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Monday, May 4, 2015

Ordinary People

Ordinary peopleOrdinary People
Movie Review by Gerti

I am a crier. I cry at a lot of things: movies, books, Hallmark commercials, dead animals by the side of the road. Just because I cry a lot doesn’t mean there aren’t things worth crying over, and this movie, “Ordinary People,” contains one of them. That is, I cried because a young man tried to kill himself. I cried because his mother was a cold fish who loved her dead son more than her living son. I cried because… because “Ordinary People” contains so many weep-worthy twists of emotion as I watched this family tear itself apart.

The story is a simple one. An upper-middle class family has two teenaged sons. Both went sailing on Lake Michigan. One died when their boat overturned, and the other is wracked with guilt at the death of his older sibling. The dead brother, Buck, was good at so many things, but the younger brother, Conrad, is the sensitive one, so he doesn’t see himself as strong. He tried to commit suicide after his brother died, but instead comes home from the hospital to find that his mother resents him for his brother’s death, for his suicide attempt, and in fact for everything he does that makes their family seem less than perfect to her friends. There is a beautiful scene where Con yells at his mom for never coming to see him in the hospital, and the father simply makes excuses for her. Hard to watch!

Con tries to solve his issues by going to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, but his mother also finds that embarrassing. Con quits the swim team and tries to connect with other people, especially girls he knows, all in an attempt to find his true identity in the face of tragedy. He also tries to reconnect with his mother, but it becomes heartbreakingly clear that she is unavailable to him, that all she wants to do is get out of town, out of the country, away from her surviving son, and just play golf. The devastating aspect of it is that she tries to take Con’s father away, too, leaving Con no one within his household with whom he can communicate.

It all unravels eventually when Calvin, the father, confronts his wife about her coldness toward their surviving son. Instead of talking to him, or seeking psychiatric treatment, she chooses to pack her things and leave. But you get the feeling that abrupt as that action seems, it means good things for the two remaining family members, dad Calvin and son Conrad. The final scene shows them connecting outdoors (the house is poison?) and hope grows that their relationship will blossom in the absence of the cold, manipulative wife & mother.

The title is ironic, because this family is anything but ordinary with their wealth and their twisted relationships. But the two surviving members in the Lake Forest, Illinois household, dad and son, are seen as working toward a day when they will only be troubled by ordinary irritations - low grades at school, a weird swim coach, or unprofitable stock transactions. I love how the father, despite being browbeaten by his wife, reaches out to the son who needs him so desperately, which opens his eyes to the real cancer in the family, his aloof spouse. Must see.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Walking Dead - Book 6

The Walking Dead – Book Six by Robert Kirkman
Review by Gerti Zaccone

I have been a fan of the AMC series “The Walking Dead” since it first premiered a few years ago. That said, however, I am not a big fan of the graphic novel format, preferring Kirkman’s story on the screen rather than on the bleakly colored page. But this season, where Rick Grimes and his group enter Alexandria, had me too anxious to wait for the next episodes to find out if this post-apocalyptic Eden was too good to be true.

As a result, I chose to read “TWD – Book 6”, hoping that I would be far enough along in the series to catch the group of survivors as they enter the zombie-free Virginia enclave. My timing was just right. It is in Book Six where the survivors I have come to know approach DC.

What I find fascinating about this graphic novel is not so much the story, however, but how this story differs from the one being told on TV. I’ll wander into fan-talk when I say that I was interested that the leader of the oblivious village of Alexandria is a man in this story, while on TV it is a woman, named Deanna. Several characters that I love who have died on the series, like Dale and Andrea, are still here in Book Six, while others that I love on the series like Carol and Darryl, don’t appear in this book. Other decisions are also different – here Michonne is the one who creates a scene at the cocktail party, while on AMC it is Sasha who begins to shout.

