July 26, 2021 • No Comments
There aren’t many historical figures I want to fangirl over, but Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman 1864 – 1922) makes the list. An American reporter, she pursued investigative stories at a time when women were doomed to penning fluff pieces. Bly soon tired of the society pages and insisted on challenging subjects. Danger was no deterrent – among other assignments, she covered the European Eastern Front during WWI.
Around 2019, I read Ten Days in a Mad-House, Bly’s expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She got herself committed and posed as one of the female inmates to discover what went on inside. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Her revelations of abusive living conditions and the casual cruelty of asylum officials shocked the New York public of 1887. Eventually, it led to reforms at the asylum. Her steady, detailed narrative stands up today as readable reporting.
I returned to Bly’s story in my research of Victorian-era asylums. When I learned there was a film adaptation, I quickly found it on Hoopla. Timothy Hines wrote and directed this 2015 production (10 Days in a Madhouse). Caroline Barry is charming as Nellie, but I question her chirpiness in places. And unfortunately, where the true story is dark enough, the movie gilds the lily in places. As a result, the tone comes out as spunky and sordid at the same time, making me wonder what audience they were aiming for.
That said, the movie worked well enough as a recap. The unsanitary conditions, bad food, inadequate heating, and casual cruelty are all part of the original. So is the maddening truth that institutions silenced the inconvenient far more often than they cured them.
Unruly women were deemed most inconvenient indeed.
March 7, 2021 • No Comments
Released in 2019/20, directed by Marjane Satrapi, with Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie
Description: After the death of her beloved husband, Marie Curie’s commitment to science remains strong as she tries to explain previously unknown radioactive elements. But it soon becomes terrifyingly evident that her work could lead to applications in medicine that could save thousands of lives — or applications in warfare that could destroy them by the billions.
I was curious about this movie from the moment I heard about it. Marie Curie is a fascinating figure, but not one that I knew much about. I came away with a much better idea of how she discovered the djinn of radioactivity and what happened next, but it was a mixed experience.
First off, this was a beautiful movie filled with lush visual detail. Rosamund Pike gave a splendid performance as Marie Curie, who proved to be a prickly, brilliant, egotistical but ultimately sympathetic woman far ahead of her time. Sam Riley played the appealing husband. At times it felt like the story leaned on their romance to give shape to the plot, but that only lasted (obviously) until Pierre Curie’s death. After that, the plot scampered off with more enthusiasm than focus.
The difficulty with telling a story about a real person and real events is that life doesn’t follow a three-act structure. As a result, the film splooshed out of its narrative bounds in an attempt to capture events not fitting the timeline. The assorted uses of radiation—from medicine to Hiroshima to Arizona bomb tests—come stampeding across the screen at random moments. A few passages got too arty—and kind of trippy—for any real coherence.
Overall, it felt as if the film wasn’t entirely sure what it was trying to be. A romance? A biography? A social commentary about the dangers of uncontrolled scientific inquiry? A super cool montage with mushroom clouds?
To be fair, I still enjoyed the ride. After all, we are talking about a Victorian-set film about a strong and opinionated woman of science. I wish however, the writers had formed a better idea of what they wanted to say about the subject. There was a lot to like here, especially Pike’s performance, but the film seemed to get in its own way.
Recommended, but best when in an easy-going frame of mind, possibly with wine involved.
March 1, 2020 • No Comments
I have a long list of “I really should watch that someday” documentaries, especially ones about lifestyle and stuff.
Forks Over Knives
Last week I finally watched Fork Over Knives (2011, Virgil Films), which talks about the virtues of a whole-foods, plant-based diet. It’s a few years old but some of the scientific studies cited were new to me. The film spells out why chronic diseases can be reversed through lifestyle. Given my family’s incidence of cancer, this caught my attention. For example, casein, an animal protein, “switched on” cancerous growths in test animals when it formed more than 5% of their diet. When it dropped back down to 5%, the disease retreated.
I know that no study is perfect (for instance, I have strong feelings about animal testing) but it infuriates me that there isn’t more focus on this kind of evidence. There is an epidemic of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Something like one in three adults develop diabetes in North America. Diet will at the very least alleviate the symptoms in most victims. Why don’t we see the same action on this file as on, say, a virus that kills a mere few thousand world-wide? Because the virus doesn’t have a corporation to lobby on its behalf? I resist conspiracy theories, but one has to wonder.
Will I become vegan? I’ll definitely explore the diet and see how I respond. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for decades but never seriously considered dropping all animal-based foods. I know many people who have and their health is amazing. What’s important, I think, is to have a handful of reliable recipes in advance. That’s how I cut out meat without feeling deprived. I was already able to turn to familiar dishes. Click here for more on Forks Over Knives and its community.
Two other great documentaries I’ve watched recently while doing my ironing are:
Playing With Fire, which is all about the “Financial Independence, Retire Early” movement. This is inspirational and so common-sense, especially if one has a rebellious streak. It definitely made me rethink my savings plan!
What’s With Wheat I saw this one on Amazon Prime. The approach here isn’t “wheat is bad” so much as “what the heck have we done to this crop?” With the recent rise of gluten intolerance, it’s a good question. Some friends who have eaten bread while visiting Europe don’t notice the same side effects, which lends credence to the idea that it’s hybridization and agricultural practice, not so much wheat itself, that’s the problem. Interesting stuff.
As you might have guessed, I’m fascinated by food, lifestyles, and other health stuff. Especially food, because it’s the cornerstone of health, pleasure, and social interaction.
January 16, 2020 • 2 Comments
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence came out in 2012 and I bought it shortly thereafter. I read it/listened to the audiobook over Christmas 2019.
Yes, there is a gap between 2012 and 2019.
