Thursday, May 26, 2011

Doc Martin

Doc MartinOne of the most delightful English series I have come across lately is Doc Martin, starring Martin Clunes. In it, he plays the brilliant, but socially inept Dr. Martin Ellingham. Once a successful surgeon, he has developed a extreme fear of blood and can no longer perform operations. He then returns to the Cornish village of Portwenn, where he was raised by his understanding, but crusty, Aunt Joan. He replaces the retiring G.P., and sets up a medical practice.
Doc Martin: Caroline Catz
Dr. Ellingham, colloquially called Doc Martin, is a sympathetic character, despite his abruptness and "shoot from the hip" manner. He is a fine doctor who does not suffer fools kindly. And in this village, full of off-beat characters, Doc Martin gets his patience tried daily.

The acting in this series is wonderful. The main characters are played by actors perfectly suited for their roles. The primary school teacher, Louisa Glass, provides the love interest for the doctor. Her warmth and maternal manner contrast markedly with his seeming callousness. Although he loves her, Doc Martin is unable to express his feelings. He succeeds, always, in making her angry by some careless choice of words.

This series reminded me of a British version of Northern Exposure. In both cases, we encounter a reticent doctor out of his depths with the people he serves. But Doc Martin is a far better series. Watching Dr. Ellingham's interactions, one wonders if he is afflicted by Asperger Syndrome. It is never mentioned, but his inability to read nuance, his need for order, and his struggle to connect with others, especially Louisa, are sympathetically portrayed. He is a fine doctor whose sense of ethics and knowledge of medicine put him far above others. In one episode, Dr. Ellingham's parents visit. We come to understand why Aunt Joan raised him, and what a difficult childhood he must have had when not in her care.

Glencoe Public Library carries all four seasons. This is a British comedy with fine acting, quirky characters and situations, and good insights into human nature. Season 5 is presently in production. I eagerly await its appearance on PBS this year.


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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The School of Night

True to Louis Bayard's form, the School of Night, his latest novel moves back and forth from Elizabethan England to the present day. Alonzo Wax, a prominent historical document collector has committed suicide. He has named as his executor Henry Cavendish an Elizabethan scholar with a somewhat tarnished past. Cavendish, who authenticated a poem by Walter Ralegh that was later determined to be a fake is approached by Bernard Styles a rival of Wax's. Styles offers Cavendish $100,000. to locate a document he claims Alonzo stole from him. This document, a letter from Ralegh, is said to prove the existence of the School of Night. The school was a secret debating club attended by Ralegh, Thomas Harriot, a scientist, and the playwright Christopher Marlow among others.

The plot races along shifting between present time and the Elizabethan period. Bayard always has a twist to his historical novels and this one is no different. The document contains more than just information about the school. It contains information about Harriot's scientific studies as well. Included in the intrigue about the letter and the suicide of Wax are several more murders, a torrid love affair between Cavendish and a mysterious woman he sees at the Alonzo's funeral and information about the great love between Harriot and a servant named Margaret.

What makes this book different from Bayard's others are that this book contains some humor. The humor serves to enhance the story making the characters seem more modern. An intelligent thriller, Bayard does not disappoint.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Gideon's Sword

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (of the Pendergast series fame) have created a new character called Gideon Crew. Gideon's Sword is the first book relating to this new character. Gideon Crew is the latest in a long line of loner heroes. As a child Gideon sees his father shot after surrendering during a hostage incident. This effects the rest of his life, of course. He stumbles from one career to another finally settling on a career as a burglar at which he is quite successful. Meaning he doesn't get caught. He promises his dying mother to ruin the man who set up his father.

Gideon is hired by the mysterious EES company to find and follow a Chinese national who is entering the US with some secret technology that will change the world. EES does contract jobs for the federal government, the CIA and the NSA. Whether this is a terrorist plot, a nuclear device or a revolution of some other sort Gideon is never told. Gideon takes on the job and the story is off. The plot line is filled with old standards - a prostitute with a heart of gold, a mysterious tech company, a hero with a convoluted past, a possible terrorist plot. But the story is more than just the old stand byes. It moves fast enough to keep you interested, there are not alot of twists but there are a few surprises.

While Preston and Child are really known for their Pendergast series, the reader should be aware that this book is nothing like them. This book takes awhile for the main story to start. First the incident during his childhood, then the ruination of the man who killed his father and finally the main story line. An easy read with a fast plot line Gideon's Sword might just be the perfect men's beach read.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories

Like most people, I had never heard of Edith Pearlman until I came upon a New York Times book review some weeks ago. While reading Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, I was impressed by the depth of her perceptions and the beauty of her writing. Each story is a gem. Pearlman captures the moral dilemmas we all face, the contradictions inherent in love, and the subtle and not so subtle indignities of youth and old age.