I don’t know why the creators of the TV series decided to make these changes, but I would love to know. I think any fan of the show would also like to read this graphic novel. However, I prefer the portrayal of Rick on TV. Who wouldn’t prefer sexy British actor Andrew Lincoln to the skeletal one-handed Rick drawn in these pages? I think of reading these books as a supplement to my enjoyment of the show, but it truly makes me appreciate the genius that went into casting the actors who bring my favorite characters to life every Sunday night.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

You Belong to Me

You Belong To Me 
You Belong to Me by Mary Higgins Clark
Review by Gerti

There is a great and plausible plot in Mary Higgins Clark’s offering “You Belong to Me” up until a sour note sounds when the killer is revealed at the end. The novels tells the story of a man who targets lonely women on vacation. The whack-job (and I think I can call him that!) uses the old song as the basis of his killing spree. If you don’t know the tune, it goes – “See the pyramids along the Nile. Watch the sunset on a tropic isle. Just remember darling all the while, you belong to me.” There are other verses, but you get the point. He takes women away from their tour groups and to the places named in the song, and then they disappear. Oh, and being freaky, he gives them all identical rings, which is what makes him easier to catch.

Dr. Susan Chandler is a radio psychologist like Dr. Fraser Crane. Hoping to warn women against being victims, she has a guest on her show who wrote a new book about women who disappear and have become victims of crimes due to their loneliness. That on-air discussion puts Dr. Chandler in the swirling heart of danger. She is contacted by the mother of one such victim, Regina Clausen, a wealthy successful woman who found romance on a cruise and then was never heard from again. Other women begin to call the show with clues about a ring that reads “You Belong to Me”, but when Chandler tries to track it down, she finds both that girl caller and the New York maker of those custom rings are dead. Is the killer someone Susan knows? Has he been listening to her show? Or is it the author of the book himself?

Like most Clark stories, there are red herrings thrown into the plot before the true killer is revealed. There are also other evil characters, male and female, who give spice to the action, including Susan’s man-hungry sister, Dee. In the end, however, I find that Clark’s killer choice seemed wrong. He was the least likely suspect, and even at the dramatic conclusion of the story, seems like a square peg shoved into a round hole for the sake of Clark’s being unpredictable. The rest of the writing was in Clark’s usual easy-going style, which made “You Belong to Me” a pleasure to read, although I did get tired of hearing about the lyrics to the title song! Not her best, but still fun.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Month by the Lake

A month by the lake“A Month by the Lake”
Movie Review by Gerti

There are few forms of entertainment that I can abandon after committing to them. Once I start a book, I have to finish reading it, no matter how bad. Once I start watching a movie, the same thing happens. But fortunately for me, in my lifetime there have been few books and movies so bad that I wanted to stop before I had finished them. This film, “A Month by the Lake,” is one of those.

Famous actress Vanessa Redgrave stars as Miss Bentley, an older British woman at a lovely villa by Italy’s Lake Como. She has been vacationing there for 16 years, always before with her father. But now he has passed away, and she is alone. Well, not really alone, because she knows everyone else there: the owner, the staff, more older anglo ladies, and a wealthy vacationing Italian family. But the excitement this year is that a bachelor has come into their midst, an older, British gentleman named Major Wilshaw. What a perfect setting for romance!

It would be, except that I HATE Vanessa Redgrave’s character. Since she is the protagonist, I should be sympathetic to her plight, but I find everything she does annoying and distasteful. Her personality is grating, and she says all the wrong things when she is introduced to the Major, whose name is Paul. They attempt several “dates”, but things always end in disaster. They make a date to eat together, but she runs late and then decides to eat with the huge Italian family instead, and he must join them. They decide to take a boat trip together, but her watch stops, and hence they miss the boat back. She decides to hitch a ride with some hot male motorcyclists, even though he cautions her not to.

Is it any surprise then that he is far more attracted to the American nanny hired by the Italian family to care for their two daughters? This woman is young, blonde Uma Thurman, and although she seems initially to be sweet on him (giving him a rose and kiss when he leaves), she is merely playing with him. But so is Vanessa’s character, who is also flirting with a young Italian man who finds her lithe aging body attractive. He has spent time with British women before on holiday in the UK, and apparently thinks she will find his attentions welcome. She does not, although she is willing to take nude pictures of him (her idea, not his).

