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Books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield

This is another book that was recommended to me, and… it wasn’t terrible, but… I had a difficult time staying interested. Which is strange given the author works very hard to make everything mysterious. Maybe she tries too hard?

I’m not sure I can accurately describe my feelings about this book. Let’s start with the story itself. Margaret Lea is the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer, and she helps her father in his shop. Her mother is an invalid, and the family has a secret: Margaret was born with a conjoined twin who, when cut free, died. They all pretend it never happened, but the “ghost” is there, so to speak. In fact, Margaret spends an almost ridiculous amount of time dwelling on this ghost, which is very real to her. And perhaps I’m being insensitive? But I just couldn’t feel anything about this. Maybe because Margaret herself has very little personality. I suspect this is by design, since Margaret narrates the novel, and her job is to actually tell someone else’s story. If her character were too strong, the other story would fail to shine through. It’s a delicate kind of balance, quite the undertaking by Setterfield. But Margaret is nothing more than lightly tinted glass, and that prevented me somewhat from being fully invested in her or her story.

Margaret sometimes writes little biographies of authors. These are nothing more than tracts, really, but a famous author named Vida Winter notices them and asks Margaret to come stay at her house in Yorkshire so as to write her life story. Miss Winter is known for telling many lies about her past, but she’s old and ill now, and wants to have the truth recorded for posterity or something. So then we get a different story about twin girls growing up in very strange circumstances, &tc. &tc.

And somehow this story isn’t actually all that compelling either. It’s odd, no lie, and there are twists, though I suspected as much if only because I had friends tell me they’d read this book more than once. And it’s the kind of book where, if someone reads it more than once, you conclude it must be because they want to re-read based on some new knowledge. You know, like when you watch a movie that has a big twist, you then want to watch it again and look for all the clues? As I was reading this book, the only reason I could imagine anyone would have for reading it again would be that. Of course, I’m sure many people like it well enough to want to read it for the pleasure of it, but… Overall, it felt somewhat lacking to me. It introduced many characters and pretended to delve when, in fact, we’re left with only slices of information and/or personalities. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone intimately, except maybe Margaret, and she’s the least interesting one.

It’s not a bad book. I gave it three stars, which is to say, it’s average. There are things that I’m sure will stay with me. But overall, for me, this one was just okay. And I did feel like I had to drag myself back to it now and then because the story didn’t light a need in me to keep reading. “Idle,” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. If I hadn’t finished it, I might have idly wondered what happened in the story. The prose itself feels idle, languid. There is no urgency in it, and therefore no urgency was created in me to read, to finish, to find out. So much description… but so very little actual tale.

_____

I saw after finishing this book that Setterfield also wrote Bellman & Black, another book once recommended to me. That one I was never able to get into; I made it maybe thirty pages in? So perhaps this author just isn’t for me.

How Sick Am I?

It’s time for everybody’s favorite game! How Sick Am I?!

It’s an honest question, actually. Each year around this time my sinuses get stuffed up. Then the drainage gives me a cough and causes me to lose my voice (or at the very least I begin to croak like a frog rather than speak). Sometimes things progress to bronchitis or pneumonia. That happened pretty much every year in Massachusetts, though since moving to California I’ve only had pneumonia once and bronchitis not at all. (Knocking on the wood of my desk now.)

Of course, these days having a stuffy head and cough can mean much worse.

In October of 2009 I had H1N1. Whatever I have now, it’s not nearly as bad as that. But can I use an almost decade-old experience as any kind of measure? I can really only go by the fact that these things happen to me every spring, and I have no fever. At the same time, not wishing to expose anyone to anything just in case, I’m largely self-quarantining. I’m fortunate that I already work at home. My husband’s company has likewise ordered people who can work from home to do so. (He can, and therefore he is.)

Our schools have not closed, though they have canceled all extracurriculars. A shame, since there were a number of things on the schedule. I was even supposed to help with a field trip next week… I guess if I’m still sniffly, it’s probably just as well not to go. But the high school orientation was scheduled for next week, too, and now I’m guessing that will be postponed. Sigh.

Illness is inconvenient, to be sure. I’m grateful that, as of now, it isn’t anything more drastic. An ounce of prevention and all that.

