The Circle by Dave Eggers

Here are my thoughts from 2014 on the book called The Circle, soon to be released as a motion picture. Perhaps the movie will fill out the characters and retain the thought-provoking ideas.

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Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, improbable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

I read The Zookeeper’s Wife back in 2008 and wrote about it on Semicolon. Since the book is set to become a movie at the end of March, here are my thoughts on the book at the time I read it.

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Jan Zabinski was the Polish director of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and subjugated Poland. His wife, Antonina, was his helpmate in runing the zoo and the mother of a young son. During the German occupation, she gave birth to a daughter as well.

This nonfiction book tells the story of how Jan and Antonina worked with the Polish Underground to hide Jews, stockpile arms and ammunition, eventually participate in the doomed Uprising of August 1944 when the Russians halted outside Warsaw and allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Underground that had come out of hiding to support the Allies in re-taking Poland and driving the Nazis out. A lot of the story tells about the animals in the zoo and what happened to them and how Antonina survived pregnancy-related illnesses, inadequate rations, and providing secret hospitality for fifty to seventy people at any given time throughout the course of the war and the German occupation.

Something about the way the story was told made me admire these people, but not like them very much. I’m not sure what I didn’t like, but I felt uncomfortable in their company. Jan seemed very controlling, and Antonina like a wife making excuses for an authoritarian husband. Maybe that’s not the way it was at all since Ms. Ackerman derives her story from written accounts, Antonina’s diary mostly, and from interviews with people who knew the Zabinskis during the war. Both Jan and Antonina Zabinski died before this book was conceived. Their son, Rys, did contribute his memories of a childhood filled with animals and with war.

I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. If you like nonfiction about animals and and about World War II, you should try it out.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read and reviewed this slim novel back in 2012, and since it’s supposed to be coming out as a movie in March, I thought I’d repost, FYI. I’m wondering how well the movie will be able to capture the “unreliable narrator” point of view.

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I do believe SFP at pages turned nailed this one. (You’ll only want to read her thoughts after you’ve read the book.) It’s a short book, a novelette really, but the ending isn’t . . . exactly. Hence the title.

The book is only 176 pages long, but it tells the story of Tony Webster’s life from his perspective, which it turns out is somewhat skewed. Maybe. Tony doesn’t “get it.” The book raises the possibility that we’re all like Tony, that our memories are unreliable and we really don’t understand each other or the events of our lives very well.

The Sense Of An Ending won the 2011 Man Booker prize for literature. I think it well worth the the time invested to read it and think about it.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient— it’s not useful— to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

FNFC: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man

This Hitchcock film from 1956 comes with introductory remarks by Hitchcock himself; he tells us that this film is different from his other movies because it is a true story. The false arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Christopher Emmanuel Ballestrero (aka Manny) actually took place in New York City in 1953. He was accused by several eyewitnesses of having committed armed robbery. The police took Mr. Ballestrero into custody on the word of these witnesses and subjected him to a rather primitive and inconclusive form of a police line-up and then charged him with the armed robbery.

In addition to asking why the movie was in black and white instead of color, my daughters were amazed at the lack of due process and proper police procedure that led to the wrongful arrest and indictment of Manny Ballestero. No Miranda warning (Miranda vs. Arizona, 1966), no lawyer provided (Gideon vs. Wainright, 1963), and police questioning and investigation that was unfair and rather perfunctory—it certainly didn’t look anything like a current day police drama or criminal investigation. We don’t realize what protections we have now that weren’t there a little over fifty years ago. Perhaps the choice of a black and white film emphasizes the antiquated and unjust investigation and trial. And yet, my daughters and I were quick to note that the same kind of false imprisonment can and does happen today, especially for minority suspects who are more likely to be victims of false identification and false arrest.

I kept thinking that Mr. Ballestrero needed to call Perry Mason. Mr. Mason would have had that case resolved and thrown out of court within an hour of television. As it was it took a little longer that that in the movie version, and the defendant and his wife had to do all of their own investigative work to come up with an alibi for Mr. Ballestrero. Perry Mason would have had Paul Drake to help with the detective work.

The next thing we noticed about the movie was the rather dated and hokey psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. Manny’s wife has what would have been called at the time “a nervous breakdown” because of the stress of the arrest and impending trial. However, her break with reality is almost complete; she barely speaks coherently to Manny or to anyone else after she becomes mentally ill. Stress might trigger a mental illness like that of Mrs. Ballestrero, but she’s practically catatonic and obviously suffering from something (clinical depression? schizophrenia?) more serious than stress. Vera Miles plays the wife, and she’s good in an eerie sort of way. Henry Fonda as Manny is mostly stoical and poker-faced, a little bewildered, a man who perseveres through all of the injustice of being prosecuted for a crime he didn’t commit with a certain dignity and humility.

