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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie Review - Still Alice

Still AliceMovie Review: “Still Alice”
Reviewed by Gerti

The movie “Still Alice” is based on the book of the same name by Lisa Genova. It stars Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old woman whose life is overturned by Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease. I read the book several months ago, and therefore was very excited to see the movie version, hoping it would put into poignant pictures what Genova had so terrifyingly described in her book, but the book is much better than the film.

The movie story is pretty much the same, but I am bothered by the petty differences, because I can’t see why they were changed. For example, in the book, Alice is a Harvard professor. In the movie version, she is a professor at Columbia, and therefore lives in New York rather than Boston. My husband thinks the change was made because the New York Film commission offered the movie makers more money, or was more accommodating, but still I find the change disturbing. In the book, Alice’s husband wants to move her to New York where he is offered a better job, so it is jarring for me to see her story start there.

Another change I think occurred because the screenwriter was a man, rather than a woman. The book was devastating to read because as Alice’s condition worsens, her husband draws away from her, saying about his move from Boston where she is comfortable to New York that it wouldn’t matter to her anyway, because she “wouldn’t know the difference” by the time they moved. That was a pivotal moment in the book, because while their kids are horrified that he can even think that way, it is a factual statement. Alice’s degeneration is so rapid, that she eventually doesn’t feel comfortable in the home where she’s spent the last several decades. But the screenwriter doesn’t use that line or that entire scene, and I think its omission is a mistake. While not critical to the action, the line is key to understanding the attitude not only of Alice’s husband about her condition, but about how her family and the world at large views Alice and her disease. With her memory failing, she is reduced by them to the status of an object, not given credit for emotion or decision-making abilities, even about her own care.

The film is also less impactful than the book because the book is written in first-person narrative, and since the film does not share that point of view, it really loses out as Alice’s condition worsens. One of the most poignant things about the book is that the reader sees Alice’s ability to define and describe her world become smaller. Her vocabulary shrinks, her ability to recognize even her family members shrinks, and that is so much more evident in the book than the movie.

Those critiques aside, however, “Still Alice” is a moving portrayal in microcosm of what it is like to lose your memory and hence “yourself”. Alice states in the film that she wishes she had cancer, because the world can sympathize with a cancer patient. Having Alzheimer’s though drives people away, as it takes from her everything it meant to be Alice. The movie’s ending seemed abrupt, and several scenes are not described clearly, but the 101 minutes flew by for me. I wish the film makers had given the book’s telling of Alice’s story more weight. Great acting performance by Julianne Moore, but lacking the depth and heart of Genova’s book.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Dr. Mutter's Marvels

Dr. Mütter's marvels : a true tale of intrigue and innovation at the dawn of modern medicineDr. Mutter’s Marvels 
by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
Reviewed by Gerti

The origins of things are sometimes fascinating. That is the case with “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels” by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, who looks at the background of The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia by discussing the life and career of famed surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter. Mutter’s collection of human specimens from his years as chair of surgery at the Jefferson Medical College in Philly are housed in the building Mutter’s money paid for. I’d heard of the place before, with its renowned collection of physical oddities not unlike Ripley’s Museum, but I had never heard anything about Dr. Mutter himself. Aptowicz here reveals him to be not only a brilliant and talented man who early understood the need for cleanliness in the operating theatres, but who as a doctor also tried to bring compassion to the practice of medicine, and especially to surgery in those early days before anesthetics were commonly used. In fact, Mutter was one of the first surgeons in Philadelphia to use ether after it was discovered, and it is amazing today that there were other pre-eminent physicians at the time who fought against using it because they only knew by the intensity of the patient’s screams how the surgery was going! What it terrifying time it must have been to be sick!

Mutter was a child destined to be a doctor, since disease made him first an only child, and then an orphan. As the author writes so eloquently, “Thomas Dent Mutter was just seven years old, and every person who had ever loved him was dead.” After his maternal grandmother also dies, Mutter goes to live with a rich relative, a single man in his 20’s named Colonel Carter, who provides Thomas with a home and an education, but was never able to cure Mutter of the physical weakness which would claim his life when he was only in his ‘40s.