As for me, it’s always annoying to have the stuffy head and the lingering cough. I hate that I can’t sing along to music in the car cuz my voice is almost gone. But I know it could be so much worse, so I’m grateful that I’m upright and functioning. Now if only I could get this book written, I’d be golden.

Theatre: The Last Ship

There was, from what I understand, a version of this show some five years ago, but it didn’t do all that well. So it has been retooled and now… Well, in a way, the play itself lends the best metaphor: a ship was built, but then needed to be broken down and rebuilt. Or something.

The Last Ship isn’t a show I would have sought out; it just happened to be part of my seasonal subscription to the local theatre. Anyway, I like Sting, and I know a little about his background and therefore knew there had to be a pretty personal connection between him and the content of this show. He wasn’t as involved in the first version, only having been called in later in the run in an attempt to save the show. When it closed to be reworked, Sting remained the headliner in the hopes the familiar name would draw audiences.

Still, here is all I knew going in:

  1. Sting
  2. Ships

These aren’t, perhaps, the greatest selling points? I mean, if one thinks about the fact that the first version of the show didn’t even have Point 1… Who goes to see musicals about building ships? The Venn diagram of people who have an interest in manual labor crises from the 1980s, and/or have an interest in shipbuilding in particular, and have money to toss at musical theatre has got to be a pretty thin slice, doesn’t it? Adding Sting and his music as a new circle, well… I suppose there are more people interested in him and his work than the other things, but…

Okay, so the backdrop of this musical is Wallsend, 1986. The shipyard there is being closed down. The shipbuilders are told that a fraction of them will be hired at lesser wages to break apart the ship—the last ship—that was nearly finished but is now to be sold for scrap. Over this is laid the story of Gideon, son of a shipbuilder, who ran away from Wallsend 17 years before in hopes of avoiding the shipbuilding life. He became a sailor instead. I guess that’s better? But he left behind Meg, and as he returns to Wallsend, he discovers Meg has a 17-year-old daughter. Meg has become a fiercely independent single mum and pub owner, and she’s not interested in going back to being vulnerable. Another, smaller story is that of foreman Jackie White (Sting), trying to navigate his workers and their union through the rocky shoals of the industrial crises. Jackie has lung cancer, too, so that’s… a thing.

Here’s the problem, at least with this new version of the show (I wish I’d seen the previous; reviews make it sound way more entertaining): I was never really all that invested in any of the characters or situations. They are all pretty rote and lack much depth. The stories themselves are insanely simplistic; there is hardly any real tension and opportunities to highlight conflict are mishandled. If anything, I found the inflection of the show monotonous. The music wasn’t particularly catchy; I didn’t feel the desire to download the cast album and listen to any of it again, which to me is the sign of a good musical. Some of Sting’s known songs have been tweaked and used (gah, the guy two seats over kept leaning over and telling his date, “This is one of his songs,” every time something familiar got worked in). Much of the stagecraft is reliant on screens, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting visuals, the final scene notwithstanding.

There are a number of interesting characters whose potential are squandered. One guy named Davy doesn’t want to strike, wants nothing to do with the big plan to win back the shipyard, etc. I waited for him to betray the others or, really, something, anything. But he just comes crawling back, no hard feelings. A carpenter named Adrian quotes from literature, and that was fun. The one bit of humor in the show that worked for me was when it’s pointed out that no one ever understands him. The show could definitely have used more moments of levity like that one to give it some bounce. Sadly, as it sits (like a hulk in dry dock), it’s a bit of a flatline. No tide.

Sting, too, didn’t seem all that into it. Maybe he was tired, maybe his arm hurt (it was in a sling for some reason), but he gave the impression of not particularly wanting to be there. On the other hand, many of the actors were clearly giving it their all, and they had impressive voices and some also were skilled dancers. Which is to say, The Last Ship wasn’t all bad. It just… could clearly have been better? With a more interesting story, more depth of character… Which, after the fact, I went to read more about the history of the show and discovered that it probably did have those things in the original version. Based only on what I read, I think this retooling probably did the show a disservice. Meant to make The Last Ship more, what? Comprehensible? It actually lobotomized it. (Again, I can’t say for sure, not having seen the original production, but…)

It’s nothing I need to see again. Nothing I need to hear again, either. It will probably stick with me, but not for the reasons shows want to be remembered. Only because I’ll likely continue to try to figure out why it didn’t work, what went wrong. I’ll want to pick at it, deconstruct it. That’s my media studies degree at work, maybe, but with really good shows, that desire almost never surfaces. We only autopsy when we think there’s been foul play.