The most interesting scene in the movie has Manny finally breaking down into near-despair over his situation, with his mother exhorting him to pray to God. “My son, I beg you to pray! Pray for strength!” she says. He does pray in his bedroom, while looking at a picture of Jesus, and the movie’s viewers see the real robber walking out of the darkness, then his face superimposed on Fonda/Ballestrero’s face. The police catch the real robber in the act of holding up a store, notice the similarity between Manny and the robber, and the case is solved. Manny is delivered. It’s a very obvious answer to prayer, and yet the ending to the movie shows that Manny still needs God’s strength to get through the continuing aftermath of the storm that has upended his life and marriage.

Manny Ballestrero: “Be careful of accusing anyone. Before you accuse anyone, you should think, because you can destroy a family, physically and mentally, like mine could have been destroyed.”

More analysis and review of The Wrong Man:

At the Alfred-Hitch Blog.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Two Most Catholic Films at decent films.

Roger Ebert on Hitchcock’s Least Fun Movie Is Also One of His Greatest.

This Friday the Friday Film Club feature will be Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1961 American courtroom drama, directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann and starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift.

FNFC: Sully and The King’s Speech

We watched two of the movies on my Friday Night Film Club list this past week, one on Thursday night and the other on Friday. And in both cases the person who chose the movie wasn’t there to watch it. Oh, well, the rest of us enjoyed the movies.

Engineer Husband and I went to see The King’s Speech when it first came out in theaters. It meshed well to watch it again this week after I had just finished watching season one of The Crown, about the first several years of the reign of Elizabeth II, George VI’s daughter and heir. In both The Crown and The King’s Speech, David (aka Edward, Duke of Windsor), the abdicating king and George’s older brother, comes across as a despicable and selfish brat. Maybe he really was. I’m not sure how much happiness he gained by giving up the crown for the sake of his love for the twice divorced Wallis Simpson, but then again he probably wouldn’t have been too happy as king either. George VI and Elizabeth II aren’t exactly portrayed as “happy”, but definitely satisfied with their fulfillment of what they each perceive as their duty to the nation. Anyway, I can recommend both The King’s Speech and the Netflix series The Crown. Much food for thought.

Sully, also based on a true story, was a thought-provoking movie, too. It’s a a 2016 drama, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Sullenberger, aka Sully, is the pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both of the plane’s engines in mid-flight. This heroic landing and the rescue of all 155 passengers and crew on board happened almost exactly eight years ago on January 15, 2009.

Tom Hanks plays Sully, and as usual, he does an excellent job of making us forget about Tom Hanks and think instead about the pilot and his ability to make a split-second decision that will either save or cost the lives of all the people on board the airplane. Inevitably, I wondered whether I could function as well in a crisis as Sully and his co-pilot did, not a crisis in flying a plane, of course, since I don’t know how, but some other life-threatening crisis where I had to make a life-or-death decision. I just don’t know. How can one train for such a thing?

If I were to choose one of these two movies over the other to recommend to you, I’d choose Sully, I suppose. Although The King’s Speech is fascinating in a historical sense and as a story of one man overcoming adversity, the “overcoming” involves some misplaced and over-dramatized Freudian analysis of George’s childhood that probably had very little to do with curing his stuttering. But then again, maybe he did stutter because they made him switch from being left-handed to right-handed or because his nanny disliked and mistreated him. Who knows?

Sully is a more straightforward hero story certainly with an obstacle to overcome, namely the investigation after the emergency landing by National Transportation Safety Board, but all’s well that ends well. And as the characters in the movie point out in 2009, “it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it.” After a year like 2016, it’s good to watch a movie about someone competent but humble, and even heroic coming out of New York.

This Friday’s movie will be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, and Anthony Quayle. Watch it with us if you’d like to join in.

FNFC: The Three Godfathers

Friday night we watched the first movie of the year for my family’s 2017 Friday Night Film Club (FNFC). The feature presentation was a 1948 John Ford western, The Three Godfathers, starring John Wayne. A film reviewer for World Magazine named this as one of his favorite Christmas movies, so I thought we’s give it a try. Brown Bear Daughter tried, but she only made it through about three-fourths of the movie. I think she missed the best part. She said that she doesn’t like westerns and that this one in particular was “boring.” I found it a bit hokey and both over and under-acted at times, but essentially solid with some good and memorable scenes. The movie included lots of Biblical allusions and emphasized Christian themes of redemption, mercy, and restorative justice.

The basic plot is that a trio of bank robbers from Texas are on the run from the local sheriff and his posse in Arizona when they encounter a dying mother who asks them to be joint godfathers to her newborn infant. The three desperadoes try to care for the baby after the mother dies, and they also continue to run from justice–across desert, mountains, and salt flats, an unmerciful and unrelentingly harsh terrain that tries both their endurance and their souls.

