“Pagans” (Язычники) is one of the most humorously-depicted sad films I’ve seen in a long time. Not sad overall, certainly not ugly-face cry into your hands sad – it ends on an uplifting note, but … Bah, let me just explain.
In “Pagans,” we are introduced to five main characters – married couple Oleg and Marina, in their mid-40s, their 20-year-old daughter Kristina, the neighbor and sometimes handyman Botsman (a.k.a. Kolya), and Oleg’s estranged mother, Natalya Stepanovna. Oleg, Marina, and Kristina live together in a small apartment and are, at best, mildly dysfunctional. At the beginning of the movie, we see Kristina walking gently across a frozen lake and break through the ice – this is interspersed with footage of Natalya plunging into the icy liquid of another body of water to mark the Orthodox Epiphany. Kristina is rushed home, tended to by Dad, who is trying to revive her – her responses to her parents’ concerned queries lead us to believe that her dip into the ice hole was not unintentional, and that she may also be under the influence of this or that.
Enter Natalya Stepanovna. She has returned from an unexplained 15-year absence, walking in the light of God and insistently coaxing the other family members into her spirituality. She observes how the lazy alcoholic Botsman swears up a storm when trying to “borrow” 50 rubles for cigarettes (that is, vodka); Natalya chides him for swearing, saying his profane tongue is an abomination before the Lord. Still, despite the others’ protests, she hands Botsman a fistful of change, but warns him against using it for liquor. Botsman grabs the money and storms out, still swearing up a storm.
We next see Botsman preparing his meal (pickles, bread, and vodka) ritualistically, but see that he is physically unable to open the bottle, We later see that whenever he tries to swear, his tongue feels an incredible jolt, not unlike an electric shock. Something’s afoot, and it may very well be that Natalya has put the fear of God in Botsman’s every move. He later tells Oleg that he has actually seen the face of death, and that he feels compelled to turn his life around – every day could be his last, and he has work to do. No longer a lazy contractor, he completes the work he has been putting off in Marina’s kitchen in a single day, and begins taking care of other projects that he wasn’t asked or paid to do.
Meanwhile, Kristina is at times ambivalent, at times hostile to her grandmother’s insistence on foisting her spirituality on the family. Intruding into Kristina’s room, Natalya begins blessing the room, spraying holy water everywhere. She sees Kristina’s behavior as driven by demons that possess her – demons that gained entry into her soul through the fact that she’s not been baptized. It is her plan to lock Kristina in for a week until such time as the local pastor can come in to baptize the girl. This comes with mom’s blessing, as she is now falling into the spirit cast about by her well-meaning mother-in-law.
Tragedy strikes with another suicide attempt by the troubled Kristina, putting her in a coma. The last straw for Oleg is seeing his mother and the local pastor baptizing the girl in the hospital; he and his wife cannot be present in the room for the ceremony, as they are deemed to be impure. Slowly but surely, Oleg feels that for whatever good his mother’s religion has brought to the family, it also has inserted a certain level of upheaval, and certainly has taken away his ability to choose for himself. He is assisted in separating grandma from Kristina by none other than Botsman, who himself has realized that it was not so much faith, but fear and gullibility on his part, that stayed his hand and tongue from the vices he so prolifically once enjoyed. He asserts that yes, he probably was outwardly a better man without drink and profanity, but religion brought him fear and despair at every turn, and stripped him of happiness – no way for anyone to live their life.
The ending is bittersweet. Kristina survives, in spite of Natalya’s forewarning that she certainly would die on Easter Sunday, the best day for anyone – believer and sinner alike – to die. In the film’s climax, we learn of Natalya’s motivations for having submersed herself in her religion – at once heartbreakingly selfless and agonizingly selfish – and we’re not sure if her removal once again from her son’s family is fair treatment, but as Botsman said, if religion fills you with fear, anxiety, and guilt at every turn, perhaps it isn’t the right thing for you.
