Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Marie Antoinette (2006)

I thought this would be more eye candy, less story, but it was actually very good. Wonderful costumes, of course, as everyone knows. But it’s also insightful into 18th century royal life and the challenges Marie Antoinette faced when she entered France as the Dauphine at age 14. It made me do a little research, since I knew next to nothing about Marie Antoinette, and what I did know was about half wrong. And when I say a little research, I mean the least possible amount of research, performed on the internet. Here’s the wikipedia link, so you don’t have to repeat my grueling internet research work.

I’d like to read the biography on which the film is based: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New York Doll (2005)

Occasionally I find a film that is absolutely riveting and delightful, and New York Doll is one of them. It’s the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for a glam-rock band in the early 1970s called The New York Dolls. Directed by an LDS friend and told by Arthur and various friends, the film recounts Arthur’s glory days in the band, the subsequent years of drug and alcohol addiction and near poverty, his conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his dream of playing with the band again. His dream is realized when he and the two other surviving members are invited by Morrissey to reunite for the London Meltdown Festival in 2004.

While the New York Dolls weren’t commercially successful back in their heyday, they were apparently enormously influential, and there are some big names interviewed in the movie, such as Morrissey, Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde and Iggy Pop. Also interviewed are delightful old ladies who work with Arthur at the Family History Library in L.A. and his home teacher and bishop. Arthur himself is gentle, quirky and unassuming.

One scene was particularly delightful: just before going on stage, fellow band member David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) teases Arthur about giving his share of the money from t-shirt sales to the church. There follows a conversation about the “rules” of Mormonism that will be familiar to any LDS people who’ve had to explain themselves to someone not of the faith. It’s just fun to watch that conversation between two rock stars.

We couldn't find this to rent where we live, so we ended up buying it. I’m glad we did.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Ladin

Carmen Bin Ladin was married to one of Osama Bin Laden’s half-brothers, Yeslam. (The difference in spelling is intentional; Carmen explains it in the book.) She lived among the Bin Laden women in Saudi Arabia for nine years. This is the story of her courtship with Yeslam and married life in Saudi Arabia, which is a strange mixture of money, luxury, and excessive restrictions on women and individuality. Before I read this, I didn’t know how extreme Saudi Arabia is, even compared to other Islamic countries: women are not only required to be fully veiled, they are almost completely secluded and confined to their homes. At one point, Carmen talks her husband into allowing her to go to a store herself, instead of having servants bring suitcases full of stuff home for her perusal. She shows up at the store, fully veiled, of course, and the store has been closed and completely emptied of employees, owner, etc. They are standing outside with their backs turned so as not to see her as she enters. It’s interesting, to say the least.

Before this book, I had assumed that Osama Bin Laden was a power-hungry, manipulative guy just using the excuse of religion to maintain control of the truly religious. But according to Carmen, he is religious, extremely so. Carmen doubts reports by Western journalists that he has been a sort of playboy in Western Europe: while many of his half-brothers have enjoyed the Western lifestyle at various times, to her knowledge Osama has not. Apparently there is a photo of several Bin Laden brothers in Europe somewhere, wearing popular Western clothing, but the one who was identified as Osama in Western publications was actually one of his half-brothers.

It’s also very interesting to read about the Saudi government. Some people think that the ruling family, the al-Sauds, number up to 25,000 people today.

I should mention that Carmen was born and raised in Switzerland—her mother is Iranian, her father Swiss—and she’s definitely a modern, Western woman. When she lived in Saudi Arabia, she tried to get along with her sisters-in-law, mother-in-law, etc., and respected their religious convictions. She tried to fit in and was not looking for ways to criticize them. In fact, she seems fairly restrained in her description of her in-laws, though she aims for accuracy. But because she was not Saudi and only half “Muslim” (as they saw it), she was always looked down on by her new relatives. Their perception is that Islam is the correct way, and, further, that Saudis (and Saudi Arabia) are the purest and best, even among other Islamic peoples and cultures.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

I love well-written cookbooks and books about food and travel. This novel combines recipes with a story of romance, family betrayal and forbidden love in turn-of-the-century Mexico. It uses magical realism that reminds me of Gabriel García Marquéz and Isabel Allende. I just barely learned that term, which is why I’m linking to its Wikipedia article. I’m glad it has a name. (You’d never know that I was a Comparative Literature major!)

I know I read this several years ago, but apparently it was forgettable at that time, since I could only vaguely remember one scene from it. This time I really enjoyed it, though. It also reminded of Candide, in the slightly humorous, matter-of-fact way tragedy is described. We’ll be discussing it at the other book club I go to, and I’m looking forward to it.

Maximum Ride: The Angle Experiment by James Patterson

This young adult novel has a dumb name, an even worse cover, and it’s by James Patterson, who wrote Suzanne’s Letters to Nicholas, which I read a few years ago and hated. You’d think I’d steer clear of his stuff, and I normally would, but my oldest son wanted to read it, and while I couldn’t possibly read everything he reads, I thought this looked like something I ought to check out. It was surprisingly enjoyable. Not a great or important book, but entertaining. It’s kind of an X-Men story, about kids who’ve been genetically engineered to have wings. I know, it sounds stupid! But like I said, I enjoyed it. It's a little violent, and since there's a barely-begun romance in this one, I'll have to read the sequels, too, before my son does. But I kind of want to! I'm still surprised.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Paradise by Larry McMurtry

I read Paradise by Larry McMurtry while trying to recover from bronchitis a week ago. The recovery has been slow going.

