Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers with Walt Disney at the movie premiere

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers with Walt Disney at the movie premiere

Two thumbs up! Two hankies! What a movie. This (fictionalized) account of the meetings between Mary Poppins author P.L.  Travers and Walt Disney and his minions at Disney Studios is among the best movies I’ve seen this past year.

It helps that I am a huge fan of the Disney movie Mary Poppins, Even if you’re not-and if you’re not why?-it’s still a profoundly affecting movie. Travers (a pen name) was raised in Australia, and this movie toggles back and forth between her childhood and the early 60’s in Los Angeles. Walt Disney had, apparently, been trying for 20 years to obtain the rights to the Mary Poppins books from Travers. When she arrived in L.A. she had still not signed away the rights. She was afraid that the “Disney treatment” would turn her beloved creation into a caricature. She spent weeks working with Disney’s team before signing over the rights to the books.

And the rest is history. 50 years after its release, Mary Poppins remains one of the most popular and best-loved movies of all time. It’s hard to know what is truth and what is fiction in this movie. I recommend enjoying it merely as a good story. And if you haven’t seen Mary Poppins, you should see it before seeing Saving Mr. Banks.

Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)

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The Valley of Amazement

Author Amy Tan

Author Amy Tan

Using a cherished family photo for inspiration, Amy Tan has produced a moving, beautifully constructed (and lengthy) novel. While researching a novel about Shanghai, Tan came across photos taken in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. Tan came across one photo that was similar to a photo of her grandmother. In it, Tan’s grandmother is dressed similarly to the early 20th century courtesans of Shanghai. While Tan had no idea if her grandmother was actually a courtesan or this was simply a photo studio costume, it led her to imagine the lives of these women, most of whom had no other options for surviving on their own.

Thus was born The Valley of Amazement. This is a complex tale of an American woman who operates a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Lulu Minturn is raising her daughter, Violet, in Hidden Jade Path, a first class courtesan house catering to both Chinese and westerners. Lulu is estranged from her San Francisco family. Lulu’s poor decisions lead to Violet’s becoming a Shanghai courtesan while Lulu returns to San Francisco.

Most of this novel revolves around Violet’s life. Violet struggles to survive as she becomes older, and less desirable. Also, the world is changing rapidly and the courtesans are becoming less fashionable. While Violet adapts to what she views as her mother’s abandonment, she is also searching for love and a permanent place in the world.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, the focus turns to Lulu, and how she ended up a single mother in Shanghai. We learn of her struggles with her San Francisco family. We see how her impulsive decisions led her down a difficult path.  Lulu’s relationship with Violet’s father is is troubled, and of course this complicates Violet’s emotions and her dealings with men.

Despite its length, The Valley of Amazement was a quick read. As with Amy Tan’s other novels, the compelling story and sympathetic characters made me want to keep reading.  I highly recommend this fine novel.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Ecco-2013
Softcover edition to be published-Ecco-July 2014

The Valley of Amazement

Catching Fire

Movie still publicity photo of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Movie still publicity photo of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Yes-we ran out on the movie’s opening day to see The Hunger Games:Catching Fire. I really enjoyed this second installment in The Hunger Games trilogy.  As with any movie adaptation of a fairly long book, this movie left out many details from the book, but it really captured the essence of the novel.

Catching Fire picks up nearly one year after the unprecedented dual victory of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the 74th Hunger Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is displeased with the results of the games. The populace of Panem is chafing under the harsh rule of the Capitol. Snow visits Katniss is District 12 and orders her to act as if she and Peeta are truly in love. Since the people are rallying around Katniss and the mockingjay as a symbol of their rebellion, Snow wants to use Katniss to halt the rebellion before it really starts. He imposes harsher rule on the districts, including frequent public floggings to demonstrate his power.

To celebrate the upcoming 75th Hunger Games, the tributes are drawn not from the usual pool of young people, but from previous winners. This insures that Katniss will return as a contestant. Snow hopes that one of the other contestants will kill Katniss and solve his problems. Hah!

As the Hunger Games begin, Katniss and Peeta are allied with tributes from other districts. The obstacles they face are more treacherous than in the past, and many are really scary.

The acting and action sequences are really well done in this film. The special effects are good, and not over the top unbelievable. President Snow seems more evil than before. Of course it is distressing that The Hunger Games is only one of the many novels and movies which depict such a dystopian future for us. But that’s another issue! Now we have to wait one year the release of part one of the movie adaptation of the third book of the trilogy, Mockingjay. And then another year after that for the concluding film.

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Unmentionables

Author Laurie Lowenstein

Author Laurie Lowenstein

Unmentionables is the first published novel by author Laurie Lowenstein. The publisher has placed it in the historical fiction category. I’m not so sure about that; I think it’s more “fiction” than”historical”. But that’s a minor point.

As the novel opens, we meet Marian Elliot Adams, a speaker on the “Chautauqua” circuit, who is traveling the midwest to promote sensible dress for women; specifically she is a proponent of women discarding heavy, constricting, undergarments in order to fully participate in a more robust, healthful life. In the small town of Emporia (Illinois? The first clue is that one of the characters is the President of the Western Illinois Savings and Loan, but it was a bit confusing at first to figure out where the action was taking place), Mrs. Elliot Adams’ message is not well received by all. The year is 1917, but Emporia seems stuck in the nineteenth century.

Leaving the stage after her speech, Marian falls and hurts her ankle. So she is forced to linger in Emporia. While there, she interacts with numerous townspeople and, just as they are affected by her and her modern ways, Marian is affected by them.