The film ends with an epilogue, in which Oleg, Marina, and Kristina address the camera and catch us up on how things have been since the events unfolded in the film. Again, there is a lot of bittersweetness there, but also hope; each in their own way, these three have either found happiness in spite of everything, or have certainly found the road to happiness. There is a good deal of resolution, but at a true cost of sadness. One can’t appreciate sweetness without the taste of tartness every now and then.
Some observations about the film from members of the audience:
One viewer suggested that the film (and the play the film was based on) might be making a statement that the Orthodox Church in Russia might be growing too strong; it certainly is a political power, with its steady symbiotic relationship with Vladimir Putin. Too much of a good thing can quickly turn bad, even with the best of intentions. We see this warning bell also rung in the excellent but chilling film “The Student” (Ученик), which has plenty of parallels with this movie – albeit with fewer laughs.
Another asked “So who are the pagans in the movie?” There are allusions to pagans in an African tribe that Botsman ran into while serving in the Navy; it is also clearly alluded to that Oleg and his family are most likely considered pagans by Natalya, at least when she is first brought back into the fold. But the argument was put forward that Natalya herself, along with the rest of the Church, could be the pagans – certainly, pagans in the truest definition of the word, from the eyes of non-believers – a derogatory term to describe those who don’t have the same faith as, say, you and I. An interesting perspective.
Finally, someone pointed to all of the events that seemed to happen as a result of (or in spite of, in the case of Kristina’s recovery) Natalya’s efforts and beliefs. These were often breathlessly referred to by Natalya herself as a miracle. In fact, the viewer inquired, did any actual miracles take place? What is finding happiness, in the face of bleakness all around you, if not a miracle?
The movie was very good, and often very funny; in spite of some pretty dark material and a sense of loss when the credits roll, I’d have to say this is my favorite of the symposium thus far. It’s won a number of awards over the past year that it’s been out and about, all well-deserved in my book. Doc’s not afraid to offer this film an A. I heartily recommend it.
This will be a bit of a different tack for me. I commute many, many miles each week, and find the comfort of a good podcast relaxing enough in my mobile man-cave to keep me from bursting at the seams at the morons that litter our highways. Never mind that they commit the same transgressions that I do on a routine basis – they’re different, because they aren’t me. Harumph. But every now and then, a short audio book comes along that strikes Doc’s fancy, and with that, I’ll dive in to today’s review – the utterly delightful “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.”
Let me start by saying I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan. He could write out a shopping list and I’d cry like a slapped baby for hours, I’m almost sure of it. So perhaps the well’s a bit poisoned whenever I open up a new book of his: I take a swig already knowing it will be my Favorite New Thing. “The Truth…” is no different.
I downloaded the audio from my library’s Overdrive site – please, please, please: if your library offers Overdrive, a free way to download books and audio, you’ve GOT to jump on it! It’s an amazing world of free stuff, on loan to your device, just like any other library loan. Go to their website and see if your library is a participant; if not, talk to your library’s management, and see if there’s anything that can change their mind.
Where was I? Ahh. I downloaded the audio to find that 1) it’s a swift 82-minute listen, and 2) it apparently comes fully loaded with its own soundtrack – performed nicely by the FourPlay String Quartet. The book itself, in print form, is apparently a very nice package to thumb through, adroitly illustrated by Eddie Campbell, whose artwork adorns the cover of this particular audio piece.
The story tells the tale of a mysterious small man – a dwarf, by some accounts – who is seeking the assistance of a villager, Callum MacInnes, a man known to have visited the mysterious cave of gold in the Black Mountains. The dwarf, who is our narrator, seeks to hire him as his guide. The gold has its own tale to tell; those who have entered the cave and taken its gold find that whatever purpose they find for their purloined treasure, there is no joy or happiness to be gotten from it. Callum explains this to the dwarf, warning him that nothing good will come of it – he himself used his gold to buy a nice parcel of land, build a lovely house, woo and marry a beautiful woman, and sire a loving son – but he himself is without joy. He is destined to live the rest of his days this way.