The book was a short meandering travelogue of Larry's trip to Tahiti and the Marquesa Islands. He begins by recounting his parents' marriage falling apart some years ago, comparing (and contrasting -- one word: water!) the isolation of Texas to that of islands he's visiting, observing his fellow travelers on the ship, considering the effect of the extreme isolation of the Marquesas, and commenting on famous people's visits to the area, especially the painter Gauguin.

Several of the reviewers featured on Amazon.com didn't like the book at all because of its disorganization and slow pace, but I enjoyed it, and liked the eclectic content. It is a short book, and that helps -- many hundreds of pages of this style would become tedious. But this was nice.

I haven't read anything else by McMurtry, but Erin's read Lonesome Dove and a few of his other books, and I'm more interested in reading more of his writing now.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

The Story of the Weeping Camel is a documentary-style film about a nomadic family in Mongolia. One of their camels has a very difficult delivery of her baby camel, which is a rare white camel. But the mother rejects the baby, which would die if not fed by hand. The two young boys go on a long journey alone to the nearest town, to find a musician to help the mother camel accept her baby.

The desert is harsh but beautiful, the family life is simple, and the family has a not surprising confrontation with modernity.

It was an enjoyable film. Our whole family watched it together.

Friday, February 9, 2007

My Date with Drew (2004)

This was delightful. A financially strapped, aspiring filmmaker in L.A. uses the winnings from a game show ($1100) and a video camera purchased from Circuit City on a friend's credit card (with the intention of taking it back in thirty days to take advantage of Circuit City’s return policy) and tries to get a date with Drew Barrymore. A couple of his friends help him document his attempts. It’s funny and kind of amazing and inspiring. I loved it!

Monday, February 5, 2007

Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom by Isabella Leitner

This is a beautifully written account of the author’s experiences in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps towards the end of World War II. Her mother and youngest sister were killed when they arrived (at a time when the Nazis were burning 24,000 people a day at Auschwitz), but she and two sisters and a brother managed to survive. Surprisingly, it’s hopeful and not depressing. My only beef with her is that she portrays Germans as inhuman or a different species, which seems a dangerous attitude—if we imagine that the Nazis killed the Jews because they’re somehow fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, instead of asking what choices they made to get to that point, then we’ve learned nothing. There have been many, many groups of people who have tortured and murdered other groups, for whatever reason. Most notably, her saviors, the Russians, killed hundreds of thousands more people than the Nazis did. Certainly they had more time for the killing, but there are several specific and short incidents in history when the Russians matched or exceeded the Nazis’ numbers. The question is, what makes people think they can deprive others of life? What leads to that, and are we sure we’re not on a similar path? Would I have risked my own life to save others if I had lived in Germany during World War II? What if my “job” were processing Jews on their way to death camps? I hope I would have been more like the ten Booms in Holland or like Helmut Hübener in Germany, but I don’t know.

Having said that, though, I have no idea how I would react if I were ever in the same situation that Isabella found herself in when she was so young (about 20 years old). I can’t imagine the horror. So I don’t wish to criticize her. I think every first-person account of the Holocaust is valuable and necessary, and I’m grateful there are those brave enough to write about their experiences.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Hours (2002)

I’ve been avoiding this movie for a long time now, because of course it was going to be sad, and therefore depressing, I suspected. I finally rented it, and then I still waited to watch it until the last night before I had to take it back. Turns out, I found it thought-provoking and sort of inspiring, although it does deal with some pretty serious issues, a couple of suicides the most weighty. Since watching it, I have been thinking about how we misjudge others’ situations, problems, moods, etc. It’s so easy to look at the people around us and assume that they’re handling their lives much better than we’re handling ours. There were a couple of times in this film where one character says to another, “You’re so lucky,” but because we’ve seen more of that character’s life, we know how untrue that is. It reminds me of something Henry Eyring, one of the Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said recently:

When I was a young man, I served as counselor to a wise district president in the Church. He tried to teach me. One of the things I remember wondering about was this advice he gave: “When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.”

I thought then that he was pessimistic. Now, more than 40 years later, I can see how well he understood the world and life.

The Hours has a lot of hidden misery in it. It made me think that it’s probably a good idea to treat everyone I meet as if they’re in serious trouble. Who knows who’s contemplating suicide? And even if it hasn’t come to that, there are a lot of people who need help or friendship or someone to listen to them or love them. Also, I don’t want to make assumptions about someone else’s life; I don’t want to say to anyone, “You’re so lucky,” when they’re actually unhappy, depressed, struggling with problems of which I’m unaware.

I really ought to read something by Virginia Woolf besides A Room of One’s Own. The acting in this is astounding, by the way. Nicole Kidman is not herself. She’s really amazing.

A disclaimer for some family members and friends: I liked this movie very much, but there's stuff in it that will be controversial or frowned on by some. I'm not necessarily recommending it to everyone I know! That is all.

The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel

This is a very good book, especially for a first novel. The narrative technique is interesting: the same nine-month period is covered from different perspectives. Each character gets the full nine months before the next character reveals more information about the same time period, so there’s repetition, but the voices are different enough that it never gets boring. It’s probably one of the best historical fiction books I’ve read. It also has a great-looking bibliography at the end (I haven’t had time to read any of the books listed, but they all look interesting), with titles about Jews in Poland and Russia, the general history of Poland, Gypsies, and the labor movement in the United States and Poland, among other things.

There are some wonderful, strong female characters, a little of the supernatural, and everybody changes for the better, which makes it a hopeful book. I really liked it.