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Archive for the ‘Setting’ Category

spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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TaleofHilltopFarmWhy does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.

And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.

On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.

Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.

The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).

The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.

These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.

*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.

 

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BeatrixPottersGardeningLifeA rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.

If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.

For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).

As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.

Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.

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house of gamesA prominent psychiatrist is seduced by the world of con men and confidence games in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s 1987 directorial debut, House of Games.

Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) enjoys a thriving career, including the recent publication of a well-received book called Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life. One of her patients is a compulsive gambler named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein). During a therapy session, a distraught Billy confides in Margaret that he owes $25,000 to a shady gambler named Mike. He doesn’t have the money and his life is in danger if he doesn’t repay Mike by the following evening. When Margaret tries to reassure Billy that his life is not in danger, he pulls out a gun and tells her that suicide may be his only way out of the problem. She successfully calms Billy and takes the gun from him.

Later that evening while reviewing her notes on Billy’s situation, she finds a reference to Mike and the place where Billy lost the money: the House of Games. Determined to help her patient, Margaret goes to the House of Games looking for Mike (Joe Mantegna). She confronts him about Billy’s debt and learns that he only owed Mike $800, not $25,000 as originally claimed. Mike makes Margaret an offer: in exchange for helping him win a poker game, he’ll forgive Billy’s debt. Although the poker game is exposed as nothing more than a clever ruse, Mike keeps his word and forgives the debt, and Margaret finds herself intrigued by Mike and his shadowy world of deceptions and con games.

Her evening with Mike sparks an idea for another book, and several nights later she tracks him down and asks if she could watch how he operates. He agrees, and takes her along as he pulls several small cons, all the while explaining to her how confidence games work. She also finds herself falling in love with Mike, seduced by his charm and his insight into why people fall for his cons. Margaret’s whirlwind affair with Mike culminates in a complex confidence game involving a briefcase containing $80,000 borrowed from the mob. Will she risk her professional reputation and her life to protect the man she’s grown to love?

I enjoyed House of Games for the same reason I enjoyed Nine Queens, Fabián Bielinsky’s excellent 2000 film about a pair of con artists trying to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps. I know an elaborate trick lies at the heart of the story, but the pleasure of watching the film comes from seeing how the trick was constructed and executed. Mamet’s clever and fast-paced screenplay pulls the viewer along for the ride as Margaret finds herself caught up in a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control. The lead performances are particularly strong and credible. Joe Mantegna’s smooth talking Mike is charming, but unapologetic about his life as a con man. Lindsay Crouse’s character is a bit more complex. Dr. Margaret Ford is a caring psychiatrist who wants to help people; however, her experience with Mike leads to subtle changes to the way she regards herself and her profession. Without giving too much away, I suggest that viewers pay careful attention to Margaret’s clothing and demeanor in the scenes at the beginning and end of the movie where she is approached by fans of her book.

Tightly constructed and well-paced, House of Games is a fine mystery and fascinating character study.

Check the WRL catalog for House of Games

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bad sleep wellA group of reporters gather in a lavish wedding hall, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the reception. Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyōko Kagawa), the daughter of Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), has married Kôichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), her father’s trusted secretary. Despite the happy occasion, there are a few signs that this is not the typical society wedding: Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), the master of ceremony, is arrested on bribery charges; the bride’s brother delivers a curious and threatening wedding toast; and an elaborate wedding cake hints at a sinister event. In some films, this scene might be the backdrop to a big and dramatic climax; however, in The Bad Sleep Well, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Hamlet-inspired film from 1960, the wedding is the prelude to a story of obsession and tragedy.

