly having heart trouble and I guess…it’s…part of his character?  It doesn’t seem to affect him much except in random scenes.  Yes, we all always wanted a story where Matthew lives, but in that case, cut the scenes of him having spells.  In another scene, we learn that Marilla once was courted but her mother did not approve.  This change ruins the parallels between Anne’s relationship with Gilbert and Marilla’s relationship with Gilbert’s father.  But I suppose since Gilbert’s barely a character in this story, the creators did not think it mattered.  Which also raises the question of why we needed such a line in the first place.  Presumably it’s meant to humanize Marilla, but this Marilla is a big ole softy anyway.

When I think back on what I liked about this film, I liked most of the music (though it was often used in a rather heavy-handed manner to indicate that a mood change is happening!).  And Julie LaLonde gives a fair performance as Diana, who is not so dull in this version but shares excitedly in Anne’s flights of fancy.  Other than that, well….  If you’re an Anne fan, I would recommend returning to the 1985 mini series.  That one never disappoints.

1 starKrysta 64

Classic Remarks: 1984 and the Orwellian State

Classic Remarks
Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  We look forward to seeing your responses!


This Week’s Question

George Orwell’s 1984 is often referenced when discussions of privacy and oversight arise.  Do you think an Orwellian state could happen or is that overstating the case?

 

Answer

1984

I enjoy 1984 as a story–it’s tense and presents a world that’s truly horrifying in its attempt to stifle freedom of thought and free will.  However, to me, the book is appealing in the way a story about ghosts or aliens is; the thought of it happening  gives me delicious chills, but I know it’s highly unlikely it actually will happen.

I won’t say with 100% certainty that a society like that in 1984 can never exist; after all, anything is possible under the correct set of circumstances.  However, the problem with creating and maintaining the Orwellian state is that people really don’t want to consent to it.  You need force to create the society, and you need constant force to maintain it. And when you’re using force to maintain a society, people start getting the sense there’s something wrong and maybe they should rebel against you.

The characters in 1984, even though government officials try to keep them content and oblivious of the true nature of history and the current society, are all too aware that there’s something unpleasant going on.  A number of them are actually employed in tasks that contribute to the rewriting of history (see our main character).  When maintaining the fiction of the society requires a large number of workers, there’s a reasonable chance some of those workers will refuse to submit quietly to their given task.  Furthermore, the constant surveillance–even within people’s own homes–is too much of a tip that the government is trying very, very hard to control people.  The main takeaway seems to be that maintaining this type of society takes a lot of effort and a lot of manpower.  It’s difficult to establish in the first place and difficult to keep safe from rebellions.

This why, although I think 1984 is the better story, Brave New World is more prescient dystopian.  In Brave New World, people aren’t forced (too much) to conform to the new world order; they want to conform.  The society offers the people things that are appealing to many people: sexual freedom, recreational drugs, stable employment and a clear place in society, etc.  The people who rebel do so because they seem to have some inherent sense that the manufactured happiness is boring; they aren’t rebelling because the government is too obviously trying to force them to do things they don’t want to do.

So, no, I won’t be fearing the imminent coming of the Orwellian state. I understand we’re getting feasibly closer with the development of new technologies and a growing demand to have more cameras in society for the prevention of crime. However, we’re a long way from willingly giving up our freedom and letting cameras into our homes.  And even though it’s possible to collect a large amount of data about a large number of people, right now there’s no desire and no manpower.  Could the government tap everyone’s phones? Probably. If they wanted. But they don’t, and if they did, they don’t currently have enough employees to deal with all the gathered information.  Maybe in the future desires will change and new technologies will be able to handle the data.  Right now, though, I’m not worried.

What are your thoughts? Link us to your posts in the comments!

Briana

Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

leepike-ridgeINFORMATION

Goodreads: Leepike Ridge
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2007

SUMMARY

Eleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

REVIEW

N. D. Wilson’s first book for children differs from his later selections in that it features no fantasy magic, and yet it still suggests something of the magical, or at least the wondrous.  Tom Hammond, after all, finds an adventure right in his back yard–the kind of adventure that tests one courage and changes one forever.  It’s the type of thing any young reader secretly longs for–the chance to prove themselves a hero.

It’s true that a gang of treasure hunters, or perhaps just thugs, ups the stakes a little and makes the adventure just a little more than the type of thing one could reasonably expect if also whisked down the river to an unknown subterranean world.  They give an old-timey Western feel to the whole, which almost provides comic relief, even though they’re capable of murder.  This weird balance between comical and dangerous almost makes their presence seem extraneous to the story, as if they were not fully thought out.  But they certainly relief the tedium of watching a character walk around a dark cave system, which is probably the point.

Tom’s story underground takes up just enough space in the book to keep it interesting, though I admit that descriptions of him climbing about did bore me a little.  Still, Wilson adds in his signature philosophy to lighten these scenes–that is, he provides somewhat cryptic but high-sounding phrases and allusions to make it seem like something Big and Important is happening here.  Which, it is.  Tom is going to find out if he’s a hero.  He’s also going to find out if he’s a dead hero or a live one.

Altogether, the book is fast-paced read that is classic Wilson-a boy, an adventure, and a hint of something greater behind it all.  Fans of 100 Cupboards and the Ashtown Burials series will find a lot to love here, even if the book is not fantasy.