Marian becomes friendly with Deuce Garland, the publisher of Emporia’s newspaper. She also meets Deuce’s step-daughter Helen, who is working at the newspaper following her high school graduation. Marian encourages Helen to follow her dream of moving to Chicago. Marian also encourages Deuce to print controversial stories and editorials that displease his wealthy father-in-law, who is the real owner of the newspaper.

When Marian completes her summer speaking circuit, she  volunteers for a Red Cross relief effort in rural France. She and Deuce continue to develop their relationship via mail. Meanwhile, Helen is struggling to find her place in Chicago.

Generally, I enjoyed this novel. However, the action was a bit disjointed. While it seemed necessary for Marian and Deuce’s relationship that they be separated, the choice of Marian going off to France was odd. It seemed as if there were three main centers of action-Chicago, Emporia, and France. It was difficult to tell when different events were occurring; then all of a sudden it seemed an entire year had passed. But it was a quick and engaging read nonetheless. Once again, many thanks to LibraryThing and its Early Reviewer program for sending this book to me.

In USA:

Softcover edition-to be published-Kaylie Jones/Akashic Books-January 2014

Unmentionables

Gravity

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone

Sandra Bullock as
Dr. Ryan Stone

First of all-this movie had received a tremendous amount of pre-opening publicity. And for me, the main effect was that I didn’t think I could deal with sitting through a feature length film with someone in a space suit the whole time. For all the other claustrophobia sufferers out there-don’t worry; I managed to deal with it, you probably can too!

George Clooney is Matt Kowalski, the Commander of the mission that includes Bullock’s Ryan Stone as a doctor on her first space mission. While on an extra-vehicular repair mission, their craft is bombarded by debris from a Russian satellite. Their spacecraft is destroyed, and Kowalski and Stone are the sole survivors. Due to the debris field, all communication with Houston is severed. Their only hope of returning to Earth is either a rescue mission (not likely considering the only oxygen they have is what is in their personal supply) or getting to the nearby Chinese space station.

This movie has great visuals. The views of Earth from 600 km are spectacular. The action sequences (mainly space disasters) are frightening.

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that a movie would only have two characters, plus the disembodied voice of Ed Harris at Mission Control in Houston. But Gravity really does capture and keep your attention. Everything that I have read about Gravity indicates that it is scientifically accurate. I also read that the astronauts were filmed separately on a “green screen”, and did not actually interact. And yet the dialogue is quite real seeming.

Due to the above mentioned claustrophobia issues, as well as timing, I was happy not to see Gravity in 3-D.But I sure it would be really spectacular for those who can stand it.

I think Gravity is a really good movie, and probably important to see if you want to get in on those Monday morning water cooler conversations.

The Illusion of Separateness

 Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy

This elegant and moving novel by British author Simon Van Booy should be on everyone’s short list of must-reads. It tells the story of  five people in different times and places. They move through their lives unaware of their connection to the other characters. The connections between them become apparent as the novel unfolds. Of course the final piece of this puzzle becomes apparent only at the end.

The characters are complex and original. The settings in which we meet them are portrayed vividly and realistically.

The novel bounces between France in 1944, New York and Los Angeles in the present, rural France in 1968, and England in 1981. You would think that this would result in a disjointed mish-mash, but it never does. The story flows smoothly and evenly, with much emotion simmering below the surface.

The Illusion of Separateness is short and powerful. And I will be re-reading it tonight!

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Harper-2013
Softcover edition-HarperCollins-2013

The Illusion of Separateness: A Novel

Noah’s Rainy Day

Author Sandra Brannan

Author Sandra Brannan

Noah’s Rainy Day is the fourth book in Sandra Brannan’s series featuring Liv Bergen, now an FBI Special Agent. Liv has recently completed her FBI training in Quantico, Virginia, and is newly returned to the Denver area. Liv is staying with the family of her sister, Frances, while she searches for an apartment large enough to accommodate her and Beulah, The FBI bloodhound that she works with. Noah is Liv’s twelve year old nephew. He is afflicted with a severe form of cerebral palsy. He is nearly blind, and can barely move independently. Noah, however, is smart, observant, and wants to be a spy like his hero, his Auntie Liv.

Liv and Beulah are summoned to Denver International Airport on Christmas Eve to work on their first case together. A five year old boy, Max, has disappeared from the airport during a layover on his New York to Los Angeles flight. His parents are divorcing and his wealthy father has sent him to spend Christmas with his mother in LA. Mr. Bennett has paid an airline employee to escort little Max to his destination. When Max doesn’t deplane in LA, his waiting mother becomes hysterical, and the search is on.

Noah’s Rainy Day is interesting, fact-paced and, overall, a good read. And even though I haven’t read the previous three Liv Bergen books, it was simple enough to get up to speed on the characters and the story line.

The only nit I have to pick will probably sound familiar to readers of this blog. Liv is a smart, strong, independent woman. She and her colleagues are working round the clock to help solve the mystery of Max’s disappearance. And yet-Liv has time to wonder about the new cologne one of her male co-workers is wearing. She is convinced that is was given to him by a female co-worker, and she is jealous. And he is not even the colleague that she is interested in. What gives?

On the other hand, it’s great to have a character with a severe disability take center stage in a novel. Although Noah’s body is crippled, his mind is active and inquisitive. He shows tremendous empathy for the missing Max, and his assistance is crucial bringing Max home.

So-overall, I give Noah’s Rainy Day a thumbs up. Once again, many thinks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program for sending me this book. I look forward to reading Brannan’s earlier novels featuring Liv Bergen.

In USA:

Softcover edition-Greenleaf Book Group Press-2013

Noah’s Rainy Day