Hands up all you people who buy writing books without actually reading them! I’m a card-carrying member of your tribe! Maybe putting the books under my pillow at night will migrate the info to my brain? While I’m waiting for that to work, the bookshelf gathers vintage dust bunnies.
Ahem. This year, I will work through that overflowing shelf the non-magical way. I will read/watch one item approximately every week or so and discard the duds. To establish some accountability, I’ll review the ones worth hearing about.
Cron’s book was a great place to start.
I’ve been to enough writing workshops and conferences that I’ve heard a lot of advice before, but this was well worth my time. As the title suggests, Cron brings in principles of neuroscience to support the writing advice she offers, such as the brain’s tendency to filter out unnecessary information, its need to find causal connections, and its preference for specific image over abstract concept. These sections are presented in easily understood terms.
Beyond the brain science, the book contains good, no-nonsense craft instruction. It is not genre-specific, but refers to examples from literary fiction to potboilers. It also covers a gamut of topics in concise, carefully illustrated examples that ensure the reader can follow the lesson. At the end of each chapter is a summary of key concepts useful for editing.
Subjects include (among others): hooks, focus, emotion, character goals, conflict, payoffs, pacing, and backstory. The sections on reveals and backstory should be required reading. These pages alone could salvage many, many wall-bangers.
In my opinion, this book fills the need of the intermediate novelist—those who’ve got dialogue, setting, and plotting essentials under their belt already. This assumes comfort with those beginner basics and builds on that foundation to keep the reader constantly engaged.
I sincerely recommend this book.
While the audio version was competently narrated, I’m glad to have the hard copy for reference, particularly the checklists. Check out www.wiredforstory.com—Cron offers coaching, workshops, and resources. She also has a second book, Story Genius.
February 27, 2017 • No Comments
It’s rare that I go to a movie and think about it the next day and then the day after that–most box office material doesn’t demand that level of engagement. Arrival did, and I’m ever so grateful to be intrigued.
I know there was some grumbling about the authenticity of the linguistic methods used to decode the alien communications. I don’t know enough to weigh in, but the story did make me think about the minimal linguistics I took in university and how very unprepared I would be should heptapod aliens invade and the translation app on my iPhone fail to provide adequate interpretation. Great science fiction asks these questions.
So what specifically did I like about Arrival? The characters. It’s great to see such a meaty female lead role in a sci-fi film, and to see it so well done. Amy Adams handles the many layers of her character beautifully, coming across as deeply ordinary and exceptional at once. Jeremy Renner is endearing. Both have an air of vulnerability and honesty that gave the storytelling weight. Without giving too much away, everything in the movie–the close camera work, the acting, the way the story is put together–draws the viewer into an enormously intimate relationship with the protagonists and their fates.
This is sci-fi, and there is the odd explosion and nifty effects, but this isn’t a movie for those looking for ray guns and a high body count. It’s the kind that makes you go “Waaaaaiiit just a minute” as the penny drops and everything changes.
What did I not like about Arrival? There were a couple of moments when the characters seemed unobservant one moment and capable of superhuman leaps of logic the next, but given everything the film got right, these were small issues.
The story is based on a piece of short fiction by Ted Chiang. I haven’t read it (yet), but going by the fact that the structure of the movie held together, the adaptation was well done.
June 11, 2016 • No Comments
I watched the latest episode of Houdini & Doyle last night. I like the show. It’s fun and colourful with likeable characters and good acting and I can get my history geek on. Sure, I want to rush in and fix plot points for them, but that’s another issue. What I wanted to mention was there was a moment in this episode in which Houdini talks about being born in Eastern Europe and emigrating to the New World. In particular, he tells a story about how an American shopkeeper refused to sell his father food because they were foreigners.
This struck a chord with me, because I’ve heard that story before about members of my own family. A farmer refused to sell my ancestors potatoes despite the fact they were dirt poor and with many children to feed–just because they were first-generation immigrants who spoke oddly and probably went to a different Church or maybe just because they had the bad taste to be penniless. Who knows. But refusing to let people buy food for their children? Seriously?
I don’t understand how people can think that way, but obviously they did and some still do. It was a passing mention, but on behalf of my forebears, thanks to the show for speaking up for those who were in such a hateful situation.
Now, if only the writers would dig into the Society for Psychical Research and their doings. It would be a shame if they passed over the actual paranormal investigations going on at the time.
December 27, 2015 • No Comments
One of the pleasures of Christmas holidays is a little bit more time to read. Book time is also one of the benefits of having a rotten cold since nobody wants to talk to me right now. So, I bring to you a taste of what I’ve been dipping into. This bon-bon fell into my TBR pile a month or so ago. I love historical fiction, I love books about musicians, and I love Mozart so this was a triple win.
Vivien Shotwell’s Vienna Nocturne is the story of Anna Storace, a soprano whose career takes her across Europe and into the sphere of Mozart as well as other musical luminaries of the period. The book seemed to be positioned as something of a romance, but it wasn’t—at least not in the conventional way. Anna has a deeply felt affair with Mozart, but her art is just as much her true love.
Readers who know classical music will lap up the references to the theatres and composers of the period, singing techniques, and the highs and lows of an artist’s life. It’s no surprise to me that the author is also a singer. (see her website). Those less familiar will encounter some unfamiliar terminology and allusions connected with music practice and the history of the period. However, most of it should be understandable from the context.
The book is constructed out of many vignettes that give it almost an epistolary nature, which absolutely suits the eighteenth-century period. There is some gorgeous writing that had me stopping to savor a line here and there. The storyline is straightforward biography but it reads more like a literary than a genre novel, with less detail and a distilled quality of emotion. The form works wonderfully well, never drawing attention to itself and leaving Anna’s discovery of her personal strength a powerful narrative.
I recommend this for music and history lovers, and those who would like to be.