Krysta 644 stars

Five Books That Will Make You Feel Better About the World

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Absolutely AlmostSummary

Albie has always been an “almost”–almost getting the answers right on the test, almost having his artwork chosen for display, almost getting to do the science fair.  But almost isn’t good enough, or so his father says.  Will Albie ever be good at anything or will he have to resign himself to always almost making his parents proud?

What Makes It Special

Most books about a protagonist who feels like they don’t have any unique talents or anything special about them usually ends with the protagonist discovering super powers or at least a latent ability to do something, anything–even if it’s just that they can tie a fantastic knot.  This kind of message is encouraging but still suggests that readers need to find their hidden super power.  Absolutely Almost is different because it really does celebrate a protagonist who does not end up being the Chosen One or a mean cookie baker or a late-blooming tap dancing star.  Albie likes doughnuts.  And that’s enough.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

The Key to ExtraordinarySummary

For generations the women in Emma’s family have had dreams leading them to their destinies.  Emma can’t wait for the day her own special path is laid out before her.  But then the dream comes and it leads her to an old buried treasure.  Does Emma really have what it takes to solve the mystery?

What Makes It Special

Lloyd creates a magical world where it rains flowers and voices of the past give guidance to the men and woman of the present.  What makes this book extraordinary, however, is how it celebrates the ordinary.  Everyone here, no matter how loud or quiet, strange or boring, is seen as special.  Every life counts and everyone makes a difference.  It’s a heartwarming read that reminds us that we don’t have to be the same to be valuable.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

A Snicker of MagicSummary

Magic used to flow throughout the town of Midnight Gulch.  When twelve-year-old Felicity Pickle arrives, she hopes that enough remains to allow her family to grow roots in the first place that has ever felt like home.  Along with her first-ever friend Jonah Pickett, a do-gooder kid who helps her to believe in her own magic, Felicity will attempt to  make her family whole.

What Makes It Special

This book reminds me a little of a Miyazaki film because it believes so whole-heartedly in the goodness of people.  Felicity Pickle moves to a town where just about everyone is kind and helpful–and Felicity still manages to have adventures!  Best of all, she meets her first friend Jonah Pickett, a kid in a wheelchair who does his best to spread kindness through the town and manages to be inspirational instead of sickeningly sweet.

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

At the Back of the North WindSummary

Diamond never dreamt that he would meet the North Wind–a being who takes him on journeys across the globe as she goes about her appointed tasks.  But his lovely experiences become fewer as he grows and soon he must face the hardships of everyday life.  But one who has been at the back of the North Wind never can forget the beauty there, or the promise of joy to come.

Why It’s Special

George MacDonald’s work could easily have become another sentimental work celebrating the cult of the child, but MacDonald believes so whole-heartedly in his own vision of goodness and charity that it seems impossible not to be swept away by the North Wind, just like Diamond.  He reminds us that life is often hard and bitter, but there are moments of beauty, too.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green GablesSummary

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert plan to adopt an orphan boy to help on the farm, but a mistake sends them eleven-year-old Anne Shirley instead.  Anne has an imagination as big as her heart, but also a penchant for getting into scrapes.

Why It’s Special

Anne has delighted countless of generations since Montgomery introduced her to the world in 1908.  With her love of life,  her ability to celebrate the beauty and joy of small things, and her knack for saying precisely the right thing to cheer somebody up, Anne feels like a breath of fresh air.  Maybe we all need a little Anne in our lives.

Krysta 64

Movie Review: The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat ReturnsInformation

Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Writer: Reiko Yoshida
Release: 2002

Summary

After high school student Haru saves Lune, prince of the cats, his father rewards Haru with Lune’s hand in marriage.  Desperate to find a way out of the marriage, Haru seeks the aid of the Baron and the Cat Bureau.  But unless Haru can find a way to believe in herself, all may be lost.

Review

The Cat Returns is undeniably a weird movie.  Centered around the premise that a human girl will wed a cat, it raises disturbing questions for adult viewers prone to overthink the logic of films.  Perhaps children in the audience will merely think the idea funny or in keeping with the spirit of fantasy.  This latter attitude seems the best one to adopt in order to get through the film.  It’s strange, it’s disturbing, but you just have to go with it.

Once you accept the weirdness of the film, it’s pretty enjoyable.  To avoid marrying the prince of the cats, Haru seeks the aid of the Baron, a cat figurine who comes to life.  He possesses all the dash, gentility, and charm you’d want from your hero and it’s not particularly surprising that Haru finds herself crushing on him a bit.  (I guess it doesn’t hurt that he’s voiced by Cary Elwes, either.)  A blend of comical hijinks and impressive swashbuckling ensues as the Baron accepts the challenge and attempts to mount his rescue attempt.  It’s serious enough that the stakes feel high but also light enough that no one will get scared.

The Cat Returns will probably never rank high on my list of favorite Studio Ghibli films, but it is a delightful story and a fun way to pass an evening, particularly if you’re looking for something light and cheery.  It ends with the obligatory feel-good message about trusting in one’s self and shares the Studio Ghibli trait of presenting the world as sunny and full of good people who just want to help others and make everyone feel good about themselves. It’s a world I love to return to.

4 starsKrysta 64