Like the proverbial candle that burns half as long, Mutter burned twice as bright during that short life. Even as a school boy, he gained a reputation for wearing outrageously bright suits in a day and age where black and brown were commonplace. He originally attended a small Virginia college before heading to Yale, but was popular everywhere he went for his good looks and great voice. These things made him a popular instructor when he went to Philadelphia’s new Jefferson Medical College, set up to compete with the city’s already established but stodgy Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mutter had learned his plastic surgery technique in Paris, the best place in the world to learn medicine back then, and his goal was always to unmake monsters, that is, to do plastic surgery on people disfigured by burns or tumors, in order to allow them to lead a more normal life. The illustrations in this book show Mutter’s success.

DMM is a fascinating book about a time when medicine was more art than science, and its practitioners were often stumbling around in the dark. Mutter was their light. This well-written book by Aptowicz is a well-researched, but alternately thrilling and terrifying study of a great doctor to whom modern medicine (and every patient!) owes a deep debt of gratitude.

Friday, July 17, 2015

This Pen for Hire

This pen for hire : a Jaine Austen mysteryThis Pen for Hire, a Jaine Austen mystery by Laura Levine
Reviewed by Gerti

When I say this book was recommended to me by author Joanne Fluke, I mean that in the introduction to her latest book, Fluke thanked author Laura Levine “(who writes the Jaine Austen series)” for helping her with the “Double Fudge Brownie Mystery”. I was so moved by that statement that I had to track down one of Levine’s books immediately. I did so because I love the famous British author Jane Austen, and wondered who would possibly be cheeky enough to borrow the famous lady’s name to write a mystery series, and then misspell it (yikes!)

Unlike so many other authors who have gleaned inspiration from Jane Austen and her hundred-year-old romance novels, Laura Levine’s only connection with the original author, her plot, and characters, is that the heroine of “This Pen for Hire” was named Jaine Austen (misspelling intentional) by her novel-loving mother. That’s it. So her name is a running joke in this book.

That said, you would think I would hate this novel and that it was crap. But that’s not correct. Laura Levine is a comedy writer from way back who has uncovered herself a hell of a hook for her mystery series. It may have little to do with my favorite author, but that doesn’t mean “This Pen for Hire” isn’t a hysterical little book. Levine, who wrote for such classic TV shows as “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Laverne and Shirley”, trots out her comedic skills here, and it’s a hoot.

I love heroine Jaine Austen, even though she’s a thoroughly modern woman with thoroughly modern problems. Yes, she is a freelance writer as the title implies. But she’s also caught up in a mystery here, when a love letter she penned for a hapless schlub named Howard Murdoch gets him arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. To save the poor bugger, Jaine starts investigating the crime, and runs into a comic cast of characters, each seemingly more bungling than the last. She is helped by the victim’s neighbor, a delicious-looking man named Cameron who owns an antique shop. Is he gay? Is he straight? Can he possibly be interested in Jaine?

Yes, I knew who the killer was early on, and understood his motives, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love the ride Levine took me on. Her language is a treat to read, her characters a delight to meet, and oh the world inside Austen’s head! I love her sense of humor, and her intense need to bathe to take away her stress. She’s be a girl after my own heart, except for her cat (a trait this author shares with Fluke’s own Hannah Swensen). Nothing at all in this book for a Jane Austen fan, but I definitely want to spend more time in the world of Jaine Austen. She’s like having a hysterical girlfriend, who is smart enough to catch crooks, and that’s a big wow. Loved it!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Double Fudge Brownie Murder

Double fudge brownie murderDouble Fudge Brownie Murder
by Joanne Fluke
Reviewed by Gerti

This is the third book I have read by Joanne Fluke, and I liked it, but I find her writing to be uneven. I was underwhelmed by the first book of hers I read, “The Carrot Cake Murder”, but liked the “Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder”, which is the first book in her multi-book series of Hannah Swensen mysteries. Lake Eden, Minnesota-based baker/crime fighter Hannah Swensen also does something I love, which is include her recipes into the book. And no, I haven’t tried to bake any yet, but they do sound delicious!

In this book, Hannah is supposed to go to jail for unintentionally killing someone with her cookie delivery truck. She goes to the courthouse with her lawyer, and sits in the judge’s anteroom while her lawyer is out of the room on the phone. Hannah hears a thump, and wonders if the elderly judge has met with an accident. She enters the room to find that the judge is dead, but it was no accident. It was murder! Hannah is a suspect at first, but gradually proves to the town’s detective, her boyfriend Mike, that she just has “slaydar” – which is what they call her ability to find dead bodies!

As in all of these mystery books, Hannah interviews and investigates her own list of suspects. So much so, that she is hardly ever at “The Cookie Jar,” her shop. But luckily, she has some helpers there, as well as in her crime-solving endeavors. Her younger sister Michelle accompanies her when Hannah meets the suspects, including the dead judge’s ex-wife, ex-mistress, and his kids.

