Thursday, April 29, 2010

Two strong contemporary novels

I am always looking for great reads. I have just finished two wonderful books that have a lot to say about our world today in entertaining, often surprising ways. Rather than being political polemics, they approach their topics with suspense, humor, and drama. The first of these is Adam Haslet's UNION ATLANTIC, a prescient novel about a soulless stocks trader and an aging blue blood who opposes him. Doug Fanning is second in command at Union Atlantic, a world-wide commodities firm. He is one of those charismatic young men who woo both men and women with their ambition, charm, and success...but not Charlotte Graves, an old school Bostonian liberal who wages war against Fanning over his utra MacMansion built right next to her decaying home in a historic district. Complicating this conflict is Nate Fuller, a grieving teenage boy who is divided in his loyalties between them. Raging beyond this personal conflict is Fanning's addiction to risky financial ventures that could bring him and his company down. The parallels between this Enron and 9/11 novel and the current financial catastrophe are obvious but not blatant. UNION ATLANTIC is a quickly paced, character-driven novel that builds to several stunning climaxes.

The popular Swedish author Henning Mankell, best known for his Wallendar novels that were adapted by BBC television, has written a doozie of a mystery novel laced with fascinating characters, sudden revelations, gripping descriptions of life in modern Sweden and Beijing, and moving depictions of the brutal treatment of Chinese immigrants (as well as others) during the building of America's continental railroad. The event that triggers these events is a mass murder in a tiny village in northern Sweden. 19 people, all elderly with the exception of a visiting boy, are slaughtered with a machette type weapon. There is only one clue, a red ribbon found in the snow. The leading character is 60 year old judge Birgitta Roslin, whose children are grown and whose husband is growing more and more distant. As she becomes more and more involved in the case, her research takes her into the past and present of both Sweden and China.

Birgitta's quest places her in conflict with the Swedish authorities and eventually with Beijing's highest authorities. Eventually her life is in danger because the villain thinks that Birgitta knows his or her identity. While chronicling China's rocky movement into capitalism, Mankell tightens his suspenseful plot and increasing the body count. Interestingly enough, he does not fall prey to the somewhat seedy qualities and people that undercut the novels of Stieg Larsson.

Both UNION ATLANTIC and THE MAN FROM BEIJING are novels of intelligence, suspense, and wit and would be great summer reads.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

WITNESS....It's still a great movie

Last night Betsy and I watched WITNESS with our daughter Kristin and son-in-law Jared in Maryland. Betsy often used this movie in her ESL classes to point out cultural differences, and I used it once or twice in my Cinema class. How did it hold up? As we know, most movies made in and about their time periods don't age too well. But WITNESS is a rare and worthy exception.
Filmed in 1985, WITNESS stars Harrison Ford as tough, principled Philadelphia cop John Book, who is drawn by accident into an Amish community. A young Amish boy is the only witness to a brutal knifing in a public bathroom. This scene creates suspense through the use of sharp editing and close-ups of the boy as he sees the assault. His near discovery by the killer is harrowing. The investigating officer John Book is forced to go into hiding in the Amish community to protect himself and the boy from corrupt police officials he wants to expose. The stark contrast between Book's ordinarily violent life and the calm peace of the Amish farmland provides the strongest part of the film. A hardened loner, Book finds himself falling in love with Samuel's mother Rachel (Kelley McGinnis) and the Amish ways. The soothing shots of golden wheat waving in the wind and the Amish men erecting a barn while the women prepare their meal are among the most beautiful in the film. But the quiet, breath-taking images of McGinnis standing in a door with golden light illuminating her face and her simple Amish dress are the most memorable in their allusions to the painter Vermeer. Of course, we see these images through Book's eyes, which makes them even more poignant.
Austrailian director Peter Weir has given this material grace and subtlety and a perfect cast, especially Lucas Haas as the boy Samuel. Those wide, wondering eyes see so much and lead us to see even more. Time to see WITNESS again.