Reading: An Entry into Other Worlds

I bumped into a friend and his 12-year-old daughter at a market recently. The young girl, whose pen name is Tamika, enthusiastically told me about a book she’d been reading, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Treese. Words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and Tamika’s excited description whet my own appetite for what sounded like an historical fiction book for children.

Using history as a base for children’s fiction is a wonderful idea. After borrowing Cue for Treason from my local library and reading it for myself I read another children’s book in the same genre, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. The Explorer is a story about four children whose aeroplane crash lands in the Amazon jungle. There they meet an Explorer who – though unnamed throughout – is reminiscent of Percy Fawcett, the real-life adventurer who went missing without trace while searching for the Lost City of Z (see my previous review https://wp.me/p4c1s1-nS). All the children are transformed by the experience and at least two of them grow up to be explorers themselves!

Like my young friend Tamika, Rundell is enthusiastic about her genre and about reading. Copious historical research as well as a visit to the Amazon made up Rundell’s groundwork for The Explorer. But so too did books Rundell read as a child, books that caused her to be ‘in love with the world of a book’. (Read an interview with Katherine Rundell here https://bit.ly/2vVaEAp). As a writer herself Rundell is wonderfully descriptive. And, like the books she read as a child, Rundell has likewise created in The Explorer a book that easily transports the reader to another realm.

Descriptiveness – or lack thereof – was Tamika’s one criticism of Cue for Treason, a book she otherwise loved. Read Tamika’s review of Cue for Treason here:

‘The main characters in this book are Kit, Shakespeare, Sir Joseph and last, but certainly not least… Peter.

‘Pete or Peter is accused of a crime, a crime he did indeed do and all the people in his small town know it. The 14-year-old has to escape from home with a few of his family’s pennies and bread and cheese. He has to survive on the road where he meets Kit and then Shakespeare. Kit and Peter learn that the queen will be killed. When Pete becomes an actor and Kit’s friend, they go on their way to warn the good Queen Bess about her murder. Will Pete be kidnapped with all the things he knows? Will Kit have to travel alone? So many secrets, so many lies. Who is a friend, who is a foe?

‘I think this book could have used more description of the characters but I guess everyone can make up their own characters. I mean I’d like to know what Kit looked like. I did love the vigorous verbs. It was a wonderful book and we read it every night. We couldn’t put it down! 70%’.

Tamika, thank you for sharing your review and for your passionate recommendation!

 

 

 

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 2

Part 2

In Part 1 I reviewed two books: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy. Perhaps it’s a matter of classification. A reader will know that when he/she is reading an historical novel that it is part-fact, part-fiction. He/she will accept the ‘suspension of disbelief’ (a theatre term) and enter willingly into the story. Author notes or history books may confirm which parts of the story are factual. If movies were categorised like books are (that is, for example, non-fiction, fiction, historical fiction) would the viewer approach movies with a similar acceptance of their levels of historical truth, as readers do books? Would they enter the ‘suspension of disbelief’ with discernment, knowing that what they are watching is a mixture of fact and fiction? At current modes of film classification (action, thriller, drama and so on), perhaps the viewer doesn’t have sufficient guidelines that what they are watching is part creation, part historical fact. But I’m being generous. Perhaps the bottom line is that we as moviegoers are so dumb that we gullibly accept as truth whatever is simply flashed across the screen at us. And we need experts like Von Tunzelmann to put us straight.

Certainly in the current climate in which ‘fake news’ is, well, making the news, learning to be discerning viewers is an important skill. And this is the vein in which I think Von Tunzelmann’s Reel History book/column could be taken. A tool to help us see when important aspects of history in movies may be inaccurately portrayed. Becoming overly pedantic about what’s true or false in movies, though, is to take away from this media’s main purpose: that of entertainment. I think Von Tunzelmann’s book inadvertently highlights this as well: that movies are NOT purveyors of truth. They are about entertainment.

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 1

Part 1

I listened to a book on Audible recently called Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s a novel set in World War II and beyond and covers the stories of three very different women. One is an American actress-cum-socialite-cum-charity-fundraiser called Caroline. The other is a Polish victim of Hitler’s only concentration camp for women, Ravensbruck. Her name is Kasia. And the third is a German doctor who conducted experiments on Polish prisoners like Kasia at Ravensbruck. Her name is Herta. Kelly’s description of the medical experiments the Polish ‘rabbits’ underwent is gruesome. These particularly unfortunate prisoners were called rabbits because of the experimental nature of the operations that were conducted on them, and because they were forced to hop instead of walk after the procedures that affected their limbs.