Movies: Doctor Sleep

I haven’t read the book. Let’s get that out of the way first thing.

I have read The Shining. And it turns out all you really need to know in order to understand Doctor Sleep is that Dan Torrence was the little boy in The Shining and that, well, he “shines” (by which we mean he has psychic powers of some sort).

Here we pick up with Dan as an adult, coping as best he can with his past and his abilities. But it turns out there is a group of really terrible people who hunt and kill people like Dan in order to “eat” their magic. This allows the hunters to be nearly immortal, so long as they keep killing people who shine. They prefer children because their powers are purer and therefore stronger.

You can probably see where this is going, more or less. The film is equal parts disturbing and cathartic because there’s really nothing more satisfying than watching very bad things happen to very bad people. I’d say on the whole it’s an incredibly good movie because it’s effective. That’s more than I can say for most films these days, so many of which are just action sequence after action sequence until you’re numb. I felt this movie. It had impact.

I’m not much for horror movies; I can read the books but can not really tolerate the visual gore. This one manages to walk that line very carefully. I love a good psychological thriller, and Doctor Sleep definitely has elements of that. Tension builds. And there is blood, but not in excess. I don’t do splatter fests, and this isn’t one.

Honestly, I’m surprised by how much I liked it. I do love Ewan, though, so that probably helped. I might even go ahead and read the book after all.

IWSG: March 2020

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

What am I insecure about these days? My lack of time to write, and my disinclination to do so when I do have a little bit of time. There have been health things going on, and a lot of travel, and a lot of stuff revolving around the kids… A lot of it is good, but it ALL eats up minutes and hours and days.

Question of the Month: Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family customs in your stories?

Probably? I know I’ve been influenced by Southern Louisiana culture in a couple of pieces I’ve written (The K-Pro, no longer in print, and an unfinished novella titled “Voodoo Lessons.”) These were more personal adaptations of broader traditions, myths, and superstitions. The K-Pro, for example, actually blended Greek myth with a touch of gris gris, and was loosely based on my experiences on film sets. Maybe I’ll re-release it some day.

Books: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I’ve known about this book for a long time and had it on my Amazon wish list, but then I had this brilliant moment of realizing my library probably had a copy? And it did! With a less cool cover, but whatever.

The book (which is about a decade old now) recounts the disappearance and eventual discovery of the murder of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman. She was a British woman working in Tokyo as a hostess. Parry does a fair job of explaining what “hostessing” is, but I think it might be difficult for those who don’t know much about Japanese culture to fully understand it. It’s easy for people to jump to the idea that Lucie was a prostitute, but she wasn’t. In Japan, there are clubs where men can pay to just spend time chatting with pretty young ladies. They’ll buy the women drinks, they’ll do karaoke with them… And many of these clubs have foreigners working in them because some of the men like to talk to foreign women, even just practice their English with them.

Still, such a setup lends itself to predators in a number of ways as well, and unfortunately Lucie crossed paths with one of them.

It’s a long book, and detailed. It started strong but for me began to wobble about halfway through. Parry shifts focus from Lucie, her family, and the search in favor of the accused. Who is indeed a strange character. But I felt a lot more time was spent with this guy than perhaps strictly necessary, particularly since there is a lot not known about him. He grew up rich in Osaka, but as someone whose family originated in Korea, he also faced a certain amount of discrimination. Eventually he became a serial rapist and suspected murderer. Parry is crazy fascinated with the guy, it seems, but has never been granted an interview, so… Meanwhile, he does talk to Lucie’s family, her friends, etc. That part of the book feels richer to me, and more worthy.

The bits about the eventual trials go on for a while, too. I absolutely applaud the thoroughness of this book, but I’ll admit I started to skim at places.

As a person who loves true crime, this one was really something. It will stay with me for sure. But potential readers may want to prepare to be a tad bogged down by the minutiae.