Nishi is a promising young businessman whose quick ascent through the ranks of Public Corporation is driven by the desire to avenge the death of his father, Furuya, five years earlier. At the time, Furuya was assistant chief at Public Corporation when Vice President Iwabuchi and two of his trusted associates – administrative officer Moriyama and contract officer Shirai – were implicated in a bribery and kickback scandal. Before charges could be filed, Furuya committed suicide by jumping out of a window on the seventh floor of an office building. Furuya’s death brought the investigation to a close, but the bribery and kickbacks continued. Nishi was Furuya’s illegitimate son, and before his death Furuya attempted to reconcile with him. Nishi wants revenge for his father’s death, but he also wants to expose the culture of corruption he believes led to his father’s suicide.

After switching identities with a childhood friend, Nishi secures a job at Public Corporation and eventually marries Yoshiko. Following their marriage, Nishi’s plan for revenge seems to fall into place. Wada and Miura, the company’s accountant, are questioned by police regarding the allegations of bribery. Like Furuya, Miura commits suicide after he’s released by the police; however, Nishi prevents Wada from jumping into a volcano by convincing him to help bring his superiors to justice. Working together, Nishi and Wada then set a trap to frame contract officer Shirai for theft. As his plans come to fruition, Nishi realizes he has fallen in love with Yoshiko, setting the stage for a series of events that put Nishi and Wada’s lives in danger.

The Bad Sleep Well is not the only Shakespeare-inspired film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Throne of Blood, a retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, was released in 1957, and in 1985 he directed the King Lear-inspired Ran, which won the Academy Award for costume design. Unlike Throne of Blood and Ran, which are epic in tone and scope, The Bad Sleep Well has a more intimate setting, taking place in the well-appointed homes and boardrooms of corporate leaders.

I especially enjoyed the pacing of the film and Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Nishi. The opening wedding sequence was a brilliant way to establish the film’s tone and introduce the major characters. The film proceeds at a methodical pace as Kurosawa gradually ratchets up the tension, building to a surprising and tragic turn of events. As Nishi, the great actor Toshiro Mifune brings the right amount of intensity and compassion; his drive for revenge tempered by his growing feelings for his wife.

The Bad Sleep Well is a dramatic, emotionally dynamic film that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare and Kurosawa. It is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bad Sleep Well

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turowIt’s a little known fact, but the vocalist for one of the big-name bands out there also has the greatest chops as a legal novelist. And with Limitations, which the New York Times Magazine graciously published in serial form, he shows that he can even take on the novella as a frame for his characters and settings.

Limitations brings readers back to Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which has been likened to Chicago, but with a smaller-town feel. It also revisits two earlier characters – attorney George Mason (Personal Injuries) and Chief Judge Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent, Innocent).  Mason is now a judge on the Court of Appeals and is discovering that wisdom does not come with age and experience.

He’s also discovering that the black robe does not render him immune to the outside world: his wife and valued counselor of more than thirty years is under brutal therapy for cancer, he’s facing a tough re-election, and someone is sending death threats to his office and home computers. Mason wants to be frank with Patrice about his legal and political dilemma, but also wants to withhold from her messages he thinks are from a crank. Can he tell the complete truth about one and deceive her about the other?

The case he and two other appellate judges are facing is also brutal – an African-American teen was viciously raped by four white fellow students. One recorded the whole scene, but none of the people he showed it to reported anything for several years; the girl, who had been unconscious during the attack, didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the rape until the police showed her the tape. Four years after the crime, the rapists are tried and found guilty, but are appealing because the statute of limitations has passed. Or has it?  That’s the question Mason must face.

There’s a more profoundly personal element to his dilemma, something that hearkens back to his own confused and frightened youth, and he believes he must reconcile that memory before he can proceed to make his judgment. But the death threats become increasingly specific, and may be coming from a powerful underground figure with the power to carry them out.

Turow explores the various shades of Limitations through one man’s life and work without drawing a giant arrow to each one. And while the story comes to a resolution, it isn’t limited to a neat wrap-up. It isn’t as involved as some of his longer books, but is a satisfying read nonetheless.

Check the WRL catalog for Limitations

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flandersAugust 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders.  The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.

Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.

The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.

I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century.  Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders

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