One of my favorite stories is "Aunt Telephone." Susan, the narrator, looks back on her youth in a wealthy suburb of Boston. The child of an investment banker and a psychologist, she describes the social milieu in which she grew up. "Our house and Milo's and the Plunket's all lay within a mile of each other..., as did the homes of most of the other guests--the psychiatrists and clinical psychologists and social workers who made up this crowd. They were all friends, they referred patients to one another, they distributed themselves into peer-supervision subsets--a collegial, talkative crew, their envy vigorously tamped down (p. 354)."

It is within this group of adult friends that she meets Milo, a much-published psychiatrist and neighbor. All the mothers seek his advice on child-rearing, no matter that he is a bachelor, and seemingly, asexual. "He was an aunt, my aunt, aunt to many children born into our therapeutic set, if an aunt is someone always ready to talk on the telephone to worried parents...," Susan relates.

Pearlman beautifully captures the rebelliousness of adolescence and the awkwardness of the tween years. Susan is a precocious child, preferring her own company to that of the pack. She is drawn to Milo, in part, because of his own predilection for living alone. But the story is more than a Bildungsroman. It is also about displacement. Susan reveals that the mothers no longer call Milo once their children are grown. There are no more recitals, bar mitzvahs or graduation invites. There are no more phone calls. Of the large crowd that once esteemed Milo, only Susan remains. Now an adult with children of her own, she deeply respects the way in which he accepts, with grace, his reduced circumstances and advancing years.

"Aunt Telephone" is but one of 34 stories. Each story is built around a unique set of circumstances--"the predicaments--odd, wry, funny and painful--of being human." (New York Times Book Review, January 14, 2011) Some of the stories deal with Jews displaced by the Holocaust, making a new life in other countries. "Allog" has a unique take on the immigrant experience in Israel. "Inbound" looks at a young family with two daughters, and the impact of Down's Syndrome on their lives. Other stories deal with passion in the autumn years. In"Capers," an elderly couple resorts to extreme measures to enhance their love life. All are tales of hope as the characters struggle with whatever life hands them. The gift of Binocular Vision is that we recognize our better selves in the characters Edith Pearlman has created.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

A Discovery of Witches

It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches.

So begins Deborah Harkness' a Discovery of Witches. Think of this story not as the Twilight series for adults but rather as a love story involving non-human creatures.

I am not a fan of books about vampires, witches, supernatural powers, parallel universes, etc. but I do like a well told story and a Discovery of Witches is just that. Diana Bishop is working on some research in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. The Bodleian is one of the world's oldest libraries. Diana, a Ph.D., is doing research on ancient documents relating to alchemy. She also happens to come from a long line of witches. Her lineage dates back to Sarah Bishop of the Salem witch trials fame.

Since her parents death when she was 7 years old Diana has been raised by her two aunts, Emily and Sarah, also witches. Diana tries to ignore her abilities as a witch resulting in her being an overachiever in her "human" life.

While pouring over her manuscripts, Diana calls up from the bowels of the Bodelian a manuscript labeled "Ashmole 782." The manuscript, long thought lost by the witching world, is tightly bound up by spells which only Diana can release. And she does so much to her dismay. So upset that her witching powers have come out for the book, Diana sends it back to the stacks. Here is where her real trouble begins.

Diana notices the library is beginning to fill with other witches, daemons and vampires none of whom seem to wish her well. Except for the vampire Matthew Clairmont. Dr. Clairmont, as he is known in this incarnation, is a brilliant DNA researcher attached to another Oxford college.

The story now begins in earnest. Vampires and witches are not supposed to mix, let alone help each other, and really not fall in love. But these two do. In steps the Congregation, a sort of U.N. for witches, vampires and daemons. The Congregation enforces the rules of a pact made a thousand years ago that is to keep the species from killing each other. One of the rules is no mixing. Diana and Matthew ignore that rule while trying to find out the mystery of the Ashmole 782 document.

The plot moves forward through the attacks and betrayals that Matthew and Diana suffer just to be together. It is really a story of a love affair - 2 people who should never come together do despite the criticisms of both of their families.

I liked this book. The story is good and despite being a witch and a vampire, Diana and Matthew are great sympathetic characters. Get past the fact that instead of humans this story is about witches, vampires and daemons and you will like this book as well. Be aware that while there is a satisfying conclusion to the book there are enough threads still hanging for a sequel. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling

I really enjoyed this book, which falls squarely in the popular category of "light but good" fiction.