Eventually, Callum agrees to serve as the dwarf’s guide, but on one condition: he himself will not enter the cave. He will bring the dwarf to the foot of the cave, and allow him to spend as much time as needed within, but the dwarf is to understand that Callum must not enter, and that the dwarf himself can only take out what he himself can carry. The dwarf readily agrees.
The trek to the island on which the misty Black Mountains rest fills up the first half of the little story. On the way, we learn a little more about the guide – not much about his history, but about his nature. We also learn that he has hidden quite a dark secret from everyone, even his own wife, but is coaxed by the dwarf into telling the tale, a tale of a life he took inadvertently, an act that continues to play a role in his own life. It is when the two arrive at the mouth of the cave, after a few misadventures and questionable actions, that we start to get an understanding of the dwarf’s motivations and how he will choose to spend his time digging through the gold in the cave. We are greeted with a number of sides of the dwarf throughout the book, and eventually come to understand his actions by the tale’s end, even if we might not agree with them.
The book is peppered throughout with indications of what’s to come. Still, and even though the ending was no surprise, the whole package left me breathless when it had finished. Bravo, Neil Gaiman.
The audio book may pale in comparison with the print version, and getting to enjoy the illustrations provided by Campbell – in fact, listening to it made me vow to seek out the printed version to be able to see how well Campbell did – but those of us who are able to hear the audio version are given the additional treat of the music of the FourPlay String Quartet. They are as much like the Kronos Quartet as ever I’ve had a chance to experience; this seems to be the perfect book for their performing ability – their strings tickle the listener’s emotions as much as the reader. And oh, what a reader!
Gaiman doesn’t simply read the story, he performs it. As its author, he knows the inflections he was after, the cadence of the dialogue, the crests and waves of the flow that pitch us forward and back in our seat as we listen to his telling of the tale. His voice is a slice of butter-and-honey toast: all smooth and sweet and lovely to taste, but quick to turn into a sharp bit of crust when you least expect it. God, does he get it right throughout the story.
Doc thoroughly enjoyed this story. He understands that his man-crush on All Things Gaiman probably is playing its role in the final verdict, but because of the duration, presentation, and story telling, we’ve gotta give this one a solid A. Highly, highly recommended. This might be tied with “Meddling Kids” for my favorite book of the year so far.
I can tell you one thing: You need to read this book.
This was a very good book. “Ready Player One” (for the 70s and 80s vibe) meets HP Lovecraft (for the Lovecraft vibe). It’s NOT, as the cover and title might lead you to believe, got anything to do with Scooby Doo. The plot DOES sound familiar, though. There are four teens and a dog, who solve a series of “mysteries” that usually end up with the unmasking of some greedy profiteer, sheep rustler, or erstwhile lawyer who had been trying to scare off the locals in an effort to hoodwink the town out of prime development land. Or something along those lines. Although I’m not sure I used the word “erstwhile” correctly. But bear with me. The action in the book takes place 13 years after the gang solves The Mystery of the Sleepy Lake Monster, where they seem to get their true notoriety as teenage supersleuths.
Fast forward 13 years, and our heroes – Andy (Andrea), Kerri, Peter and Nate – well, most of them – are getting the band back together, so to speak. Peter, the leader, is there in spirit – he died a few years back, and only Nate is able to see and hear him. And Tim, the dog – actually the great-grandson of Sean, the weimaraner who helped solve the case back in Blyton Hills so many years ago. The problem? The case may not have ever really been solved. There have been reports of some mysterious – possibly even supernatural – events over the past few years. On top of that, memories of scenes from that harrowing case involving scenes far too elaborate to have been staged by a money-grubbing yokel, have been nagging at the gang. The three surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club, sprung forward from their own interesting new backgrounds, are compelled to investigate once again.