Movies: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I, like many, have mixed feelings about Quentin Tarantino. I mostly don’t like his movies, though that may be because I mostly don’t like him. I find him sexist and gratuitous, and the fact that he’s so smug and pleased with himself about these things is a massive turn off. It’s fine. He doesn’t need me to like him, and he clearly has an audience that revels in his bad attitude. And I will say that I’ve enjoyed, if not all of any one of his movies, parts of a few of them?

So. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood re-imagines what might have happened if the Manson Family had picked a neighboring target rather than Sharon Tate and her friends. But that’s pretty much beside the point in this movie. The real story is of washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt stand-in Cliff (Brad Pitt). Never mind that these guys look nothing alike, mind. Maybe that’s supposed to be funny?

The film meanders through, er… I’m not even sure what. It’s not a cohesive story, more like loosely stitched events. Rick being turned down for a role and having to make spaghetti westerns. Cliff picking up hitchhikers and dropping them at Spahn Ranch. And we follow Sharon Tate around a little bit for no apparent reason except, I suppose, to establish her as the neighbor. And then the whole Manson Family thing and… ::shrug::

It’s not a bad movie. In fact, for me it’s one of Tarantino’s most tolerable. Which probably isn’t saying much. Maybe because I like Brad Pitt, and he’s very Brad in this. Still, there’s no reason this film needed to be nearly as long as it is (running time: 2 hours 41 minutes). A lot of this is Tarantino indulging himself, but that’s pretty much all his movies anyway. He’d be first to tell you he makes movies for him, not for viewers. He doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks.

Well, that’s one way to approach the industry, I guess. Must be nice to be an old, white guy that people hand money to and don’t hold you accountable if you lose any of it making your hack movies.

I can say OUaTiH deserves the production Oscar it won. That much was well done, and Leo and Brad are fun to watch, even if the movie doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. Well, I guess there was enough for Brad to do to win him Actor in a Supporting Role, and I can’t begrudge him that either. He does a fine job, and seems to be having fun at the same time. No one said you had to be miserable to win an Oscar, right? If anything, it seems harder to win for an upbeat role than a serious, dramatic one. So good on him.

So is the movie worth watching? Eh. It’s almost the kind of thing you can have playing in the background while you cook or something. It simply does not require your full attention to follow. But it’s a bit of fun. I’m not sorry I saw it.

Books: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This one was recommended by a friend, and the prologue had me hooked. I’m just sorry the rest of the book wasn’t from that character’s point of view because the voice of the prologue was, to me, far more interesting and authentic. Not that the rest of the book wasn’t, but…

Well, let’s start with the premise. Darren Mathews is black. He also happens to be a Texas Ranger. On suspension pending a grand jury’s findings in a murder. But when an FBI friend puts Darren on the trail of a small-town murder that’s possibly a hate crime, Darren heads to Lark, Texas to investigate.

I’m from Texas. Grew up in a small town then moved to a bigger town then went to to school at UT. Locke’s descriptions are spot on, her tone perfectly captures the culture. (No surprise given she’s from Houston herself.) I read some reviews saying it was all too slow and too descriptive, so it’s possible that I liked this book more than some just because of my connection to the location. For me, reading this book was like going home.

Still and all, it isn’t perfect. Darren is not a particularly interesting main character. The prologue is told from another character’s POV, one I found much more interesting, but also one that isn’t as evident in the rest of the book. Instead, the chief female character is the murdered man’s widow, and she’s every kind of irritating. Between her and Darren, I will say there were times when I was a bit bored and annoyed with the book. Not the story, mind, just the book. The story is a good one, a solid mystery, though it has a somewhat abrupt resolution. And the book itself doesn’t entirely resolve as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I found that to be the most annoying thing about it. Because it makes me think maybe Locke intended or intends to write another one? And yet I feel more or less done with these characters. This doesn’t feel like it should be a series.

Final bit of exasperation comes from the fact the book needed at least one more thorough copy edit. A character named Mack is called “Mark” on page 19, and, well, a few other little things that probably wouldn’t bother anyone not an editor. But having worked as one, they did bother me.

I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, would have gone higher if not for that ending. This is a mystery in the vein of something like True Detective—not a fast-paced thriller, but a meandering thread that is more character based than plot driven. A bit like my Peter, in fact. If you want to immerse yourself in small-town Texas, be disturbed by the true racial undercurrents of the American South, this is the book for you.