What this book has that the other Fluke’s I’ve read are missing, is real romance. Hannah is a curly-headed carrot top, and while she has a few men interested in her, she has not felt a spark with them. In this book, Hannah accompanies her two sisters to Las Vegas for her mother’s wedding, and in the process meets up with her old college boyfriend, Ross. That’s when the fireworks go off! Hannah does things that readers familiar with her Midwestern lifestyle would not imagine a sweet young thing from Minnesota even thinking about, let alone doing! I found that a little off-putting, and out of character for this well-known cookie lady.

I was also tired of Hannah’s constant discussions with her cat, Moishe. Here, he practically speaks to her. Hannah seems to find trying to interpret his various “Rrrowws” charming. I did not, perhaps because I’m more of a dog person. I wish this cat would just take a nap! In more than one scene, Fluke describes how Moishe and his companion (Cuddles) race around the dinner table, making the diners lift their legs. Irritating. It just gets old to hear about the cat all the time!

I also felt cheated when the judge’s murderer was practically a new character in the story. But I did love the sound of Hannah’s new recipes, and that’s why I’ve finally purchased one of these books. Hope the recipes are better than the plot!

Monday, July 13, 2015

If This Was Happiness

If This Was Happiness by Barbara Leaming
Reviewed by Gerti

Rita Hayworth was an actress before my time, but I had seen her in various movies over the years, including films where she acted with top-notch male stars like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I also knew a little of her personal life - she had been married to other famous men, like Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, but I never knew that she was married more often than that (and to some real rats!) or that she had been sexually abused as a child by her father. All these things and more are the hot topics in Barbara Leaming’s biography of Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Cansino.

The title gives away the gist of the book, though, as Hayworth’s life was filled with more unhappiness than one person should have to deal with. Starting with the sexual abuse which started when Rita had to be her father’s dance partner in their vaudeville shows, Rita became the breadwinner for her family after she got into movies. Studio head Harry Cohn tried to control her life after that. She tried to get married thinking that would get her away from being a puppet to her family and Columbia Pictures. However, her first husband, Eddie Judson, used her as a cash cow, as did her last husband, Dick Haymes, part-time crooner and crook.

The only real happiness Rita is said to have had is with second husband Orson Welles, but even he is surprised that she could have considered their short union to have been a happy one. He was quite a playboy, as was her third husband, Prince Aly Khan the millionaire son of the Aga Khan. She had children with both Welles and Khan, but never spent much time with the girls. Welles ignored his daughter with her, Rebecca, almost completely. Aly engaged in seemingly endless lawsuits to see his daughter, Yasmin, but by that point Rita was paranoid about his stealing the girl away since he was abroad more often than in the US.

Perhaps that paranoia was part of her incipient Alzheimer’s disease, but perhaps it was attributable to her drinking. The girls eventually become wards of the state because Rita and her man of the moment couldn’t be bothered to keep them around, and she left them with a babysitter of sorts who let them be dirty and unsupervised. A funny way for a Princess to grow up! It’s strange to see Rita looking disheveled and disoriented in the pictures from this period in her life. But Alzheimer’s would gradually claim her mind, and she became unable to make movies, or even to make public appearances. Fortunately for her, daughter Yasmin took care of her in her later years, as she was unable to care for herself.

The biography is anything but happy reading, as poor beautiful but uneducated Rita is always having terrible things happen to her. It makes you think about what it really means to be a “Love Goddess” (her nickname) and a Hollywood star, with everyone you meet trying to use you for your body, money or fame, rather than helping to make your life happy and fulfilling. A truly tragic story.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

The three Weissmanns of WestportThe Three Weissmanns of Westport 
by Cathleen Schine
Reviewed by Gerti

The Three Weissmanns of Westport” is Cathleen Schine’s take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Sense and Sensibility.” If you are unfamiliar with the hundred-year-old original, it was about two sisters, one practical and the other emotional, who have to survive their father’s death and their subsequent poverty. Being single women, they also look for and find romance, although the road to that isn’t smooth either. Likewise, Schine has two female protagonists in this story, Annie (the practical sister) and Miranda (the impulsive one). Both girls move to a cottage in Westport, CT, from New York City not because of their father’s death, but because he has found a mistress and decided to divorce their mother, Betty. She receives a kind offer from her wealthy Cousin Lou to move into an unrented beach property of his after Joseph Weissman freezes the couple’s assets and she can no longer afford their Central Park West apartment.