The book was brilliantly penned by Edgar Cantaro, who is not only an offensively gifted writer, but also a cartoonist as well. An example of his work, showcasing his image of the characters:
This was masterfully written with sparklingly cheeky dialogue and humor running the spectrum from comatose-subtle to slap-nuts hilarious. Very few dry spells throughout, not all that many twists or “aha!” moments. Worth picking up if you enjoy reading. And I know you do.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna throw a bone to this one: A.
In what must certainly be the literary world’s worst-kept secret, JK Rowling has made a name for herself writing thrilling crime fiction. And that name is Robert Galbraith. The magnificent “Harry Potter” author, under the Galbraith pseudonym, has penned three (and counting) books in the popular “Cormoran Strike” series of novels, and just like the Potter books, they keep getting better with every new release.
Here’s a bit of a primer if you’re new to the series. The protagonist, Cormoran Strike, is a private investigator who relies on common sense, intuition, and his training as a former Special Investigation Branch investigator with the Royal Military Police. To add to the mix, Strike is missing a leg due to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is the illegitimate son of a famous aging rock-star father, and has set out to collect the horcruxes to finally put Voldemort away for good. Except for that last bit. That’s another series.
The book is told mostly from the point of view of Strike’s secretary-then-partner, a blonde-ginger named Robin Ellacott, who (at the time of the action of this novel) has been in Strike’s employ for one year. Robin’s equal to Strike in intuition and investigative savvy, but she’s also mastered the art of awareness, and appears happy to take a back seat to Strike’s ego.
Flash forward to this novel – Robin has started to receive shocking parcels and threatening letters, sometimes attached to human body parts – as small as a lip, as big as a leg. It’s obvious from the bad guy’s POV chapters that he’s got a grudge against Strike, and is doing his level best to eventually kill Robin, and have the police believe Strike was the culprit. In the meantime, our unidentified baddy roams the seedier streets of London, making every effort to top himself in the gruesome category when it comes to snuffing young ladies. Two things go without saying (but Doc’ll say them anyway) – one, this can make for some grim reading, and two, Ms Rowling’s a bit of a master with the pen; you’ll actually hear machete cutting through bone when you hit some of these passages. Yeesh.
For those who have read the first two books in the series, this volume offers a great deal of backstory on both Strike and Robin. We learn a lot about Strike’s relationship with his mother, a former flat-mate, and his unpleasant father. We also are introduced to rather disturbing information about Robin and her fiancé, Matthew; all of this information serves not just as juicy subplot, but are also excellent devices for moving the story along and offering the motivation for some of what could otherwise be written off as erratic behavior on the part of the characters.
Because Rowling is behind the wheel, we’re treated to a marvelously fleshed-out (sorry) laundry list of likely suspects, each more foul than the previous one. Needless to say, as the story progresses, Strike is accused of interfering in police work and runs the risk of being tossed into a cell. And because the press had a field day with the first of the grisly packages addressed to Robin, his clientele has shrunk, making the bank accounts quite tight. Forced to accept jobs of stalking ne’er-do-wells and cheating spouses, Strike often feels as though he’s letting real opportunities to catch the killer slip through his fingers.
Rowling is nothing short of a gem. She has once again delivered the goods to a hungry reading public, with a masterful plot and perfectly good and evil characters, along with some iffy ones to boot. She also tackles some incredible issues here, such as rape, pedophilia, partner abuse, and incest, and delivers them unadorned. At one point, Strike is faced with evidence that a young girl may very well be directly exposed to a known child rapist, and appears to be reluctant to act. Robin is faced with the dilemma of going against her boss’s stated instructions to stay out of it, risking being fired, as well as irreparably damaging a police investigation, in order to act on behalf of the young girl. It’s a very touching scene, and (of course) directly impacts the book’s final chapters.
Another special treat for Doc was Rowling’s description of Yorkshire, particularly a visit to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate. It’s such a tiny, tiny detail that most readers would glaze over to get to the murdery bits, but since Doc lived in Harrogate a number of years ago, and has actually been to Betty’s, it was like coming across an old friend. Thanks, Jo, that was special.
