Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Apple Tree Yard: Written Word vs. TV Adaptation (First Impressions)

I've finally been able to begin Louise Doughty's 2013 novel Apple Tree Yard, a book I've been curious about since recently watching the mini-series for which it was adapted a couple of years ago. I've been curious, as I always am after  watching a video adaptation of a book before reading it, to see how the TV series and the book compare. 

So far, I've only made it through the book's prologue and first chapter, but I can already see that the book much more cleverly than the movie builds the suspense that is so critical to its plot. Not to give too much away, I'll just say that the plot hinges on an immediate erotic encounter a woman has with a man she meets by chance in a professional setting. She knows nothing about the man, and he knows nothing about her. What follows that encounter has the power to ruin both their lives, and probably will.

Now I have to be careful that I don't reveal too much more plot detail because, although the book flap reveals a lot of what happens after their chance meeting, the movie plays it all in  strictly chronological, real-time order. It is only in the third episode (of four) that the TV series reveals just how much trouble these two have gotten themselves into. So, if any of you plan to watch the series, this may be one of those cases where watching the "movie" first would be the best way to go.

The book, on the other hand, begins near the end of the series by using the prologue to show exactly where the couple end up. Chapter 1 then flashes back to the night after their encounter before it describes what happened that day. All in all, I find this a much more clever way of building up to how they got there than the way the screenplay decided to do it. It's a great hook, and if I were reading Apple Tree Yard with fresh eyes, I would be well and truly hooked at that point. Even now, I'm looking forward to seeing how many other "hints," Doughty may use as the plot unfolds.

Louise Doughty is one of those new-to-me authors who has immediately impressed me. I've only read 30 pages of her work, and already I'm immersed in the world she's created and find her main character totally believable. And, good news, she has a back catalogue I'll be able to explore later on. I haven't done the research, but according to the book's "Also By Louise Doughty" page, in 2013 she had already written six other novels and a nonfiction book called A Novel in a Year. Now, I'm hoping that my enthusiasm holds up for the duration of Apple Tree Yard and that I've "discovered" another new author to enjoy for years to come. I'll know more in a few days. Time to read.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mother May I - Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson is a good storyteller, and she tells another pretty good story here in Mother May I. The author lives in Decatur, Georgia, and as is usually (always?) the case in one of her novels, the action is set in the Georgia/Alabama geographic area. Mother May I is a crime fiction thriller, but it is one with a not-so-hidden message to mothers and their sons about both the consequences, and the definition, of what constitutes the crime of rape. I hope they are listening.

Bree Cabbat, the book’s central character, lives a life of privilege that only the truly wealthy ever experience. Bree, however, was not born into that lifestyle. Rather, she grew up in small-town Georgia in a single-parent home headed up by a mother who was almost paranoid about the dangers of everyday life for people of their class and means. Bree has never wanted to believe that the world is really the dangerous place her mother still believes it is, and she is quite comfortable, if still a little insecure, in the lifestyle her husband’s money and family background make possible. 

And then she learns the hard way that her mother was right all along. One moment her infant son is safe in his car seat right beside her while she watches her daughter in rehearsal for a school musical; the next time she thinks to look toward her son, he’s gone. She is certain now that the “witch” she saw looking through her bedroom window early that morning was not something she dreamed. The woman was real, and the woman very probably now has her son.

After a note instructs her not to go to the police and warns her that she is being watched, Bree realizes that she will do whatever it takes to get her baby back. Nothing is off the table. But why her? Why has she been targeted this way, and why now? Gradually, it all starts to make sense, and Bree learns exactly what she is capable of doing if it means recovering her son from the mad woman who has him.

Bottom Line: Mother May I begins as a mystery, but as the action builds it becomes more a thriller than anything else. Jackson switches from first person to third person viewpoints as the investigation and action progress and, several times, I had to re-read half-pages to make sure which POV was being used so that I could understand exactly what Bree knew and what she still did not know. The plot proceeds along rather predictable lines, but it ends strongly in a development I did not see coming at all, and that saved the entire novel for me.  3 STARS

Joshilyn Jackson (EV Jackson photo)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, January 15, 2021

When TV and Film Lead Back to Books, You Are Having a Good Day

I gave up on most television channels years ago with the exception of a few exceptional series, the rapidly dwindling list of sports I still follow, and what passes for television news these days. My attention, instead, went to whatever appealed to me on Netflix, Prime Video, and more recently, the PBS/Masterpiece Theater app. In the last year, I've noticed that the offerings on Prime often interest me more than what Netflix has on offer, and I'm very much enjoying the fact that the PBS app also offers series and movies from all over the world via its affiliation with "Walter Presents." As a result, I've become quite proficient now in reading subtitles as they go past, but they can be pretty quick sometimes. Surprisingly, since I still understand and read French at a basic level, I have more difficulty reading French titles because it makes me realize that the translations are far from literal - that they have been "Americanized" for the intended audience. 