Behind this terrible story is flimsy political wallpaper, as several fascist parades occur and the owner of the villa seems concerned about the changes that are coming. But it is all a thin gilding of high art on what is a very bad film about British and American characters who are all terrible people. Vanessa sums her character up when she tells the major she had a 15 year affair with a married man, but when his wife died, he somehow no longer wanted to marry this mistress of his. She is an insanely selfish person who has never grown up and makes the lives of those around her miserable with her whimsy. In the end, she and the Major find romance, but that is as far-fetched as the idea that a 20-something Italian model boy would stoop to romancing a British pensioner.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's and three storiesBreakfast at Tiffany’s and 3 short stories

 by Truman Capote

Reviewed by Gerti

I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” many years ago, and knew him to be a very talented writer. Like that iconic book, the short novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” also went Hollywood, starring gorgeous waif Audrey Hepburn, whom everyone remembers from “My Fair Lady,” and a very handsome George Peppard, whom no one remembers. “Tiffany’s” is found in a very tiny volume, perhaps 5” by 7”, 161 pages in all, and that also includes 3 short stories, so it’s no surprise the filmmakers had to add (and change) a lot to make a movie. Of course, the book is better than the movie, but you should experience both for contrast.

His writing is clever, but tight, and Capote excels when writing descriptions, like that of heroine Holly Golightly and her big city lifestyle. The plot and motivations are weaker and decidedly unromantic, and perhaps that’s why filmmaker Blake Edwards decided to change things, like the ending, for his movie audience. He also significantly changed the male narrator, whom Holly calls “Fred”, into a gigolo, which I don’t think was what Capote intended for his narrator at all. Edwards cuts some of the characters from Capote’s novel for simplicity’s sake, but then adds others to go along with his re-tooling of Capote’s tale.

Taken in its entirety, the Capote book, complete with the 3 short stories which follow “Tiffany’s”, has Truman writing about quirky characters, and the relationships they have with others. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Capote seems concerned with the essence of these people, and the phony persona’s they present to the world. For example, charming urbanite Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Barnes, a run-away bride from Tulip, Texas, who lives in New York by her wits and tricks. In the short story “House of Flowers,” which follows the novel, the protagonist is a female prostitute, a very young and popular one in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who falls in love, and then has to deal with the cruelty of her husband and his grandmother when she leaves the business behind to marry him. She cannot really escape the past, as her prostitute friends pay her a visit in her new home. Similarly in “Tiffany’s,” Lulamae’s husband, aging veterinarian Dr. Golightly, comes to NYC to convince her to come home to her children. Neither woman goes back, and perhaps here Capote is trying to say that you can never go back to what you were in this life, that the only way is to continue going forward, even if it’s in another direction, and love plays no part in how the story ends.

That’s why the movie’s ending to me is so wrong, for it has Holly staying in New York, taking back her cat and giving in to her love for “Fred.” This doesn’t happen in the book, and I think it doesn’t exactly because of the point Capote was trying to make about one’s past. The other two stories, “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory”, both resonate to the same note – things happen in life that separate us irrevocably from our past, and the people who dwell there, and while we can think fondly about it, and them, we really can’t return.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Other Voices, Other Rooms

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Reviewed by Gerti

I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” many years ago, and knew him to be a very talented writer, perhaps even, as Norman Mailer said, “the most perfect writer of my generation.” Unlike that book, however, Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” is an imperfect masterpiece, Mona Lisa in a tube top. Some of the writing is clever and tight, but other chapters, especially near the end, are meandering messes that sorely needed the eye and pen of a good editor.

The book details the life of 12-year-old Joel Knox who goes to the deep South to live with his father after Joel’s mother dies. His father lives in a decaying old plantation called Skully’s Landing, a name filled with foreboding and menace, which the place lives up to. Even after his adventure-filled trip there, Joel has to wait a long while to see his father, who is in a sort of coma. His father’s caretakers as well as gatekeepers are Joel’s stepmother Amy and his uncle Randolph. Like a character from Thomas Harris’ “Silence of the Lambs”, Uncle Randolph flounces around the novel, painting, singing and telling sad stories to young Joel while wearing costumes from La Cage aux Folles. Amy is a bit of a tyrant who comes unhinged occasionally, especially after the house servant leaves. The sanest people at the house are the servants, Missouri “Zoo” Fever and her father, Jesus, an aged man who dies before the end of the novel, setting off Zoo’s disastrous exodus to Washington, D.C.