Let’s not fool around here. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a leg sent to your office, and 10 being roses and chocolates, Doc gives this book a solid A. Read the series if you haven’t; if you have, grab hold of this book.
I’m really looking forward to the BBC production of the first two books, but at the end of the day, I still miss Dobby.
A friend from my dark past, when I was working for the US Air Force alongside a number of RAF counterparts in the town once known as West Berlin, alerted me to the existence of a freshly penned book titled “I Was a Cold War Penguin.” The author was an acquaintance of my DPF (dark past friend) and we appeared to have shared a good number of similar experiences growing up (I almost wrote “maturing”) through our enlistment and training to work with languages in the armed forces of our respective lands.
There is so much that I could offer about this book, but I will try to narrow my fondness for it down to a few paragraphs. First, it is brilliantly and hilariously written. If Tom Sharpe and HP Lovecraft had a baby, that would be scientifically ponderous, but would have nothing to do with this book. But I digress.
Dafydd Manton (for the author is he) was our eponymous Cold War Penguin, serving in the RAF from the early 1970s, doing his part to keep an ear on the Soviets in their effort to rule the world. Manton artfully describes his life in the RAF during the Cold War, always with a style of humor that can leave the reader rolling the eyes, shaking the head, or laughing out (the) loud. Because our paths had crossed, just not at the same time, I found myself bumping in to friends throughout the book – Manton drops names like pygmy goats drop chocolate marbles – anywhere and everywhere, and with little warning. My poor wife would have to sit and put up with me cackling with laughter, then barking out names from my past that I had somehow forgotten. Part of my delight was reading some of the horrifyingly hilarious stories that went on a good decade before I started working with what I thought were clean-cut hard-working men and women. Well, they were, indeed, all that and (obviously) quite a bit more.
Manton is, if nothing else, an honorable gent when it comes to retelling some of these stories. He offers proper attribution when it comes to recognizing those who made contributions, providing entire anecdotes of their own as well as filling in some of the darker recesses of memory. He also withholds the names of those who, for any of a number of reasons, would not love for their families to tie them to some of the hijinks we are greeted with.
Along with a few groan-inducing shaggy dog stories here as well, all told this is a wonderfully packaged glimpse at a life not often described anywhere else. Men and women in similar careers from my side of the Atlantic will immediately find themselves at home with this book, and anyone who has lived through the Cold War – or for that matter, are simply curious as to some of the goings-on behind the scenes – will find this a great book.
The proceeds from the book go to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a very worthy cause, whose charity provides financial, practical and emotional support to serving and former members of the RAF – regardless of rank – as well as their partners and dependents. The book is available through the usual online commercial services, in the standard formats – epub, mobi, lrf, pdf, html; if you’d like to take a sneak peek, you can head over to Smashwords.com and read (I believe) the first chapter. But do yourself (and the recipients of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s services) a good deed, and buy this book today. You’ll not be sorry.
As an aside, I had promised that I would write this review as soon as I had finished reading it. It took me longer than usual for a book this size, not because of the complexity of the language, but because it is written in a number of bite-sized chunks, making it very much like the lead singer for the Velvet Underground – a great loo read.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being amazingly woohoo, and 1 being why-oh-why boohoo, Doc gives this book a solid A.
Let’s imagine a world in which Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman had a baby that they taught to write like Kafka. That baby, at least this go-around, is the blazingly brilliant China Miéville. Mr. Miéville presents us with a slim story about a boy who lives in a surreal land that is sparsely detailed but richly embodied, a boy who may or may not have witnessed his father murdering his mother. The authorities from the town in whose outskirts the boy lives are outraged, having apparently had bad dealings with Father before – but there is hesitation to arrest Father for two reasons – no body, and (possibly more importantly) Father is a local key-maker. The keys Father makes are not the sort to unlock doors, but are based on emotions, dreams, and desires; he crafts these into metal fetishes which he then sells to the citizens to satisfy their desire for love, a good crop, a healthy milk-cow, or revenge. He is eyed by the townfolk with suspicion, but no one wants to have this craft turned against them. The boy is sent back to live with his father.