So why am I rambling on about this? Well, I've found that some of the series I've watched end up leading me back to the books from which they were adapted. And, in fact, I have two of those books stacked up right now with all the other library books I've picked up in recent weeks. 

I'm looking forward soon to comparing these books to their movie/TV versions:

This one is a Masterpiece Theater production that caught my attention because it marks the return of actress Glenda Jackson to movies for the first time in 27 years - and her performance is remarkable. The premise is that the best friend of Jackson's character has disappeared and no one seems to take it seriously. The kicker is that the two women are elderly and the Jackson-character suffers from advanced dementia, so even she is not certain what she is hallucinating and what is real. But because victims of dementia so often have vivid memories of the distant past, things start to make sense in the disappearance of the Jackson-character's own sister more than sixty years earlier. Elizabeth is Missing was British author Emma Healey's debut novel, and it looks like she struck gold with it.

I watched the Apple Tree Yard in late December only because it grew on me. After the first episode, I would not have bet that I would continue on, but I did and it turned into quite a courtroom drama with a twist at the end that actually surprised me. It's another one I found on the PBS app via Prime. I don't want to give anymore away about this one because it would be too easy to spoil it. Just know that I can't wait to see if the book is even better than the film adaptation. Books almost always are, in my experience. This one, too, is British, although Apple Tree Yard is far from Louise Doughty's first novel. 

I'm finding myself watching quite a few documentaries on Netflix, too. I just finished one there called Pretend It's a City that is actually seven thirty-minute interviews of Fran Lebowitz, a 70-year-old New York comedian and writer I'm embarrassed to say I never heard of before watching this. Fran's delivery and smart, dry wit remind me of the comedians I loved so much a few decades ago when nothing was out of bounds in comedy. I didn't always agree with what Fran had to say, but she made me laugh - or more importantly, think - even about the things upon which we don't think alike. This can easily be binge-watched over a couple of evenings, and I really recommend it.

I may not be reading as many books as I read in the past, but I'm learning so much more about the world now because we are blessed with so many choices and possibilities. Some feed my addiction to crime fiction and drama; others teach me things I never even suspected I didn't know. What a beautiful time to be alive this is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

I'll Be Seeing You: A Memoir - Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth  Berg’s I’ll Be Seeing You is, I can tell you from recent experience, an accurate reflection of what it feels like to watch a parent become less and less capable of taking care of themself  over a number of years. If you are lucky enough to have a parent live into their late eighties and beyond, what Berg describes in this heartfelt memoir is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before child and parent are required to switch roles, and the formerly-protected becomes the protector. 

My favorite quotation, in fact, from I’ll Be Seeing You comes from the book’s prologue:

“I think as long as a parent is alive, it’s easier to feel young. It’s easy to feel that in some respects you are still being taken care of, even when it becomes more you who takes care of them.”

Berg takes the reader through almost a year of transition for her parents, October 2010-July 2011, during which they were forced to come to the realization that they could no longer live in the family home they had enjoyed together for four decades. As Berg and her siblings learned, however, realization comes a good bit before acceptance, and even after her parents have moved into an assisted living arrangement, they refuse to sell the family home because they still hope to return there someday. 

The experience that Berg describes is a very emotional one that was not helped by her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The author was, I think, somewhat surprised by her mother’s resentment that if not for her husband’s mental problems, she, at least, would still be living at home. As her mother found it harder and harder to hide her feelings from her children, they began to resent the way she was treating their father - even, it seems, to worry about whether she was taking proper care of their father. Things were said, feelings hurt, and relationships damaged. 

The sad part is that all of it was perfectly normal, maybe even healthy in the long run. 

Those who have not experienced this situation yet with their own parents - and those in that situation right now - can benefit from a memoir like I’ll Be Seeing You because they will see that what they are feeling, but may be reluctant to say out loud, is all very normal. It is part of the cycle of life that none of us like to think about, but it is something that more and more of us are going to experience. So why not listen to what those who have already been there have to say?

I would have liked to have heard more from Berg’s sister, the child who lived close enough to their parents to be their day-to-day caretaker. The author is quick - and she does it several times - to credit her sister as being the one who went the extra mile for their parents. And that is good to see. Having been the “local” in my father’s case, I know that that experience is a completely different one from the one those who live hours away have. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because the years I spent in that role brought me closer, and to a better understanding, of my parents than I would have otherwise ever managed. 

If you see this coming into your own life soon, do read I’ll Be Seeing You. It will help.