Seventy-eight-year-old Joe met his young mistress, Felicity, at work, and while he feels he is being generous to his wife, it is obvious to his step-daughters that he is not. Annie knows all about bad men, since she has been divorced before, but she also has two grown sons whom she loves, and a great job at a bookstore in the city. In fact it is Felicity who introduces her to her famous author brother, Frederick Barrow. He does a wonderful reading of his literary work’s there at the bookstore, and Annie and Frederick have a secret tryst. When Frederick’s snobby grown children try to keep Annie away from their father, little do they suspect an even worse fate is in store for him, thanks to a minx of a house sitter named Amber. Fans of “Sense and Sensibility” will recognize that Amber is the reincarnated Lucy Steele, who in the Austen book “steals” an eligible man away from the sensible sister while pretending to be her friend.

Miranda’s life is also falling apart in parallel with that of her mother. She has never been able to settle down and marry (since she likes falling in love so much) but has built a successful career as a literary agent with her own agency. Now however, it seems some memoirs she has published were mere fabrications, and her reputation and her business falter, bankrupting her. She runs away to live with her mother in Westport, only to fall in love with a handsome local actor named Kit Maybank. He saved her during an ill-fated kayak trip during a thunderstorm. Unfortunately, he has a young son named Henry and seems to use Miranda more as a babysitter than a love interest. He leaves as soon as a good part becomes available in LA, and Miranda realizes she loved being a mother to Henry more than she loved Kit. So when the child’s mother Leanne comes on the scene, Miranda naturally falls in love with her, too.

Schine’s story is charming and modern. Austen fans will recognize who each character is meant to be, but I don’t know whether the ending will satisfy them, or me! I did think Schine’s writing was very good. She used very clever phrases and seems, like Austen, to understand human emotion and evil motivations very well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gray Mountain

Gray MountainGray Mountain by John Grisham
Reviewed by Gerti

Gray Mountain” is the newest offering by famed legal writer John Grisham. It tells the tale of a well-educated New York lawyer named Samantha Kofer who is forced by downsizing at her huge law firm to head to the wilds of Virginia coal country. Her Wall Street law firm promises that if she works for free at a legal aid clinic for a year, her job may be waiting when she returns. So she does the only reasonable thing, and moves to Brady, Virginia.

Samantha whines a lot about missing life in Manhattan, but she manages to make a home for herself at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. It was not her first choice, but the other options for pro bono work have been filled by other “lucky” associates of her firm and others downsized by the 2008 recession. The clinic is run by Mattie Wyatt, life-long resident of Appalachia who knows firsthand the troubles of the region and the people who live there. The two become friends and Samantha learns how to be a real lawyer, preparing a lawsuit, going into a courtroom, and getting caught up in the human drama of the region.

One of the first people she meets in Brady is Donovan Gray, Mattie’s nephew and an appealing but unscrupulous local lawyer. His reason for living is fighting big coal companies devastating the landscape by strip mining, including the land his family owns at Gray Mountain. Donovan takes Sam up in his plane to show her what the mountain looks like after Big Coal is done with it, and it ain’t pretty. But just like she has fears of working for her father, who was a mass tort lawyer before getting disbarred, Sam has problems with Donovan’s do-anything-it-takes-to-win mentality. She finds out he has stolen incriminating documents from Krull Mining. When his private plane crashes and he is killed, the FBI swoops in to try to get them back, but the papers are hidden deep under Gray Mountain.

Sam eventually helps Donovan’s sexy brother Jeff get those papers to another law firm that has been working with Donovan to sue the company for delaying black lung cases. Donovan’s death also has another coal company dragging its feet over paying the million dollar settlement he got in a case against them right before he died – but it was only a handshake agreement and since the ladies can’t find anything in writing, the coal company reneges on the deal. Sam eventually agrees to take the case to the Virginia Supreme Court for Mattie, and in the process promises to stay around Brady for another year or two.

Gray Mountain” really opened my eyes to the problems of the Appalachian region and the games coal companies play to keep deserving miners from government mandated settlement money once they get sick. Big coal companies find it more economical to fight the miners’ health claims than pay them, because the men are rarely rich enough to hire lawyers, and besides, they don’t live long with black lung. “Gray Mountain” has a fascinating cast of characters, an unusual plot and a female protagonist which make this an interesting read.