Rob and Dory Lang are happily married English teachers at a small town high school.  All is well at school and home until a new drama teacher, Fran Heller, arrives in town. Fran proposes that the high school students put on a play based on the classic play Lysistrata, in which women refuse to have sex with their men in an effort to stop the war. As the preparations for the play progress, a spell falls over all those involved, and - you can guess- but I won't tell you what happens!

Not serious literature, but a good read that I am recommending. By the author of The Ten-Year Nap.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Two Atmospheric New DVD Series

We've got two wonderful new DVD series that combine thick atmosphere with colorful characters.

Justified, currently in its second season on FX, is best described as a contemporary Western despite the fact that one of the running jokes in the first season involves the fact that U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, our hero, is the only one wearing a cowboy hat and boots. The show is set in western Kentucky, where Marshal Givens is exiled after shooting a bad guy in Miami. Originally hailing from this area of the country, Givens encounters an ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend, an absent father and a variety of long-lost associates, a number of whom are involved in criminal endeavors (particularly meth dealing). Givens is cool in every tough situation and his old associate Boyd Crowder in particular is a fascinating supporting character. Despite moments of violence, the show remains funny and folksy. The character of Raylan Givens was originally created by Elmore Leonard and Justified retains Leonard's skill with dialogue (Leonard remains on as Executive Producer).

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has returned to HBO with Treme, which celebrates post-Katrina New Orleans with an excellent ensemble cast. A waitress, a college professor, a lawyer, a Mardi Gras indian chief, musicians and more all try to reconstruct their lives after losing jobs, houses and loved ones in the hurricane. But forget about the plot - the story of Treme is of the music of New Orleans. Every episode of Treme features multiple musical performances and if there is ever a soundtrack that you will want to own, this is it. John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Steve Zahn are probably the biggest names in the skilled cast, though cameos from real-life New Orleans musicians and personalities abound. I visited New Orleans at the end of 2010 and Treme made me want to head right back.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife is an amazing first novel by Tea Obreht. The story goes back and forth from the Yugoslavia of the 1950s to the Bosnian Conflict of 1992-1995. Once loosely united under the military dictator, Tito (the "Marshall"), it is now being torn apart by ethnic hatreds. As in the allegorical novel, A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev, Tea Obreht depicts the horrors of war without naming the parties. This universalizes the suffering and makes an enemy of cruelty and intolerance.

Still, some background to this war-torn region is helpful. One of the main characters--the grandfather, recalls his time as a soldier during the Soviet-Yugoslav Conflict of the 1950s. At the time, the Bosnians, Croations, and Serbians were united by communism and informal borders.

But this peace is shattered with Tito's death in 1980 and the fall of a collective presidency in 1991. On June 25, 1991, Serbia and Croatia proclaimed sovereignty over Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian Army then attacked Slovenia. The Croats and Serbs began fighting in Croatia and all ethnic rivalries were unleashed. Ethnic cleansing continued through 1995, when NATO sent in peace-keeping forces. It was not until December14, 1995 that a peace accord between the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs was signed. By the end of the war, 200,000 people had lost their lives; six million remained homeless.

Tea Obreht spins her story loosely based on events from this time. Natalia Stefanovi is a young doctor, just out of school. She journeys across the newly-drawn border to treat Muslim children orphaned by the Serbian forces. Obreht does not tell us the nationalities of either Natalia or those she treats, but there is a reference to the children orphaned by Natalia's people.

We learn that her sick grandfather has died, not at home, but in a village close to where she now works. Why he ventured there to die alone is a mystery she intends to solve. In doing so, she reflects on the stories her grandfather told her--namely those concerning "the deathless man." Obreht weaves elements of the supernatural into the plot with ease and grace.

The story from which the novel derives its name is about a tiger that escaped captivity when the zoo was bombed during World War II. The tiger re-learns its wild ways, and searches for food at the edges of the town. It begins to steal food from the butcher's smoke house. There, it meets the butcher's deaf, mute and abused wife. She is a Muslim, and like the tiger, an outsider in the village. As WWII rages, and threat of invasion by Germany is imminent, the villagers turn to scapegoating both the tiger and the wife. Obreht's imagery is luminous as she describes the forest setting and the relationship between the tiger and the woman he loves. "He had gone a week without the warmth of the village and the smokehouse smell of her hair...Once or twice he had gone to her, had tracked her down in the blackness of the trees, but she had always led him back. And he had lain there among the ruins of Sveti Danilo while the snow fell through the caved-in roof above the alter, and watched the birds huddled along the golden arch of the alterpiece." (p. 261)

The Tiger's Wife is highly metaphoric and sensuously visual. Its lyrical writing keeps the reader spellbound to the last page.

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