Caroline’s involvement with the prisoners came into effect largely after the war ended. She helped secure medical treatment in America for these ‘rabbits’ and also helped to have Herta’s medical licence revoked. After the war Herta had initially been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for war crimes, but served only five years. After her release she began practising medicine again until a former Polish prisoner recognised her (in the book this is Kasia) and brought this fact into public knowledge.

Kelly’s account is deeply personal and riveting. And I highly recommend the book for its gripping nature and its important contribution to making certain historical accounts known. The author explains in a lengthy Autor’s Note how she composed the story, and which parts are fact and which a work of her creative imagination. For instance, Caroline’s romance with a French actor is fiction. And Kasia is a composite character of a number of like women at Ravensbruck.

Another book I’ve read recently, this time on Kindle, is Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann. Von Tunzelmann wrote a regular column for The Guardian entitled Reel History. In it she reviewed movies, commenting mainly on their historical accuracy. This book is a compilation of many of those reviews. In her reviews the author was at pains to separate fact from fiction and rated the films according to their historical accuracy and entertainment value. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, for instance, is given an entertainment grade of C- and a history grade of: fail. Yes, that surprised me. I’m no historian and I must bow to the superior knowledge of Von Tunzelmann, an historian. When it comes to entertainment, apart from Von Tunzelmann’s grading, her writing style itself is witty and very entertaining. She says of Braveheart, ‘Tremendously lauded at the time of its release and showered with five Oscars – including Best Picture – it is, historically speaking, one of the daftest films ever made.’ I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it, especially to people interested in the historical accuracy of films. Pointing out historical inaccuracies, particularly in a film that won Oscars, is valuable.

Part 2 to follow on 7 April 2017: When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy…

Jackie: The Creation of a Fantasy

Jackie is the depiction of Jackie Kennedy’s widowing, when her husband, John F Kennedy, was shot to death right next to her in the early 1960s.

The story is very much a first-person tale, with the camera focusing on Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) or following her, to the exclusion of others, most of the time. This cloistering camera style complements the personal story conveyed.

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Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. Image source: http://www.vulture.com/2016/11/natalie-portman-jackie-kennedy-c-v-r.html

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Watching and Writing Words

By Brenda Daniels

Three films, already out on DVD, all reflect an interest in words.

In the first of the three that I watched recently, Academy Award winner, Julianne Moore plays Alice, a character who experiences the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. Diagnosed at the early age of 50, Alice’s deterioration is scarily swift. From momentarily forgetting words to not recognising landmarks, Alice quickly begins to suffer the ignominy of not being able to find the bathroom and of greeting her own daughter like a stranger. Still Alice delivers its message all the more poignantly by casting its lead character in the role of a linguistics professor who has written a book about communication. When elaborating on his diagnosis Alice’s doctor tells her that symptoms of this strange illness can be even more rapid in the highly educated. Very sobering indeed.

Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart are mother and daughter in Still Alice, a film about how Alice deals with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Photo source: http://www.vwmin.org/still-alice-by-lisa-genova-9781501107733-paperback.html

Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart are mother and daughter in Still Alice, a film about how Alice deals with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Photo source: http://www.vwmin.org/still-alice-by-lisa-genova-9781501107733-paperback.html

Not nearly as believable or worth watching is Stuck in Love, starring Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins and Nat Wolff. In this film a father and his two children are all writers. Each of them writes (or experiences writer’s block) in response to their love or antipathy for the wife and mother (Jennifer Connelly) who “deserted” them some years before. Positing love as the artist’s muse is not a new idea by any means. But in Stuck in Love the portrayal is a bit ridiculous and makes a mockery of the hard work, as opposed to sentiment, that “inspires” writers.

In a way it is hard work that does inspire writing in The Rewrite. In this movie Hugh Grant plays scriptwriter, Keith Michaels, who simply can’t come up with a sequel to his first successful script. He is shipped off to the other side of the country to take up a job as a writer-in-residence at a small university. Here his lackadaisical attitude quickly gets him into trouble. It takes the writing output of his own students to help Keith turn his life around. Their scripts help him realise that, contrary to his initial thoughts, writing can be taught (not just caught) and their positive response to his teaching proves to be the catalyst for his next script.

In Still Alice and The Rewrite there is clear character development. In The Rewrite Keith realises his own and others’ value through his recapturing of the written word. In Still Alice, Alice remains, to herself and her family, still Alice despite her sad loss of words.