Elizabeth Berg

Monday, January 11, 2021

Dead Land - Sara Paretsky

Because I hadn’t read one of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels since 2009’s Hardball, I wondered how much I would remember about Vic and all her supporting characters. A decade away from exposure to Warshawski’s Chicago is, after all, plenty long enough time to forget most of the details of that world, even as vividly as Paretsky always presents them. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because before I knew it, Dead Land fit like an old glove and I was totally immersed in Paretsky’s story. Dead Land even marks kind of a milestone in the Warshawski saga because it is the twentieth novel of the series.

This time around, Warshawski finds herself doing battle with some powerful, and very rich, people who understand exactly how to manipulate Chicago’s corrupt political system in their favor. For these people, it’s all about making millions of dollars by exploiting public property on Chicago’s Southside lakefront - and if they bribe a few of Chicago’s finest politicians along the way, they can make it happen. That’s bad enough, but it all gets personal when Vic’s Canadian goddaughter stumbles into a situation that might expose their scam before it happens. Those same rich and powerful folk can’t let that happen, so people begin to die, and it is only a matter of time before they come for Vic and her goddaughter. 

That’s the main plot, but I enjoyed the side plot even more. It seems that Bernie Fouchard, the goddaughter in question, has found a famous protest singer living in squaller on Chicago’s streets. The woman is mentally unstable and in danger of dying from exposure. Lydia Zamir, the singer, watched her husband shot to death on stage and never recovered from the shock. She eventually disappeared and no one realized where she was until Bernie and her friends spotted her in her street-nest playing a tiny toy piano and singing songs to herself. Now, Bernie wants to protect the woman - but she and her boyfriend are bringing way too much attention to this part of Chicago to suit the criminals who want to exploit the area. 

Bottom Line: Sara Paretsky writes a complicated novel and, at times, I did struggle to keep up with all the threads and names she was exploring. But the struggle is worth the effort because Dead Land ends in a very satisfying manner with all the loose ends tied together - and Paretsky does that without having to use the book’s last pages to have one character annoyingly explain to another character everything that’s just happened as so many mystery/crime writers seem to do today. If you are wondering, Dead Land will also, I think, work as a fine standalone novel for those unfamiliar with the Warshawski timeline and character. Now I wonder why I stayed away for so long.

Sara Paretsky (book jacket photo)

Friday, January 08, 2021

Dark Passage - David Goodis

David Goodis’s 1946 novel Dark Passage could not possibly be more aptly named than it is because this is one of the darkest novels imaginable. According to the Library of America, Dark Passage is the novel that gave Goodis the little bit of fame that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and that was primarily because the book was turned into a popular movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Other than that relatively brief moment, it appears that his work was kept alive  mostly by what LOA calls an “international cult following” which included several prominent European film directors who adapted Goodis’s work for the screen. 

The story begins with Vincent Parry escaping San Quinton Prison where he has been jailed for the murder of his wife. Parry, though, is one of those rarities among a prison population that never stops protesting its innocence - he really is innocent. He did not kill his wife, and he was convicted of the crime almost entirely based upon the trial testimony of a friend of his wife’s. Now, recognizing the perfect set of circumstances that have come together, Parry makes his escape and heads for San Francisco where he hopes to hide out long enough to figure his next step.

Parry’s luck bizarrely continues long enough for him to reach the city. And that’s where his real problems begin.

With Vincent Parry, David Goodis created one of the most paranoid characters imaginable, a man who cannot afford to be wrong about any of the people he encounters in the city while he tries to figure out how to disappear forever. He is paranoid, but he is justifiably paranoid, and Goodis places the reader inside the man’s head for pages at a time, eerily allowing readers to experience that feeing of paranoia for themselves. We literally hear, word-by-word, what is going on inside Vincent Parry’s head as he faces one critical situation after another.

Dark Passage is not a long novel, coming in at around 200 pages depending on which edition you read, but it paints a picture of 1940s San Francisco that is hard to forget. This is a city where life is lived in the shadows and after dark, a place where every one (including the cops) seems to have angle, a place where nothing is exactly as it seems and no stranger should be trusted. It is a city whose underbelly is not confined to only a few blocks, and as Parry moves through it, searching for a safe way out, things begin to happen to him. People die, people fall in love or think they fall in love, and several of them expose the blackness of their own hearts to the world. 

Bottom Line: Dark Passage shows clearly why David Goodis has come to be known as somewhat of a pioneer of American noir novels. His distinctive style, and his feel for troubled characters and city streets, make his writing stand out even in a genre filled with more famous writers. The Library of America volume of five novels, in which this is the first entry, also includes: Nightfall (1947), The Burglar (1953), The Moon in the Gutter (1953), and Street of No Return (1954). 

David Goodis