In a movie with such a plot made nowadays the three outlaws would be both worse and better than they are in The Three Godfathers. They would probably be more violent and more blood-stained in any modern movie, and at the same time, they might be portrayed as modern-day Robin Hoods who deserve to get away with their ill-gotten gains. In this story, the three thieves are plain old bank robbers, dishonest and out to take what they can get, but they only escape with a small bag of cash while shooting off their guns into the air. They definitely pay for their sins. One of the three robbers, “the kid”, is shot in the shoulder, and he has an especially hard time making it through the desert.

Nevertheless, caring for the baby awakens the outlaws to their responsibilities to God and to their fellowmen, and they end up following instructions from the Bible and sacrificing themselves for the child. I thought it was a good movie, especially the last part, the part my daughter missed, where everything comes to a head in a dramatic rescue played to perfection by The Duke himself.

The movie was filmed in Death Valley, California, although the setting is supposed to be Arizona. The story is loosely analogous to the story of the wise men in the Bible who traveled across country to find and worship the baby Jesus. If you happen to watch it, let me know what you think.

This coming Friday’s movie for our Friday Night Movie Club will be The King’s Speech (2010), the story of Bertie, or King George VI of Great Britain and his ascension to the British throne.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck

Alfred Hitchcock films are some of our family’s favorites. Engineer Husband says Vertigo is a masterpiece. Brown Bear Daughter likes The Lady Vanishes. Betsy-Bee and my sister say they are both fans of Rear Window. I rather like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, only partially due to my crush on Cary Grant.

Author Jim Averbeck harbors a fondness for “Hitch”, too, and he’s made the famous director a central character in his debut middle grade mystery novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont. After his aspiring actress mother drives her car off a cliff, eleven year old Jim Fair is a double orphan. His horrible Aunt Edith, his sole surviving relative, takes him to live with her at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, but when Aunt Edith disappears, Alfred Hitchcock is the only adult Jim can trust to help him find his awful aunt and avoid the social worker who wants to take him to an orphanage.

There are lots of reverences and allusions to the canon of Hitchcock films as Jim and Mr. Hitchcock careen through their own film-worthy adventure. It’s San Francisco, and one chapter takes place at the Mission Dolores. Also a ghost lady lures the crooks out of hiding. (Vertigo) Jim gets a ransom note embedded in a news article titled “Birds Terrorize Coastal Town” (The Birds). Jim and Hitch briefly mull a theory that Aunt Edith might have been carried out of the hotel, dismembered, in several suitcases or trunks, and another part of the action takes place in a building that is a “camera obscure” that the two use to spy on their suspect (Rear Window). Hitchcock talks to the social worker from the shower while pretending to be Aunt Edith shaving his/her leg (shades of Psycho!). In The Lady Vanishes and in North by Northwest, the police disbelieve the witnesses to a kidnapping/disappearance, and the same thing happens in A Hitch at the Fairmont. And Jim and his mentor Hitchcock meet the kidnappers in a church while the congregation is singing a hymn, similar to the Ambrose Chapel scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I’m sure that fans will find several more echoes of Hitchcock films as they read A Hitch at the Fairmont, and middle grade readers who are not familiar with the movies Mr. Hitchcock directed might find this book an entertaining introduction to Hitch. I thought the book was fun and intriguing, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies were.

The 5th Gift of Christmas in Room 13, Oliver Street School, 1944

From The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes:

Dear Miss Mason: How are you and Room 13? Please tell the girls they can keep those hundred dresses because in my new house I have a hundred new ones all lined up in my closet. I’d like that girl Peggy to have the drawing of the green dress with the red trimming and her friend Maddie to have the blue one. For Christmas. I miss that school and my new teacher does not equalize with you. Merry Christmas to you and everybody. Yours truly,
Wanda Petronski

“The teacher passed the letter around the room for everybody to see. It was pretty, decorated with a picture of a Christmas tree lighted up in the night in a park surrounded by high buildings.”

51Z3YQ1adYL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Since bullying is the topic du jour these days in children’s books and school assemblies, a retrieval of this classic story about Polish immigrant Wanda Petronski and her encounters with the girls of “Room 13” would certainly remind us that the problem of the strong pushing around the weak is not a new one. And the story gives some keys to the solutions: empathy developed by understanding, distance sometimes, and inner strength. Art helps, too.

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon
A song: In the Bleak Midwinter, lyrics by Christian Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst.

A booklist: Biographies of the U.S. Presidents (books I’m planning to read)

A birthday: Christina Rossetti, b.1830.
Walt Disney, b. 1901. The movie, Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers and the making of the movie version of Mary Poppins opens in theaters December 20th.

A poem: Love Came Down at Christmas by Christina Rossetti.