The story is covered in a dream-like gauze, with more than one suggestion that our narrator (the boy) is not the most reliable reporter of the goings-on in and around home. But Mother is most decidedly missing.
Miéville has always had a knack for drawing me into a story; like Gaiman, he introduces a child-like voice that insists on being heard, and that begs to be protected. He also fiddles a lot with time and a seeming stream-of-conscious storytelling, presenting the narrator in first, second, and third person throughout the book. This is a book with puzzle pieces scattered at the entrance and all over the hallway, clear through to the exit. The climax is satisfying with a single read, but the volume is slim enough that it is worth your while to go back through that passage and look for all of the puzzle pieces a second time through. It’s definitely one to keep on the bookshelf for revisiting, over and over.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a punch in the nose by a surly drunk, and 10 being a gentle massage with a nearby snifter of tawny port, Doc gives this fine read a solid A.
Let’s jump to the chase: This is an excellent, important book. It is the memoir of Solomon Northup, the son of a freed slave, and a landowner in Hebron, New York, who spent his time as husband and father, farmer and professional violin player. In 1841, at the age of 34, was offered an opportunity as a professional traveling musician with a circus; seizing the opportunity to make what would amount to relatively easy money, he traveled to Washington DC with his new associates. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Along with a large group of other slaves marketed with him in Washington, he was shipped on a steamer to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.
The book is Northup’s recounting of his entire frightening journey, from his decision to take the job with the circus as a violinist, through the unsettling feeling of something not quite right upon his arrival in Washington, to his awakening from a drugged stupor to find himself in shackles, his journey to Louisiana, and the subsequent twelve years at the hands of various owners at varying levels of humanity. Northup’s descriptions of life as a slave on the plantation are mixed with the various elements of running a plantation that are fascinating, to say the least. But his accounts of the torture at the hands of unscrupulous and inhumane owners go beyond fascinating – they are written without dipping the quill into what could easily (and understandably) be an emotion-filled retelling; rather, they are clinically narrated in such a way that makes the horrors that much stronger. One can consider that a whipping of one hundred lashes can be a horrifying experience; Northup seemingly walks you through every lash, refusing to hold your hand for comfort.
At one point, Northup is able to bring us down a cozy path where he tells of a late summer party-like atmosphere of singing and dancing among the slaves, well into the early hours of the morning, and for a change the reader relaxes with that image, until Northup reminds us that the slaves are dancing and singing and making music at the demands of a drunken master, and rather than feeling the any of the joy they were expressing, they were only too well aware of the late hour, as it fell shortly after they had returned from the fields and had enough time to have their very sparse meals – and that after the music is finally allowed to finish, they will only be two or three hours before having to take to the fields again, for another 18 hours of non-stop grueling work. It is not a party, but a nightmare.
Northup’s eventual rescue with the help of an abolitionist from Canada (who happened to be passing through) is long in its arrival, but like the bird in the oven on Thanksgiving, the fact that the reader knows it’s coming makes it all the more delicious. The description of the efforts to bring the initial kidnappers to justice is agonizing in its racial unfairness, but not all that unexpected. Northup’s final scene of being reunited with his family is written in such a way that the heart fairly swoons.
It’s interesting to do a little reading on what Northup did for the rest of his life; I highly recommend giving the Wikipedia entry on Northup’s life a read. By now, the basic details of his story are already pretty well known (you get the entire gist of the book through the title itself), but it’s also well worth your while to grab the book and devour it as well. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, and can be downloaded, courtesy of the good folks at the Gutenberg Project, by clicking on this couple of words here. Hell, that’s almost like magic, isn’t it?
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being little more than toilet paper and 10 being the best thing since sliced bread, Doc gives this book a solid “A”. Don’t forget to grab your free digital copy today.