Movies: Marriage Story

As a rule, I don’t typically love Noah Baumbach films. And I can’t say I love this one, either. Only that I tolerated it better than most others of its kind.

The movie is pretty much what every clip you’ve seen suggests: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole respectively, an artistic couple (he’s a director for theatre productions and she’s an actress) going through a separation that falls into a messy divorce. At the center of their many issues is their son Henry. Nicole takes Henry to LA, where her family lives and where she’s shooting a television pilot. Charlie believes they’ve agreed that they will all live in NYC together once the pilot is done. But free from Charlie’s decisions, Nicole begins to make different plans for herself… and Henry. Mean-spiritedness ensues.

If you enjoy watching people do and say terrible things to one another, this is the movie for you.

Which isn’t to say… Well, “enjoy” is the wrong word. I could have gone my life without watching this movie and probably wouldn’t have felt like I’d missed anything. But I’m not sorry I watched it? That’s maybe the best I can say for it? That, and that parts of it are likely to stick with me over time. Which is, at least in part, the point of art: to make an impression.

I’ll admit I haven’t actually seen many of Baumbach’s movies (the ones he’s directed, I mean). I do recall liking The Meyerowitz Stories, but I really did not like The Squid and the Whale, and I never even made it through all of Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach was once described to me as “Wes Anderson without the whimsy,” and that seems about right. I do love Wes Anderson, but it’s the whimsy that makes me happy. Meyerowitz came closest in a Royal Tenenbaums kind of way. There is, between the two (and yes, I am aware of the work they’ve done together), a real fixation on creative genius, public perception, and family hierarchy (which I suppose is “private perception”?). Marriage Story doesn’t quite go there because it’s so caught up in the drama of a dissolving relationship, but it touches on it—Charlie’s “genius” and how Nicole’s mother adores him, and the fight over who boosted whose career. I do find such themes interesting, but the lack of depth to them here makes them, and the movie, slightly less so. For me. Great performances, though, and Laura Dern definitely earned all her praise. In short, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this one, but I wouldn’t warn people away from it either.

Hidden Scars

I have focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH). This is a very long way of saying I have benign tumors in my liver. They aren’t cancerous, or pre-cancerous, but they can be a literal pain.

My diagnosis came in 2002 and quite by accident. I’d gone in for a CAT scan for another issue and the FNH was simultaneously revealed. My doctor at the time immediately took me off birth control because she suspected the hormones were causing the problem. After some monitoring (read: MRIs every few months), it was determined that the nodules weren’t growing, so all was well. (If the tumors get too big, or block anything important, they have to be removed.)

There was some concern when I got pregnant that the FNH might become more serious. Oddly enough, I had no problems when pregnant with either of my boys, but the pain returned when I was carrying my daughter. Different hormones, I guess?

And now, just recently, the pain reared its ugly head again. I’ve since moved across the country and whatnot, so it took some explaining to my current doctor. When I went in today, she of course took a look and at first didn’t believe me when I told her that, no, I haven’t had a gallbladder since 2010. Because she couldn’t find the scars.

Gallbladder issues run in my family, but it’s also very common for women who’ve given birth to have gallstones. One of those things they don’t tell you before you decide to have kids. A year after my third and final child, it was discovered I was, as the ultrasound diagnostician put it, “full of stones.” So a very dour but incredibly skilled surgeon from South Africa removed my gallbladder. There are four tiny, nigh invisible, scars. (More visible in summer when my skin goes toasty.)

Anyway, there’s something wonderful about witnessing one medical professional admiring another’s work. Once my doctor did finally spot the gallbladder scars, she was highly impressed. If only I could take the credit, but I can only say I’ve been fortunate in my choices of health care providers—fortunate, that is, in whom I’ve been able to choose because this system is the pits.

As for the FNH, I’m due for an ultrasound next week. We’ll see if those nodules, lesions, tumors–whatever they decide to call them–are misbehaving. As I age and the chemicals in my body change, well… I can’t say I’m a fan. BUT. I’m still here, right? All these changes, no matter the inconvenience, are better than the alternative.

Author M Pepper Langlinais