Capote excels when writing descriptions, like that of hero Joel and his friends, Isabel and Florabel Thompkins, one of whom is Joel’s love interest. In fact all the characters in the book are refreshingly quirky, even the people who drive trucks and run rib restaurants that Joel spends just a little time with. It’s the plot and character motivations which are the weakness in this book. It is a bildungsroman, as Joel grows up during the course of the book, finding not only his long-lost father, but his own sexuality as he tries to decide between romancing Idabel, a tomboy his own age, and Miss Wisteria, a midget who sees in Joel her only chance at love with a creature nearly her size. And of course there is the underlying sexual tension between Uncle Randolph and Joel, but Capote doesn’t go there in this book, and the homosexual urges remains unfulfilled.

In OVOR, Capote brings forward a familiar theme in his writing, one he would use again in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood”, which is that things happen in life that separate us irrevocably from our past and the people who dwell there, and while we can think fondly about it, we really can’t return. Holly Golightly can never go back to being Lulamae Barnes after she’s lived in New York, and the Clutter family killers can never go back to a time before the murders. Even though Joel Knox returns to his father, his father is not really a father to him, and in fact wanders away from the plantation at the end of the book. Joel leaves his illusions and his childhood behind him. I wish there were more here than just quirky people stuck in unusual places, but there is no real salvation here for Joel, who ends stronger, but more alone at the end of the book than he ever was before.

Monday, February 23, 2015


SiegeSiege - As the World Dies: Book Three

by Rhiannon Frater

Reviewed by Gerti

Rhiannon Frater’s zombie apocalypse trilogy, begins with “The First Days” and ends here with “Siege”. The second book is called “Fighting to Survive” and is to my mind the best book of the three, as “Siege” spends too much time bringing back the dead as ghosts, rather than zombies. It stretches credibility too far!

The trilogy centers around former prosecutor Katie, who helped out housewife Jenni when the zombie apocalypse hit urban Texas. After trials and tribulations, the pair end up in a walled fort in Ashley Oaks with about a hundred other survivors of the turn. Katie is now pregnant by Travis, a former architect who has successfully fortified the town against the undead, as well as human raiders eager for their resources. Jenni, who lost her abusive husband and small children to the zombies, is now living happily with Juan, and her stepson Jason. Her reputation for mad zombie killing has led Juan to nickname her “Loca,” and she lives up to her reputation for crazy stunts in this book.

Frater obviously loves the entire zombie genre, as she introduces us to another survivor colony out at a former shopping mall, in a nod to Romero’s classic zombie movie. Jenni and another survivor from Ashley Oaks named Bill, get kidnapped and taken to this Madison Rescue Center after an attempt to get medical supplies and equipment from a local hospital goes sideways. The mall has about 400 survivors, but is surrounded by zombies and run by a power hungry former senator, who just happens to be related to a bitchy beauty queen expelled from Ashley Oaks after killing her husband, shooting Juan, and trying to steal a Hummer. The senator, Paige Brightman, is more interested in capturing Ashley Oaks (which would make her look good to whatever US government officials are left) than she is in securing the safety of her fellow human survivors.

The two groups decide to talk, Ashley Oaks in order to get back their people, and Brightman in order to take over the fort and its inhabitants. But when the mall’s citizens decide they would rather be in the fort which has more resources and is being far better managed than Brightman’s military operation, Brightman decides to bail and in the process, lets a flood of zombies into the mall. It’s heartbreaking to read graphically about all the carnage, including the demise of some main characters, but Katie and Travis save as many mall-dwelling humans as they can and take them to their fort.

The final drama of this book has a zombie horde of over 10 thousand headed their way, which causes planning, panic and prompts some rabid religious followers to desert the fort. My main objection in this novel is all the ghost sightings that go on, but it’s a good enough conclusion to the saga. I love Frater’s memorable characters, and admire how she brings Ashley Oaks to life.